Well, I finally got out to see Avatar this evening. We weren't able to get tickets for the only local IMAX screen, but we still saw it in 3D. So, what did I think about it?
Well, I'm going to break this up into a few pieces. First, they did a trailer for The Lightning Thief beforehand. I read the book a year or two ago, and man, whoever did that trailer should be shot! Seriously, they don't subscribe to the idea that the trailer is a teaser that's supposed to get your interest. They just believe that you should show most the entire first two acts, it seems.
Anyway, enough peripheral ranting. On to my thoughts on this 3D technology (this being my first movie seen with this tech). It's definitely still in the experimental stage. Although it mostly looked fabulous, there were some rough edges. First, anything out of focus looks very weird. It feels like digital noise, although I'm sure there's a better term for it. And some things really looked overlaid (I'm particularly thinking of the seeds of the tree). Oh, and the edge of the screen looked very weird; things right at the edge seemed to get cut off by something that was behind them.
And adding even more to the experimental feel of it were the 3D trailers that led it. They were doing goofy things like putting different parts of the text at different depths. I don't know that it was a bad thing, but it definitely had the feel of the creator saying, "I wonder what this will look like".
But despite all that, it definitely made for a more immersive experience. I can't wait to see more movies made for it. And I wonder if it can be retrofitted (at least, on movies that weren't rendered, and therefore can't just be re-rendered). If it can be, jackpot!
So, on to the movie itself. Before seeing it, I'd heard from a number of people about it, and they almost all agreed on two things: the visuals are fantastic, and the dialog is pretty lame. People's liking (or not) seemed to depend almost entirely on the relative weights assigned to those two factors). I'm generally pretty big on interesting dialog, so this definitely made me a bit leery. But I still enjoyed the movie a great deal. There were two or three fundamental flaws (and several minor ones I'll mention later), but it still blew me away. Seriously, the visuals are that good, and that powerful. I'm not sure if it's possible, but this movie deserves multiple Oscars for technical achievement alone.
They worked on this movie for about twelve years (I can attest to this personally, insofar as I remember hearing about it roughly that long ago. And hearing that it was going to use virtual actors back then, this is not at all what I envisioned. Thank God, because this was far better than the T2-ish stuff I was thinking of), and it shows. They didn't show a whole lot of different flora and fauna (10 or 15 different types, maybe), but the ones they showed were pretty amazing.
I really think the use of color was brilliant; the shades were vibrant, and really made the Pandorans stand out. The way they used many of the species glowing made for spectacular viewing.
And you could see Cameron's fascination with technology, as the computer interfaces were truly amazing. Seriously, I'd love to have a number of the things shown there. The "monitors" that were displayed as, essentially, a large segment of a sphere were incredible. And being able to move an application from one display to another in a very seamless fashion (as shown in one scene) was also a cool touch.
Note: the rest of this will be rife with spoilers, and you should probably skip it if you haven't yet seen the movie. (Really. If you're thinking about seeing the movie, don't read the next eleven paragraphs. They will probably ruin the movie for you.)
So, what were those flaws I mentioned?
The first gets right to the whole premise of the scenario. What does the "unobtainium" do? Why is it valuable? The significance of this is that it is likely that the Na'vi are using this in some fashion, but we never find out if that is so. If not, it seems quite likely that trading could have been worked out to the mutual benefit of the humans and Na'vi.
The second is more of a military issue. When the main character, Jake, arrives on Pandora, he hears repeatedly that it is a hellhole where everything is trying to kill him, and that he should be scared of the natives. And yet, when the humans want to destroy the Na'vi's home tree, they do so without even being threatened. Is it dangerous, or not?
Following up on that destruction is a huge battle, where the humans want to bomb Pandora's sanctum sanctorum, and the Na'vi want to stop them. That's all well and good, and logical, but we see the Na'vi preparing for battle, and gathering from over a large area, without any hint of how they are going to be able to hurt the humans. And so, the battle goes about as you'd expect, until the planet itself turns against the humans (that isn't quite as silly in the movie as it sounds; there was foreshadowing of that being possible). So the silliness is in the Na'vi battle preparations. They were just planning on being slaughtered. There was a hint that they'd be able to do better than the humans due to disruption of remote sensors, but it sounded like a stretch, and was.
Anyway, I just can't see a people committing suicide en masse like that. I mean, this isn't like the Poles fighting tanks with cavalry at the beginning of WWII. At least those Poles were knowingly facing certain destruction so that a) their allies would have time to gather forces to support them (side note: they expected to need to hold out for a week; they held out for three. My respect for that approaches awe) and b) towards the end, it allowed more time for their families to flee the city.
Getting back to the battle, it was, in essence, a bombing run. So the huge amount of air support certainly made sense. It was less clear, however, why there was any need for any kind of ground offensive. It wasn't like they needed to seize territory.
Hmm... I wonder if the story's needs explain the ground troops. That is, we wouldn't have had Jake vs the Colonel otherwise, because the Colonel wouldn't've had his combat suit. Actually, it was still quite a stretch, but I wonder if that was the rationale.
Ok, four other, much more minor quibbles. The first of these actually affects a number of recent movies (even Sherlock Holmes), and it is this: why do explosions not have pressure waves that kill people? The Colonel survived his aircraft exploding around him; that's simply ludicrous.
The second has to do with the cause of that explosion. Jake pulled a missile off of the aircraft and threw it into a turbine. While that certainly would have caused a fair bit of havoc (at the least, it would have destroyed the turbine), the missile would not have exploded because it would not yet be armed. So it would be very unlikely that the ship would go down.
The third had to do with the aftermath. The Pandorans might have won, but there was no reason to believe that the humans wouldn't be back with a better idea how to fight the natives.
The final one had to do with the arrows with which the Na'vi attacked the gunships. When the home tree was destroyed, the arrows were hardly scratching the cockpits; when the big battle took place, they were going through with enough force to kill the pilots. Yes, the relative heights would make a difference, but I have a hard time believing that it would be that big of a difference. To, umm... get to the point, I have a hard time believing that a wood arrow, even at terminal velocity, would be able to get through something that would have to be (at least) the equivalent of modern day plate glass. Maybe if the arrows had a monomolecular-level edge, but there's no reason to believe that they did (after all, it was mentioned them having a neurotoxin in them; you only use a neurotoxin if the arrow itself isn't likely to kill the target. If you've got that sharp an edge, there wouldn't be any reason to believe that the edge wouldn't kill your target).
Ok, so why did I still enjoy the movie? I guess because it was about the people involved, more so than about the battle for its own sake. Of course, I've barely glossed over that part of the story. I suppose that's because that part of it can be summed up very simply in a few sentences, and if I do that, it'll sound stupid. Suffice it to say that I found that part satisfying without being cloying. (Although I do have to ask: if bonding with the animals using their hair was such a big deal, why wasn't it part of them mating?)
It also helped that I was able to ignore the moralizing. There's some irony that a product of several sizeable corporations worked together with the highest technology available for filmmaking to create a film that is both anti-corporate (the humans are all working for one corporation) and anti-technology (insofar as it glorifies aboriginal living over high-tech living). This wasn't quite as heavy-handed in its moralizing as, say, Saving Private Ryan (the last three to five minutes of which completely ruined it for me), but it was still a bit ham-handed.
Oh, and I should also point out that this movie owes a great visual debt to various anime, especially several different Miyazaki films (Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, in particular). And that is only to the good, in my book.
All that said, I still really enjoyed it, and might even see it again in the theater (which doesn't sound like much, except that it's been a number of years since I've seen a movie more than once in the theater). And with our toddler, it now takes quite a bit of planning to get out to see something in the theater. But if I do see it again, it'll definitely be in IMAX.