Normally I do not do film reviews. Even though my day job is in film and TV (I have worked in visual effects and computer animation for over 30 years) What Really Happened is a political web site, and I generally avoid crossing the line into the day job. There have been exceptions, to be sure, and today I am going to make a big one. Following a frustrating few weeks filled with social obligations, I was finally able to carve enough time out of a weekend to see the film "Avatar."
The short version, and at the risk of descending into cheap cliche', is that this is a movie YOU MUST SEE! If you can catch it in 3D, so much the better. But catch it. This film is a masterwork on several levels, and I am going to start on the technical level and work upward.
First off, there is the 3D process.
There have been many systems of 3D for movies through the years, but with the advent of home theater flat panel TV sets it is little surprise that the film industry has gone to 3D in an effort to keep people coming into the theaters.
Students of film history will recall the original anaglyphic 3D system from the days of black and white movies. This was the system with the eyeglasses with one red lens and one blue (or green) lens, to separate combined image on the film (or twin projectors) into left and right. The advent of color movies relegated anaglyphic 3D to a fringe novelty most often seen in cheap porno films. Efforts to adapt the anaglyphic system to color met with limited success.
There was also a system for 3D involving Polaroid filter glasses and twin projectors with Polaroid filters that worked equally well with black and white or color films. There was also a competing system with a projector that ran at twice-normal speed, showing alternate left and right frames through a rotating Polaroid filter. The "Captain Eo" attraction at Disneyland featuring Michael Jackson used this system, but many people could not perceive 3D with alternating images and many (myself included) suffered headaches from the rapid flashing of images into alternating eyes.
This new system, revealed after a few moments studying the glasses, is simple and elegant. It is an updating of the anaglyphic system, but instead of red and blue lenses, each lens is a dichroic filter passing light in a series of narrow spectral bands which are mutually exclusive. The bands are too narrow for the human eye to perceive and after a few seconds, the light coming through the lenses appears white to both eyes.
In short, this is the first 3D movie system that really works. You quickly forget you are wearing the glasses. There are no color artifacts, no ghostly fringes of "leak through" from the other eye's image, and no alternating left-right flashing to give you a headache. This IS the future of theatrical showing of films and the list of trailers for films to be shown in 3D proves the studios understand this.
Now, as I said, 3D has a long history in theatrical showing and that sadly includes directors who abuse that third dimension, often gratuitously, simply because they can. The upcoming "Piranha 3D", whose trailer we got to watch in 3D is a revival of the very worst that 3D film making can be, and will probably (should be) required study in film schools for that very reason.
Which brings us back to "Avatar". Jim Cameron is a director who can do whatever he wants, and has the wisdom not to do so when inappropriate. There is enough 3D in the film to enhance the sense of realism, but Cameron for the most part prudently avoids the kind of gratuitous shots intended to remind the audience, often to the detriment of the story line, that it is a 3D film. Cameron has that wonderful skill of making a 3D movie that you consciously forget is a 3D movie. That, to me, is the perfect use of the technology. The best special effect is one you do not realize is there, lest it detract from the story.
Now to the story.
Avatar is a metaphor for the current US aggressions against other countries and Cameron is not shy about making this point. The best line in the entire movie is (I am paraphrasing here) "Someone lives over something you want, you call them the enemy so you can attack them."
Despite being a box-office winner, and a popular film, it hardly comes as a surprise that the political establishment is hostile to "Avatar". As of this writing, "Avatar" has won only two film awards to the 39 granted to "Inglorious Basterds", the latest installment in a long line of tedious rehashings of Nazis by a film industry management still living in the middle of the last century and unable to cope with the modern world. L'Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, condemned "Avatar" as "an anti-imperialistic, anti-militaristic parable". Many media critics, eager to unlink the message of "Avatar" from contemporary events, describe the storyline as a metaphor for Europe's decimation of the Native Americans. Yes, it is that, but it is also the story of every imperial power that invaded another peoples' lands for profit throughout history and up to the present time. Cameron uses the phrase "Shock and Awe" in the film, making it clear that it is the present day he is talking about. The wailing of the Na'Vi as they see their murdered families is a clear and unambiguous echo of the cries heard today from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza.
In brief, and without wishing to spoil the surprise for those who have not seen it, the storyline is of a corporate attempt to exploit the mineral resources of an alien world called Pandora. Pandora is inhabited by the Na'Vi, a humanoid race totally integrated with the environment of their world. As an "old school" Darwinist (and a farm kid), I view such synergy as the perfect result of evolution. Cameron borrows a great deal of the Na'Vi's ethos from the hunter-gatherer culture of the Native Americans (down to the giving of thanks to the animals one kills for food), which is probably where the confusion over the metaphor may arise.
Into this naturist harmony comes a major corporation from Earth, backed up by the military, intent on scraping away the surface of the Na'Vi's world in order to extract the mineral riches beneath. The story centers on a paraplegic Marine who is inserted into the manufactured body of a Na'Vi (hence the name "Avatar") and sees the world through his new alien eyes. It is the 21st Century equivalent of "Walking a mile in the other man's moccasins, or "Dances with Wolves" meets "The Martian Chronicles." Critics may decry the story as contrived, but it does not feel that way. The whole point of any story is to force the protagonist into a position where he or she will question their beliefs, and in that challenge, to grow.
At two hours and twenty five minutes, the movie is longer than the usual theatrical fare, but trust me, you won't know it. The film flows so smoothly you will be at the end before you realize it, and perhaps a touch disappointed that it is over and that you have to leave Pandora to return to your own portion of planet Earth. After living with the Na'Vi, Earth is going to be a bit of a let-down. UPDATE: Latest word is that avatar will be re-released later this year with an additional 40 minutes' of footage.
Some critics have decried the film's happy ending (no spoilers here) as unrealistically silly, in the idea that such a primitive people could overwhelm and destroy a modern mechanized army. No doubt they wish to quell any suggestion that the numerous indigenous peoples the United States is even now divesting of their homes and riches might succeed in fighting back. Obviously, I disagree that opposing a modern invader equipped with the latest horrors of death is a waste of time or I would not have run this web site for the last 18 years. And to such unromantic and indeed unheroic naysayers who insist that victory will always go to the most ruthless and well-armed, I refer you to Custer at the Little Big Horn, the US in Vietnam, or the USSR in Afghanistan.
On one level, I feel sorry for Jim Cameron. He is a brilliant man, and while I might be (hope to be) pleasantly surprised to the contrary at some point in the future, I think "Avatar" is his masterwork, never to be equaled let alone surpassed. He may even now be facing his "Neil Armstrong" moment, as in "what the heck do I do for the rest of my life, to top THAT?"
See this movie.