There is a concept in video games, robots, and digital media in general known as “the uncanny valley,” which states that as facsimiles of humans get closer to looking like actual humans, people revile them. When I think about movies like “The Polar Express,” where you know you’re looking at Tom Hanks, but his mouth isn’t moving quite right, or isn’t wincing just right, you can tell. You know that it’s him, but the mannerisms just don’t connect and it draws you away from the overall experience: you are fully aware that you are watching a digital film, and not reality.
Thus, “Avatar,” seeks to change all that, and in many, many ways, it succeeds.
The story centers around a dystopian future where the resources of Earth are dwindling and more are needed. The distant planet, Pandora, has a valuable mineral Earth needs, but of course, much of the planet must be strip-mined to get it, disrupting all the native life on the planet. The Na’vi, a peaceful race of blue humanoids are “in tune” with all of nature on the planet, so humans have tried to communicate and reason with them in order to move them to other locations in an effort to get the mineral. Of course, as humans tend to do, they get impatient and decide to go the “forced relocation” route, a la American Indians, amongst other populations throughout history. The “avatars” themselves are human/alien hybrids that look like the Na’vi, but can be controlled remotely by an interface that looks kinda like an MRI machine.
The plot is mostly predictable, as a small band of humans realize what they are doing on the planet is wrong and must be stopped, so they join forces with the Na’vi to fight back. The acting is pretty good, but nothing particularly Oscar-worthy.
As most people know, the real “star” here is the CGI, much of which had to be invented just to make this movie. I saw it in digital projection 3D, and while it was a few bucks more expensive, it was well worth the money and should be experienced. The 3D itself was more subtle than I expected, simply adding more depth to scenes and making a few things “pop” a bit more. It certainly wasn’t headache-inducing or anything, and really did help immerse you in the movie.
Back to the “uncanny valley,” though. This is the first movie I’ve seen where the CGI was so integrated into the environment, you could hardly tell it wasn’t being filmed with a camera on location down in the Amazon. James Cameron invented a motion capture camera that is worn on your head, tracking your mouth movements, the wrinkles of your nose, how your eyes move, etc. It then maps these movements onto a digitally-created humanoid and integrates the actor into the environment. Of course, more conventional methods are used for the human actors on green screens, but again, the majority of sequences with the Na’vi in the jungles are all digitally created, and you frequently forget that you are watching something made on a computer. It makes it look like Sigourney Weaver is acting with blue facepaint on, when she really isn’t. Her words are perfectly matched with the sound. Her facial expressions look like it’s really her.
So no, “Avatar” won’t be remembered for its compelling story or acting, but it will probably be remembered as the first movie to integrate CGI so seamlessly into a motion picture (with the help of some 3D “tricks”) that you forget what you’re really experiencing, and that technology is going nowhere but “up.” While it may seem a bit “over the top” to say, I fully believe “Avatar” is on-par with “The Jazz Singer” (the first “talkie”) or the introduction of color in movies.
This Christmas break, do yourself a favor: find this movie in 3D and drop the cash on it. You won’t be sorry. Unless you hate movies.