I have always enjoyed science fiction and fantasy movies, but I never became obsessed with them. I saw Star Wars for the first time on VHS on a 20″ television in the late 1980’s. I thoroughly enjoyed the Star Wars trilogy and I went to a midnight showing of Star Wars: Phantom Menace eagerly anticipating another fine example of Hollywood escapism. I enjoyed the movie but I only saw it once in the theater. I liked the fantasy movies The Never Ending Story and Labyrinth. I thought the Lord of the Rings trilogy was superb. You’d think I would be predisposed to loving James Cameron’s Avatar. When I saw the trailer I laughed at the blue aliens. I couldn’t quite understand the “remotely controlled bodies called Avatars…grown from human DNA mixed with DNA of the natives.” More often than not big budget special effects extravaganzas disappoint me. Most movies do not live up to their hype, especially movies with entirely computer-generated characters that are meant to be realistic. Pixar has done a consistently good job of animating people in a way that is a little cartoony but emotionally expressive. Pixar understands that it is more important to convey emotion than to attempt to mimic the human face in a pseudo-realistic way. I had high hopes for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Polar Express, but they still hadn’t quite successfully created realistic CG people. The characters in those movies unfortunately fell into the Uncanny Valley.
After seeing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and the giant gorilla in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, I began to feel optimistic again. But I had no idea what was in store for me in Avatar. From the moment Jake Sully inhabits his Avatar to the end credits my eyes were glued on the 9 foot tall Na’vi people and their beautiful planet Pandora. Every time the movie cut back to the humans I was a little disappointed. It was as if I was watching the Wizard of Oz that had been intercut with scenes from Kansas. I was filled with so much wonder that I told myself while the movie was still playing that I had to buy the DVD as soon as it was available. The great thing about the Na’vi being computer generated is that the actor’s facial expressions are not hindered by latex prosthetics and colored contact lenses. I didn’t think about the actors having to sit in the makeup chair for two hours every morning before filming started. The people on the screen were the Na’vi. As the actors moved through the jungles of the planet Pandora I didn’t think to myself, “I wonder if this was filmed in Hawaii or Costa Rica” because every twig and leaf was created in a computer specifically for the movie. In essence it was filmed on location in Pandora.
Because every rock, waterfall and living thing on Pandora is so realistic the movie messed with my head. I found myself getting sucked in because I knew that I wasn’t looking at Styrofoam props, matte paintings or people in makeup. The result is a kind of exhilaration I haven’t felt watching any other movie. The Indian director Ram Gopal Varma says it well, “Avatar is by far one of the best films I’ve seen in my life. James Cameron is God. In fact, he’s gone a step ahead of God by building a world that even God couldn’t imagine. After watching Avatar I felt I belong to a primitive filmmaking world.” [from Indiatimes.com]