Avatar. Wow.

At their best, movies are an escape, an opportunity to experience times and places disparate from one's own life. These adventures can take the audience to a nearby country, or maybe a different era, or even just plant them among a different class of people. Plenty of classics like The Godfather and Casablanca excel by atmospherically yanking the viewer into a world not wholly unfamiliar at the time, then adding a resonant story involving grand and powerful themes.

Good fantasy movies have an inherent ability to enrapture like nothing else, because they create entirely new worlds often set in entirely different times, novelties that are best understood and experienced by fulling giving oneself to the story. Plenty of fantasy movies have failed miserably, and all the money in the world doesn't guarantee that the effects and images will enthrall audiences (The Phantom Menace). When done well however, fantasy is not only for geeks, but for any open-minded person willing to spend a couple hours in a new place. In Avatar, that new place is Pandora, a distant Earth-like moon where humans involved with both science and the military are attempting to learn more about its unique inhabitants and possibilities.

Director/producer James Cameron escalates the built-in fantasy advantage by adding the element of 3-D, which has been used in many movies, but rarely with much success. My goodness, does Cameron ever know how to use 3-D. From the opening shot, one realizes that this is no ordinary film. As the movie continues, the camera maneuvers deftly around rooms, rustles through the brush, floats amidst the trees, and soars between mountains. When used well, good camera movement adds a strong dynamic to traditional shots. Cameron goes beyond that, presenting breath-taking new angles with enhanced perspectives that reach out and envelope the viewer in stunning fashion. There's probably something about wearing 3-D glasses that subconsciously adds to the experience as well. I have never felt as physically connected with a movie.

Words can scarcely describe how enrapturing the visuals are. Their power cannot be overstated. I spent half the movie gasping, wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the countless Did-You-See-That! moments. For most of the drive home, I was shaking my head, in awe of the entirely new world on the planet Pandora. It was like watching the documentary series Planet Earth, but in three dimensions and (believe it or not) with better imagery. Movies often trumpet that they are unlike anything you've ever seen, but Avatar can justifiably say precisely that.

I can count my transcendent cinematic experiences on one hand. By transcendent experience, I mean more than just a great movie. I mean an engrossing movie that thrills the senses. Something so atmospheric that it seems to engage more than merely eyes and ears. Avatar joins the list, as its three dimensions create an almost tactile experience amidst the beautiful flora and fauna of Pandora. Perhaps the greatest compliment is this: the political and environmental subtext is fairly obvious and potentially irksome, but I was so immersed in the spectacular world that I didn't care. That's how I knew Avatar had me.

Overshadowed by the remarkable look and feel of the film is the less groundbreaking story. In one sense, calling it a weakness is an overstatement, because the narrative does its job. It provides a framework to supports the stunning visuals, by tweaking familiar arcs enough to keep them fresh. On the other hand, the story is laced with great themes of love and sacrifice, but lacks the powerful ancillary ideas that might have pushed the film to a more exclusive stratosphere. If the unprecedented visuals were buttressed by a better story, Avatar might have been on an extremely short list of all-time greats. Or perhaps such a potent narrative mind have distracted from the eye-popping pictures. Either way, a week after seeing the film, the unforgettable world lingers and resonates far more than the story.

Bottom Line: I've seen better movies in my life, but I've never had a better cinematic experience than Avatar in IMAX 3-D. 9.5 out of 10.


Nathan Colgate said...

Have you read Avatar = Pocahontas in Space?

Prince of Spades said...

Ha! That's funny. I never saw Pocahantas, so that never occurred to me.