he most expensive film ever made: the most hyped film ever made: 'the film which will change cinema forever'.... James Cameron's Avatar has finally arrived at the BFI IMAX in 3-D and I saw it there yesterday afternoon.
Everyone must know the general plot idea by now: paraplegic ex-marine is linked to an artificially created alien body on a far-away planet so that he can try to persuade them to move away from the massive tree they live in which is blocking access to a valuable mineral coveted by a greedy mining company. Ten years in the making, and driving computer-generated images (CGI) to its limit, the film creates a beautiful alien world of jungles and mountains, populated by blue humanoid ten-foot tall aliens.
The basic plot, stripped of the technology, is that of any number of Hollywood films where a white man falls for a Native American princess, joins her tribe, and has to contend with her father the Chief, a wise woman, and a jealous brother: he joins with them in the struggle against greedy whites who want them dead or off the land. (The final struggle itself turns into more of a parallel with the Vietnam war - military technology against a primitive but dedicated guerilla army).
Despite their alien-ness, the natives are actually quite close to Native Americans in their behaviour; the film also contains hints of Cameron's own Aliens, Lord of the Rings, Ursula LeGuin's novels and some of the Ghibli Studios' animated features. It's to its credit that it manages to combine all this into a believable story and hold the attention for a long running time of 2 hours 40 minutes - certainly it kept the audience, largely of young adults and some quite young children - rapt and quiet throughout (and off their mobile phones).
Most of the film takes place in the CGI alien environment, with sophisticated motion-capture technology used to create the aliens from the performances of real actors. This tops all previous attempts: even the facial expressions are realistic and convincing and one quickly accepts the characters as real. The environment itself is highly detailed and completely convincing, though some of the indigenous animals are on the edge of seeming artificial. Some of the 'stunts' as the aliens leap off cliffs, ride flying animals and swing through huge trees are, again, on the verge of looking too impossible and too much like a video game, although they are explained by the innate abilities of the aliens and are mostly just about convincing.
The film is released in various print types: this was 70mm blown up to IMAX stock and shown in a squarer-than-usual ratio of 1.78:1 (ordinary cinemas will see it in 2.35:1, the usual Panavision ratio, flat or in 3-D but I must say I prefer the 1.78:1). On the huge screen the 3-D is very effective. For the most part they've cracked the problem bedevilling many 3-D films of the actors appearing too small - this happened in a few shots but mostly even the big close-ups looked realistic. They've also wisely avoided the chuck-things-at-the-audience syndrome - this happens very infrequently, with the 3-D being allowed to speak for itself and add realism. Despite the length and the spectacular and rapid-moving action I didn't feel any eye-strain from it.
Did I like it? - yes, it was thoroughly enjoyable, if a little long, and even in 2-D would be well worth seeing. Is it a major technical achievement? - I would say so: it's certainly raised the bar for 3-D and CGI - I've seen a lot of 3-D films but never one so convincing. Will it change the face of cinema the way Star Wars did (and not for the better)? - possibly, though the story is basic enough and the design is not so much innovative as simply capping anything of this sort done before. 3-D isn't yet widespread and it remains to be seen whether it can ever become the standard, given the need (so far) for glasses and the inevitable technical difficulties in making it widespread. Will I buy the Blu-Ray when it comes out? - very probably, although with a smaller screen and no 3-D it may not stand up nearly as well. Should you go and see it? - definitely, in an IMAX cinema if you can and certainly in 3D - if nothing else it's a special experience.
Posted: Tue - December 22, 2009 at 09:55 AM by Roger Wilmut
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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM