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Movie Review: Avatar – IMAX 3D

December 18, 2009

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I see you.

So this is what 12 years in the making and nearly half a billion dollars invested in a movie looks like. I don’t think James Cameron, one of the most notoriously difficult and volatile movie-makers in Hollywood, knows the meaning of the word “budget.” “Terminator 2” ran over budget, “Titanic” ran way over budget, “Avatar’s” cost could take out a small piece of the national deficit. But, does it show on screen in both narrative and visual spectacle?

We’ve heard the superlatives regarding the technical aspects by now. Revolutionary. Immersive. A game changer in film making. Unlike anything that’s ever been seen on screen. It all sounds so familiar to the point of desensitization, as there’s seemingly a finite amount of times you can change the rules of movie making.  With “Avatar,”  I’d love to see one critic or ticket buyer walk out of this movie and tell me exactly what they saw. Because I still can’t quite wrap my head around what I’ve just seen.

Mostly “Dances With Wolves,” part “Braveheart” with slight dashes of  “Aliens,” and yes, “Titanic,”  “Avatar” is a futuristic take on an old fashioned romance. In the year 2154, Earth has been strip mining the jungle planet Pandora, a world rich with the mineral unobtainium. The military led operation has raised the ire of the Na’vi, an indigenous breed of blueish, ten foot tall, cat-like, superhuman species.  In order to gain the trust of the Na’vi, the military has created a series of Avatars. The real human lies sleeping in a tank; the virtual human, looking exactly like the Na’vi, infiltrates the planet. These avatars are to learn the culture and language of the species. Once the trust is gained, the military avatars are to coerce the Na’vi to leave their home and sacred ground within three months.

The other part of the narrative is the movie’s love story, as soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), or his avatar, has fallen in love with one of the Na’vi, causing a conflict between his duties to the military and the woman he loves. Far from a throwaway romance that plagues too many movies, the tension is a way of effectively making betrayal, as well as acceptance, key elements to the film.

Cameron’s movies have always had heart in them. Avatar is no different, and it gives him ample opportunity to display his only weakness. The man cannot write great dialogue to save his life, and it’s the film’s only flaw. Not a major complaint as with the dialogue in “Titanic” (still the only movie I’ve seen more than once that contained the most horrific dialogue imaginable), but just enough for a nit-picker to take notice.

It’s a million dollar story under anyone’s budget, surpassed only by what can be considered a spectacle of the highest order. James Cameron’s newfangled special effects and 3D technology have done something I didn’t think a movie could really do: completely test the limits of a movie goer’s imagination. The lush world of Pandora is alive in ways you’ve never seen before. Shapes, colors, organisms, floating waterfalls, flying jellyfish looking thingies, are made to seem completely real. There is always something moving, and it’s usually nearly impossible to describe. Blues, brighter purples, pinks, and various shades of green, all beautifully vibrant. Without the 3D, it’s still the first movie that flirts with true sensory overload (following the story with these effects is akin to trying to look at the most amazing scenery you’ve ever seen while still keeping your eyes on the road). In 3D, it’s just about over the top, as the cliche “immersive experience” has never been more true. Never used in a gimmicky fashion, this is nothing short of revelatory experience. The depth of view can almost be measured in miles. Overhead views of garden-like skywalks left me weak kneed, at one point saying, “Man, that looks like one hell of a drop.” You’ll find yourself gazing at floating organisms as they gently waft off screen. The audience is involved with Pandora nearly as much as its inhabitants. What the eyes can see and the brain can process has never been pushed farther.

For all of the hype, “Avatar” manages to live up to it. It’s not even close to the paper thin narrative that some have claimed; the story would still hold up well with less special effects. As for its game changing status, you’ll see no argument to the contrary from me. Visually, I’ve yet to see anything close to the scope and execution as in this film. Add the 3D into the mix and Avatar isn’t merely viewed–it’s experienced. I can only hope that James Cameron’s next movie doesn’t take another 12 years to hit the screen. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

And I’m still waiting for someone to accurately tell me what they just witnessed.

Four and a half out of five stars.

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