Back in the summer of 2001, before the world changed, a movie came out which threatened to change everything about moviemaking. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was not a hit in the U.S. The plot wasn't American enough -- too Japanese for most people's taste. And though Final Fantasy had been a huge hit video game franchise, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within seemingly had no connection to the characters and plots of all the FF game versions. So you can't even rank it amongst the legions of failed video game tie-in movies.
Watch any of the dreadful Sci Fi Channel (now the sissy SyFy) monster movies and you can see way-too-obvious CGI pasted into the live action. Unnatural movements, obviously faked. CGI sucked in most applications.
But Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within changed the game -- they shot the whole thing in CGI. Used motion capture on the actors, wrote Physics programs to handle the movement of fabric and even modeled 50,000 independent hairs on the head. Brilliantly, they made the "monsters" these luminescent transparent phantoms and featured holographic control and display systems that hung suspended glowing in the air. Seamless between humans, sets, technology and creatures.
I'm one of the few who loved Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. They should've reshot the earliest footage, because the hand and facial movements hadn't been nailed down as well. But it wasn't bad, not bad at all. I especially appreciated the virtual cameras and lenses they used -- they even had lens flare and aperture rings, to say nothing of reflections and depth of field.
And it's been for me the gold standard in realistic computer generated moviemaking. Until now...
Folks, the game has changed. Completely. Forever. Avatar is the most amazing movie. It's blow-you-away where-were-you-when-it-came-out like seeing first-run 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Titanic, The Lord of the Rings or (for me at least) Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
Everybody early on wanted to complain that James Cameron stole this or that story for Avatar. It's Ferngully. It's Dances With Wolves... with Smurfs. It's Dragonriders of Pern, it's The Word For World Is Forest. I have to say, Cameron himself acknowledges Dances With Wolves as an inspiration, but much as I said for the movie Moon earlier this year, "But could we just please talk about Avatar as a Science Fiction movie of its own?"
Because anything less at first blush does Avatar a huge disfavor. Sure, it's James Cameron, which means maybe it's heavy handed in parts and the script doesn't feature the most sparkling of dialogue. But we got the same sort of whining before Titanic came out. You know, the way too expensive break the budget $200 million epic where we all know what is going to happen and has a sappy love story. A love story I might add drew a lot of people in to the point where, about halfway through, suddenly this iceberg intruded on the story and it's OMG it's an iceberg what's gonna happen now?!
No, really, Avatar in IMAX 3D is that good. And more.
Avatar IMAX 3D [PG-13]
Celebration North IMAX Theatre, Monday 21 Dec 2009, 3pm
I first saw To Fly in one of the first IMAX theatres at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC when it was new. The huge screen and sharp picture put you right into a hot air balloon -- and in the cockpit of the Blue Angels. We've seen some feature movies converted to IMAX, including a couple of Harry Potter installments, the last of which had 15 minutes in IMAX 3D. And I've seen a couple of IMAX 3D movies, including the spectacular and REAL Space Station 3D. Nor is this James Cameron's first foray into IMAX 3D, that goes to James Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss.
In our IMAX theatre, the sweet spot for me is dead center, rows 3 or 4. We were able to get dead center, row 2, which meant bending the neck a little more craning around to see everything. But this was not a problem.
Avatar is everything that IMAX 3D has ever promised. Yes, it's being shown in regular 3D and 2D, and if you don't have a local IMAX, go see the Real 3D version, I'm sure. 3D has been a gimmick in far too many films. And I know people who've complained of vertigo in both IMAX theatres and 3D in any format. But 3D is being used here to create a world, not shock you. The opening, inside the cylinder of a massive starship, seemed a little ViewMaster 3D to me -- not sure if it was the setting or just getting the eyes adjusted to the 3D or whether they screwed up. But after a minute, you forget that it's a gimmick. Because you are THERE.
And CGI creatures, worlds and motion capture "people"? Look, I used to tell people that if Titanic cost $200 million to make, then at least for once every penny ended up on the screen. Well, if Avatar cost $300 million to make, then you really have to understand that every penny has ended up on the screen. I'd say "unbelievable", but that's wrong. It's totally BELIEVABLE.
I suspect there are fighter pilots who will weep at never being able to truly "plug in and fly". And the virtual camerawork that goes along with flying is unprecedented. I have never seen anyone take the Gundum/giant fighting suit concept and make it workable. Until now. Totally ramped up beyond the wonderful loaders he had in Aliens. I've never seen anyone create a complete ecosystem to the point that entire vistas had to have been created totally on the computer.
The CGI and live action filming is seamlessly interwoven. There are no breaks, no lines, no errors in lighting. Once, in a long shot of Na'vi scampering up a "vine", I thought the movements looked a little too Gollum for my taste, but though they forget about it most of the time, Pandora is supposed to be a lower gravity world than Earth. With that opening 3D scene mentioned earlier, that makes TWO shots where I questioned the filmmaking. Two. In a 162 minute epic. Compare that to the lovingly detailed list of glitches we all saw in the original Star Wars. (grin)
After the initial introduction, you soon tend to forget that the Na'vi are ten feet tall -- until you see them next to those puny, pitiful humans in the air masks.
What does this computer and 3D immersion get you? It gets you pulsating floating seeds which are so lovely and soft you can feel them. It gets an undercover of flowering plants which you can almost smell the sickeningly overpowering scent. It gets you creatures full of teeth and too many legs and eyes, which though alien, you can connect with. Hell, it even gets you 3D snapshots on the wall, which pan as you walk past them. This is the future.
Pandora is a real place. I have seen it.
For those of you who don't want a tree-hugging eco movie or some dewy eyed love story, fear not. Like Titanic, Cameron knows how to mix types and show you an action flick. As far as military hardware goes, besides walking fighting suits, he's got these wonderful future-gen helicopters. Sure, the body is not that much beyond a Blackhawk, but the twin ducted fan (or at least guarded) contra-rotating blades screams high tech functionality.
And Cameron knows how to do big. Whether its starships, bases, strip mines, earthmoving equipment, trees, creatures. Explosions. Remember Cameron put real wood beams and columns in his Titanic interiors just so they'd break and splinter properly. The man knows how to turn solid wood into chunks and splinters.
This isn't some campy Ewoks versus Imperial Stormtroopers fight. This is deadly serious.
If I had one complaint, it's that you tend to forget that Pandora is described as sort of a Hell -- and though every once in a while you see a shimmer of air as a human goes through an airlock into the world of Pandora, you don't always remember the oppressive heat. And even that isn't a huge complaint. Why? Because for the Na'vi it's home. They're comfortable in it. It's not like taking an Eskimo and throwing them into the Amazon rainforest for them. Just those puny fragile humans.
You become one with the Na'vi. They are real. I've seen them.
And I want to see them again. Soon. Just to look around this world.
And you know what? It'll still be worth every penny of the extra fare IMAX 3D ticket price.
PS - I urge you to read Jim Wright's excellent essay Avatar: Simple Astounding (Spoiler Free) on Stonekettle Station.
PPS - Wikipedia's article mentions that James Cameron has a trio of scripts for an Avatar trilogy. Just saying.