Thursday, December 31, 2009
The Avatar phenomenon
Avatar, the hugely expensive special effects spectacular directed by James Cameron, has been out for two weeks now and has already sold a quarter billion dollars worth of movie tickets. The opening weekend was not as successful as many other recent films, but the second weekend was a huge record breaker. For example, the current box office champ for 2009 is Transformers 2. On the first weekend, it sold $109 million of tickets and the second weekend fell off to $42.3 million. Avatar's first weekend was $77 million and the second weekend was $75.6 million. Lots of movies drop off at least 30% from the first weekend to the fsecond. Dropping off 60% like Transformers 2 is a sign of truly awful word of mouth. Dropping of less than 5% is a sign of great word of mouth, and let me add to that a little word of blog advertising. Avatar is a terrific movie experience and seeing it on the big screen is absolutely mandatory to get the full effect. Some people may tell you it has to be seen in 3D IMAX, or at least in 3D. Some people may tell you to watch it while stoned. I saw it "just" in 3D and without chemical enhancement, and I have to say that it won't be the same for people who wait to see it at home on DVD or Blu-Ray, no matter how awesome their home entertainment systems are.
This decade has been filled with movies that are the cinematic equivalents of Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson, simultaneously very pretty and completely empty. Some of these bimbo films have done great business, though after the fact the public's attitude often becomes one of scorn and derision. Among the truly dreadful big budget beauties I've seen in the last ten years are The Dark Knight, 300 and Peter Jackson's version of King Kong. This is not the company that Avatar keeps. For a special effects extravaganza that tells a great story, I would put Avatar up with The Matrix and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. As much as I enjoyed the early Terminator films and Aliens, this is easily James Cameron's best movie as far as I'm concerned. (I'm not a fan of Titanic, but I do respect that he was able to combine the genres of Chick Flick and Big Shit Blowing Up movies, a.k.a. BSBU, in the same remarkably successful film.)
Many of the big budget successes this decade have been taken from books, like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Avatar feels more like a movie that is meant to stand on its own. Any adaptation from a book has to leave things out or risk being overstuffed, but because Avatar is written specifically for the screen, it can have the right number of characters and a plot designed to hold the audience's interest for the nearly three hours it takes to tell the stories. One of the people I went to the movie with complained about some clichés in the film, most notably the scientists vs. military plot line. The complaint is valid, but my feeling was that the story was a great updating of the science fiction style from the mid 20th Century, when it was all about the brave humans exploring the universe and fighting bug eyed monsters.
The important point that makes Avatar stand out is that the humans are absolutely, positively not the good guys in this story. Many reviews, both positive and negative, take note that this is an allegory for the war in Iraq and American interventionism in general, but because it is presented as allegory, Avatar will sell as many tickets all the movies set in Iraq this decade combined, possibly more. (I do not include Three Kings on the list of movies set in Iraq that nobody saw. It came out in 1999, before George W. Bush was president, when Iraq was equated to the quick and successful Operation Desert Storm in the American consciousness, not the quagmire handed to us by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.)
Without giving any more of the story away, let me say I give Avatar my highest recommendation. The world that is created is beautiful and plausible, the biology created on Pandora looks both fantastic and realistic at the same time. There are characters to root for and root against, the pace of the movie is very good and the time flies by. When people discuss the films that were important landmarks in combining of special effects and live action, Avatar will be part of that discussion for decades to come.
If you have even a whiff of interest in this film, go see it on the big screen in 3D. You'll be glad you did. If you want to see it in IMAX or enjoy a little chronic beforehand, let me say I didn't do either, but I'm not stopping you if that's your preference.