Sam Worthington

Avatar

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James Cameron has always been an innovator. Whether it’s defining the gold standard for a female action lead or designing cameras and processes to make the exact film he is envisioning, Cameron is a technical wizard. Match his attention to detail and his creativity with the peerless effects and design team at Weta, and you make art.

Does the story lives up to its presentation? No, but only because the presentation is exceptional. It’s an age-old fable of invading force, underestimating the natives, and being powerless to destroy them once they know them. Our history is clogged with stories like this. It’s got a love story that grows organically from the story’s plot points rather than being a plot point wedged into something else. I might blaspheme here and suggest that the Titanic love story was much more unlikely. It has hellzapopping effects, and I don’t just mean nice blowy-uppy. I mean it’s a rich, textured, fully-realized world that you want to visit, that you feel like you can visit.

Sure, it’s got a little hitting over the head of the message; no matter how loudly this particular message is repeated over the millennia of human history, it is still not heeded, so one can’t blame Cameron for laying it on a little thick. The best sci-fi is that which uses far away times and places to comment on our won existence, and Avatar definitely qualifies. In a moviegoing universe bereft of original new stories (stuffed with sequels, adaptations, and toy movies) Avatar and District 9 (and Up) stand above just for having the gall to be new. While District 9 has the stronger narrative, Avatar has the more fully realized reality. Avatar’s first appeal is going to be the experience of watching it, so I’ll not tarry further.

I’ve complained more than a few times in reviews about the “uncanny valley” or what I call “creepy valley.” I’m standing before you to declare that Avatar has no uncanny valley. Seriously. Remember your amazement at the water tentacle in the Abyss? Remember the photorealism of the Titanic sinking into the briny deep? Remember how those effects served their story rather than be the point — and how those were both directed by James Cameron? Avatar has surpassed even Lord of The Ring’s Gollum in making performance capture seamless. We are really watching Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana and Joel Moore give their full and committed performances in the bodies of the planetary natives, the Na’vi. Every small mouth movement (long the bane of motion capture techs) is — well, it’s real. Pandora, the world we humans are preparing to despoil, is real. Even with extensive understanding of CGI filmmaking in terms of practical objects and virtual spaces, you fully believe that you are immersed in a real place.

Worthington is a perfect balance of hero/soldier and boyish neophyte. Weaver draws on her Dian Fossey history even more than her Ellen Ripley experience. Saldana moves like an arboreal dancer, contrasting the powers of her alien upbringing with Worthington’s shriveled earthbound legs and making Neytiri relatable and strange in every movement — and she helps us recognize the difference between real and avatar Na’vi. These actors are of course perfectly capable of giving these performances in person — but to get across as much as they do while pulled into the semblance of a ten-foot blue cat-monkey-warrior is amazing.

Which brings me to the 3-D. Yes, cough it up for the 3-D. My experience with both formats when watching the movie Up is that Real D (check your local listings) is simply much less effective than Dolby or Disney’s 3D. Perhaps I will get into trouble with some theatre chains, but Real D just can’t handle dynamic movement without blurring, and it lacks the depth that Pandora needs. Pandora is a beautiful place, with logical interrelationships between species — you could probably work out their entire evolutionary scale from the specimens represented. Deeper connections in this alien biosphere are key to the plot and to appreciating the allure of the Na’vi. The grandeur of the landscape is served by the understated-but-still-clearly-James-Horner score.

The production’s approach to Pandora is reverent, which might feel forced to a skeptic. However, it is clear that the deep investment of time and care on this film inspires reverence. It may be the most expensive labor of love ever produced, being 15 years in the making as Cameron waited for the technology to catch up to the story he wanted to tell. The Na’vi consider seeing, in the sense of grok or ken, to be fundamental in tribal life and in navigating Pandora. If you allow yourself to see Avatar as it was meant (instead of bringing in Titanic baggage or waiting for DVD), you will love it as I did. Yes, he did put a stupid song at the beginning of the end credits — he just needed one more box to check on his Oscar bingo card. See it for the visuals, enjoy it for the acting, and appreciate it for its intent. I can’t wait to go there again.

MPAA PG-13

Release date 12/18/09

Time in minutes 160

Director James Cameron

Studio 20th Century Fox

Terminator Salvation

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I will not apologize for giving this movie a strong Matinee with Snacks rating. I came out of it all pumped and gleeful and satisfied, and if anyone wants much more than that from a Terminator movie, well, it also has some freaking great sequences and effects.

When I think of director McG, I think of the Charlie’s Angels movies and the pilot of the beloved TV show Chuck (PS watch it!). Action with a hearty dose of sexy and laugher, a little tinge of Michael Bay overthetoptitude, without going overboard. In Terminator; Salvation, McG exhibits a much more sophisticated, dark, and hard-core sensibility. This is the movie 1980’s James Cameron and Paul Verhoeven would have been afraid to make because it’s too dark and fervent (yet miraculously, PG-13). At different times I was reminded, possibly on purpose, of Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, and I Am Legend (well, the good first part).

It’s 2018. John Connor (previously played by Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, Thomas Dekker, and briefly Michael Edwards: told you we had seen older John!) is now about 33 (hm…age of Jesus at the time of his crucifixion) and he’s the de facto icon of the Resistance, fighting Skynet’s self-aware network of malevolent killing machines. So, we know he met the Arnold Schwartzenegger model (T-800) and the groovy morphing T-1000 when he was a teenager, but that model is not yet in use during the time of this movie. If you can get past that vexing discontinuity (we’ll forgive all forgetfulness of T3’s 20-something John and the foxy T-X), you will have no problem with this movie. Christian Bale is intense-screaming mode, violent and impatient and furiously focused. Rarely do off-camera antics float into view when watching a movie, but you can pretty easily visualize Mr. Intensity jumping all over a crew member if he had to sustain this level of vein-popping energy for so much of filming. He’s got to have an ulcer the size of Los Angeles.

Salvation concerns itself with keeping the timeline on track: If Kyle Reese (1984’s Michael Biehn) dies, Furlong and Bale and Stahl never get born. It’s taken as read that this would be immeasurably disastrous since Connor is the salvation (get it?) of the human race — but, spoiler alert, we don’t get to see that in this movie. If Connor wasn’t forearmed with this knowledge, he would have screwed his own pooch but good. Fate, destiny, saving the future to preserve the past, which saves the future, etc. I’m glad to live in a time when this narrative trope is actually so common — saves a lot of time. Imagine Groucho Marx explaining this to his fans.

This story shares focus (It takes too much, I think) with a more interesting storyline, which isn’t Connor wrestling with his destiny. It’s the story of Sam Worthington’s ex — well, late — convict Marcus Wright. He plays a role so pivotal and so much more fate-y and salvationey and redemptiveish than Connor that Bale’s screaming exhortations fade into the apocalyptic background. With this unexpected (though preview-spoiled) psychological terpsichore of irony and redemption, we also get some serious woo-hoo summer movie action, complete with big, solid score, crazy awesome camera work, and exciting sound design. If you get the right seat in the theatre (you really must see this in the theatre), you may explode with the viscerality of it all.

We get a few fan morsels tossed at us with equal aplomb as Star Trek’s integrated moments — winks from the earlier movies that tip the cap without ruining the moment. My favorite was a nod to1984 and the 1984 Macintosh ad, which was too evocative not to be an homage. Very McG. The machines in this movie are improbably stealthy and stationed in strange places, but the ass-kickeryness of it all forgives these minor shrugs. A scene in a lake starts out epic and ends up a little silly, but it felt necessary to keep things hopping.

I wanted to see it again, and did! This may be the first movie since Tropic Thunder where I wanted to ride it again: it’s hard-core, relentless, and surprisingly bloodless. It’s pretty scary and the photography is sometimes so immediate that I would not take anyone too young to it, but I would definitely go with all my friends. It’s a worthy cap to the franchise; like Star Trek, a reboot to be proud of (and end the series on!) rather than a franchise over-extender. Unlike Star Trek’s rosy, lovey-dovey adventure with a dash of comedy, Terminator Salvation is all business, and all enjoyable.

This may sound a little familiar but it’s as true now as it was then: Please, Warner Brothers, don’t succumb to the temptation to push this perfectly restored old classic into the molten steel. Again. And you other studios: this was an exception that proves the rule. Prequels of old franchises are to be discouraged. This is an anomaly in the space-movie continuum.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/21/09
Time in minutes 130
Director McG
Studio Warner Brothers