Brandon's Word: Avatar is Truly Indistinguishable from Magic
by Brandon Lee Tenney
December 11, 2009
This review does NOT contain spoilers. "They don't make movies like this anymore." A friend of mine said that to me before the lights dimmed, before the reason we were all there in that theatre began. After Avatar arrives in theaters, quotes like the one above take on new significance. No longer can those words be said for the sole sake of irony. Or in jest. They may not make movies like this, like Avatar, often enough, but because of James Cameron -- because of the ten or so years he built Avatar with, because of his many, many years of experience he used as its foundation -- they do, indeed, make movies like this. And its title is Avatar.
Yet, sitting in the theatre beforehand, I wasn't excited. Rather, I wasn't as excited as some or as excited as I would have liked to be. Since Avatar's first teaser and even after attending Avatar Day in August, I've been wary of the whole thing. The film's story appeared bland and tired, its visuals miraculous, but marred by my own issues with the way Cameron wants the audience to experience them (a fully CG world inhabited by fully CG characters, in IMAX, in 3D). Too many variables and too steep a mountain to climb all with the hope that I'll be able to connect to what I'm seeing on screen. So, sitting there, what I was most excited for was just to get it over with. To finally end the speculation. To be able to definitively say one way or the other and to be rid of this guesswork.
All of that overshadowed my excitement for the film itself. It obscured the fact that James Cameron is returning to cinemas, the director of some of my favorite films of all time. One of the greatest directors working. One of the greatest directors to have ever lived. It obscured that this is a film that's been more than ten years in the making. A film whose vision was so grand upon conception, an undertaking so massive, that to wait was the only option. A film that pioneered technology while inventing techniques that will be used by other filmmakers for years to come. A film that was supposed to change the landscape of filmmaking as we know it. The endless speculation and my doubt obscured all that.
Having now experienced Avatar, I'm not sure why.
Avatar is unlike anything I've ever seen. And when I say that, make no mistake, I've purposefully left off any qualifier. It's not just unlike anything I've ever seen in theatres or in comic books or in my own imagination; Avatar is unlike anything I've ever seen, period. And, for that matter, as I said above, it's not enough to use the word seen. Because the film is an experience.
Technically -- and by that, I mean the film's sheer technological accomplishments -- it's a marvel. Every minute of those ten years is visible on screen. Every second of the hundreds of people's hard work in the motion capture studio or behind a camera or in front of a computer is felt. And, as if there was ever a question, Cameron is right: Avatar is meant to be experienced in 3D, on the biggest screen you can find, with the best sound and cleanest projection possible. I did not see it in IMAX, but I will. I can only imagine the even more heightened immersion.
It's that right there that's most impressive, above all else, in Avatar: the audience's level of immersion. I've never acclimated to the use of 3D quicker than in this film. My worries of motion blur and ghosting, a queasy stomach and the loss of overall focus, and the degradation of the film's vibrancy all turned to ash and blew away within the first seconds of the film. It's crisp, it's colorful, it's spectacular. And you, I, the audience is fully in it. The 3D pops unlike any that's come before it. Cameron uses it to enhance each and every scene in a way that makes it feel irreplaceable (something that will be sorely felt when this movie is only available in two measly dimensions for home viewing).
The 3D serves an even greater importance, though. It's used to cement your brain on Pandora, with the Na'vi, in the year 2154; and it's unequivocally successful. Actual particles of dust -- they, themselves, CG -- float around a totally CG environment in 3D. On the forest floor of Pandora, tiny alien gnats flit around the characters, all CG, in 3D. When you're looking at the screen, you are on Pandora. There was never a question in my mind. Every single frame of this film is reality; at least it feels that way. And after being there, I'm at a loss to explain how this movie didn't take three times as long to make.
And then you have to factor in the unimaginable undertaking of creating an entire, realized world. The world of Pandora. Thinking back, it doesn't feel like I've only seen Pandora in a movie -- it feels like I've been there. I know the wildlife. I know the flora. I know its food chain and its habitats. I know its physics. I've experienced it all. And I know the Na'vi.
Every species of plant and animal is so fully realized, each designed and created with purpose, each so believable that they're so easily accepted it's as if I've known of these creatures from text books all my life; it's just that only now I'm laying my own eyes on them for the first time. It's the Na'vi, the blue, ten-feet tall bipedal indigenous race that's the toughest hurdle to clear. The film itself rests upon the audience's ability to not only suspend their disbelief of the Na'vi, but to actively, intellectually and emotionally believe in the Na'vi. Simply, can you look at that blue face, into those yellow eyes and see a complex, thinking, feeling, loving, dynamic creature and not a bunch of 1s and 0s? Without question -- and without hesitation -- I could.
The motion capture translation from human actor to CG-rendered Na'vi is as close as I've ever seen it come to one-to-one. Those performances are Sam Worthington's and Zoe Saldana's. It is Sigourney Weaver in there, too, as faithfully as if she was only wearing a mask. And their eyes. The Na'vi's eyes. There's life in those eyes. They're brimming with it, and it's expressive. It's been said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Well, Avatar is magic. What James Cameron has done is magical.
What of the skeleton that so much muscle and skin is relying upon? Well, my fears proved inconsequential. The film's story, its emotion, is pure and sublime. Each beat is hit with precision and fervor and, best of all, novelty. Avatar's is a story you've heard before told in a manner you've never imagined. Make no mistake, at times Cameron's writing does lack subtlety. And yes, it is reminiscent of what the European conquistadors did to the Native Americans of North America, what the US is doing right now in the Middle East, or what the world at large is doing to Earth. But it's all of these, an amalgam of each approached, for the most part, with grounded emotion and a light touch.
It's this story, though, that allows Avatar to succeed so readily. As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, of great leaps into others' imaginations and able to suspend my disbelief without difficulty, the world of Pandora and the stories contained within it come more easily to me. To those, however, who may not find it so simple to believe that in the year 2154 we humans are exploring other worlds and have found one that is inhabited by sentient, evolved, intelligent beings, a story as familiar at its core as Avatar's is a large, welcoming gateway into what may have looked like an uninhabitable place. Realizing this is what makes Cameron such a great storyteller.
I've promised you no spoilers and, to be honest, experiencing the valleys and peaks that Cameron creates, the set-ups and pay-offs, the villains and heroes and the raw emotion of it all for yourself is the only way to go into the theatre. Seek as little out as you can stand. I will say this though, there are characters in Avatar who will forever be remembered; there is an action film that will find itself amid some wonderful company, perhaps even in the company of some of Cameron's earlier work; and there's a love story that is as beautiful, as honest, and as affecting as any I've seen. The emotions are gargantuan, they hit hard and unmercifully, no matter if their born of the most selfish action or of the sweetest kiss. The writing is phenomenal -- every character, no matter how small, is living and breathing with a beating heart. The way each storyline weaves between the others and how the story builds upon your expectations while still providing such vigorous uniqueness is awesome. More often than not, it's breathtaking.
There are action scenes that will blow your 3D glasses clean off. There's tension that'll have you squirming and cathartic releases that'll make you collapse into goo. There are harrowing images and epic vistas and heart-melting displays of love that are always firmly rooted in Avatar's story. Like I said, magic.
Avatar's is a cast whose performances are ones you'd never want to cover up or bastardize. Avatar's is a story that demands the output of one hundred percent of its emotion. And Avatar is a film that relies heavily on technology to make sure both of these things happen. That technology: motion capture.
Well, technology prevails. These are honest, thoughtful, well played performances in Avatar. During the considerable amount of time the actors are not donning their avatars, their performances are top notch. Sigourney Weaver, especially, gives an award-worthy portrayal of Grace, lead scientist on Pandora. It helps that her character is written so damned well, but I can't imagine anyone else playing that role. Sam Worthington, when in his human form, is subtle and reserved. He captures a quiet intensity that's necessary to sell his, at times, sinister choices and even more so his insurmountable passion. Personifying everything wrong with America today (and still in 2154), Giovanni Ribisi plays what is ostensibly Paul Reiser's character in Aliens but does so with enough arrogance and ignorance that no matter how similar he feels -- hell, because he's so similar -- you hate him and whatever corporation he answers to. And then there's Stephen Lang: the ultimate badass. A no-nonsense colonel who you'd want on your side any day of the week if there's a tussle. Too bad he's not on your side. That can only mean bad fucking news for you. Lang takes what is, essentially, a one-note villain and shapes him into a memorable, simply awesome roughneck.
There are actors, though, who are never seen in their human form. Zoe Saldana plays Neytiri, a Na'vi tribeswoman, and gives a spectacular performance. It's really something to behold. She so easily inhabits the body of this creature, using its mannerisms and language and body language, it's as if she'd been to Pandora conducting research for months beforehand. The same goes for all of the Na'vi present on screen. They're all individuals, each one unique. Personality seeps through their blue skin. Whether its Sigourney Weaver's--where you're able to compare to her human form to her Na'vi avatar--or Wes Studi or Laz Alonso who you never see beside as an indigenous Na'vi, the transference of the actor's depiction to the digital representation is nearly one hundred percent. And however many percentage points it is off, they're barely noticeable. There's too much else going on, not to mention that story I was talking about that'll have you wrapped around its finger from the start.
I could continue, even after these two thousand words, for another few thousand I'm sure. There's so much to be said about the thoughtfulness of the the design (from the way the human technology looks plausible and functional, worn and broken in, spacecraft that is utterly believable and industrial military vehicles that look like they do what they're meant to and damned well to the computer systems to the ecosystem of Pandora itself, which is incredibly rich and vibrant). There's so much to analyze about the films intents, its themes and messages of peace, of harmony with the environment and of good triumphing over evil. There's such an intriguing amount to be described about Sam Worthington's character Jake Sully; his movement from lost soul to company man to enlightened individual to Pandora-rattling leader. The sheer power of his mind, able to overcome the shortcomings of his war torn, paralyzed body. And there's so much to delve into about war in general. And of course there's the little things, the moments of awe and enrapturing excitement.
There's just so much. And when it comes down to it, that's what Avatar is; it's a lot. And nearly every bit of it is unlike anything I've ever experienced. As perfect a blend of the technological future of filmmaking with the age-old storytelling techniques of a master storyteller. Has Avatar revolutionized filmmaking as we know it? Is December 18th soon to be a landmark day in the history of the craft? Only time can answer those questions. All I know is that James Cameron has made an incredible, transportive, magical, visually stunning, emotionally satisfying film, and I feel privileged to be in the presence of such art.
I don't think my jaw ever left my chest for the entirety of Avatar's two and a half hour runtime. Watching it made me feel like a child, like anything and everything is possible. Like it's all just one nudge of the imagination away. It feels great to be so amazed. But Avatar isn't just amazing - it's magic.