Apr 11, 2010
Anyway, I wanted to see what exactly the fuss was all about. I know that Avatar has made some ridonkulous amount of money so far ($743 million in US, $1.9 billion in the rest of the universe). And it had a bunch of Oscar nominations. So, what was so special about the movie? How did it do what so many people thought was impossible? How did it knock Titanic off its perch as highest grossing film ever?
I have already posted my thoughts about James Cameron in general. And I already voiced my displeasure at the way the Oscars played out. But after seeing this film, I just have to say that it reiterates many of my points in those posts. First of all, James Cameron is a genius. I don't believe he is the greatest filmmaker of all time. But, I think he has to rank up in the upper echelon of the most creative movie minds of all time. He came up with the Terminator universe - which has spawned four movies, a television show, theme park attractions, multiple video games. He expanded the Alien universe. He has been in control of four different "game changing" movies - The Abyss, Terminator 2, Titanic, and Avatar.
Avatar trumped all of the other things he has done. It isn't even close. I know that Titanic was like an earthquake in Hollywood. Everything changed after it. The aftershocks are still being felt. The special effects, the scope, the budget, the event nature of it - in addition to launching two huge movie stars and spawning a ginormous music hit. All of it made Titanic a benchmark movie in film history. And Terminator is a huge series. It had amazing special effects, enduring story and characters.
But Avatar surpassed all of that. The event nature of it was bigger than anything. People felt like they HAD to see this movie. And not just see it, but experience it in IMAX and 3D - even though those things cost tons of extra money. The special effects were just amazing. I kept looking to see where the computer ended and the film began. It wasn't possible. One of the scenes I thought was going to be shaky was when the main guy (Jake) showed up on Pandora. Turns out that was actually shot on film. The creatures were very realistic - even more so than Lord of the Rings, Jurassic Park, King Kong. The filming was gorgeous - every shot was rich in image and color.
That gets into what I think was so jawdropping about the film. When a movie helmsman creates a film universe, usually it is within the construct of what we are familiar with. For example, the Terminator franchise was set on Earth with cities and humans. The technology portrayed on film was far beyond our current times, but it was in line with our advances. Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate (the trinity of sci-fi franchises) all have tons of humanoids roaming around. No matter where you go in the universe, it appears that there are going to be human looking aliens with slight modifications (pointy ears, ridged forehead, weird voice). Avatar didn't do that. It wasn't supposed to be some foreign alien planet that looks a lot like the Amazon or Vancouver. It was completely new.
Cameron went beyond the call to create a completely new universe. Yes, humans were there. But the rest of the planet was so unique that it really was just amazing. He didn't just start with a fish and then do something minor to it and suddenly it was an alien. These were species that were completely unfamiliar. The flying banshees, the thing that chased Jake in his first night as an avatar, even the creatures crawling on a tree or floating by. One creature was kind of like a dinosaur, but not really. Another was kind of like a dragon, but no. Even the Na'vi - the main blue creatures - had two legs and walked like people. But they were bigger and different, with ponytails and tails and glowing sweat - so it wasn't just some dude in blue body paint. Cameron even went so far as to create vegetation that was vastly different. Glowing grass, shrinking flowers, floating seeds, levitating mountains. Each detail was creating by Cameron. He didn't just pull stock sci-fi imagery and toss it in there. His team had to create every single thing.
Even the on the human side, they had to come up with planes, helicopters, shuttles, bombers, guns, grenades, oxygen masks, computers that would reflect the advances in technology needed to advance the story. I am currently reading the Space Trilogy series by C. S. Lewis. I kept thinking about that series when I was watching Avatar. In it, Lewis created a similarly alien world for his story. In the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, the main character Ransom ends up on an alien world. Nothing there is familiar. The "water" is different." The creatures are completely foreign. The vegetation and landscape were extreme in scope and appearance. It was impossible for Ransom to even process or know how to proceed. He didn't know what was safe or not, what was even intelligent or not. That is kind of what happens in Avatar. Everything is so foreign, so new that we feel like Ransom (and like Jake in Avatar) - completely taken in and mesmerized by everything around us. [I would say it is a good bet Cameron read the Space Trilogy. I would like to ask him that.]
Visually, the movie was unparalleled. I can somewhat imagine what people felt the first time they saw Star Wars. You are so amazed by what is on screen. In the movie, you are drawn into this strange new world. While at the same time, you are thinking in your seat, "Everything just changed, didn't it?" One movie reviewer called Avatar "the first movie of the rest of your life" - implying that it had just upped the ante. I agree. I remember feeling that way watching The Matrix. At first, I was thinking, "What the heck is this weirdness. Way to go, Melvin, making us go to this stupid thing. " About thirty minutes in, I was just sitting there sucked in. And by the end, I was trying to figure out where movies could possibly go next. I felt that way again during Avatar. I'm glad I saw it on the IMAX - it really was the only screen that could do the movie justice. I'm actually kind of interested to see how it does on DVD and BluRay. Can those smaller screens actually hold the epic nature?
That is not to say Avatar was perfect. Far from it. I basically could figure out everything that was going to happen scenes before it did. I knew what each character would do before they did. They would show a creature or tell a story, and immediately you knew how that would turn out. No surprises, as far as story telling went. The characters were very one-dimensional. They seemed like caricatures of people. The good-hearted scientist. The evil military leader. The greedy and shallow corporate shill. There was not a whole lot of depth in any of the characters. But, let's be honest, that is all pretty common in Cameron films. That is why he has only had two acting nominations in his films. The most conflicted character in the Terminator saga was a robot. So, kind of par for the course. (I will probably do another separate post on the religious, political, and economic statements in Avatar.) And find a movie that isn't flawed. I thought Up in the Air was 95% amazing. If you broke down the movie into 20 segments and rated each one, it would have gotten a perfect score on the first 19. And then a big fat zero on the last one. The ending was horrible - absolutely stupid. And that was considered the "best all around" movie of 2009 by most people.
That all being said, I still think Avatar should have won Best Picture and Cameron should have won Best Director. I still haven't seen The Hurt Locker, but I have talked to several of my movie expert buddies. And they all thought it was ridiculous it won. And, as I have said before, I am NOT of the opinion that the biggest movies should win. But when you have a movie that is amazing, epic, groundbreaking, entertaining, high quality, beyond adored, and able to be close to the top of the heap - it HAS to win. There is more to Best Picture than an academic assessment. I think it also needs to take into account the legacy and overall impact of the film. That is why Saving Private Ryan never should have lost Best Picture. That is why I still think Star Wars, The Dark Knight, The Matrix should have won - even more so in years that don't have a superior option. [Shakespeare in Love, Annie Hall, Slumdog Millionaire, American Beauty won in those four years instead. This is what happens when the most memorable movie in a year doesn't win. You get a stupid winner that everyone says, "How did they win?"] These enormous movies don't come along every year. They are not common. And they need to be treated that way. When you have a film that is going to be remembered for decades - one that will define the year it was released - I think it has to be rewarded.