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Laramie Movie Scope: Avatar

A movie that immerses you in another world

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 19, 2009 -- The long-awaited science fiction epic “Avatar,” reportedly the most expensive film ever made, has finally arrived and it lives up to its hype. It should be noted that director James Cameron's last film, “Titanic” was also the most expensive film ever made at the time, and it turned out O.K., setting records for box office success, and enjoying a lot of critical success as well. This one might just do as well in both regards.

Avatar is essentially a retelling of every native paradise (Eden, if you will) that was ever invaded and exploited by profiteering European or American miners or oilmen, who systematically displaced or slaughtered the natives and stole their land and mineral wealth. Sometimes there are native rebellions, which often fail, but sometimes they succeed (as in the Haitian slave rebellion). This story takes place on an alien world, Pandora, which is imaginatively, brilliantly and colorfully visualized in digitally animated 3D. It is a world of breathtaking, audacious beauty, peopled by 10-foot-tall thin blue-skinned humanoids with yellow eyes known as the na’vi. They ride horse-like six-legged creatures on the ground and ride dragon-like flying creatures in the sky. There are flying mountains. There are trees that communicate with each other in a giant computer-like network. Some of the most amazing visual sequences are the flying scenes as the dragon-riders swoop and soar through the colorful alien landscape.

What Avatar does best of all is immerse the viewer in this alien world until it seems like home. That is what happens to the main character, Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington of “Terminator Salvation.” Sully, a paraplegic Marine, is placed in a device which enables him to control the body of an avatar. The avatar is a genetically-modified body composed of human and na’vi DNA and it is able to breathe the atmosphere of Pandora, which is toxic to humans. Jake makes a devil's bargain with Colonel Miles Quaritch, head of the planet's human security forces (who work for a mining company). If he helps the company obtain the rich “unobtainium” mineral deposits buried under the na’vi's sacred tree, he will see to it that Sully can walk again (evidently there is no health care reform in the future). For a time, he goes along with the plan, feeding Quaritch valuable strategic information about the na’vi. But then he goes native and starts to identify more and more with the na’vi, who have accepted him as one of their own.

In going native Jake Sully joins Lieutenant Dunbar of “Dances With Wolves,” Jack Crabb of “Little Big Man” and other movie characters who have turned their back on the white man and chosen to join the side of the natives in a fight against their own people. It is a big enough challenge to get a white audience to root for a different culture and a different race, but how about rooting for a different species against our own? That is the challenge that James Cameron has taken on in this film, and he succeeds quite nicely.

Much of this film is generated by computer graphics, but it seems real enough and the visuals are wondrous. The movements of the na’vi are all done by motion capture, a technique used for such films as the “Lord of the Rings” films. When I read about the specific type of motion capture used for recording actors' facial expressions in this film (a weakness in most such films) I noticed it seemed to be the same technique pioneered by an effects company named Image Metrics I'd read about a couple of years ago (Image Metrics' work is featured in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”). According to a number of sources on the Internet, this film used the Image Metrics method of capturing facial expressions, but the company is not mentioned in the film's production notes, which instead state that Cameron's team developed its own facial recognition system for this film. However the facial expressions of the na’vi and other creatures were captured and expressed in the film, it was done very well. It is a big improvement over the dead facial expressions seen in most previous motion-capture films.

This film appears to be another triumph for James Cameron. It isn't perfect. The writing could have been better, but the acting and the story are strong and the visuals are out of this world. Opening day box office totals are near record levels, as expected. Expect this film to continue strong for at least several weeks. I saw this in a theater equipped with the “RealD” polarized 3D system and the effect was great. There was no eye strain even after the two-hour, 42-minute running time. This film rates an A. It is a landmark film in many respects.

Spoilers below

Welcome to the spoiler section for Avatar, in which the ending of the film is revealed and discussed. You have been warned.

The natives triumph over the humans at the end of the film, which some critics have likened to a naive and foolish fantasy about the Aztecs conquering the Spaniards, or the North American native tribes defeating the invading Europeans and sending them packing back to Europe. Jake Sully's love interest in the film, Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana of “Star Trek”) has been compared to the tragic figure of Pocahontas by some critics. Undoubtedly, there are some critics who will not like this film because it ends with the natives winning, instead of losing, as often happens. Several critics say the best part of the movie comes when the native's sacred tree is blown up by the invaders. They'd like to see more of that kind of death and destruction. In short, they have a perverse delight in seeing the blackest episodes of history repeated ad infinitum on the screen in lieu of entertainment. Not me. I'm with George Bernard Shaw who said, “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say 'Why not?'” I'll bet that the very same critics who so hate to see the natives winning in this film, had no such reservations about another film in which the natives triumph over the invading Spaniards in old South America, “Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes?).” Check it out.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2009 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)