Courtesy of Panasonic UK, AVForums was invited to a pre-release screening of James Cameron's latest epic 'Avatar' at Twentieth Century Fox HQ in London's West End. In a totally digital presentation, the movie looked pristine (as it should) - projected in the 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio on a 20 foot screen via a 2k projector with audio fed through a Dolby CP-650 processor handling Dolby Digital 6.1 surround sound. The opulence of the Twentieth Century Theatre, complete with comfy leather seats, soon made me forget the snow falling outside.
Putting on the Dolby 3D spectacles, we were treated to a much hyped movie that has been 10 years in the making and rumoured to have cost in excess of $300 million.
Any movie that has had the build up that 'Avatar' has will almost certainly have accumulated a mass of expectations for Sci-Fi and Fantasy fans as well as the general public. No pressure, Mr Cameron!
So what's it all about?
'Avatar' tells the tale of paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who is chosen to infiltrate the peaceful Na'vi people of the world of Pandora. The Na'vi are 8 feet tall, pale blue in colour and with yellow eyes. I don't know why, but somehow they reminded me of the creatures in 'Fern Gully'. Now, for those of us who've been exploring the upper reaches of the Zambezi River for the last year or so, an avatar is a Na'vi look-alike that has been grown organically then mind melded with a human 'driver'. The driver remains in a comatose state in a lab while the avatar cavorts around on Pandora. One benefit of this is that the atmosphere on Pandora is unbreathable for humans and the other is that it helps gain acceptance by the locals.
So far so good, it all seems quite logical. But why is he really there? Well, the Na'vi people are sitting on a massive quantity of a rare metallic ore called 'Unobtainium'. I really wish they'd chosen another name for it as my disbelief chip kicked in and I expected the crew of 'Red Dwarf' to appear to continue the comedy. They could have called it anything but that and made it work.
So the Na'vi have it and the humans want it. Jake is tasked with finding out what they want for it or, failing that, to gather enough intelligence to bomb the living daylights out of them and take it by force. At this point, I felt that we were witnessing the plight of the Native American Indian all over again and then we had a 'green' message about the destruction of natural habitats to take into account.
So Jake gets used to his avatar body and the new world he finds himself in, aided by Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana). He gets into a few scrapes and learns from his experiences. Quite naturally, he falls in love with Neytiri and this is a bit of a nuisance for the gung ho human in charge of the military operation, Colonel Miles Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang) who can't have one of his boys going native on him.
So when the softly softly approach gets nowhere, the Colonel goes in guns blazing - or rather helicopter gunships firing rockets and dropping explosives. Eventually Jake has to choose sides.
So will the Na'vi be wiped out and will the world of Pandora become just another mining colony? I'd suggest that you get along to your nearest 3D equipped cinema and find out.
The 3D in 'Avatar' is the most accomplished I've seen to date. No longer do we have people who look like cardboard cut-outs standing out from a flat background. There is a more rounded, shaded, true dimensionality to the characters and the environments they inhabit. So much so that you soon begin to take it for granted as it's quite natural looking. There's no attempt to be gimmicky with the 3D as the studios did in the 1950's with the old red/green anaglyphic system. Nobody plays with a yo-yo and no spears are thrown into the audience for effects sake. A few times my eyes went out of focus, caused by objects in the foreground being out of focus due to depth of field but those were few and far between. I also have to admit that after 162 minutes of 3D, my eyes did feel somewhat tired.
As for the look of the film, it is truly stunning and imaginative. The sometimes iridescent colours of the vegetation produce a glow that I have never seen on a cinema screen before. We start off in the human world with human actors, but when we arrive on Pandora everything is CGI. The forest, the Na'vi and the flying horse/dragon creatures they bond with. Interestingly there is enough magic in the story to suspend our disbelief and the sheer quality of the artwork is beautiful to behold. It works!
A movie of this kind is never going to be an actor's picture. It all hangs on the believability of the animation, much in the same way as the films of Ray Harryhausen did in their day. All the same, Sam Worthington turns in a credible performance as Jake Sully for the relatively short time he is on screen, while Sigourney Weaver works well as Dr Grace Augustine - who also has an avatar down on Pandora that looks spookily like her. Stephen Lang as the high octane Colonel Miles Quaritch is entirely macho in his performance, but did he really have to say “We'll fight terror with terror”? Maybe Jim Cameron wanted to include an American/Afghan message as well.
So we have a message movie here, but does it entertain?
It's very hard to make something educational or to convey a serious message without sucking all the oxygen out of a room, but James Cameron seems to succeed on both counts.
The action is fast paced here, cut at breakneck speed and the scenes come thick and fast throughout the movie in one shape or another. Sometimes the action on screen was so tightly shot and edited that I found it hard to see what was happening but overall there was the impression of a lot going on.
James Horner's driving score helped keep the film moving along with some real bass slam when required. The Dolby Digital 6.1 surround track featured very accurate sound steering and you could almost feel the draught from the wings of the Na'vi flying creatures as they entered or exited frame. Explosions had some real bass kick, but not in a way that pounded you in the chest. It was a more tightly controlled sound wave that shook the floor and chair. Dialogue was kept amazingly crisp, clear and locked to the screen.
To sum up what I'm saying in a few words - the action scenes really rock!
We have the best of digital technology, both in terms of audio and visual components to be enjoyed in a massive, blockbuster movie.
Go see it yourself though, don't send your avatar.
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