Saturday, December 19, 2009

'Avatar' 3D "Out-of-This-World" Event: Be Prepared to be Blown Away! [Review]

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully and Zoe Saldana as Neytiri in 'Avatar'

Oscar-winning director James Cameron of Titanic and Terminator fame was honored yesterday with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the same day his extraordinary 3D Avatar event, a sci-fi epic thriller, opened in theaters around the world. The immersiveness is a step forward for cinema as a visual experience; the lifelike animation has an expressiveness and a vitality surpassing anything we’ve ever seen. The visual detailing alone warrants repeat viewings.

Director James Cameron received a new star on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, Friday, Dec. 18, 2009
Photo: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

Avatar is all about an evil corporation using USA military to exploit the natural resources of a foreign planet. It delivers a good "green" message.

Avatar is set in 2154 and takes place on the faraway new world called Pandora inhabited by noble savages called Na'vi. With the Earth depleted of energy sources the human race arrives on Pandora with the goal to mine an elusive and criminally profitable mineral at $20 million a kilo, that the Earth desperately needs. Pandora represents no threat to Earth. We send in the military to attack and conquer them with armored hover ships and machine guns, just like modern day politics.

Pandora's atmosphere is not breathable by humans. To venture out on Pandora we use avatars--Na'vi lookalikes grown organically (DNA of humans mixed with Na'vi). The avatar clones are mind-controlled by their humans who remain wired up in a trance-like state in chambers. While acting as avatars, they see, fear, taste and feel like Na'vi.

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully; his avatar in the background

Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully a paraplegic ex-Marine who is recruited to aid the rare mineral mining expedition on the distant jungle moon of Pandora. Only his DNA will bond with the expensive avatar that was created for his recently deceased twin brother. In avatar state he can walk again. The military leader strikes a deal with Sully to infiltrate and betray the Na'vi in exchange for restoring movement to his legs. Sully is in no danger, because if his avatar in destroyed, his human form remains untouched. The only danger is evident when his avatar goes limp and lifeless while he functions outside the chamber, as a human.

Zoe Saldana as Neytiri

Every great epic movie has a love story and complications ensue when Sully falls in love with the beautiful, seductive Neytiri played by Zoe Saldana. There are many Na'vi clans scattered around Pandora, but the one Sully comes to know is the Omaticaya Clan, who have lived inside of the 1000 foot tall Hometree for 10,000 years. The Omaticaya clan uses the different tiers of the tree's interior structure as their village. The Na’vi and the humans clash and Sully is forced to choose which side of the battle he’s on.

Zoe Saldana as Neytiri
(no this isn't Beyonce and her new look)

Giovanni Ribisi plays Parker Selfridge a heartless corporate type whose only loyalty is to the shareholders of the elusive mineral found on the Na'vi's scared grounds of Pandora. Sigourney "cigarette" Weaver plays Dr. Grace Augustine a fiery, impatient, chain-smoking botanist.

Giovanni Ribisi and Sigourney Weaver in a scene from Avatar

Stephen Lang embodies the macho military leader Col. Miles Quaritch. His overacting and cliche dialogue kicked me right out of Pandora a few times. I would have loved to see Col. Quaritch portrayed as a deliciously, wicked, immoral and evil military character comparable to Col. Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, who is played by multi-award winning Austrian actor Christop Waltz.

Stephen Lang as Col. Miles Quaritch

Pandora harbors a visually stunning, luscious, exotic never-before-experienced tropical rainforest inhabited peacefully by the Na'vi, a blue-skinned, golden-eyed race of 10 feet tall slender giants. The rainforest resembles a giant coral reef with trees measuring over one thousand feet, with giant ferns, fronds and mountains that somehow float. It lights up magically at night with a plethora of flourescent rainbow colored flora. A gentle tap on a giant neon spiral frond closes it and shrinks it to the ground. A smaller and gentler Pandoran species is the jellyfish-like Woodsprite, which waves silky tendrils to move gracefully through the night air. Called Atokirina by the Na'vi, they are actually seeds of the sacred Utraya Mokri "Tree of Voices," and thus an important part of the "soul" of the rainforest. When they land upon Sully, Neytiri interprets this as an important sign, and things take an unexpected turn.

Pandora's floating mountains

Pandora's diverse fauna menagerie includes the deer-like Hexapede; the ferocious Hammerhead Titanothere, a rhinoceros-like herbivore with a bad attitude and a head like a sledgehammer; and the Leonopteryx, the king predator of the sky, striped scarlet, yellow and black, with an 80-foot wingspan. The most fearsome of Pandoran creatures is the Thanator. "The Thanator could eat a T-Rex and have the Alien for dessert. It's the "panther from hell". Then there are the Viperwolves, hairless with shiny skin that looks like overlapped armor. Most disturbing are its paws, which are like leathery hands. Pandora's Direhorses resemble six-legged alien Clydesdale with moth-like antennae.

A winged creature known as the Banshee is a key figure in Sully's journey; in a Na'vi rite of passage, he must dominate and ride a banshee to assume a rightful position in the clan community. The test's stakes are further heightened by the fact that the banshee that most wants to kill him is the "chosen one" he must capture.
Pandora's many wonders include the world's neural network, through which all its plant and animal life are connected. Akin to a human nervous system, this network enables all life on Pandora to function as a single harmonious system. The center of this network - and the moon's heart and brain -is a massive, gnarled and ancient willow tree that is the Na'vi epicenter, an extension of their lifeblood, and a place of regeneration and knowledge. This "Tree of Souls" is situated at the center of Pandora's most powerful magnetic field, the Flux Vortex. Eons ago the invisible field created the unusual geological formations of arches that form rainbows of stone, above a deep caldera, with the Tree of Souls at its center.

Watch an awesome Pandora Featurette titled "Welcome to Pandora - a video introduction" narrated by Sigourney Weaver. It will blow you away!

Eric Saindon a visual effects supervisor for Weta Digital in New Zealand, said the scale of Avatar was the most challenging part. “There were so many shots and so much to do in this,” Saindon said. “It was pretty much a full-generated jungle and planet, basically. And we had three years to do it.” About 10 years ago Saindon landed his job at Weta Digital, the special effects brainchild of a group of New Zealanders including director Peter Jackson. Weta Digital just began work on Stephen Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, and the crew also plans to return to Middle Earth with Guillermo Del Toro’s The Hobbit.

The movie showcases a notable advance for performance capture, which is how the Na'vi were created. As was done with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong in King Kong, the Na'vi were made with cameras and sensors recording the movements of the actors and transposing them onto the CGI Na'vi creatures. All newfangled 3-D has ways of capturing the movement of the actors, the shape of the faces, but Cameron went much further. His process, solved the problems of dead eyes.

"Jim actually used the pupil of the eye as a tracking point, and he's able to track all of the subtleties and high frequency movement of the eyes," producer Jon Landau said. "He was even able to record and reproduce the moisture level on the surface of the eye, a key to conveying emotion."

Cameron's technology captures the actor's facial performance - it's not a computer model of a static face manipulated by animators. Other directors have bragged that their computer modeling technology may replace actors, but Cameron has no such goal. "We're enabling them to play characters they would not otherwise play," Landau said.

He offered the example of a young actor playing an old man. The reason it usually looks so phony, he said, is that makeup artists can only add layers. They can't shrink a face, which is what happens when a person ages. Cameron's facial mapping can capture a face and resize it, even as animators tweak the skin composition.

An actor can be realistically old, or he can be a 10-foot-tall blue alien, like the ones Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana play in "Avatar." "We're not replacing actors," Landau said. "We're liberating them."

Avatar's stunning visuals deliver! The 3-D world he created cost $230 million, the kind of investment that studios usually expect to be repaid, with interest. A sequel is rumored. It would be far less expensive to produce. All of the complex computer models, the entire roster of characters, are alive in some hard drive in New Zealand, waiting for marching orders. Cameron's sequel will no doubt focus on further character development and more on the story itself now that the characters and 3-D technology have been perfected.

Avatar is an extraordinary movie with the essence of love, family, relationship, humanity, action, and adventure. It is destined to become a cult classic much like that of Lord of the Rings. The out-of-this-world Pandora adventure totally immerses and captivates for an entire 2 hours and 40 minutes. James Horner's sumptuous score takes the mystical and spiritual experience to a whole new level. Be prepared to leave the theater awestruck, bedazzled, and mesmerized. A truly unforgettable jaw-dropping trip!

Bravo James... we can hardly wait for the sequel!

MPAA rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking. Rated 4.5 stars (out of 5)

Visit the official Avatar site.
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