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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Avatar: Simply Astounding (spoiler free)

I went to see Star Wars.

It wasn’t opening day, but it was sometime during the first week Star Wars was playing. Nobody had ever heard of it. There were a couple of commercials for it, but the name sounded stupid and nobody advertised science fiction during prime time TV and sure as hell nobody took a science fiction movie as anything other than Saturday morning kiddie fare.

I don’t remember what day of the week it was, but my friend Mike Miller and I saw the movie at an early afternoon matinee. I don’t actually remember what we paid per ticket, but it wasn’t much, certainly no more than $3.00USD. There wasn’t a line, in fact there were only about six people in the theater besides us.

And from the first blare of trumpets and the scroll of those now famous words “A long time ago…” we were just plain blown away.

For two hours I was captivated, sitting in open mouthed fascination, popcorn and Junior Mints forgotten, barely breathing.

I don’t think I can describe it.

Those of you who grew up with big budget scifi movies and computerized special effects, just can’t imagine what Star Wars was like to those of us who grew up reading scifi in the 60’s. There were flying cars and realistic robots and giant crawler things and a bunch of aliens in a bar and battered beat up tramp freighter spaceships and huge glossy evil empire star destroyers and just so many damned amazing things that before the summer of 1977 had existed only in our minds. It was astounding. There had never been anything like it.

Star Wars was the first movie I ever saw twice in a theater.

In the same day.

The next week we went back to see it again, and by then, of course, it had become a phenomenon. Suddenly they were advertising it on television, in prime time (owwwooooooh! What was that! Don’t worry it’s just a Wookie howling in hyperspace!). The lines were around the corner, the tickets were $12, the theaters were showing it on every screen they had, and suddenly everybody wanted to see a science fiction movie. Every high school band in the country played the Star Wars Medley, and every high school jazz band played the Star Wars Cantina song. There were T-shirts and lunch boxes and action figures. Hell, there was even a Christmas special in prime time.

Star Wars changed everything.

Avatar is the same kind of watershed event.

Oh, I don’t mean that Avatar is some little obscure scifi flick made on a shoestring budget that suddenly and unexpectedly made it big. Obviously that’s not true. But Avatar changes the movie going experience in a profound way.

Cameron said it would, and he is right.

I’ve often wondered over the years what would happen if you just gave James Cameron all the money he wanted and left him the hell alone for a while.

After all, this is the guy who has created some of the most incredible science fiction (The Abyss, Aliens, Terminator and its sequels and spinoffs) ever put onto film.

He’s the guy who created Titanic (and you can pretend disdain at the sappy love story all you like, Titanic is still one amazing film).

And so I wondered what would happen if you just gave the guy everything he asked for and got the hell out of his way?

What would that be like? Would he create something amazing? or would he fall flat on his ass? Would he be another George Lucas?

I figured either you’d end up with the Phantom Menace…or one of the most astounding things ever made.

Avatar is the later.

I’m going to avoid any spoilers in this review, so if you haven’t yet seen the movie and are planning on it, read on in safety.

The Storyline:

You know who science fiction’s biggest detractors are?

They’re not people who lack imagination or dislike science fiction in general and write it off as “that Buck Rogers Stuff” with a disdainful “who farted?” look on their face.

No.

It’s science fiction Fans – yes, Fans with a capital F.

Those jaded disdainful uber nerds who make it their life’s work not to be impressed by anything. Who decry the lack of originality in science fiction, but then only watch endless rehashes of Star Trek and Star Gate and Babylon 5, with the same five characters (the plucky Captain, the Professor, the Doctor, the emotionless Alien, and The Boobs) and same dozen or so recycled plots (the Trial episode, the Time Travel episode, the Body Swap episode, the Mirror Universe episode, the Alien Mother, and etc). They read x-Gen writers like Doctrow and Scalzi and Gaiman, and can’t wait for the next installment of The Song of Fire and Ice - but have never read Niven or Bester or Tiptree and wouldn’t be caught dead with a DVD of Silent Running or Forbidden Planet. They’ve never read The Black Destroyer, or The Machine Stops, or Microcosmic God. And they wouldn’t recognize a dog eared copy of The Demolished Man if they they tripped over it in the coffee shop. They sneer at the 2002 remake of The Time Machine and pontificate for hours on how it’s nothing, nothing, compared to the original H. G. Wells – which they’ve never actually read – and sit on the floor in the SciFi section of Barnes & Nobles reading the latest Twilight knockoff with tears smearing their eye shadow, oh God, it’s like me and Edward are one and the same!

They’re the sloppy unwashed acne covered goofs in dirty clothes with their ass cracks hanging out, the ones who exited Avatar in front of me yesterday trying desperately to be unimpressed.

“I told ya, it’s nothing more than the Smurfs do Dances With Wolves, Cameron hasn’t had an original idea in years,” proffered in a loud, jaded, twenty year old man of the world monotone. So true, sniff, so true.

Sigh.

You can drop the disaffected emo nerd into the jungles of Pandora, but sometimes he can’t see the giant alien forest for the floating mountains.

I’ve seen this same assessment a number of places, that the storyline is simply Dances with Wolves with ten foot tall blue people instead of native Americans.

Wrong.

If anything it’s closer to Medicine Man, than Wolves – though neither are accurate comparisons.

And the Smurfs comment? Well, that’s just plain stupid on so many levels.

See, if these people were half the Science Fiction fans they claim to be, they would immediately see Avatar’s storyline for what it really is, an alien invasion story. Now, if you want to get technical about it, both Dances with Wolves and Medicine man were alien invasion stories. But, there’s a big difference between Avatar and Wolves. In Wolves the ending is a forgone conclusion – and it’s ultimately a tragic one. No matter what the natives’ momentary triumphs, they are dying, their way of life is dying, their world is dying, their victories are hollow at best and Lt Dunbar’s sacrifice and betrayal of his own people is ultimately doomed to failure – making the story’s happy ending all the more sad and poignant and heartbreaking. So too is the conclusion of Medicine Man, and though the story ends on a hopeful note, the optimism is more about the invaders and the rewards they may reap, than the future of the natives – too bad about the jungle and the people, at least we get a cure for cancer.

Avatar takes both those storylines and turns them on their heads. It’s about hope, about the triumph of the spirit and right over wrong and the true nature of honor. There’s a world of difference between Avatar and Dances with Wolves, or even Medicine Man, and only the most shallow and superficial comparison would miss that. In fact, the off the cuff comparison to Dances With Wolves betrays the shallowness of the critic’s knowledge and the superficiality of his pretended superior viewpoint, Wolves wasn’t an original story either - in science fiction or any other kind of fiction. From the ancient Roman legend of Romulus and Remus, to Kipling’s Mowgli, to Cooper’s last Mohican, to John Wayne’s Searchers, to Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – and yes, even the original Star Trek’s Charlie X – the alien assimilation story has been told many times in many ways, Cameron is only the latest. But Avatar is not diminished for only being the latest retelling of this tale, just as Dances with Wolves is in no way diminished by the Jungle Book. Avatar’s storyline is as old as time and one that has been told many times in the annuals of science fiction, from Olaf Stapledon to Harry Harrison, and it is no less powerful and wonderful for all of that. Just as we ultimately knew the fate of the RMS Titanic, and yet still sat on the edge of our seats throughout Cameron’s tale of the disaster, Avatar does a yeoman job with the alien invasion story.

The last lines of the movie, spoken by the protagonist as he records his final diary entry explains everything, but you have to listen carefully.

However.

My astonishment and enjoyment of Avatar doesn’t prevent me from offering up a criticism of one of Cameron’s personal quirks, the portrayal of the military.

The military never fairs well in a Cameron movie, especially the officers.

Marines, Navy SEALS and Navy Admirals, the Army, the Air Force – Cameron doesn’t have much use for us military folks. It’s a constant of his movies that we get shown the folly of our ways – or terminated – and the day is saved by the plucky civilian hero, who, more often than not, is Sigorney Weaver.

In the Terminator movies, it was the military’s quest for better and smarter weapons that ultimately unleashed robotic terror on civilization. In Aliens, it was the incompetent commanding officer and knuckle dragging Marines who unwitting bring alien death in all its mucus drooling horror down upon themselves. In The Abyss, it is the military again, Navy SEALs this time led by an insane officer, who bring about disaster. Greedy corporations play a role too, but it is always the military’s stereotypical small mindedness, rigid adherence to orders (no matter how insane), and unbridled red meat enthusiasm for death and destruction that is the villain of Cameron movies.

In Avatar, the military is pure Cameron, led by the absolute biggest, baddest, cast iron, snake eating, death dealing son of bitch of a stereotypical Marine colonel who seems like an extra left over from Full Metal Jacket. Not that you don’t enjoy the hell out of watching the character played with over the top enthusiasm and utter sincerity by Stephan Lang.

But just once, I’d like Cameron to portray the military as the hero, or at the very least not the villain.

A note on casting: Sam Worthington is rapidly turning into one of my favorite actors, likewise Zoe Saldana. Such is the presence and power of Wes Studi’s acting, that I recognized him instantly through the blue computer generated ten foot tall alien body the special effects wizards hung on him – and it wasn’t until after the movie was over that I remembered the Dances with Wolves connection and wondered if Cameron wasn’t having one over on his critics. Sigorney Weaver managed to not steal the show, I thought that was damned nice of her. And Michelle Rodriguez is a pleasure, as always, and I thought her role was beautifully done.

The World of Pandora:

My God! It’s full of stars!

Insiders say this movie cost over $300 million to make.

If so, it’s worth every penny – and then some.

The backdrop of Avatar is breathtaking.

The world of Pandora is utterly astounding. I would have given a great deal to have had a remote control with a big pause button on it during the movie. I wanted to stop and marvel at what Cameron and his people have wrought. I have nothing but admiration for the artwork of Avatar. It should be on display, full sized, in all its glowing 3D glory. I would love to be able to stand in front of an IMAX sized projection of the Pandorian forest with its alien sky above and the floating mountains in the distance.

I remember being stunned by those twin suns setting in the sky of Tatooine – that scene is like a faded Polaroid compared to the world of Avatar. I thought I’d be watching a cartoon, or one of those horrifying CG overlays like 300 or Beowulf. But the world of Pandora looked as if it had been filmed there, in that alien jungle on that alien world beneath the light of a sky filling gas giant.

It was everything I could do to keep from shouting out “Wayne Barlowe! Holy Shit, it’s Wayne Barlowe!” when the first alien creatures scampered through the trees and thundered out of the jungle. I own a first addition hardback copy of Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials and I’d recognize his six limbed creations anywhere. To see them given life after all these years was simply fantastic and you’d have to see the creatures to believe them. I’ve seen National Geographic documentaries in HD that don’t look half so realistic.

I want to see the movie again, just to explore Pandora, to marvel at the sky filling Jovian primary hanging overhead, to goggle at the mountains floating in the sky, to admire Wayne Barlowe’s creatures as they roar and thunder through the jungles beneath the great mile high trees.

Pandora is a thousand science fiction and fantasy novels given life and breath.

In addition to the creation of Pandora, there is the film’s portrayal of human technology.

I love that Buck Rogers stuff, I do. I love seeing the things that have been floating my mind’s eye for the last forty years given life on the big screen at long, long last.

One of the things that I admire about Cameron is his attention to detail and his quest for realism. It appears that he designed Pandora’s ecosystem from the microbe level all the way up to the sapient natives. You can see him hunched over the drafting table (or computer monitor, whatever) designing the vein patterns in every leaf of every tree in his alien jungle. He could have stopped there, but he didn’t. The human tech is beautifully, almost lovingly, designed in every bit of the same attention to detail as the muscles and hairs on the legs of Wayne Barlowe’s alien six limbed horses.

Everything from the cargo netted pallets in the hold of the Venture Star type orbital shuttle, to the holographic computer displays, to the design of the starship in orbit above, is rendered in exquisite detail. It’s as if Cameron considered and agonized over every single brushstroke himself. It is the mark of the ultimate craftsman, and it’s a privilege to see such artistry and attention to detail on the screen.

Hell, even if you find the story old and clich├ęd and you’re just so jaded by it all, see the movie for the artistry that is Pandora.

The Uncanny Valley:

I really don’t like CG.

I really, really don’t like motion capture.

While I thought the effects used to bring Gollum to life in the Lord of the Rings movies were the best I’d ever seen, certainly orders of magnitude above those now dated effects of Star Wars or Alien, I still didn’t care for it. I found it distracting and creepy and uncanny and absolutely unrealistic. Ditto times ten for the Star War prequels. I would have far, far preferred the masterful puppetry that Frank Oz used to bring Yoda to the screen in the 1970’s over the cartoonish and distracting CG of the “modern” prequels. I truly hate how CG allowed Lucas to destroy my fragile suspension of disbelief in his world.

So, I don’t like motion capture. And I truly hate CG.

Until now.

The motion capture effects Cameron used to bring the Na’vi to life are incredible and the most realistic I’ve ever seen. You can easily lose yourself in them and forget you’re watching the creation of computers and not reality.

And then there is the 3D.

I’ve always felt 3D to be a gimmick.

In the old days of analog split projection it certainly was. Digital 3D has absolutely improved the process and made it, well, if not truly holographic, at least not cartoonish either.

I saw Up in 3D, it was ok. And the 3D was well suited to the storyline and the graphics.

But I didn’t think 3D enhanced the story.

Until now.

Avatar in digital 3D is as close to a full immersion VR simulation as I have ever seen. I know I’ve used this line more than once already, but Cameron’s use of 3D is astounding. The 3D in Avatar is in no way a gimmick and the movie will be much diminished without it. Cameron used 3D the same way another director might use French angles or Noir lighting or altered frame rates like Ridley Scott did in the Gladiator battle scenes. It is an integral part of the movie and it is so effective and realistic that in several scenes where the camera was panning across the crowded control room, characters in the forefront of the scene obscured the central action and I was annoyed at first because I thought somebody had stood up in front of me. Cameron doesn’t use 3D for cheap thrills or to startle the audience with simulated objects flung at the bridge of their noses, he uses it to transport you into the midst of his incredible world.

The movie is long, but there isn’t one extra minute on the screen, nor is there one that isn’t finely crafted.

Avatar is a work of art. It’s beautiful and wonderful and epically fantastic. It’s everything that science fiction should be.

It’s the first movie since Star Wars decades ago that I fully intend to see again in the theater.

It’s a masterpiece.

I only hope there isn’t a Christmas special.

25 comments:

  1. Well, now I know what I will be doing on Christmas Day. Early show I think, before the masses get motivated to move out from under their respective piles of wrapping paper.

    The only movie since the opening day of Star Wars that ever blew me away was Contact. I had to keep telling myself to breathe, and was speechless for most of the way home after the film (which the roommate found rather odd and I couldn't explain). I wanted to be Ellie speeding through the cosmos.

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  2. Well that's perfectly understandably, Wendy, after all who in their right mind wouldn't want to be Jodie Foster?

    What?

    Stop looking at me like that.

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  3. I'll be honest: I don't know it I'll see Avatar or not. I realize that my geek card will be revoked if I don't soon see Terminator within the next year and I admit that I really love Aliens, but the truth is that Cameron isn't one of my favorite directors - I wasn't fond of The Abyss and I seriously hated (and still hate) Titanic, despite the fact it has several of my favorite character actors (David Warner, Victor Garber, Bernard Fox).

    If my boyfriend wants to watch it, I may tag along. But it's not on my "Must See" list.

    Wendy, Contact is fantastic. I wish I had seen it on the big screen. Hopefully it'll be screened again somewhere in L.A.

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  4. Loved loved loved Avatar and agree with most everything you said but I do have a quibble re: the portrayal of the military. The characters themselves were as you describe but technically they were a mix of ex-military, scientists & head-office types. They were contractors. The difference between David Petraeus and Eric Prince. To me, the movie was more anti-corporate (anything except a bad quarterly statement) than anti-military. (More being a relative thing.)

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  5. Quick note on Titanic. I could never figure out why people went on and on about the predictable romance when the big thing I remember was the tragedy of all those people dying in a great realistic catastrophe.

    Second the remark on Jodie Foster.

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  6. Jennie, given my background I tend to be sensitive to the military aspect of Cameron's movies, but you're right he does seem to have equal or greater disregard for the greed of corporations.

    Doesn't mean I don't enjoy his movies, and this one in particular, but like I said, I sure would like to see the military portrayed as something other than the bad guys for a change - but that's true of most movies and entertainment nowadays.

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  7. Steve, I agree.

    But I also thought that the love story wasn't all that predictable. Cameron could have given us a happy ending, one where Jack and Rose survive together and the rich asshole goes down with the ship - and a lesser director would have done exactly that.

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  8. Jim, thanks for the review.

    I remember ditching high school to see Star Wars in Westwood. I remember seeing the star destroyer in all its magnificence and realizing my SF dreams were coming true on the screen.

    I'm a big Cameron fan. But he's not a great editor. For example, the missing rape scene in Titanic between Zane and Winslet still drives me nuts every time I see the movie. That said, the man is a demigod of SF-moviedom.

    Also, please don't show disrespect for Babylon 5. It does not belong on your list with SG-1. It is inarguably the most literate and literary SF series ever shown on TV. Period. Big B5 fan, here.

    Anyway, Avatar is on my "must see" list this year.

    hessa = When Germanic mercenaries get upset, they throw a hessa fit.

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  9. Damn you Jim. This wasn't really on my list of "must see" movies. Now I've gotta add it. And go to the trouble of seeing it at the IMAX theater.

    Bastard.
    ------

    anter = a hunter with a distinct lack of ambition and no sense of adventure. Usually pursues his hobby no further than his own backyard.

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  10. Well, crap, now I am going to have to drag the husband to a 3D SF movie. He is NOT a movie kinda guy. And I can't sit upright comfortably for too long. But I suspect that I will be dragging said husband to see this movie in its 3D form. Whether he wants to go or not.

    I saw Star Wars in the theater when I was 10 and I was totally BLOWN AWAY.
    ____________
    tolog = book about toes

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  11. 1 hour and 45 minutes to Avatar 3D IMAX... see ya on the other side of the star jump!

    Dr. Phil

    alayigh -- the cry one makes, presumably, while following a character jumping off a cliff on Pandora in 3D IMAX.

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  12. I want to be Jodie Foster in the worst way. I also remember being 10 and my step-brother taking me to see Star Wars. I can still remember feeling like my head would never be unstuck from that seat at the theater.....Wha? Huh? Wow! Am so looking forward to taking the kids to see Avatar.

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  13. +1 for Jodie Foster.

    I didn't go see Titanic again because of all the "dead bodies" I loved Avatar, and you just reminded me that I have to go again to revel in the scenery.

    Cass_m

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  14. +5 and a box of Junior Mints for Jodie Foster. Yep.

    I remember my dad bringing home a 16mm copy of Forbidden Planet and The Thing (James Arness version) once. And I saw Star Wars on locally broadcast TV the day after it opened in the theater in Fairbanks and just about wet myself. I grabbed all the sci-fi I could after that...

    Now - the $50 Regal gift card I won in a trivia contest is gonna come in handy handy, yes yes.

    Thanks, Jim. :)

    relooki - 'double-take' in Ewok.

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  15. OK - gotta comment again - the next word is:

    Puncesse - Janiece...

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  16. This was the first time that I can remember that I had zero buyers remorse for spending money on a movie ticket, we have a $3 fee on the regular movie cost, and this time, it was worth every frakking penny. I kind of felt after the move that this was it, there was no where else to go, if I never see another movie, that’s ok; my movie experience was now complete. Luckily that only lasted a few minutes, as there is another movie I have to go see, Avatar… again.
    My advice, worth every penny you pay for it, if there is only one movie you ever see, even if it is just for the experience, go see this one.

    tomatie: S&M technique involving rope and tomatos.
    what?

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  17. Confession Time: Star Wars didn't impress me when I first saw it. Maybe it was because I saw it with my family at a drive-in, so we missed out on the intimacy of a walk-in theater. Maybe it was because I wasn't into SF at the time (I dabbled with it a little - Asimov's "It's Such A Beautiful Day" was - and still is - a big favorite). I know a big part of it is I was an 11 year old Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew fan who was sulking that I was missing out on part 2 of an episode where Joe's life was in danger in the cliffhanger (shut up).

    But once I was won over the following year to the SF side by the "Trouble with Tribbles" episode of Star Trek, I was gone, baby. BTW, I wouldn't have watched that had William Schallert - who played Nancy Drew's dad - not been in it.

    Of course, once I lost my head over Peter Cushing, developed a big crush on Harrison Ford and actually performed alongside Mark Hamill's brother in my first play (in 1981), well, I definitely revisited Star Wars.

    You know what? It wasn't half bad. I still prefer Star Trek, but I can see what the big deal was.

    I'm still bummed that Grand Moff Tarkin didn't survive. :(

    crant = a badly timed cramp

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  18. Okay, this just came up for captcha:

    haterout = A GOP round-up.

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  19. Well, I haven't seen the movie yet so I only skimmed this post, don't want to be tainted, BUT...
    I cant help it Jim, they LOOK like over tall smurfs on the previews.

    And don't be hatin' the Stargate franchise!!! Look, we (I) went through a scifi movie DESERT for awhile there and Stargate was my oasis. Maybe my memory is just going to hell on me, but I feel like we had "Serenity" and a couple of half assed Star Trek movies to get us through; and they were spread pretty thin. Sure, we just had "StarTrek", "District 9", "Terminator Salvation" and now "Avatar" so its great, but when it gets dry in the next few months and I need a drink of SciFi I will be turning to "StarGate Universe" for my fix. And yes, I will be wondering "Where the boobs at?"

    But then there's always "Fringe". Oh god, please don't let them cancel "Fringe"! Walter! Not Walter!

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  20. Some very mild spoilage:
    Watched a telling interview with Mr. Lang last night on CNN, it was actually an interesting interview, for an actor, Lang is very well spoken (this from my mother in law who was married to one for 40+ years until his passing back in august). He discussed many of the points brought up in your posting and in the comments and clarified a bit on them. It’s worth watching.

    fulater: I got nothing on this one.

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  21. Hm... I'm not sure how I feel being lumped in with dirty teenagers because I found the story simplistic. The thing is that everyone talks about the visuals of Avatar and I agree that they are game-changing and should be seen on the big screen but, I also think that the story is simplistic and riddled with logic holes. How compelling will that story be in twenty years when the technology is commonplace?

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  22. I'll have to disagree with MRK. I thought the story while simple, was very well crafted. They dropped logic hints early on about some things that could be considered logic holes. And, I could be biased, since this morning I watched a hour long evisceration of Phantom Menace, but sometimes a simple story with great writing and a tidy attention to detail can be SO much more appropriate to the film medium than a convoluted political piece. (Even LotR, with all its epic scope, had the simplicity of Evil vs. Good.)

    I loved it. I wanted to get right back into line and see it again. I didn't watch the 3D version (wouldn't have been able to, since it was sold out) but I definitely want my next time to be 3D. I love Sam Worthington. I liked him a lot in Terminator, but he is solidly in my favorites category now. How he manages to be so accessible is beyond me. The special effects were astounding, but they never took me out of the world that they created. And the animation of the Na'vi, particularly the female lead (can't spell her name for the life of me) was wonderfully done. Little movements in their expressions and motion made them come alive for me.
    I simply loved it. It is a 5 out of 5 for me and I don't have many of those.

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  23. Oooh, forgot to mention (time lapse in there is because I was watching a little "making of" clip about Avatar):

    Keep in mind that the hero of this story is a soldier and that scientists had tried to learn and failed. I think Cameron portrays *an excess* of military as a bad thing, in much the same way an excess of religion can be seen as detrimental. Soldiers (like the one who was John Connor's father) actually come off fairly well. So, while it is a narrative stereotype, he doesn't completely vilify them.

    I hated Titanic for the sole reason that it was ruined by the idiotic love story. Can someone make a spliced together version that is only about the ship and the tragedy? That would be SO much better. (Because, honestly, the ship stuff was great. LdC was horrible. (Yes, I've been told he's great now. Yes, I'll watch The Departed or Blood Diamond sometime soon.))

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  24. Well, didn't get to see Avatar, even with a 4-day weekend to try. Something about nearly every show in Atlanta being sold out (at least at the theaters I could get to). I suspect it will still be around when I get back next week...

    revele - time to wake your ass up and get moving!!

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  25. Jim -- came to read your post from Anne's blog, but only AFTER watching Avatar for myself the other night. I thoroughly enjoyed your post, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this movie (as well as all of the historical sci fi/fantasy tie-ins and especially for addressing the Dances w/ Wolves comparison). :)

    I didn't see Avatar in 3D, but now I think it might be worth the 2 hour drive.

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