I’m miles too late to review this film, because I went and saw it back in January, but my own sense of vanity insists that I must review it, just to show that I actually went and saw it.

However, there’s not really a lot to say that other reviewers haven’t already. The famed special effects took me about an hour to warm up to. When you’re told that you’re going to see the most spectacular film ever made, you tend to be a bit more cynical going in.

But eventually, Avatar works its magic. I think what makes this film so interesting is that the special effects actually help conjure up an emotional reaction to the story that I don’t really remember since Jurassic Park. By way of explanation – some of us might remember that up until the early 90s, we reacted to special effects slightly differently from the way we do today. Back then, we kind of could tell how the special effects were done. E.T. was a puppet. The original King Kong was a clay model. The 70s King Kong was a man in a monkey suit. The spaceships on Star Wars are big plastic models.

So given that we knew how these special effects were done, we tended to judge their effectiveness by how cool they looked. King Kong was a pretty awesome-looking clay model. The Star Wars spaceships were awesome. The man-in-a-monkey-suit looked crap. It was as simple as that.

But then Jurassic Park changed all the ground rules. I distinctly remember being 15, sitting in Greater Union on George Street watching the massive brachiosaur (or whatever dinosaur it was) come out and rear up on its hind legs. From there, a turning point was reached. Nearly all of us in the cinema were sitting there with our jaw dropped because for all intents and purposes we were looking at a real dinosaur. The only way we knew it was special effects was because there was no way that thing could be real. It was a magical moment for special effects because, in the same way that the scientists on the island were awestruck by beholding a real dinosaur, so were we as an audience. The effect was magical, and John Williams’ score for that moment was likewise one of the most beautiful sections of music he’s ever written.

The problem, however, with magic moments, is that if you have too many of them, they’re not magical any more. After a while, computer animated dinosaurs weren’t that much of a big deal any more. In fact, there have been so many perfectly-rendered computer-animated creatures that have flashed across our screens, we don’t feel that amazed any more. We know the nerds can do it, so it’s no big deal when it appears. And from then on, our judgment on special effects was different. Instead of judging how cool they were, we now judged them by how real they were. The line, “That bit was so fake” became a common catch-cry among teenagers. Whereas, my generation was used to fake.

So now – nearly 15 years after Jurassic Park, we’re all a bit cynical of special effects. We’ve seen it all.

Enter James Cameron.

The hype surrounding his film Avatar was that he’d put the magic back into special effects. I was a cynic, but I must confess, that I am converted. I think he’s done it.

First off, everything you’ve heard about this being  a by-the-numbers environmental/American Indian story set in space is true. I haven’t seen Disney’s Pocahontas, but this reminded me quite a bit of Dances With Wolves mixed with Last of the Mohicans. So there’s nothing particularly original about the story.

But what was different this time was the environment of the planet Pandora which James Cameron created is so compellingly beautiful, that when the inevitable rape and pillage of nature begins about halfway through the film, you’re already in love with the place. This is no mean feat. To make us truly care about the planet (and most audience members will respond emotionally to the plight of the Na’vi), the effects had to be real enough that we felt like we were watching a real environment and then likewise beautiful enough that we kind of wish we were there as well. So it’s a remarkable feat by both the design team and the geeks who have brought it to life that Pandora gradually rises up off the screen in all its beauty and glory and makes you feel like you’re actually there.

So what that means is that all these special-effects, far from being a bit of eye-candy, actually become the emotional driver of the film. As Sam Worthington’s character becomes more drawn into the world of Pandora, we do too. When it cuts back to the boringness of the human space base, we switch from gorgeously rendered trees and animals to claustraphobic box-like sets and we long for the film to get back to the jungle as much as Sam does.

So, all in all, whether you like the story – and all I’ll say is that it’s one of the most subversively anti-American storylines to appear in a mainstream film – the film will stay with you. The spectacle I was expecting – the beauty was a pleasant surprise.

4 out of 5 (until it gets usurped by a film with a better plot and the same level of special effects).

2 thoughts on “Film Review: Avatar 3D

  1. I missed Jurassic Park at the movies somehow, but that explanation makes good sense of the SFX evolution.

    Several people have told me that despite the terrible plot and characters, it was an entertaining film; perhaps we need a different genre of “blockbuster film” where a piece of entertainment is trying to hit different notes?

  2. I was having this discussion with a friend recently, that we seem to have a problem with genre films when it comes to critical acclaim. (In much the same way as we do with genre fiction, really.)

    For instance, while we could wish that a lot of films had more realistic characters that we care about and better dialogue (and often there’s no excuse for them not having that), at the same time, there are distinct genres of films that have to (as you said) hit certain notes.

    For instance, an action film really just has to set up a hero and a perilous situation, and it’s off. The only requirement that anybody has of that film is that it have action in it. Sure, if you can run good characterisations in it, all well and good. If you can have a solid message about something, why not? But, at the end of the day, an action film, by its nature, is like a roller coaster – you want it get your adrenaline going, and if it does that well, it’s acheived its aims.

    Ditto for horror. It’s the equivalent of a ghost train at the fun fair. If it makes you jump a bit, it’s done it’s job.

    Ditto for romantic comedies. Boy meets girl. They don’t like each other. They start to like each other. There’s a happy montage. Something goes wrong. They don’t like each other again. There’s a sad montage. (Accompanied by a sad song that becomes a huge hit on the radio.) The boy (or sometimes the girl nowadays) does something unrelentingly soppy to sort the mess out. They like each other again.

    Now, within these genres, there are obviously varying levels of quality and genre fans are well aware of this. But there seems to be a certain level of snobbery in film critic circles that just because a film has a certain predictability of plot (due to its genre) that it’s somehow second rate.

    I try, when I’m reviewing, to maintain a balancing act between how well a film tries to pull itself off as its own creation and also how it compares with other films. So, for instance, Avatar – which is trying to be an entertaining and engaging sci-fi action film – it pretty much hit most of the aims that it wanted to achieve. And it’s a notch above the average film of its type. Is it the greatest film of all time? Certainly not.

    But then again, a well-executed genre piece – think the 1933 King Kong or The Exorcist – will often eventually join the ranks of the greatest films of all time.

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