21 December 2009

Avatar Review

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Avatar was spectacular. I always worry when a movie gets as much hype as Avatar did that in the end it will not live up to expectations, but Avatar delivers. It is probably the most beautiful movie I’ve ever seen and one of the best sci-fi movies in recent memory. And even better, it is not a sequel or a remake or based on a comic book or novel. It is genuinely original, an unfortunate rarity these days.

The story follows the crippled marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as he arrives on the tropical moon Pandora as part of a human mining operation. The indigenous people, the Na’vi, are not too happy that the humans are bulldozing their forest paradise, and the humans aren’t too happy that the Na’vi live atop the richest ore deposit around. Jake was brought in because he is the genetic match to his dead twin brother’s avatar: a lab-grown Na’vi body that can be remotely inhabited and mind-controlled by a human operator.

His mission is to learn about the Na’vi and convince them to move away from the ore deposit, but the more he learns the more he realizes that his species may not be the good guys.

If the story sounds familiar, it is. Dances with Wolves, Shogun, and many other stories follow the same pattern, with a main character “going native” and switching loyalties as they learn about a supposedly backward culture. It’s an extremely effective story, and I’m a sucker for it every time. So yes, Avatar is Dances with Wolves in space, with strong overtones of Fern Gully and Star Wars. But frankly, that’s fine with me. I like those movies. And despite its similarities to other stories, Avatar manages to shine. Or should I say, bioluminesce?

I’m referring, of course, to the glowing plants and animals of Pandora. Avatar succeeds because Pandora is one of the most well-crafted, beautiful and immersive fictional worlds I’ve ever seen. The plants and animals are bizarre and unusual, but plausible. Much of the vegetation is based on sea creatures on Earth, giving it an alien but familiar feel. The animals have six limbs instead of four, but they move so convincingly the extra legs make perfect sense.

And then of course, there are the Na’vi. The motion-capture technology used to turn human actors into ten-foot-tall blue aliens is perfect. Every facial expression and subtle movement is captured, making the Na’vi feel completely real and convincing. Done poorly, the Na’vi could have fallen squarely in the uncanny valley, either creeping people out or making them laugh. Cameron has managed to jump over that valley, and his blue aliens are in many ways more real than the human actors in the movie. Their language is completely convincing too, and it’s no wonder since it was designed from scratch by a professional linguist.

Believe it or not, this is CGI.

Of course, I have to say a little bit about the science of the movie, because that’s what I do. For the most part, this is a science fiction movie where the science is behind the scenes, and I think that was a wise move. We are never lectured about how exactly the avatars work because that’s not important. We learn precisely what is needed for the story and no more.

I already mentioned the alien life forms, and these are excellently imagined and always convincing. One minor nitpick is that the Na’vi have four limbs, just like humans, but all the other large creatures on Pandora have six limbs. I understand the need to make them familiar enough for the audience to sympathize, but it would make more sense biologically for them to have the same body plan as the other creatures in their world.

As far as the moon Pandora goes, we aren’t shown much. It orbits a jupiter-like gas giant, and has a thick atmosphere that humans can’t breathe. This atmosphere is a perfect example of the attention to detail in Avatar. When Jake arrives on Pandora and the door to the shuttle opens, there is a brief shimmer in the air as the breathable gas inside the ship mixes with the moon’s atmosphere. Anyone who has mixed a gin and tonic or swam in an estuary where salt water and fresh water mix is familiar with this shimmer as fluids of slightly different densities mix.

The issue of day-length is not mentioned, but it seems to be similar to an earth-day. This would mean an orbit likely too close to the planet to be stable, but this is a very minor detail.

The most obvious bad science in Avatar are the floating mountains. Don’t get me wrong, these are awesome! The movie wisely doesn’t try to explain in too much detail, but it is implied that powerful magnetic fields are involved. It’s obvious that this part of the movie is fantasy, but I just have to say, I wish they didn’t call the area with the high magnetic fields the “flux vortex”. It made me flinch every time. I loved the rock formations that followed the magnetic field lines though. Implausible to have such strong fields, but very cool. I will add that powerful magnetic fields would be quite handy for a moon close to a gas giant, handily deflecting the powerful radiation that would otherwise strip away the atmosphere and damage life on the surface.

Bottom line, Avatar was fantastic. Yes the story was familiar, and yes some of the dialog was cheesy, but none of that matters because Avatar is a chance to visit Pandora. The acting is good, but the real star of this movie is the world. It is gorgeous and exotic but the attention to detail and the unprecedentedly effective use of 3D technology makes it feel utterly real. Avatar is nearly two and a half hours long, but at the end, as the credits rolled, I was sad that it was over. I wanted to go back and walk the bioluminescent footpaths of an alien forest one more time. I wanted to fly between floating mountains again. And yes, I wanted to be blue.

Go watch it. You will too.