Saturday, December 19, 2009

A whole new world

Avatar has divided my critic friends. We saw it tonight -- in 2D, unfortunately. But for the moment, if you release a film in 2D and 3D, it had better work in both. It's not like talkies were simultaneously released in a silent version. So I have to believe I saw the film, even though I wasn't wearing special glasses.

And I was pretty darn impressed. Yes, it culminates in some serious mystical hokum; yes, the story beats are predictable and the showdown with the unkillable villain preprogrammed. But there are more moments of spontaneity and humor than a big effects-laden blockbuster like this usually deserves. The facial motion-capture effects are obviously way better than anything we've seen, especially with eye movements, and that makes a huge difference in the parts of the film that have to be carried by the aliens.

But it was the scope, imagination, and detail of the environment, as well as the camera's swift and joyous movement through it, that really make this a movie to be reckoned with. Some people are saying that it is the Jazz Singer of computer-generated films. I don't think it's that big a game-changer. But I do think it's the Jurassic Park of the genre. Remember the sense of awe that was provoked when those dinosaurs ran right by Sam Neill and Laura Dern? That's exactly what this movie provides for some very long stretches. It's clearly a huge leap forward for the technology.

And thanks to the distinctive voice and eye -- for good and ill -- of James Cameron, it's a real movie as well. It has all the flaws and strengths of its creator. It's not a corporate creation. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars and the thousands of people involved in it, there's a singular point of view to be found there. You may not like it (I've certainly got my problems with it), and it's certainly not subtle, but I think it's rather amazing that such a huge enterprise and such a technical achievement turns out to have a soul, even if partially worm-eaten.

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