Friday, December 18, 2009

White Christmas, Blue People

Avatar. Believe the hype. Well, mostly.

I went to the opening night in Leicester Square last night with writer chums Sarwat Chadda and Jon Mayhew and had a hugely enjoyable three hours. As the curtains opened there were whoops and cheers and people applauded. The palpable ripple of excitement took me back to 1977 when, as a hairy and unfashionable 16 year old, I accidentally saw Star Wars in its opening week. Myself and a couple of mates had travelled up from our native Cornwall to see Genesis headlining at Knebworth, a country house north of London. Yes, I did say Genesis. It was 1977. And I was, remember, unfashionable. While punk rockers gobbed and pogoed in London, we in the westcountry were still listening to prog rock and being barred by our Methodist-dominated county council from seeing the heretic Monty Python's Life of Brian. Anyhow, we'd come into London for a look around before heading off to Hertfordshire and rolled up in Leicester Square. Having only experienced the musty joys of the tiny Flora Cinema in Helston and Penzance's Savoy (known locally as the Savaloy due to ... no never mind), the idea of a giant screen and stereo surround-sound was pretty appealing. But what to see? The choices, as I recall, included Kramer versus Kramer and Smokey and the Bandit. And some new thing called Star Wars that had the biggest queue. So we joined that queue and became some of the first people in Cornwall to see arguably the most influential film (and shoddiest dialogue) ever committed to celluloid.

Avatar isn't in the same league, sadly. Despite the huge build up and media frenzy, it wasn't as impactful as Star Wars. George Lucas and crew broke whole new ground. James Cameron has merely provided us with a much better pair of shoes to walk the existing ground in. But they are pretty amazing shoes. From the opening shots of a starship approaching the planet Pandora to the closing shots of ... no I won't spoil it for you ... it's a crystal-clear, utterly extraordinary riot of colour and sound.

The film was made using some kind of new 3D camera technology and it shows. I've seen a few 3D films and this was much more impressive. Saying that, it's never obvious or obtrusive; there's no one batting a red ball on elastic at you or people pointing a stick deliberately at camera. The only two-dimensional aspect of the film are the space marines who seemed to have been lifted directly out of Cameron's Aliens. Their leader, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is a passable doppelganger for Small Soldiers' Chip Hazard. And the inevitable greedy corporate boss Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is even worse having just one dimension. Saying that, these are just the background characters and good performances are forthcoming from stars Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Joel David Moore and Michelle Rodriguez.

But there are other actors in this film too; other actors you never see in human form. And, as mad as it sounds, they put in some great performances too even though they are composed entirely of light. As the film's title suggests, human minds can be made to control other bodies; in this case, the genetically engineered part-human, part-alien bodies of giant blue humanoids called Na'Vi. Worthington's character is a paraplegic marine who, when plugged into the appropriate machine, inhabits a fully-functional alien body and learns to be Na'Vi. And this is where the film gets really clever because Worthington, Moore and Weaver spend the greater proportion of their screen time as Na'Vi yet their alien avatars look and act just like them. Here's the Weaver alien:

It's CGI like you've never seen it before. It makes The Lord of the Rings' Golum look as advanced as Morph. The Na'Vi are completely believable as characters and Zoe Saldana's female lead Neytiri conveys every emotion and nuance that you'd expect from a human actor. Yes, I realise that Saldana's acting was mapped onto the CGI character but the eyes are huge, cat-like and completely computer generated yet they are utterly convincing.

Likewise the lush jungle landscape of Pandora is deliciously realised and even better for being in 3D. The alien wildlife is spectacular (designed by the amazing Wayne D Barlowe - one of my arty heroes). One sadness was not seeing any mention of Brit album cover artist Roger Dean in the credits. Some of the landscapes, most notably the glade of the sacred tree and the floating mountains, are photographic versions of some of his paintings and I looked to see his name in the credits. I didn't see it.

Ignore the hyperbole. Avatar isn't the 'next big step in the history of film making'. and yes, it is Dances with wolves in space with giant Smurfs. But it is the most visually stunning film you'll have seen in 20 years and it does set a very high bar for CGI for the next few years. Go and see it. You won't be sorry.

Now, talking of lush, humid jungle landscapes ...

I caught the train out of London at 11.10pm and was told at Marylebone that a heavy snow front had descended on my part of Buckinghamshire - the Chiltern Hills. That didn't quite prepare me for the reality of 5-6 inches of snow overnight. Nor did it prepare me for the fact that when I got to High Wycombe station, all of the roads were impassable - even the main ones - and there was no way to get home other than to walk 3 1/2 miles up a steep hill through a blizzard (see above on camera phone).

It took me an hour and the snow didn't let up at all during the entire slow trudge. Nor did the strong, icy winds that froze my extremities and demolished my £5 umbrella. That'll teach me to be seasonally Scrooge-like. The snow came up to my lower shins and I was soaked through but I eventually got home and into a warm bed. And this is what I saw upon waking today:

Sadly, it'll all be gone in a day or two and Christmas will undoubtedly be dull and rainy. Still, nice for the kids today. And it's the closest thing to a white Christmas that we've had in years.


Angela Montague said...

Thanks for the Avatar review, we are definately going to see it but not sure about taking our 6 year old. She's OK with scary and would love the female warrior character as she's a commited tom boy, but can she last the three hours!

My other half (@ashog on Twitter) creates commercial 3D graphics for a living and is very passionate that the technology is not dismissed as just a gimmick. Think UP and, so it seems, Avatar have done a great deal to silence such arguments. Will point him in the direction of this!

Protege said...

Hello Stevyn, long time no see.;) We have snow too and it is also suppose to be gone by Christmas in some parts at least.;)
Loved your review of Avatar.
I am wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,

Stevyn Colgan said...

Angela - There's nothing hugely scary for kids in it ... but three hours is a long time and they might jump at some of the better 3D moments! Yes, it is a great advert for the fact that CGI isn't just a gimmick. I remember John Lasseter saying (just after the release of 'Toy Story' that there would be a new Marilyn Monroe film in his lifetime. I kind of believe that now.

Protege - Hello! And thanks for the kind wishes! Have a great holiday yourself. xx