Sunday, January 3, 2010

I'm an Avatard

We had kind of a humdrum holiday this year, mostly due to having our hospitality options reduced by the ongoing bedbug situation. Still, for the price of two vacation days, I was off work from Christmas Eve until tomorrow, a winter holiday stretch unequalled in my adult life, and a great opportunity to just spend time with the family.

One of the highlights for the four of us was going to see James Cameron's Avatar in Imax 3D. I've always enjoyed Cameron's films, and this one was no exception. Avatar is by no means perfect; those who call it a pastiche of his earlier works (the military/corporate elements of Aliens meets the love story of Titanic, etc) are hard to refute, as are those who distill it down to "Dances With Wolves in space".

As familiar as parts of the story might be, the experience itself felt very new. Despite the amount of green screen and CGI involved, the moon Pandora feels like a very real place. Given Cameron's technical inclinations and his tendency to win as many patents as Oscars, it is not surprising that the 3D in this film is the best I've seen yet, and it adds a tremendous amount to the immersive effect. I caught myself on more than one occasion trying to crane my head around a foreground frond or fern in the lush jungles of Pandora. There is no 'comin' atcha!' gimmickry, the 3D is simply there to add depth and texture.

There are some very decent performances, especially in the guises of the CGI Na'vi and human/alien hybrid Avatars. The 'uncanny valley' that often prevents us from relating to artificial constructs as living characters is fast becoming a very small piece of real estate. My favourite performance is that of Stephen Lang, who as Chief of Security Quaritch plays one of the hardest biscuits and toughest hombres ever to hit the screen. Lang played the Party Crasher killer in the James Woods/Michael J Fox movie The Hard Way, Col. Pickett in Gettysburg and Ike "Law don't go around here lawdog" Clanton in Tombstone, so he has a lot of game as a character actor, but he does a great turn as Quaritch, never stepping all the way into psycho territory, but instead committing terrible acts in the name of pragmatism, manifest destiny and a refusal to compromise.

On the whole it was a great moviegoing experience, and if the story was not exactly new, it was at least good, with both a positive message and a visceral experience for my girls to take away with them. Given how many of the people who worked on this movie were around their age when they saw Star Wars for the first time, it really got me to wondering if they would have the chance to use their creativity on a similar project in the future, and even if they didn't, what might they end up seeing from the ones who did?

Shortly after seeing the movie, I received a notice from the Edmonton Public Library that a copy of the Avatar game for the Nintendo Wii had arrived in my queue. Recognizing that most movie license games are terrible, I picked it up with a mixture of anticipation and foreboding.

It turns out to have provided a very decent (if somewhat short, since I played through it in less than 4 days) game experience. You play a Na'vi warrior seeking to reclaim the relics of his tribe in a story that takes place before the events of the movie. A mixture of fighting, stealth and exploration, the game takes you through a number of environments, from the Pandoran jungles (during both night and day), through a variety of constructs of the 'Sky People' such as a dam and research outpost. You also get the opportunity to ride a Banshee, and can even control its movements using the Wii balance board.

Unlike a lot of multi-platform games on the Wii, this one makes full use of the motion-sensitive controller, and several of the larger fights combine these controls with the same sort of mini-games used in God of War boss fights. There is even an exclusive feature supporting the MotionPlus accessory, wherein you can control a Hellfire Wasp and use this enormous insect to reconnoiter ahead or even paralyse enemies with its stinger.

Best of all, the game doesn't just rely on a "militaristic corporation bad, noble savages good" theme for its storytelling, and your Na'vi protagonist clearly feels some pathos after he listens to the dying message of a father after the mayhem he has caused. It's not as though the game offers you a "Renounce Violence? Y/N" at any point, but like the movie, the game's story deals with the costs of our actions.

Just by creating such a lush and fully realized world, with such fantastic creatures and imagery, Cameron has given us a tremendous playground for our imaginations, and the fact that it has grossed $1 billion worldwide (he's the first director ever with two billion dollar films) is just icing on the cake. Best of all though, is that he has previously said he has at least two more stories in mind for Pandora, and Avatar's success means that we should have an opportunity to visit there again. It can't happen soon enough to suit me.


  1. I haven't had a chance to see it yet. We went the other day, but it was sold out for the next two shows. The boy and I ended up seeing Alvin and the Chipunks instead.
    Maybe this weekend I'll be able to see what all the fuss is about.
    From what I've heard, the story is average, the worldbuilding is great, and the visuals are amazing.

  2. Well, I've finally seen it. Went on a day off, gave the boy a break from school. Visually spectacular, amazing world-building. Some silly science, and the story felt pretty light-weight.
    Still, I enjoyed it, and I would see it again. What I really want to see, though, is what direcotrs like Neill Blomkamp can do with the technology once it gets more affordable.