Each critic has a personal radar by which he or she judges movies. For most of us, it takes a little time to think about the film before we can make clear decisions. This explains why – when publicists stand outside the door of the theater and ask, “What did you think?” -- our answers often sound like babies babbling as we rush by. Avatar was a different experience for me. I knew instantly it was something special. And after spending the next 24 hours analyzing different aspects of the movie, I’ve decided it’s my favorite film of 2009.
I try to know as little as possible about a movie when I attend a screening. I want my impression to be based on what I see and not on outside buzz or pre-judgments. Other than its title and the knowledge about people being excited to see filmmaker James Cameron’s new movie, I knew nothing about Avatar. I simply assumed it would be a sci-fi flick with little impact on me. I was wrong.
Cameron, who wrote and directed the film, has crafted a motion picture that immediately engages its audience. We’ve seen this story many times -- after all, it’s said there are only seven stories for Hollywood to film. Here, greedy Earthlings want something that’s on another planet and are intent on getting it. But the brilliance of Avatar’s script involves its multiple intriguing elements. Naturally there are good and bad Earthlings in the future, but the Na'vi people on the planet of Pandora are so imaginative, we’re in awe of them every moment. They are humanistic, caring and loving people who are able to judge a book by its cover. I couldn’t help rooting for them in this exceptionally imaginative story.
The Earthling team sent to Pandora includes government officials headed by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the scientific team led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and the militia of a corporate consortium under the command of Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). The film opens as Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a past war veteran who lost his legs, is brought to Pandora to become an avatar – a genetically engineered hybrid of human DNA mixed with DNA from the Na’vi natives.
Although Grace is not amused over being sent a less-than-whole specimen, Jake proves his worth in more ways than one and relishes that as an avatar he will walk on his own legs among the Na’vi. The Pandora inhabitants are somewhat skeptical of the Earth invaders until Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the Na’vi princess, falls in love with Jake, and he’s accepted as one of them. Parker cares nothing about these creatures; his goal is to get the rare mineral that lies beneath their sacred Tree of Life. The avatar program was intended as a bridge between the two species so they would peacefully allow the mining expedition, but Jake soon realizes this cannot happen without destroying the people of Pandora. Parker and Col. Quaritch are okay with that, so war is inescapable.
Story aside, it’s the technology of Avatar that enthralls viewers. Cameron had dreamed of creating this world since he was a child. He actually wrote the story of the film years ago but realized the technology for his vision had not yet been created. With the development of motion-capture animation, he knew the process was close but he wanted more life-like creatures without dead-looking eyes and different facial and body proportions than humans. Cameron’s push to attain new heights in the CG arts and use a new “image-based facial performance capture” system using a head-rig camera to accurately record the smallest nuances of the actors’ facial performances paid off. Intimate details of these efforts -- such as how the Na’vi’s skin behaves like real skin in which the pigment at the surface does not mask the red glow of the blood beneath and the way strong sunlight hits the backs of the characters’ ears -- create realism about these people, which I felt without realizing why it worked.
Of course, the collaboration of Peter Jackson’s Academy Award®-winning visual effects powerhouse WETA Digital in New Zealand was also critical in the film’s final absolutely stunning look. The 3-D technology enhances many of the beautiful, magical and mesmerizing scenes that transport viewers to another place and time.
No matter how great the filmmaking process is, the characters must complete the vision, and Avatar’s cast does not disappoint. The real-life characters played mostly by Worthington, Weaver, Lang and Trudy Chacon (as a rogue pilot) are fantastic. Those who had to undergo the CGI treatments put in hours to be convincing as their characters. Saldana trained for months to create a physical reality for her character that would help convey Neytiri’s natural athletic grace as well as the right nuances in her facial expressiveness and body movements
Some hints about environment and politics can be found in Avatar, but overall it’s a movie filled with action, romance and imagination. This is a well-deserved 5-star film, one you can’t stop thinking about long after leaving the theater.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated “PG-13” for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.