Avatar: the birth of a new visual age in filmmaking

By Andrew Craig
It is always hard to take a movie at face value when you are virtually bombarded with hype for a film. The studio has sunk so much money into Avatar that the advertising has been practically crammed down our throats. Comparisons to Star Wars and the Matrix were flying around before it was even released. Essentially the producers are begging the movie-going audience to see it so they can get their money back. My usual reaction to this kind of hype is to shy away from those films. But this is a James Cameron movie. He is high in the pantheon of influential mainstream moviemakers and his fame outweighs any other kind of hype. I trust his talent and in the case of Avatar I am glad I did.

Comparisons to Star Wars are justified as the two movies are very similar in one important way. Any fan will tell you that Star Wars was not a huge breakthrough because of its story. While it was good, if you strip away all the effects it is a mediocre tale. However, its visual effects really raised the bar and made Star Wars a legendary film. I believe Avatar now shares this honour with Star Wars.

In Avatar the technologically-advanced Earth people, with visually impressive battle suits and scorpion air ships, have invaded the primitive planet Pandora whose native humanoid inhabitants, the Na’vi, have become pretty handy with bows and arrows. The object of interest in the story is a substance with the dubious name of ‘unobtainium’ which is worth a fortune on Earth and has its richest concentration beneath the Na’vi’s home.

The story focuses around Jake Sully, a paraplegic brought into the fray because he is a genetic match for his brother who was killed before being deployed in the Avatar project. Before the military flexes its muscles it is up to Jake and his colleagues to try to convince the natives to move along through Avatars — basically organic puppets that human “drivers” use to assimilate into the culture. Jake begins with his heart in the mission, but as he learns more he becomes more conflicted and the conflicts, both internal and external, escalate from there.

Avatar brings one very original science fiction concept to the table that I loved. It revolves a lot around the spirituality of the Na’vi. Other than a rather obvious “chosen one” motif there are some fairly heavy religious overtones. I don’t want to spoil it because I think it’s something special but it deals very well with the concept of rebirth and the importance of faith, although in this case the religion is more ancestral worship than anything else. The parallels to Christianity come more from the similarities in practice as opposed to what is believed by the Na’vi. It shows how quickly people can write off tradition and belief as ignorant and uninformed concepts when there is real depth and value to them. The Na’vi are nothing without their faith, as Christians have nothing without Christ. These spiritual moments are some of the most moving and help provide an element of cultural richness this movie needs.

The movie is pretty predictable. All the setups and payoffs are laid bare with little attempt to hide them and as a result, Avatar is a very accessible and enjoyable science fiction film. I have a hard time picturing anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it, although that is largely due to the other factor this film brings to the table—visual effects.

I don’t often think you should watch every movie in the theatre, but this one really is a must, especially in 3-D. The world created by Cameron’s team is breathtaking and complex, populated with weird and wonderful creatures. It isn’t so much pretty as it is pure and untouched, and full of wonders that humans eyes have never seen. CGI has become a crutch in filmmaking, but Avatar raises the bar impossibly high. The only reason you know you looking at CGI is because you know what you are looking at doesn’t exist. Period! The realism is on a level I have never before seen and that is where the comparison to Star Wars is most evident. I feel it’s safe to say Avatar has ruined a great many films for me in terms of effects. I have been spoiled.

Is Avatar a masterpiece? No. Is it an immensely entertaining science fiction film? Absolutely! I will see it at least once more in the theatre.

A word of warning though, unlike Star Wars this movie leans a little more to the mature side. The language is fine, but the violence is intense and the Na’vi are dressed like any native race on a subtropical planet so you may want to keep that in mind.

After watching the film I felt like I had witnessed the birth of a new age of effects in film, a feeling I imagine was shared by a lot of people 32 years ago when they encountered “a galaxy far, far away.”

Rev. Andrew Craig is associate pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Surrey, (Cloverdale) B.C. http://www.zionlutheran.org

Posted By: Matthew Block
Posted On: December 22, 2009
Posted In: Reviews and Cultural Comment,

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