I went and saw Avatar the other week. I probably wouldn't have bothered, since I rarely go to movies anymore, but I was on vacation and my friends and I wanted something to go do. So we figured we'd catch an Imax 3-D showing, and hope the spectacle of the whole thing was worth the price.
I really didn't have any idea what to expect with Avatar, since I hadn't really been paying much attention to the trailers. I had a basic idea of the plot, and had heard the effects were amazing, but people who don't have any idea what they're talking about often call something "amazing" when it really isn't.
My issue with Avatar - before seeing the film - was the use of motion capture for creating the main alien characters in the film. Motion capture generally produces awful results. Usually because it's used as a substitute for real animation, such as with Polar Express, A Christmas Carol, or other ghastly films. (Robert Zemeckis needs to have his artistic license revoked. What happened to the guy who made Back To The Future?) The closer you attempt to mimic humans without getting it exactly right, the more creepy the results are.
However, in Avatar, it worked beautifully. Because these were 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned aliens, they didn't have to be exactly right. In fact, I rapidly forgot I was watching CG characters, and caught myself several times marveling at the performances the actors who were playing the aliens managed to pull off. Not because they were good special effects, but because they were good performances. There were a handful of times where it was pretty obvious they were CG characters because the movement seemed a little off, or the staging of a shot felt more like a video game than a movie, but for 99% of the time, it really worked, and I just accepted the characters onscreen as characters. Not as special effects gone horribly wrong, or a shoddy attempt to shortcut animation. Avatar is ground-breaking in the way it manages to portray humanoid aliens. No more stop-motion or rubber masks. The result is fluid, realistic (well... as any 10-foot-tall blue alien is going to get), and most importantly - capable of conveying emotion. Real acting was captured and successfully applied to these computer models. Also startling was how the aliens looked like their actor counterparts - particularly Sigourney Weaver. When she appeared on screen as an alien, it really took me by surprise that she was so instantly recognizable. This is a key part of the film - you need to know who these characters are. They aren't generic, cookie-cutter aliens. They're distinct, and having them resemble the actors portraying them makes the voices and mannerisms fit.
The phrase "performance capture" is being used rather than "motion capture" for Avatar, and I think that when applied to this film, it's completely accurate and appropriate. So how does that differ from animation, or specifically - character animation? Well, character animation is "performance creation". You start with nothing (except usually a voice track), and create the entire performance. Some animation is also used to enhance/fix/complete the performances captured for this film (after all - the actors didn't have prehensile tails). Avatar is the first film I've seen where the concept of performance capture finally matures into what it should be, and is starting to see its potential realized as a special effects tool. After all, if you could just shoot an actor performing a part, there's no point in using this sort of system. But the physiology of these aliens wouldn't work any other way. It also allows for capturing stuntwork that the actors couldn't do themselves, and then applying the physical movements with the actors' facial performances. Pretty cool.
What I still detest, is when motion ("performance") capture is used as a shortcut instead of character animation, in films that normally would be (should be) created by animators. The performances just look all wrong, and frankly, I think that approach is a slap in the face of every animator working today. I'm hoping the success of Avatar doesn't encourage the use of performance capture to replace more animators. I'm hoping it does, however, encourage its further exploration as a special effects tool, which is where it belongs, and it could really open up some exciting possibilities.
But I digress... this is supposed to be a movie review. Not an animation rant.
The plot of Avatar was decent, if not terribly original. The principle themes have all been explored elsewhere, and there are some sentiments that are handled in a pretty ham-fisted manner. While I don't mind messages in films, I don't particularly like being treated like I'm too stupid to "get" what the messages are. In particular, there's one military briefing scene that was so obviously a contemporary Earth-centric political statement, that it took me right out of the film. Subtlety would have worked just as well, given the overreaching themes of the movie having been already established. Also,
the name of the mineral that everyone is after - "unobtanium" - is so stupid, that
the audience was laughing when it was introduced. Maybe that was intentional, in order to make the pursuit of it seem stupid in the first place, but to me, it just seems more like bad writing. What made the movie work though, were the characters, and the world that was created. It was a very in-depth approach to not only an alien race, but their culture and their entire ecosystem. It made the whole idea of being on an alien world much more believable than most sci-fi films are able to achieve. The aliens, plants, animals, and terrain of the world were all carefully designed to fit together, and be familiar enough to be believable, while being alien enough to be something that couldn't exist on earth.
The protagonists were compelling enough, particularly Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. I never had any problems just accepting her as an alien character for the entire film (probably because we never once saw her as a human). I actually felt empathy at times for the aliens, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment. It felt more like watching actors, than CG characters. The funny thing is - the aliens didn't look like humans with makeup on either... they just looked organic. On the other hand, the main villain of the film was too cartoony, and the
evil company executive
felt recycled from Aliens (as did several other characters, like
the cute, tough, yet lovable hispanic Marine chick;
and of course Sigourney Weaver). The end of the film
also featured a battle similar to the end of Aliens,
and a lot of the military hardware had a remarkably similar feel. That's not so much a criticism I suppose as it is an observation. But I just couldn't help thinking I'd seen a lot of this film somewhere else. Still, that's a minor quibble.
As an interesting aside though, I couldn't help but think that the
final "primitive aliens vs. mechanized military force" battle
was perhaps what George Lucas had originally envisioned for the end of Star Wars. I don't mean the 1977 film, but the longer story he wrote before that, which was cut down into Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The original battle of Endor was meant to be between Wookiees and the Empire - not Ewoks. But once George had made Wookiees (Chewbacca) into a technologically-savvy race, he felt he couldn't use them for the battle. So Wookiees became Ewoks (don't tell me you've never noticed the similarities in the names...), and Return of the Jedi became a big, Muppety, Ewok-turd, instead of the epic finale it might have been. (For what it's worth, George could have easily written around the Chewbacca problem by creating a backstory in which he was somehow rescued from the Empire by Han, and so he was an aberration, not a typical Wookiee.)
But I digress again.
Avatar is a spectacular-looking film. It's epic in its scale and its special effects are unmatched. I can honestly say I haven't seen anything quite like it before, and it was worth paying the extra money to see it in Imax 3-D. The 3-D effect is completely transparent, and very effective. In fact, after awhile, I just got so used to it I almost didn't notice it (closing one eye to flatten everything out, then opening it again made the 3-D pop back into place). They really have this technology down. No more flickering and headaches, and the 3-D glasses even fit comfortably over my own glasses. Seeing it in Imax was immersive. It's the way a movie should be seen, and made it worthwhile going out to the theater, to get an experience I couldn't get at home. At CES this week, the talk is about 3-D coming home to TVs and video games. Sure... whatever. The problem with that is, no TV you'll have at home is going to fill your field of vision. As soon as anything breaks the frame - the 3-D effect is ruined. 3-D will never be more than a gimmick at home (until we have wall-sized TVs), but as far as the movie theater goes... it's becoming a compelling reason to spend an evening out. In the case of Avatar, the spectacle was worth the price. Would I think the same of it had I seen it on a normal screen? Probably not. And I don't really plan to see it again to find out.
I'll give Avatar an 8/10. Mostly because of the eye-candy factor. If you see it - see it in Imax 3-D. But get your tickets early - most shows were sold out, and the theater we were at was so full, we couldn't even sit next to each other.