The AVATAR 3D Movie

2010 January 5

     After ignoring just about everything out of Hollywood for a long time, the Avatar 3D movie was just too tempting. I'm a stereoscopic-3D hound with red-green "anaglyph" glasses sitting next to my computer monitor and I still get the newsletter of the Atlanta Stereoscopic Association. I was not disappointed.

     Without spoiling the plot any more than the movie trailers and web site already do, I'll point out this plot is Star Wars Ewoks meet Pocahontas in computer-generated 3D. The humans trying to mine valuable minerals on Pandora, an alien world with air we can't breathe, run into the native Na'vi people, so they communicate by mental connection to human-Na'vi DNA hybrids called "avatars." The Na'vi are slender blue humanoids about 2.5 meters (eight feet) tall with wonderfully-expressive, broad-nose faces. They are nature-loving, noble, primitive people and incredibly sexy, by the way. The conflict boils down to idiot military leaders who decide the best way to mine the minerals is by military force while the scientists realize there's more in Pandora's ecology than beneath its surface.

     The story has unity in a way too many movies flagrantly lack, especially recent ones.

     Suspension of disbelief: Every story, especially a fantasy or science-fiction story, requires the audience to suspend disbelief for some parts. These eight foot two, solid blue aliens share our DNA coding, our facial expressions, our emotions (to the point of tears), our love of nature and ecology, our sense of adventure and pride, and enough of our brain function that we can form brain-to-brain links with these alien creatures. Pandora has enormous trees that span miles and miles and islands that float in the sky. Once we accept all that, the movie stays within those parameters. That's part of good fantasy.

Arne Hückelheim photo
     Consistency: The rules stay with us throughout the story, even the rules of life and death. When her father or his boss dies, we mourn and they stay dead. There's no magic "Fillet Shyo" ceremony that brings them back to life because we didn't really mean for them to die. (I'm thinking of Spock dying with all the fanfare and tears and then coming back to life in some ancient Vulcan ritual.) The stakes of the plot line are consistent and consequential.

     Plot unity: The art of good drama is to introduce plot elements that will be meaningful and useful later without making it into an obvious gimmick. I find Dean Koontz a true master of that art, the guy who's afraid of heights ends up having to scale the outside of a building on a snowy night to save the day. The Star-Trek-spoof movie "GalaxyQuest" has to introduce a television show with its lore so its references are meaningful later. When we're told only five Na'vi have ever ridden the big red bird-dragon-creature (everybody rides the smaller green ones), we can figure the big, red bird-thing is going to be important later on, and it is. When the human scientists realize the trees form a gigantic brain-like network, we can figure the non-humanoid nature of Pandora is going to show some greater common intelligence, and it does. When the Na'vi try to save a human using tendrils from the Tree of Souls in a scene from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," we suspect this soul-transfer technique will be used again, and it is. Still, even with this foreshadowing, the plot maintains surprise, climax, tension, and ultimate joy.

     Alternate ending: Wouldn't it have been a better, happier ending more faithful to traditional American values to have the human scientists and Na'vi natives figure out a way for the humans to mine their wonderfully-expensive minerals in a colony somewhere on Pandora that doesn't disturb the fragile and wonderful ecology of the rest of the planet? It would have been a good moral to the story that the military attitude of conquest fails while a business-style negotiation creates harmony and peace. Does Hollywood have to be anti-business, anti-prosperity, and anti-human all the time?

     The technology serves the movie well. The computer animation is gorgeous in many ways and the stereo-3D is used to enhance the experience rather than just as a gimmick.

     The characters move in human-expressive ways in their emotional passion and their general movements. Facial expressions come across as human even on these obviously-non-human faces, a major feat in any animation. Think of how hard it must have been to put embarrassment, fear, and joy on the faces of Bugs Bunny or Porky Pig and compound that with these moving three-dimensional, perspective figures in rapid conversation. They did it well.

     The adventure-hiking scenes where the avatars walk along narrow pathways with drop-offs on both sides and climb steep ascents remind me of the fear I have when I hike scary places like Zion's Angels Landing. Evoking that fear-of-falling emotion in a movie isn't that hard—the Star Wars films do it all over the place—but giving my hiker's fear of movement and fear of falling in movement in animation made this a wonderful experience.

     The flying scenes are terrific. I'm an airplane pilot, so I love flying anyway, but there's something ever-so-much-more-so about flying on the back of a winged beast, at one with an airborne steed, doing loops and steep turns and all kinds of stunts in the sky.

     3D movies are a great gimmick, no doubt about it. When red-green-anaglyph 3D movies were the rage, there were even parodies of them. My favorite, part one and part two, was a Three Stooges episode where everything was right at the camera, so when a knife was hurled at Larry it flew right at the camera out of the screen and the pies thrown went straight into the camera out of the screen. The 3D movie "Parasite" with Demi Moore made sure to have the scary stuff come out of the screen.

     In Avatar, the third dimension was used generously but appropriately. Sure, things came out of the screen at us, but it wasn't the center of attention. Alien milkweed seeds floated up and out at us and the occasional gun was pointed out our way, but mostly the third dimension was used to heighten the sense of reality. Hey, isn't that what it's supposed to do?

     Is this a better movie than the new Star Trek movie? In terms of plot and character, maybe not. But rather than raise expectations it cannot fill, this movie makes fewer promises and keeps them well. I walked into the theater expecting a 3D cartoon movie, maybe "Toy Story" with more-advanced computer animation, and got an emotive and breathtaking experience.

     What's that wag review? "You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll kiss ten bucks goodbye." Well, "Avatar" in 3D is a worthwhile use of your ten bucks and three hours of your afternoon. At least I thought so.




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