Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar (IMAX 3D)

(2009) ****1/2

The most relevant thing to tell you is that this movie is an ass-load of fun. Fantastic action, an unreal setting with incredible depth, a tight pace, and a complete feast for the eyes. I'm going to try to do this in bullet points.

The bad: The story contains few surprises, the expected share of boilerplate characters, and with them an array of unfortunate dialogue. At some point Sigourney Weaver says "so much for the quiet life" or something like that, and you'll roll your eyes. It won't be the only time, but in the end you probably won't care.

But: the characters are likeable, and the love story is not belabored.

The Na'vi: look great. Some are better than others, but the main characters are handled with an exquisite amount of attention and skill. To me it seemed less an achievement of the images' photorealism than it was the remarkable believability of the Na'vis' facial expressions. I'm sure it was a combination, but the point is I've never seen better.

The forest: is rich and exotic. One of my doubts since they started releasing stills was that planet Pandora didn't look all that different from Earthly forests. But when you get on the ground, when you see the colors in the corners and the wonders in the sky, it's a whole different story. One of the best cinematic alien planets ever.

The scale: I'll get to the 3D in a moment, but whatever dimension you see it in, see it on the biggest screen you can. It pays off very quickly.

The action: even when we're hatin' on James Cameron, we all know his actions scenes pump adrenalin. The level of pure spectacle in this is jaw-dropping.

The 3D: What I've been saying all along is that I'm still not convinced 3D is the next big thing, at least not to the extent that it's being shoved down our throats. And I say this because of claims that 3D will be as significant to movies as special effects themselves (perhaps these claims weren't made, but I believe they were).

My feelings about Avatar's 3D went like this. At first I noticed certain shots in which too many elements were in play, resulting in large parts of the onscreen image being blurry. Perhaps the eye just can't focus on too much at once, perhaps it's a natural effect of 3D. Perhaps "blurry" is the wrong word, and it's natural motion blur that was throwing me off. It seemed to happen in shots containing a lot of movement close to the camera. It wasn't a big problem, like a low grade shaky-cam sensation, but it did make me wonder about the effectiveness of 3D.

Well, maybe all the shots like that were just clustered at the beginning of the movie, because not too far into the story I noticed I wasn't having that problem anymore. In fact, I wasn't even noticing the 3D at all. That just cemented my opinion; if 3D is either going to be a problem on one hand or negligible on the other, why bother with it?

But tonight I was discussing all this with my friend Bruce, who has worked on most of Disney's recent 3D efforts, and he said some things I've been thinking about. One point was that 3D images can broadcast textures in a way 2D can't because you are actually getting two slightly different perspectives on every surface. I thought of how that might augment the experience of seeing Pandora's forests. Unfortunately I was trying to police a toddler-eating-yogurt situation in the chair next to me, and our conversation was cut short.

But I have to consider: I haven't seen Avatar in 2D, so I don't know how I'd rate the two experiences. Maybe saying that I wasn't noticing the 3D is just like Jason Reitman saying he "gets" 3D after 20 or 30 minutes, and in truth I am enjoying the effect even if I'm not consciously grooving on it. Maybe not noticing it is just getting acclimated to it. After all, a LOT of cinematic effects depend on the viewer not knowing what they're looking at. Much of my work building miniatures is about fooling the audience.

As for the "blurry" shots, Bruce pointed out that with any kind of effect you might get shots that don't work. Hmm. For now I draw no conclusions, but I must say my skepticism about 3D has taken a serious hit.

Because it's such a great sci-fi movie! A really good sci-fi action movie! For Christmas! Woo!

Oh, and that lame-ass song doesn't happen until the credits roll.


Johnny Sweatpants said...

Thanks for reviewing this Octo! I was waiting for discussion to commence.

I also loved this film and I'd like to add that the Pipe in the Ass Factor was very pleasing indeed. Col. Quaritch was such an evil bastard. I was so worried that his gunship would be destroyed and he wouldn't suffer.

My only complaint is the piss poor casting of Giovanni Ribisi. I was so engrossed in the world Cameron created but every time he appeared my bubble burst.

Catfreeek said...

I'm glad to hear that it's so visually stunning. I really want to see it now.

nowandzen said...

Great take on it Octo, I agree with everything. I really enjoyed it, was a little let down with certain aspects esp the eye rolling dialogue but you're right it really didn't matter because the whole was greater than the sum of the parts for me.

I thought the 3d worked really well in areas but in general was oversold.

Pixar has the theory that despite the animation genius behind a film the most important element is the story and although the story was pretty standard, it's one that pulls me in. Thunderheart is one of my favorite movies and so I can't help but enjoy a redemptive movie like that.

Johnny, Giovanni made the movie screech to a halt every scene he was in. It was quite a spectacle how poor that casting was.

It's interesting, it was kind of an event movie and those type of movies always settle in on me a few days after if they were good. This one has settled in very nicely. I did feel, not the entire time, but in various scenes that sense of wonder I felt watching some of my favorite films from childhood such as Close Encounters which is a great feat as I get older and more jaded.

Trevor (Tami's friend) said...

Good review. The wife and I went to see Up in the Air a few days ago. We arrived 15 minutes early, so we took some 3D glasses out of the recycle bin and watched a small portion.

My wife was definitely of the opinion beforehand that the movie looked lame, but after those 15 minutes, she made it clear that she wanted to go see it. I was surprised to hear the Na'vi swearing, but the cgi actually looks like they're people! Thanks for filling in the gaps with your review.