Friday, 26 November 2010

Avatar (collectors edition) (2010)

From the very begining of the film, it is clear that Avatar is going to be a film of epic scale.  The action begins on earth in an unidentified city, where the light comes not from the sky but the myriad glowing advertisments, casting an unnatural blue glow over the anonymous masses on the ground.  However, the true scale of the civilisation is best conveyed by the massive industrialised mortuary where crematorium ovens sketch back into the distance in an uncomfortable echo of Nazi extermination camps, an impression reinforced by the masked and apronned attendents who wheel cardboard coffins to and fro.
In contrast to the industrial grimness of earth, the lush greenery of Pandora (the alien moon on which the majority of the story unfolds) is a visual feast, an imaginary ecosystem realised with meticulous detail from the plankton like "seeds of Aywa" to the massive predatory Thanator.  Within this environment, the humans in their drab camoflage and rebreather masks stand out a mile, while the native Na'vi fit in despite their blue skin.
The film is the pet project of director and writer James Cameron, but to lay the credit solely at his feet would be to do a disservice to the massive team of artists that helped flesh out his vision and bring it all to life in (truly incredible) 3D.  However, the fact that the essence of the film is the result of one man's vision must be a least partialy responsible for the way in which the film feels "complete".  As Anita Singh, film reviewer for The Telegraph notes, "In the hands of a lesser director,...(the)...awe-inspiring special effects would have overwhelmed the film. It is to Cameron's credit that the story grips and carries you along from the beginning"
 As if to emphasise the distance between Earth and Pandora, the action on Pandora is highly vertical, from the many flying scenes to the floating "halleluja mountains", which manage to hover in the sky without seeming fake or painted.
Although some critics have criticised the story as being cliched and basic, (and indeed in the original theatrical release it did feel a little like that, although the 16 minutes added for the collectors edition have done a good job of remedying this situation), they all acknowledge the fact that any failings are more than made up for by the beauty and visual scale of the special effects.  As David Edelstein says in his New York Magazine review, "The problem until now with CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) is that it didn’t make the final perceptual leap. It was impressive rather than immersive. But Cameron moves the boundary posts... On the moon Pandora, he creates a living ecosystem—and You (the audience)...Are There."
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Pandora (and one that is actually new to science fiction films) is the bioluminescence that almost every pandoran lifeform includes, and turns night-time into a visual feast of coloured lights.  This is almost certainly a result of James Cameron's personal experience with deep sea diving, as the deep ocean is where the majority of terrestrial bioluminescence is found.  Several other parts of Pandora appear to draw their inspiration from the deep ocean, particularly the spiral-leaved plants that retract into their stem when threatened (which are basically scaled up versions of a real creature that is found under the sea)
From the technical point of view, this film's use of 3D may perhaps be seen as a milestone in the history of the medium, as it refrains from the cheap gimickery that previous films have resorted to (objects jumping out of the screen at the audience in an attempt to make them duck, to give one heavily overused example), but rather treats the 3D camera in the same way as a normal 2D camera, allowing the 3D to enhance the immersion in the film rather than destroying it.  As Manohla Dargis, The New York Times film reviewer says, "After a few tend not to notice the 3-D, which speaks to the subtlety of its use and potential future applications. Mr. Cameron might like to play with high-tech gadgets, but he’s an old-fashioned filmmaker at heart, and he wants us to get as lost in his fictional paradise"

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