Avatar Revisited- in iMax 3D (Warning- Spoilers Contained)

Please note- this review was written back in January. It is indeed long and sprawling and I intended to edit it. Well, with the Blu Ray now released and without any additional features, I feel the gist of it still stands. Avatar, though incredible, is essentially incomplete. Perhaps the rumored extended version, to possibly be released in 3D theaters, will remedy this. Certainly, it is worth waiting for and unless you are a real collector, I’d hold off on even seeing the Blu ray until it comes.

Avatar in iMax

I recently came back from watching Avatar yet again- this time as it probably should be seen, in iMax 3D. The difference was incredible. Gone were the severely muted (I’d now say compromised) colours of the regular cinema 3D, replaced by the vibrancy of the original vision. Quite a few ‘gray’ objects of the original were replaced by versions in vivid colour. If 3D cinema is toted as providing as big a difference as the step from black and white to colour, then so was iMax at restoring the colour. In fact, by comparison, the regular 3D is back in the days of black and white! (Not a few people try removing their sunglasses to see what the colours ‘really’ look like, and in iMax this just wasn’t necessary).

I noticed that the sounds were far more precise, including positional ones that you just don’t get in a regular theater- though will probably in the disk releases. It was just perfect- not that the regular one was any slouch in this regard, but it was far more in tune with the action. Another thing I noticed- and this was immediate- was that the 3D effect was much better. Things came ‘out’ of the screen, as I’d seen in Disney 3D filmlettes but not experienced in Avatar until now. I had no problem of objects merging or blurring in the center any more- something I didn’t mind putting up with, but now was a thing of the past. Part of this was no doubt due to the massive increase of vertical vision- I hadn’t realised before, but iMax uses more of an old-style 4/3 TV-sized frame. There was also a lot more resolution (due to the 70mm film used vs. 35mm in regular films) and the projection itself was far sharper and with much deeper black levels than I’d ever seen in a cinema. Put simply, the presentation was state of the art.

Hey dude, give me back my story!

To be honest, by this time I was getting a little tired of the overly-predictable story being used. Perhaps it doesn’t stand up so well to repeated viewings, but my nagging suspicions that the believability drops like a stone after the attack in the home tree were confirmed. I mean, I’m all for suspending your disbelief, but not for setting aside my values as to what makes a great film. What makes this harder, is that, despite everything, I’m convinced that Avatar is a great film, just one that never saw the loving hands of a decent editor. I see it as not just ‘his film’, but as ‘ours’, a very human story that unlike most films, can be revisited.

What makes it so great is the fantasy land created, which is is indeed immense and incredibly detailed.Unlike most science fiction, it takes you into an entire ecosystem, which introduces a healthy state of wonder that mere  pitched battles can’t- if this is the future of virtual reality, then I’m on board. In an IMAX theater, it’s even more immersive, as the size of the image is so overwhelming. Not only the jungles, but the human creations are immaculately conceived, each having a certain ‘evolutionary plausibility’ to them- by which I mean, both the creatures and vehicles could well have evolved the way they did to manage to survive in such an environment.

Yet, despite the creation of such imagery and set pieces in which they are portrayed, some very basic essentials of film-making were put to the side. Namely, story and dialogue. The excuse that they ‘just don’t matter any more now we have 3D’ doesn’t old up very well, at least in this ‘corrective’ review. No doubt, was wowed and immersed in the special effects, not to mention the magical, yet entirely believable world of Pandora’s jungles. Yet the later scenes in he film continued to jar for me, especially after the destruction of ‘Home Tree’, to the point at which I feel a need to ask, ‘What went wrong?’ By the time that 3D becomes more commonplace, these factors will continue to eat away at what is still currently a stunning journey into an imaginary world. I wanted to imagine what Avatar could have been, had he commercial factors created by it’s unprecedented expense.

If you disagree, then more power to you, I really don’t want my criticisms to take away from anyone’s enjoyment of what is, after all, generally seen as more entertainment than art. As a movie-lover, though, I actually want what I see to at least aspire to some timeless relevance. beyond box-office takings, without being so esoteric only a handful of people can get anything out of it. So I intend to subject it to some genuine criticism, so as to make clearer the original vision that the film sometimes fails to fully convey (or perhaps shies away from exploring?). If you are anything like me, such an exercise will not detract from appreciating it, but actually deepen your impression.

It got to corny, refusing to develop the obvious conflicts within the
human camp,who evidently had a culture with more moral values than they
were allowed to show. The lines were stereotyped and I actually found
the stupidity of it, the mindlessness of the Na’vi and the pure evil of
the American mercenaries, borderline offensive. Are things really that
simple? Why could they do nothing for themselves, needing this neophyte
to even tame the great dragon for them? At first I blamed the character, for just not seeming believable in his transition from confusion to ‘crossing over’ to the other side. Despite some good touches, he mostly just failed to inspire, even annoying me Perhaps the idea was to have a burned out, dead-pan character like a gray sheet, so as not to distract from the incredible events around him, much like the character of Neo (Keanu reeves) in the Matrix. Yet it just annoyed me. I don’t really blame the acting for this, as he performed the role given him very well- more the screenplay, which failed to give anyone original, memorable lines. James Cameron’s decision to ‘do everything himself’ rather than hire a professional screenwriter was a poor decision it turns out.

The irony is that the original story was far more cohesive. Only after reading the ‘scriptment’ (something I really don’t think I
should have had to do, as a movie should make sense on it’s own
grounds), could I reconcile my misgivings, to see the world being portrayed as ‘real’, cohesive and therefore more powerful. I could even see where they had filmed dialogue or scenes to go with that and then changed their mind later on (or saved the missing scenes for the disk releases, no doubt). I won’t go into this too much, but I’ll just give a few points here, as I think it shows where they went wrong in terms of the story-telling-

* Originally, the ‘unobtanium’, (a jokey slang for the room temperature ultra-superconductor found there, that just caught on, so the name stuck), was found in the floating islands, which is indeed why they float and break up in the upper reaches of the sky. Like the technology that makes maglev trains float, they are propelled suspended in a magnetic field, orbiting the skies. They are also considered sacred to the Na’vi, the same way that
mountains are to many on earth.

Whilst bluntly explaining this might bore the audience, it made more sense me to that the floating islands,  so central to the film’s imagery, are just as important to the story. The detail also seems to encapsulate the whole premise of the film- that the kind of place that fantasy artists like Roger Dean portray, can be experienced as somewhere very real, feasible and guided by it’s own rules. A place that romantics can explore and scientists investigate, in their ‘Avatars’.

The destruction of Home Tree was originally a ‘punishment raid’, in response to an attack by the tribes on Hell’s Gate base, using the planet’s creatures as weapory, to avenge the destruction of the sacred grove. There was nothing to be gained by the humans in the area- hence the ‘war on terror’ style speeches, that seem so out of place when the Na’vi are depicted as helpless.

Other Avatars take part in the final battle, fighting the humans, as they finally see Jake’s point of view. This raises the scale of the encounter and with their help, our heroes aren’t such lone ‘supermen’. Also, If someone dies in their Avatar, it’s a much bigger deal than shown in the movie- one controller who did so (committing suicide after a failed romance with a Na’vi girl), is scarred for life.

The Old-style ‘Hollywood Hero’

I actually couldn’t stand the way that the ‘hero’ was able to not only tame Torok without a scratch and then destroy all the capital ships in the final seconds. why in the last seconds, why such a pathetic plot device, with such corny music- why spoil such a great adventure with such outdated , B-movie techniques? As that’s what this incredible, artistic, moving vision is reduced to in those scenes- a mere B movie, with B standing for brainless. I tried to bend my head around it, but to no avail- it makes just no sense. I mean, I’d expect that from a cartoon, a kid’s cartoon not a film marketed for adults. It also made the Na’vi look like helpless children by comparison, which contradicted the film’s intentions to show them respect. It reminded me of tacky Hollywood WW2 movies, in which a single American soldier saves the day. In short, people expect more now and are even sometimes offended by the old stereotypes. Leaving the story in the back burner for so long let it grow old. There is nothing wrong with revisiting an old theme, in this case the one of Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, or The Last Samuri. But if you are setting out to make a great film, you should at least innovate and not just copy what everyone else has done before you.

All in all, despite asking me question the way it was made more deeply than otherwise, I’m actually glad to have read the Scriptum. It makes things, painting a picture of the film that could have been, for me to enjoy in my imagination. Although Cameron certainly knows how to draw a crowd, whether he also knows how to write a screenplay that is free from corniness and simplistic moralising is another matter, so I wonder if getting someone else to do it would have made for a more successful result (artistically speaking, of course). In some ways, the way it came over was a bit out of date, as it is pretty well known these days that environmental issues are crucial, but that the devil is in the details of enforcing measures to look after it.

I almost want to take him aside and say (and perhaps I would have, had he come to pick up his Perfect Futures award)-  "James, don’t worry, I do understand your dilemmas. You are spending a lot of money on bringing things to life- so much so, that failure just isn’t an option. If your first plot died and you needed it’s rather uneducated twin brother to flesh it out in, then so be it. We have the story from the point of view of of a Jar-head, rather than that of a PHD in interplanetary botany. Far be it from me to tell you how to do your job- perhaps you actually ‘got lucky’ with the more viable back-up plan. Your main task is to appeal to as many people as possible and if that means over-simplifying things to the point of idiocy, you are willing to do that. As your staunchest defenders have said, the best way to enjoy this movie as it stands is to suspend your disbelief. Unfortunately, also your entire powers of reason need to be blanked out. I just hope in future you’ll be willing to make a more intelligent film, for your lifelong fans."

Great ‘Movie’, but a lackluster ‘Film’

Now, in all of this I’m not saying it isn’t a remarkable creation, just that it is deeply flawed. It’s failures are as ‘Titanic’ as it’s successes, leading to unfortunately mixed results. My main criticism is that after creating the
miraculous Pandora, he stops short of the gate of setting a really involving
story there. The effects there, both technically and as art are phenomenal, and
cinema will never be able to look back. CGI before has been pale and lifeless
by comparison. One reason for this is the elevation of nature over machinery-
by focusing on the former we have a true sense of magic.

The story unfortunately descended into
‘bland’ stereotypes of evil military vs noble savages. At times it didn’t flow
very well, obviously due to cuts in the movie at significant junctures and
perhaps at heart because the bulk of the effort was going into effects and a an
intention by Cameron to make his pro-naturalist message clear at any cost. I think that the movie as a whole was a
success (artistically, why should I care in any other sense, in the long term), but it’s faults in the story-telling arc are pretty bad, which I think will
scar it’s place in film history, meaning that the effects will get old way before the
story will.

So, is this the last you’ll be hearing from me on this subject? Possibly not, as it’s not my last time to see the film!

Perfect Futures Rating- 5/5– A deeply flawed film, but a work of art, nonetheless. It needs to be seen, experienced, even absorbed, on as large a screen as possible. Whilst this is the future of CG-laden movies, it is also the future of virtual realities that feel so real we can actually explore them. The whole ‘Avatar’ concept is a stroke of genius that gives us reason enough to travel to another world. Truly, we have become makers and not just destroyers of worlds. In terms of the rating, I considered taking a point off for the flaws, but decided it would be petty to do so; as what’s good in it is so very good. I look forward to a more cohesive Director’s Cut on Blu-Ray and one day seeing it in 3D at home.


Avatar’s Hidden Influences

Yes, I am still obsessed by Avatar. It also turns out that I am not the only one. If you feel anything like me, here are some tips. First of all, you can read James Cameron’s scriptment, originally called ‘Project 880’ and composed after he made Titanic. Here is a wonderfully well-written synopsis of it and how it generally differs from the one that made it into the final film. Another interesting thing that has emerged is the controvercy of the lack of any credits for Roger Dean for the similarity between his visionary artwork and the world that became Pandora. Like others when first seeing it, I thought, ‘it feels like I’ve somehow been here before, the flying lizards and floating mountains are somehow familiar. Whilst the umpteen special effects teams can be credited with bringing it all to life on the screen (in 3D, no less), many feel they more or less adapted designs from Rogers’ work of 30 years ago. Take a look at these below and tell me if you think. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery!

Familiar, eh? It wouldn’t be so bad if James had at least credited the influence, but he appears to be wanting to take the whole credit for himself. In a sense, it isn’t only the imaginary RDA corporation that wants to claim Pandora as it’s own with no sharing involved.  Personally, I believe that such places must exist, if only in our universal unconscious. Yet for providing the basic vision of that world, Roger should be credited, the situation as it is now having a certain dishonesty to it. To an extent the whole film is a homage to his vision, a way for us to venture there. A dream of an alien land, with flying dragons that can be ridden by the adventurous, and floating islands with trees. Even the ‘Tree of souls design, like a huge rib-cage, is similar to one of Deans. Now I don’t see this as a bad thing in itself, as it is wonderful to have the feeling of inhabiting such fantastic worlds. What bothers me is that not only are they failing to credit him, but are actually trying to deny the influence entirely, presumably for legalistic reasons. What kind of perfect future features anything less than complete honesty?

The human imagination itself is what allows us to fly into flights of fancy like this. Yet out great visionaries enable us to experience it for ourselves. So to rectify this injustice in the small way I am capable of doing, the esteemed Perfect Futures award will be shared between the two artists Roger Dean and James Cameron. If either or preferably both of them want to collect it, I’m free on Wednesday evenings.

Note- There is still time till Wednesday evening and I decided, especially after seeing the Epic again, that I was being a little harsh. I mean, it is very original. So instead of sharing, they will receive an individual award each, to treasure and put on the walls of their studio. James and Roger, I’ll be waiting for you both!

Flying reptiles, resting in tree-tops

The Hallelujah Islands ?


Capturing huge creatures on mountaintops ,with ropes to fly them.

A Dead dragon, in a primeval jungle.

The Rocks over the Tree of Souls? Dean’s ‘Bridges’.

‘Toruk’ Flying?

The ‘Torukesque’ Dragon again, above the mountains.

Avatar- Another Look (Warning- Spoilers Contained!)

As I have already told some people, I was simply blown away by Avatar. Not for years have I been as genuinely entranced, enchanted, perhaps even enlightened by a movie as by this. The night afterwards (some of which was spent writing the first review) my mind was still in the imaginary world of Pandora, swimming in her rivers, floating or soaring through her skies. Each character and their perspective were so real to me, my mind kept throwing up new situations for them to experience in the lands of Pandora. Morning came and I realised- I just had to see it again!

This time, I went to my second nearest cinema (Kashiwa Noha Lullaport’s Movix)  for reasons of convenience, where I believe the polarised glasses being used are of the ‘active LCD shutter type’ (that imperceptibly quickly darken one eye and then the other, to produce the stereo effect), because they had a sensor on the top to keep the shutters in sync with the movie. If all this sounds like gobbledegook, well, it’s the same technology that the coming round of 3D HDTVs, as seen at the latest CES technology show. I’m not sure if the version in Otakanomori Takashimaya’s Toho Cinema had this sensor, which would mean they are the passive type. Was there any difference between them? Not much that I could tell, but perhaps the Toho experience was smoother, but a bit darker and the Movix one was a little less smooth, but also a little brighter- but all of this was pretty much imperceptible during viewing (luckily), as the magic quite securely takes over. Personally, I think the picture quality in Otakanomori is clearer and the sound has much better bass response. It’s basically a better cinema and this plays a part- though Movix is also very good, both of them being a world away from the average little cinema in Japan.
So , the movie came on and what do I do? At first I was remarking on all the incredible details- the magical realism of another world recreated in front of me. It really is impressive, but, I soon realised, watching like this is something like staring at the details of a painting and forgetting what the whole scene is, or listening to one background instrument in an orchestra- you can, but do you really want to? Missing the forest for the trees. The funny thing is, my realisation came at the same time as Jake Sully’s.  He could either see the world he was exploring as real, as his own; or keep getting stuck in his grey and meaningless experience in the ‘real one’, tainted by human attempts to exploit the riches of the planet rather than appreciate it for what it is I find that the best art, which I class Avatar as being, often facilitates these moments of synchronicity with your own life experiences, so that multiple viewings are always fresh. Fatefully, he chose to go with his heart.
This is the key to understanding the movie, something which fortunately it was sop well done as to almost make this recommendation redundant; which is to see Avatar through your heart as well. When Jake says to Neytiri (his tribal girlfriend, in case you’re not too good with Na’vi names, I know I had to look it up!) that he has ‘fallen in love with the forest and her’, it is really meant. No longer is fear or excitement or the hope of reward directing him, but an awareness of the great beauty of her and Pandora. This realisation, a rebirth amidst the beauty of nature and of those who are in harmony with it, an awareness of the passion, the vitality, the sheer importance of their concerns in their own right, is an important part of Avatar’s message. He learns to sympathise, then even empathise; and finally to identify with this group of blue-skinned people, who make the forest their home, who feel at one with all that dwells there. There is no longer any room for cynical indifference, much less apathy- for he has discovered something he cares about, something with meaning. Essentially, Avatar is a love story in a fantasy setting, like all good love story from Romeo and Juliet onwards, offering a healing message for a deluded world living in a framework that puts love to the side, allowing callous, ultimately suicidal, injustice to take it’s place.  
What first of all drags you into Avatar is the visual, almost visceral experience of ‘being there’. For this, it simply has to be seen in 3D. People I’ve met who’ve seen it in 2D often can’t help seeing flaws in the movie- seeing it as a movie amongst others, to be judged on similar terms and sometimes, by those standards, falling short; but this was not how the director intended it to be seen. It is a new form of entertainment that is experienced in a new way. Perhaps it is better to see it as a form of virtual reality, or as an immersive video-game, just to open your mind to the potential here for encountering another, believable, world. The high-resolution 3D allows for much richer detail, a more textured and rich world. The effect of having a different image for each eye almost doubles the resolution. 
The characters have more presence and the astounding scenes (which could otherwise have the flatness that a lot of CGI suffers from, lending it an vacuous, contrived air) come to life before you. You are as amazed by the ‘Tree of Souls’ as Jack. The sheer height of their home tree awes you, as does the movements between the floating peaks of the Hallelujah Mountains. We are too numbed by pretty creations to really care about most CGI- but here it actually has a power to move. An important part of cinema has always been to move us, to help us see another’s vision through the screen. James Cameron has opened up a new way to do this, from which it will be hard to return. It is just so much easier to ‘suspend your disbelief’ when it is as well dispelled for you as this. From what I’ve heard, the Imax 3D version, which I’ll be seeing over the weekend, is even more immersive.
Avatar is epoch-making, in a way nothing much but the  original Star Wars was. The fact keeps coming back to me and even for those that didn’t get into it, no-one can doubt the cultural shift it brought. In fact, I can throw caution to the wind and retract my earlier comment, to offer it my highest praise and say it is as good of, if not better than that that! The simple story and dialogue actually help a lot to make this clear. This is not designed to be a story of moral complications (though if you want to torture the point you could probably see it that way). Yes, the ‘humans’ are in the wrong, partly because of greed, but more exactly because of their cultural limitations and technology-related hubris (no doubt projected from what we already have) blind them to other spheres of value. Their planet ‘is dying’, yet they carry on as if it had never been alive in the first place. Their refusal to do anything to authentically communicate with the Navi, beyond the under-appreciated efforts of the scientists is not only their arrogance, but actually spells the doom of their plans. Will they return in greater numbers, or with new strategies in Avatar 2- the Return? Or will they find a way of accommodating one another, a kind of ‘sustainable development’ in space? Only James Cameron, and perhaps not even Cameron, knows…

Straight, No Chaser.

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