Saturday, December 26, 2009

'Avatar' is an amazing visual achievement

Writer/director James Cameron has always been a filmmaker that tries to improve and expand visual effects. His back-to-back films "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2" made giant leaps forward for digital effects. His last film "Titanic" utilized computers to recreate the infamous boat. Now with “Avatar,” his first narrative in 12 years, he has created an extraordinary technical and visual achievement that is a massive step forward in the burgeoning motion capture technology.

Motion capture, which uses special censors that allow computers to animate over an actor's performance, was most recently employed in Robert Zemeckis’ “A Christmas Carol. ” As was true with Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf” the technique created an eerie living wax figure effect.

The technique can be effective — as with Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” — but the way Zemeckis has been utilizing it has been less than convincing. With all this in mind, many went into “Avatar” with justifiable skepticism especially since the film is the most expensive ever made with a budget of $300 million.

That’s a lot of money up on screen, but it appears to be well spent. Cameron and his effects team have pushed the motion capture technology and computer generated effects to new and fully convincing levels. Alien creatures, both humanoid and beastly, and in many cases the landscapes in which they roam, are completely computer generated and you don’t doubt it for a second.

So, does the story justify all the technology that is thrown at it? While not the most astounding plot, the film does tell an interesting, if familiar, story. On a distant moon called Pandora, a military run settlement of Earthlings has an unease relationship with the Na’vi, the blue skinned native race. The reason for the settlement is to extract a valuable energy source.

Humans are unable to breathe on Pandora, but through avatars that are controlled through the mind and look like the natives it is possible to roam around and interact with the locals. This is great news for Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine who gets to do all the things he no longer can in his real life as well as a few things he could only dream of doing. Jake is chosen by a local tribe to learn their ways under Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, “Star Trek”).

The Jake character follows an arc similar to “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last Samurai.” When his military decides to take the Na’vi land by force he must choose sides. It is no surprise what side he picks.

The final third of the film involves this battle and while it is thrilling it also when the film becomes the most cliché. Stephen Lang’s (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) villainous colonel is a one dimensional gung-ho military blowhard that in some respects recalls Tom Berenger’s character from “Platoon,” but with none of that film’s substance.

All the Na’vi characters and the avatars are computer animated actors, but do not look like walking cartoons. They look, for lack of a better word, real and after a while you simply accept it. You also accept the dragon-like creatures they fly on in some of the film’s most stunning and breathtaking sequences.

Worthington, who stole this summer’s “Terminator Salvation,” but still remains relatively unknown, gives another solid performance both as Jake Sully and his avatar counterpart. He has a way of being introspective and hint at his inner thoughts. Plus he’s just one of those actors that is easy to almost instantly identify with.

The rest of cast is filled with reliable actors like Michelle Rodriquez and Sigourney Weaver, doing a variation of her tough-as-nails “Aliens” persona, which makes sense since Cameron also directed that film. Weaver has some of the best lines in the film.

The film is letdown from greatness by some of the same awkward dialogue and plotting that was in “Titanic,” but regardless this is an extraordinary looking film that is well acted. Visually this undeniably compelling and absolutely needs to be seen, especially for fans of the sci-fi and adventure genres.

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