Avatar: Take two


— 4:41 PM on December 23, 2009

A good number of you read my first impressions blog post about James Cameron's Avatar, in which I praised the visuals and cinematography but gave the plot and stereoscopic 3D a thumbs down. The more I looked back, the more I felt I had been overly harsh about the film—and a handful of you said just as much in the comments. So, over the weekend, I decided to go see Avatar again. This time, I made sure to watch the film in English (which involved leaving the 3D goggles at home), sent off my film-snob neurons to have a cappuccino or something, and tried to enjoy the ride.

I loved the visuals on both occasions, but at the premiere, the formulaic plot and one-dimensional characters just bothered me. I felt let down, in no small part because of the massive amount of hype surrounding the film. Were things different the second time? Yes and no. Let me explain.

I still stand by what I wrote in my first post, but that's only one side of the story. A huge part of Avatar—something I overlooked the first time while piecing together a blog post in my head—is the immersion. Cameron aptly draws you into a completely computer-generated world, makes it believable, and most importantly, makes you want to be there. Cheesy lines and cliched plot devices may break the immersion at times, and that's a shame. But the sheer magnetism of the movie is still something to behold.

In spite of the characters' relative lack of depth, I found myself building an emotional connection to them—more so than in other movies. I can credit both the music and the incredible detail of the Na'vi's facial expressions for that. This connection seemed to persist after viewings, too. I realize this is going to end up with readers calling me a big sappy girl, but Titanic is the only other movie I can recall that elicited that kind of response. I guess Cameron has a way of building up his characters that works for me.

Oh, shush.

The Weta Workshop folks also did a fantastic job rendering Pandora, the fictional alien moon that serves as Avatar's setting. Large swaths of the movie feature CG characters acting in a CG world, but Pandora stills looks and feels incredibly real. Oh, sure, Pixar has been making all-CG movies since the 1990s (and I love all of them, by the way), but you always know you're looking at a sort of 3D cartoon. Avatar is something else; it shows you something you've never seen before and makes you want to be a part of it. Too bad the plot doesn't do as much.

In a way, though, I think the cookie-cutter story serves its purpose. Like I said in my previous post, kids will love the movie. Any adult who doesn't over-analyze it will love the ride, too. Cameron is going to make a killing (Avatar has already made over $300 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo), which will likely help persuade Fox to go along with that trilogy idea of his.

Yes, Cameron has openly talked about making another two Avatar films that follow Jake Sully and Neytiri on further adventures. Makes sense, right? The team already has the characters and the world put together (as Cameron says, "a lot of the start-up torque has been done"), so sequels should cost less than the first opus and probably draw in just as many eager viewers, if not more.

I've seen some folks around the web draw a parallel between Avatar and the original Star Wars. Only time will tell if Avatar becomes nearly as much of a game-changer, but there are definite similarities. A New Hope had fantastic (for the time) visuals and a nice, self-contained story heavily inspired by previous works (Dune, in that case). The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, used a lot of the same snazzy effects and put them to use in a far deeper, darker, and more original work—some say the best of the six Star Wars films. Conveniently, by the time Empire came out, kids and young teens who saw the first movie were older and better equipped to appreciate the more complex and nuanced sequel.

Perhaps Avatar II and III will have more in common with the Matrix sequels than the Star Wars ones; nobody knows at this point. However, I sincerely hope the next Avatar gives me the same sense of wonder and immersion with a better plot and more character development to go with it. In the meantime, I think the first film is a good movie with disappointing but forgivable shortcomings.

   
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