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.


LarrySFBayArea said...

Just for fun - here are some similarities between Avatar and the Disney-Pixar movie Ratatouille:

Hero uses an avatar to infiltrate a tribe.
The hero is smaller and weaker than the avatar.
Woman of the tribe teaches the hero the skills needed to be a member of the tribe.
Woman falls in love with the avatar.
Hero has information that proves key in defeating an unethical foe.
Hero becomes a respected member of the tribe.

Padre Mickey said...

We don't have IMAX here, but I did go with the 3D, even though it cost $7.00, which is much more than I have paid for a movie here. It was worth it! The new 3D technology doesn't give me motion sickness.

Matty Boy said...

Larry: Excellent comparisons! I thought I was being clever seeing the similarities between writers like Asimov and Bradbury and stuff from Conan comic books.

Padre: This is the first movie I've seen in 3D that includes live action scenes. The technology is a jillion times better than the old fashioned way. The virtual reality I tried back in the 90s was even worse than old fashioned 3D, big headaches and nausea. Maybe that will get fixed in the future. Fun stuff!

sfmike said...

I was hoping you would see it under the influence of psychedelics, though of course it is not required. Glad you enjoyed the movie as much as I did.

LarrySFBayArea said...

A big improvement in the 3D technology is the use of circular polarization instead of linear polarization. The circular polarization allows the audience to move their heads a lot more before the 3D effect degrades, meaning that it's a lot more comfortable experience than the older 3D polarized glasses.

Distributorcap said...

and it has my favorite - sigourney weaver!

dguzman said...

I don't know why but I have zero interest in seeing this movie. I'd like to say your review changed my mind, but now it's like a toughness thing where I have to resist in order to maintain my personal chi!

Anonymous said...

Matty -- Ever since I saw Avatar (enjoyed it in the extreme) I've been looking forward to your take on it (also enjoy your writing, obviously), but when I read your entry -- to my shock and dismay -- you did not mention the fantastic last couple of scenes. You know what I mean? (yes, I am very much in favor of your agenda, and I guess that makes me one of your people(?)). Am I completely off base, or were these scenes a special, added gift to those of us who appreciate such things? Just wondering.

Matty Boy said...

sfmike: Again, I am in your debt. You have excellent taste, but you knew that already, yes?

LarrySFBA: Thanks for the info, that makes sense. When I used a virtual reality helmet back in the day, the big problem was lag time. It was awrful, which rhymes with barf-ul, which you might do a lot after trying VR.

D-Cap Sigourney's great. My opinion of her is enhanced by the fact that she's a long tall drink of water, but her work can be enjoyed by people who are not My People.

dg Dearest Delia, my review was not designed to force the unwilling. Do as you see fit.

Anon You're right, there are scenes of interest to Our People, though it's not the main point of the film by any stretch of the imagination. I'll admit it, I watched a lot of bad sci-fi in the hopes of hot ten foot tall alien chicks, and now that special effects have improved so dramatically, there's always a chance for more in the future.

Anonymous said...

I agree totally. I was completely dazzled by the film without any thought of the "giant" implications. But then, after having a transcendent film experience, out-of-nowhere to have those last two scenes like a surprise, favorite dessert after a brilliant gourmet meal, well, it just doesn't get any better than that!

Anonymous said...

I see very few films in the theater, either waiting for them to come out on DVD or simply watching them when they finally get to TV. WALL-E is one I first saw in the theater, and that was a spectacular movie. And Avatar is in the same club, as far as I'm concerned. Your review here was a major reason I decided to go, so I thank you.

The fact that the Na'vi are 10 or 12 (I've heard both) feet tall certainly piqued my interest, as one of Your People, but that's easy to forget, since there aren't too many scenes with humans (not Avatars) and Na'vi together, and there's so much else to love about this movie. The Na'vi are so real that when their faces contorted in horror and sadness, I felt mine twitch as well.

But I won't deny loving the last few scenes. I know there will be sequels--that's no secret--and I will be watching for them with great interest.

Matty Boy said...

Welcome, my anonymous brother! I still have a week off until I go back to work, so I might go to the local theater and see this a second time.

You're right about a sequel. They have to do it. The only hit this big in the last few decades that didn't have a sequel was Titanic. I have a lot of apprehension about sequels. It could go the way of The Godfather or Toy Story, which would be good, or it could go the way of The Matrix or Highlander, which would be very, very bad.