Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Revisiting The Classics: Avatar

I saw Avatar in 3D in the theater and was blown away, of course, but I was curious to see what the movie might be like in 2D. I'd heard the colors were brighter and I wanted to know how the experience changed. I got the movie from Netflix a few weeks ago, but let it sit on top of the TV the whole time. It takes some commitment to give two hours and forty minutes, but I also had in the back of my mind that the movie might not hold up on a smaller screen. If the whole point of the movie was the experience, I'd probably be disappointed and it would taint my original viewing.

Finally, tonight, I had enough time and I was sufficiently motivated to get any kind of value on my Netflix membership, Watch Instantly aside, that I popped in Avatar and sat back to watch it more critically. No 3D to blow me away, I know the plot so I know what's coming, I have the ability to pause or rewind a little. So, did it hold up? Absolutely.

The plot is better than people made it out to be -- what isn't derivative? -- and the performances are pretty good. It's essentially a fairy tale, so the dialogue flirts with cheesy at times, but manages to escape going all the way. The action sequences, which make up pretty much the last hour of the movie, are really exciting. There's nothing wrong, especially in a fairy tale, with black-and-white good guys and bad guys and it makes rooting easy. The most important thing is that the script and the acting don't get in the way of the technology.

I think I could watch the movie a hundred times and still be dumbfounded by the technical achievement. The effects are so realistic down to the smallest details (my wife pointed out the embers falling when the Home Tree is destroyed) that, even on the small screen, the movie looks like nothing else I've ever seen. The motion capture is amazing to the point that the acting might even be better among the Na'vi than among the humans. The most striking thing is how Cameron was able to achieve what he did with 3D. When you can look around the screen without focusing on the action, you notice that almost every shot has real depth to it. Everything either takes place in a big room with the action in the extreme foreground or background or in a space in the forest where there is a clearing or the trees are way in the background. This lends so much of a grand scale to pretty much every scene that it feels like 3D even without the glasses. As every movie comes out in 3D, Avatar makes it glaringly obvious that movies not specifically shot for 3D will never approach any kind of value in that medium. They can charge extra to see The Last Airbender to make a decent amount of money, but there's a reason that Avatar has made well over double what, say, Alice in Wonderland has made. Some people will pay to see anything, but people know quality.

I'm happy I saw the movie again, happy enough that I'm thinking about buying the movie, and I'm not joking with the title of this post -- Avatar is a classic. It has revolutionized the experience of seeing movies in the theater. It will be very interesting to see what movies will build on Cameron's work and how that will look. It will be even more interesting to see how Cameron tops himself when Avatar 2 eventually comes out.

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