Thursday, December 17, 2009

BNAT 11 - [PREMIERE] Avatar

I had been dubious about Avatar screening at BNAT. I knew nothing of the Fox fiasco. It just seemed both too close to the release and too high profile a release. But it was still a possibility, as Harry is friends with James Cameron. I started thinking we might when Anne Thompson ran her piece on IndieWire about the possibility. Not that she had any real information, but she must have gotten the idea from somewhere, even if it was just vague murmurings. Then, as I looked through my goodie bag the morning of BNAT, I noticed an Avatar shirt and another flag was raised. And finally, I noticed a Real-3D standee propped up right outside the BNAT theater, and when we hadn't seen anything else in 3D, it started looking more likely. Oh, and also there were a gaggle of security guards in the corridor to the exit door.

So Harry started to introduce the final film, not naming it, but casually dropping Cameron's name, so we know what we're building up to. Lots of excited murmurs. He explained about the, ah, antipathy between Twentieth Century Fox, especially Tom Rothman, and himself, but said that Cameron was determined to bring it to us. So much that he went to Fox THREE times, and was told no three times. And then something happened. Went a little something like this.

FOX: No.
CAMERON: Okay, seriously, can I?
FOX: No!
CAMERON: For the last time, can I?
FOX: For the last time, NO!
FOX: ... okay

So the 3D glasses elves passed out our newfangled 3D glasses, the kind that don't give you a headache and that you can use as actual sunglasses. And the movie started.


I need to see this again before I can really say much of substance about it. I know a lot of you are pretty sick of all things Avatar, and I can't say I blame you. They've been marketing the crap out of this movie, because they can't really afford the luxury of a demographic-driven campaign with a film this size. I was ready for a huge thud when people started seeing this film. It couldn't possibly live up to all the hype, even in the effects department.

Ladies and gentlemen, we've forgotten who James "King of the World" Cameron is. There is a reason he hasn't made a whole bunch of films in his career and yet most of those films are iconic in our culture. The man has reinvented sci-fi at least once and made the most financially successful film of all time (and before you start, the Leo fangirls could not possibly have done all that Titanic business themselves). Love him or hate him, Cameron knows how to reach an audience.

I won't pretend the story is anything special. That is not a criticism; just an observation. This is not literature. It is, however, a good, straightforward piece of storytelling. It is also first-rate worldbuilding - the kind we haven't really seen from Cameron and which we associate more with the original Star Wars movies. Some of what follows you've gleaned from the trailers, but most you probably haven't.

Pandora is a distant planet - I'm afraid I can't remember much more detail than that, but I do know that I've forgotten stuff that's definitely in the movie as regards where it is. A great deal of Pandora's topography is made up of rainforest, and it is a rich source of a valuable mineral that people on Earth call "unobtainium" - go ahead and laugh, most of us did, and it is a pretty weak name, but I can totally see someone thinking it's brilliant for five minutes and then wincing by the time it sticks. There are several teams of Earth people on Pandora, not just to get the (*cringe*) unobtainium but to learn about the planet and the creatures that live there. The human equivalent on this planet is a species called the Na'vi, and you've seen them - they resemble, as 's husband remarked, ten feet tall blue cat people. That's fairly accurate, I'd say. As humans can't breathe the air on Pandora without special masks, they have taken DNA from the Na'vi and mixed it with human DNA to create Na'vi "avatars" - bodies that the humans can inhabit with their minds so that they can move about the planet and experience it more fully and efficiently.

The Na'vi have a tremendously intimate and spiritual relationship with their planet. They are plugged into it, as it were, not unlike an organic form of internet. A part of their anatomy can connect with a corresponding part of certain animals on their planet and forms a bond between animal and rider. They have enormous respect for the life cycle and the cost of the death of something in their world. So when the "sky people" come and start trying to rape that world and drive them into another area, it's much more than an inconvenience. It is, in fact, a sacrilege.

At the center of the story is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). His twin brother, a scientist, was part of a mission to Pandora but was killed. So they bring Jake in, despite the fact that he's a soldier and has not been trained to use an avatar. Jake is reckless and impulsive, like many mythic heroes before him. His presence annoys the other scientists, who don't see what use he'll be. He is particularly a fly in the ointment of Grace (Sigourney Weaver). But he proves to be a quick study, with good instincts and resourcefulness, and he is soon given the task of learning the Na'vi culture, absorbing himself into it and gaining their trust, so that he can persuade them to move to another area before the big machines come in and start tearing everything up to get to the unobtainium (*snort* yeah, sorry, I'm not quite done laughing at that).

Like Kevin Costner's soldier in Dances With Wolves, the closer Jake gets to the Na'vi culture, the more highly he regards it, thanks in no small part to the female Na'vi who is tasked with teaching him their ways. Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) is the chief's daughter and, as you might expect, is none too fond of our cocky hero. However, also as you might expect, they eventually fall in love. I'm not always fond of how Cameron does romance, and he doesn't always get it quite right, but he's capable of doing so and I think the romance here is pretty wonderful. The scenes where Jake interacts with the Na'vi are the best parts of the movie, particularly his scenes with Neytiri, and Zoe Saldana is one of Cameron's great heroines (he does TOO write great women) and gives the best performance of the film by far, in my opinion.

Of course, now that Jake has bonded with the Na'vi and understands much more about them, the issue of asking them to move and let the sky people come in and rip up their rainforest has suddenly become very complicated indeed. He switches sides fairly quickly, but not implausibly, because he's absolutely right. What his side is doing is wrong. And that's as far as I want to go into the plot, because there's so much in the third act that I couldn't possibly absorb it all.

I don't think anyone is overstating anything by saying that Cameron has changed how movies are going to be made in the future, but I'm not sure people understand what that means. The brilliance of the effects are that they're so masterfully done that you forget about them. If I didn't know better, I'd swear that Pandora was a real place, and I'd swear that the Na'vi exist, that some of them have studied acting, and were cast as characters in this film. It is that freakin' real. This is thanks, at least partly, to the participation of WETA, and if you remember how well Gollum was done in Lord of the Rings. this is on a much larger scale and, in my opinion, even more impressive. I don't know how they did it, and I don't really care. All I know is that this is the most detailed, gorgeous, and fully realized fictional world that I've ever seen. And it's not just window dressing. It serves the story and makes you give a damn about the world and characters that have been created. That's movie magic, my friends.

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