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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


July of 1991 – While home from grad school for a week, I went to see James Cameron’s much-anticipated Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There are moments where we see the T-1000 (played by Robert Patrick) physically morph his silvery appearance. That was the first time I ever saw such a special effect, and I’m pretty sure my jaw literally dropped. Hard as it is to believe now, the concept of “computers did it” was essentially a foreign one at that time; we didn’t have DVDs to explain all the how-to stuff. There was no denying that it was a watershed moment in movie history, as special effects had just evolved substantially. I had a very similar reaction yesterday to Cameron’s latest, the 3-D Avatar. Everything you may have disliked about either 3-D or CGI-created characters is eliminated in this movie. The special effects – done, I fully understand now, by computers – take everything we’ve seen before to the next level.

The story takes place some 150 years in the future. Earth is experiencing a major energy crisis. The answer may lie in a substance known as Unobtanium, which can be found in large quantities on a planet called Pandora. One problem: the inhabitants of that planet – large blue beings known as Na’vi – don’t want strangers forcibly taking anything from their planet. Attempts at diplomacy have failed, and the Marines are one step away from being sent in with guns and bulldozers. In a last-ditch effort to reach some kind of mutual agreement, avatars are introduced into the dangerous and toxic planet. These avatars are cross-breeds of Na’vi DNA and the DNA of whomever will be controlling them remotely, although they look only like the native inhabitants.

Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a former Marine who has lost his ability to use both legs. He is supposed to be working on the Avatar Program with a botanist (Sigourney Weaver) who wants to study Pandora, but a Marine colonel (Stephen Lang) and a businessman (Giovanni Ribisi) want his avatar to essentially infiltrate the Na’vi, gain their trust, then convince them to make the deal. Jake does integrates himself among them quite well, even falling for one of the natives, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Being able to walk again in his new guise is also a liberating factor that draws him closer. The more he’s among the Na’vi, the more he starts to respect them and their ecological devotion. His planet’s mission to drive them out suddenly starts to seem very wrong. Together with Grace and a few others, he decides to stop the military/capitalist forces from pushing the Na’vi away from their “Hometree” – the central nervous system of their planet, as well as the largest single source of Unobtanium.

Let’s start by talking about the CGI. We’ve seen other movies where entire characters were created by computers using the “motion capture” process. In this process, an actor plays a role on a soundstage so that computer sensors can record all their body/facial movements, which are then used to animate the characters in a lifelike manner. Sometimes that looks pretty good (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) and other times the characters have a bizarre dead-in-the-eyes look (The Polar Express). Avatar doesn’t have this problem. All of the Na’vi are computer rendered, but they have actual emotion and give the illusion of being fully alive. There were times when I forgot I was watching something that is essentially animated and subconsciously thought I was watching actors in suits and make-up. These are by far the most convincing CGI characters ever committed to film.

The action scenes on Pandora (also totally CGI) are really breathtaking. The Na’vi ride on large, colorful dragon-like creatures who eventually do war with military helicopters. Other movies with similar creatures (i.e. Eragon) have always looked fakey to me; these are totally believable within the confines of this fantasy world. Pandora itself has also been beautifully designed. It’s an exotic kind of dream-jungle world, with floating mountains and all sorts of strange flora and fauna. Everything is so fully conceptualized that it’s not difficult to mentally transport yourself to this extraordinary place.

Avatar, due the finite number of digital 3-D theaters in the country, is playing in the 2-D format many places. Skip it. However far you have to drive to see it in 3-D is worth the effort. Cameron knows exactly how to use it. He never goes for gimmicks, never thrusts things at the camera simply to give us a cheap thrill. Instead, he uses it to convey the vastness of Pandora, the vertiginous nature of air combat, and the feel of a jungle. That last one particularly impressed me. At times, I almost instinctively wanted to brush away the branches and leaves that seemed to be directly in front of me. Basically, Cameron uses 3-D to immerse you more fully into his fantasy world, and it makes all the difference.

Immersion is, I think, the new standard being set here. Very few films so completely allow you to block out the rest of the world and mentally live in a fantasyland for several hours. I’d be hard-pressed to recall another movie, outside of Star Wars, that so fully transported me to a world that doesn’t exist. The way CGI and 3-D are married by Cameron shows the genuine possibilities for this new digital 3-D format. It doesn’t have to just be a stunt; it can open the door for a whole new kind of sensation as you watch a film.

The plot is filled with both political and New Age-y content. The idea of humans barging in on Na’vi land to forcibly take their energy source is, of course, a parallel for the world’s interest in Middle East oil. When one character talks about a campaign of “shock and awe,” that parallel is a little hard to miss. Some may be turned off by the New Age-y stuff as well. While it is sometimes a bit heavy-handed, I found Cameron’s general concept interesting. On Pandora, everyone and everything is connected to the planet itself. The Na’vi can literally connect with trees or other creatures (or even their ancestors) by melding appendages.

While by no means a perfect film (Cameron’s dialogue has always been clunky), Avatar totally delivers a first-class ride. The visuals are mind-blowing - gorgeous to look at and inviting to become lost in. The action is relentless and imaginative. The 3-D makes you feel like you are there. For those reasons, I have to say that Avatar is one of the most exciting and thrilling moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had.

( out of four)

Avatar is rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking. . The running time is 2 hours and 42 minutes.

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