Tag Archive for CGI

Movie Review: Fright Night (8/20/11)

Movie Poster: Fright Night

Fright Night

Directed by Craig Gillespie
Screenplay by Marti Noxon

Anton Yelchin as Charley Brewster
Colin Farrell as Jerry
Toni Collette as Jane Brewster
David Tennant as Peter Vincent
Imogen Poots as Amy
Chris Sarandon as Jay Dee

How long is Fright Night? 106 minutes.
What is Fright Night rated? “R” for bloody horror violence and language including some sexual references.

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Fright Night

Toni Collette, Imogen Poots and Anton Yelchin star in Fright Night.

Remake features wit and gore,
easily has more bite than the original.

Horror film comes in all shapes and sizes: you have slashers, torture porn, psychological horror, horror-comedies, deliberate B-horror, artsy scare flicks (which the foreign market largely has covered), and myriad others. Finally, there’s a little-appreciated subgenre that’s largely been put to rest since the eighties: the adventuresome, fun horror movie. These inevitably feature plucky kids battling some terrifying force of evil: think The Lost Boys, the Nightmare on Elm Street series, or “IT.” One of the lesser eighties-era adventuresome horror flicks was 1985’s Fright Night. Seeing as how The Lost Boys just had its third sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street had a remake last year, and “IT” is being remade for release in 2012, Fright Night was ripe for a redux.

The Fright Night remake doesn’t follow in the footsteps of most horror retries – it’s stylish, smart, and well done. Charlie (Anton Yelchin) and his single mother Jane (Toni Collette) live in a cookie-cutter suburb of Las Vegas, full of newly built houses set thirteen feet apart on identical lots complete with beige vinyl siding and cheap, pretty interiors. Jerry (Colin Farrell), a seductive blue-collar construction worker, moves in next door to Charlie. Suddenly, empty desks become more frequent in homeroom; kids go missing from school. Charlie’s friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) starts to suspect Jerry is none other than that creature of eternal darkness, a vampire.

The original Fright Night was great precisely because it joined the ranks of films that grant agency and preternatural knowledge to teenagers. In the aforementioned films, adolescents battle against not only an inexplicable force of evil, but against adulthood itself. In the new Fright Night, Charlie shirks his former persona as a role-playing nerd in favor of horrible friends who twitchily flick emo-kid hair out of their stoned eyes. His new girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) would like to go farther than Charlie is comfortable with, and Charlie’s too preoccupied with the new vampire neighbor to have relations with his girl. Of course, a youthful penchant for make-believe comes in handy when the pretend enemy turns out to be very real.

Because he lives just outside Sin City (although this is never explained), Charlie is inundated with the propaganda of Peter Vincent (David Tennant), a Criss Angel facsimile who looks like Russell Brand at his most dramatic. Vincent, whose stage show is called Fright Night, claims to be a vampire slayer but is full of theatrics and little else. In the original, Peter Vincent (played by Roddy McDowall) was a B-movie actor whose ilk probably included Christopher Lee and Elvira. He’d been making bank from “vampire killing” for so long that he had no idea how to actually kill vampires – because of course according to adulthood, vampires aren’t real. In the remake, Tennant plays Vincent as a frustrated egomaniac whose antics are a result of a tragic childhood vampire incident. When Charlie approaches him, Vincent is appreciably iffy, but of course the two end up battling the demon together.

The cast seems to be having a lot of fun throughout the movie. Colin Farrell, whose pale skin and dark brows make for a stark contrast even without vampire makeup, ably takes on the role that Chris Sarandon played in the original – sexy, superbly composed ladies’ man whose eyes betray not a hint of emotion. Anton Yelchin (Running With Scissors, Charlie Bartlett), who displays a self-effacing comedic style similar to Michael Cera’s, is more than adequate as the lead. Imogen Poots, playing a role that’s supposed to be rather unlikable, lends to Amy more than a pretty face. Naturally the kids-battle-evil subgenre has to feature a number of adults who refuse to believe, but in Fright Night Toni Collette’s Jane is pretty quick to jump on the vampire bandwagon after a vicious attack on her home. Christopher Mintz-Plasse probably leaped at the opportunity to don Greg Nicotero’s faux gore and let axes swing at his neck. Best of all is David Tennant, who’s known best as the tenth Doctor Who; the actor gets to swagger around in leather pants scratching his testicles and cursing at scantily clad women, and he’s good at it.

Discerning “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fans will have noticed Fright Night’s screenplay is written by Marti Noxon, who penned some of the best episodes of the WB show. Who better to take on a screenplay about a solo teenager combating vampires? Noxon’s screenplay is witty, gory, and fast-paced. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who also did memorable work on The Others, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and The Road, made Vegas, a city of lights and constant motion, seem remarkably cold and foreboding. His exacting camerawork blends with 3D technology to create an experience that’s worth it. If I’m going to pay for 3D glasses (which is a racket), I want things to fly out of the screen at me – and Fright Night features some good 3D effects.

I’ve lamented before that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt, particularly when it comes to horror. We’re seeing more sequels and remakes than ever before – but this one, like the new versions of Dawn of the Dead and The Crazies, is easily equal to or better than the original. It’s not perfect by any means, but it is what it is: a fun, adventuresome horror movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It offers gore, suspense, and wit. It’s hard to believe autumn is nearly upon us and an influx of horror flicks is on the way along with jack-o-lanterns and caramel apples. Fright Night is like the butler, ushering you through the open door to a new year’s worth of horror flicks. If the fall’s scary movies are better than this one, we’re in for a good year.

Movie Review: Rango (3/5/11)

Movie Poster: Rango

Rango

Directed by Gore Verbinski
Screenplay by John Logan

Johnny Depp as Rango / Lars
Isla Fisher as Beans
Ned Beatty as Mayor
Timothy Olyphant as Spirit of the West

Running time: 107 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking.

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Rango

Priscilla (Abigail Breslin) and Rango (Johnny Depp) in Rango
[Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures, © 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved]

New animated picture gives Pixar a run for its money, offers wit and smarts amid loving satire of Spaghetti Westerns.

 

Gore Verbinski is a rare director whose films span all genres, one who remains in the shadows even though his movies kill at the box office (Verbinski is responsible for The Ring and the massively popular Pirates of the Caribbean films). In conjunction with Nickelodeon, Verbinski’s latest offering is this weekend’s animated Spaghetti Western Rango. It’s a playful love note to John Ford, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood. It’s beautifully rendered, stylishly written, and a lot darker in tone than you’d think.

Long gone are the days in which animation was kid stuff. Thanks in part to Pixar and Adult Swim, adults nowadays adore American cartoons just as much as (and sometimes more than) their wee offspring. Before the lights go down on Friday’s matinee, toddlers coo and squeal while their parents tiredly munch popcorn. As the film opens, introducing our reptilian protagonist, children’s giggling punctuates every movement of the lopsided lizard. Shortly, though, the kiddies grow weary and adult chuckles and guffaws soar over the kids’ heads. Rango may be a Nickelodeon movie, but it’s bleaker and sharper than your average kid fare. It’s rated PG, so no worries as to whether or not it’s appropriate for your little one’s delicate sensibilities—but it may not suit her tastes. Adults, though, will find themselves chuckling at film-school plot machinations and playful jabs at Western tropes.

The film opens on a Mariachi band of burrowing owls in sombreros serenading the audience, inviting us to “enjoy our confections” as they sing us the tale of our doomed hero. Forthwith we meet a crooked chameleon with a lopsided head (voiced by Johnny Depp, who can apparently do anything) acting out a lonely fantasy with a broken Barbie doll and a wind-up fish. “That’s it!” he proclaims, unsatisfied with his own performance. “Our hero can’t exist in a vacuum!” Obviously, he needs some outside force to propel him into action! (This kind of patently plain foreshadowing punctuates the film.) Shortly, our chameleon and his aquarium are thrown out the car’s back windshield, where he finds himself in the southwestern desert, frying in the heat and shedding his skin. He meets a cryptic, wise armadillo who directs him toward Dirt, a little town a day away. In Dirt, the chameleon christens himself Rango and impresses the townsfolk (owls, moles, lizards, and other desert creatures) with his flair for dramatics. It’s not too long before they make him Sherriff—and task him with finding precious agua to keep the town alive.

Every hero needs a leading lady, and in Rango’s case it’s Beans (Isla Fisher), a sassy frontierswoman (lizard) whose only flaw is her natural defense mechanism—to go completely stock-still at random moments. He meets the smarmy, power-hungry Mayor (Ned Beatty), an aged turtle in a wheelchair who promises his people water and offers them spooky religious imagery. In any self-respecting flick a true hero has to suffer through a spell of self-doubt, and Rango gets his. But before long…well, of course our bumbling, hapless hero saves the day. Don’t they always?

Like last year’s Best Picture nominee Toy Story 3, Rango is thoroughly charming because it deliberately strums those self-referential, witty chords that delight us so. It pokes at overplayed, legendary Western thematic material while remaining droll and almost—but not quite—too smart for its own good. John Logan’s (Gladiator, The Aviator) elegantly written screenplay uses language that will soar high above kids’ heads—you’ll hear the words “annuity,” “malfeasance,” and “conundrum,” among others. It follows a surreal, ludicrously self-aware path, and the writing has a very “Coen brothers” feel. In the lively, southwestern-influenced soundtrack you might recognize a similar yodel to the famed music from Raising Arizona, and inept but lucky Rango bears a tonal resemblance to H.I. McDonough. Westerns seem to be experiencing a resurgence (mostly at the hands of the Coens, in fact), and Rango will certainly bask in their newly restored success.

What truly makes Rango exceptional, though, is that Industrial Light and Magic’s animation may have Pixar’s artists shivering in their cowboy boots. Every scale on Rango’s chartreuse face, every strand of fur on the tiny desert pigs, each downy feather on a turkey’s visage, is lovingly rendered. Perhaps most remarkable is the detail in the creatures’ eyes. Verbinski consulted with Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, and as a result the animation is brilliant—were it not for the, you know, talking animals, you’d think the desert landscapes were real. And thank the Hollywood heavens Verbinski didn’t see the need to make Rango in 3D—it’s pretty perfect as is.

Rango may not see quite the level of success last year’s major animated pictures did, but it is sure to delight adults with its intelligence and children with its impeccably executed animation. Its characters won’t burrow into your heart like the beloved robots of WALL-E or the dejected toys of the Toy Story movies, but for a springtime evening in the theater, they’ll certainly do. Fair warning, though: these critters are more frightening than cute—particularly Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy). If you long for the days of John Wayne, wish for the smarts that were lacking in the acceptably adorable Gnomeo and Juliet, or just have a love for Johnny Depp, you’ll appreciate Rango.

Movie Review: The Wolfman (2/13/10)

Movie Poster: The Wolfman

The Wolf Man

Directed by Joe Johnston
Screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, David Self, based on the motion picture screenplay by Curt Siodmak

Lawrence Talbot – Benicio Del Toro
Sir John Talbot – Anthony Hopkins
Gwen Conliffe – Emily Blunt
Aberline – Hugo Weaving
Maleva – Geraldine Chaplin
Singh – Art Malik
Dr. Hoenegger – Antony Sher
Constable Nye – David Schofield

CLR Rating: 3/5 stars

Movie Still: The Wolfman

Emily Blunt stars as Gwen Conliffe in The Wolfman
[Copyright © Universal Pictures]

 A Smart, Scary Revitalization of Classic Horror

Werewolves in cinema have had many incarnations, but most modern lore stems from the 1941 Universal picture The Wolf Man. The unforgettable image of a monstrously deformed Lon Chaney, Jr. thrusting out his chest, baring his claws, and baying at the full moon is one of Hollywood’s most lasting. Director Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman, also a Universal production, is a pitch-perfect reboot of the classic horror movie.

After his brother Ben is brutally murdered, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returns from America to his family’s home in Blackmoor, England at the request of Ben’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). Any journey home means confronting the old demons, and Lawrence’s father John (Anthony Hopkins) has a great many of them to share. Blackmoor is up in arms over a nearby gypsy encampment; these heathen strangers must be responsible somehow for the recent murders plaguing the countryside. Lawrence, of course, must visit the gypsy camp to find out more about his brother’s murder, and on an unlucky, moonlit night an unseen creature attacks him. At the next full moon he transforms into a monster.

Makeup artist Rick Baker is the genius behind the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London, which is arguably the most memorable in cinematic history. Baker returns to lycanthropy for this reboot with incredible results. Lawrence’s limbs extend beyond comprehension, his fingers contort in unimaginable ways, his very bones seem to break and remold. The film’s gore leaves nothing to be desired; there’s plenty here for any horror fan. The movie has some genuinely tense scenes—even the most ardent horror aficionado might jump if the sound in the theater is working correctly. It’s been said any scary movie isn’t nearly as frightening when viewed on mute, and The Wolfman works with that concept; the juxtaposition of silence and cacophony is effective. The movie takes place in an era in which science and superstition clashed righteously, and some of its most cringe-worthy scenes take place when Lawrence ends up back in the asylum in which he spent a year as a child. The scientific methods for treating delusions were cruel and unusual punishment—enough so that when the doctors meet their end, you’ll feel like grinning. On top of this, a fictional version of Detective Frederick Abberline (Hugo Weaving), who was involved in the real Jack the Ripper case, appears to follow up on the Wolf Man, which brings an element of reality to an utterly fantastic story.

Watching The Wolfman is like taking up temporary residence in a lovely, disturbing dream. The sets, lighting, and cinematography immerse the audience completely in a bleak, lifeless nineteenth-century English countryside. The look of the movie elicits comparison to Sleepy Hollow, but it doesn’t have Tim Burton’s sense of dreamy playfulness. It’s not a world in which you’d want to live, but it makes for an extraordinary nightmare. Del Toro is great as Lawrence, a mentally and physically tortured, though perhaps one-dimensional, character. The extremely likeable Emily Blunt seems capable of bringing vulnerability to every role she plays, whether a queen or a fashionista. Even in the secondary role of Gwen, both mourning her fiancee’s death and quickly falling in love with his brother, she commands the camera. Anthony Hopkins, one of the screen’s brightest and most venerable players, virtually tiptoes through the movie. He alternates between a little off to downright silly, and never quite betrays any emotion, even when reciting lines that should be heart-wrenching. It’s understandable the filmmakers would want Hannibal Lecter aboard, but Hopkins could’ve put a little more effort into it. Unfortunately the first half of the film, written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, totters a bit between dramatic dialogues and incredible action scenes. The final chase scene through the streets of London is nearly worth the price of admission, though, and Blunt and Del Toro smolder in a face-off that could’ve been utterly cheesy.

Werewolves haven’t enjoyed the kind of vogue vampires have in cinema or literature, maybe because werewolves are distinctly unsexy. As far back as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the idea that the subconscious mind (or Freud’s id if you prefer) longed for murderous rampages made people a bit nervous. The Wolfman repeatedly asks, “Where does man end and beast begin?” Therein lies the appeal of lycanthropy; what if, at our darkest core, we aren’t as civilized as we’d like to think? Vampirism is a far more libidinal fantasy—who wants matted fur and gaping wounds (there are jokes to be made here) when one can have ivory skin, white fangs, and unequaled sex appeal?

The Wolfman suffers from odd pacing in its opening hour and Hopkins’s performance is off the mark, but all in all it’s a very worthy addition to the werewolf genre (which is admittedly short on the good and long on the bad). In a world where werewolves have been co-opted to such an extent that they sometimes exist solely to kill vampires (New Moon), a return to the classic, spooky lore that originally made them terrifying is a welcome departure. The last decade or two has seen so many revitalizations of old horror that it’s becoming tiresome, but director Joe Johnston hit the mark with this one. The Wolfman takes a defibrillator to the original and re-envisions a concept that should’ve been done long ago. It’s smart, classic horror with a gory, dramatic new twist and simply gorgeous cinematography.

Movie Review: Legion (1/23/10)

Movie Poster: Legion
Legion

Directed by Scott Stewart
Screenplay by Peter Schink, Scott Stewart

Michael – Paul Bettany
Jeep Hanson – Lucas Black
Kyle Williams – Tyrese Gibson
Charlie – Adrianne Palicki
Percy – Charles S. Dutton
Gabriel – Kevin Durand
Bob Hanson – Dennis Quaid
Gladys Foster – Jeanette Miller
Ice Cream Man – Doug Jones

CLR Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Legion

Paul Bettany stars in Legion
Photo By: Lewis Jacobs. ©2008 Bold Films LP. All Rights Reserved

The Apocalypse on a Tight Budget

Good horror movies are rare. This year’s second scary movie (following last week’s Daybreakers) is certainly not one of them. As a nation we seem preoccupied at the moment with the apocalypse. This fad comes and goes often, but with 2012 (the end of the Mayan calendar and the date of the supposed prophesied apocalypse) looming on the horizon, studios are banking on our social anxieties—which are already high due to the recession, our political climate and the threat of terrorism. Legion doesn’t present the same kind of apocalypse depicted in the movie 2012’s trailers (which seem to show the whole world literally falling apart), but it is the End of Days nonetheless.

According to the script, God has lost faith in humanity, ostensibly because he grew “tired of all the BS.” Thus He orders the angels to exterminate mankind—just to switch it up a bit, since last time He went with a flood. The angel Michael (Paul Bettany) disagrees with God’s order and falls from heaven to save the human race. Michael chooses a tiny town called Paradise Falls (a clever but gauche touch of Dante), at the edge of the Mojave desert, in which to prove that humans are worth saving. Michael’s been keeping an eye on homely Jeep (Lucas Black) and pregnant, single Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) for years, and has pegged them as proof that humans are worth saving. In particular, Charlie’s unborn child is lined up to be the savior—although this is never quite explained. Bad fortune brings a number of strangers to the diner at which the two work and live, and there the battle plays out.

In Legion, God is neither infallible nor merciful. The angels are not lovely and ethereal—no halos for these soldiers. Instead they are dark, cruel minions who inhabit humans to ensure the End of Days. This might’ve been an effective take on the Biblical apocalypse if it weren’t for the ridiculous special effects. Before the battle gets underway, a very old woman with a walker comes into the diner, all smiles and sweetness. Unfortunately, the trailers already revealed that she’s evil, and sloppy filmmaking creates such ominous foreshadowing (elongated shadows, stalker view—from behind rather than ahead) that the audience simply lies in wait for her to do something nutty, which of course she does. In The Exorcist III, an elderly woman in a mental hospital (who happens to be possessed) crawls on the ceiling behind the characters’ heads, and it’s one of the most unsettling moments in the film. Legion’s effects budget evidently didn’t cover anything that looks realistic, and as such the audience guffawed at a moment that should have been disturbing. When the special effects of a movie made twenty years ago trump one made last year, there’s a problem. Shortly thereafter, an ice cream truck appears, cheerily amplifying that song so familiar to kids in the summertime. The ice cream man, played by Doug Jones, whose acting is most recognizable by his magnificently exacted bodily movements (he was Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies as well the Silver Surfer in the eponymous movie) is supremely underutilized when the terrible CGI takes over.

The film’s script is fairly run of the mill. It’s funny at times, but leaves characters completely undeveloped—a technique best used in movies like the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre—the difference being that at least Chain Saw’s rather deplorable, one-dimensional characters had some really horrifying death scenes. Most of the murders in Legion are not typical of the horror genre, which mostly relies on hand-to-hand combat: knives, chainsaws, and other weapons. Guns and explosions are plentiful in Legion, which nearly crosses into the action realm. Though it has a dearth of good computer imagery, the makeup effects and gore are well done. The movie’s rated R for violence and language, and rightfully so, but a curious aspect of the film is that a few of the “good” characters smoke cigarettes, one while pregnant. The MPAA decided in 2007 that any amount of smoking in a movie automatically raises its rating, so it’s interesting to see a focus on cigarettes in a culture that’s becoming less tolerant of the habit.

Legion is an effects-laden and silly movie that tells yet another rendition of the apocalypse in which the Christian God smites mankind for our numerous sins. Whether or not you believe the apocalypse is upon us, this is an especially farfetched version of events, entertaining but neither new nor particularly well told; loose ends and underdeveloped characters abound. Paul Bettany is a pleasure to watch in any medium, and Adrianne Palicki may be headed for a healthy film career (her role in TV’s “Friday Night Lights” showed she is in fact quite talented). However, the movie isn’t worth seeing in theaters unless you want to spend an evening chuckling and cringing.

Movie Review: Avatar (12/19/09)

Movie Poster: Avatar

Avatar

Directed by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron

Jake Sully – Sam Worthington
Neytiri – Zoë Saldana
Grace – Sigourney Weaver
Col. Miles Quaritch – Stephen Lang
Trudy Chacon – Michelle Rodriguez
Parker Selfridge – Giovanni Ribisi
Norm Spellman – Joel David Moore
Moat – CCH Pounder

CLR Rating: 3.5/5

Movie Still: Invictus

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully and Zoë Saldana as Neytiri
in James Cameron’s sci-fi thriller Avatar

[Photo credit: WETA. ®2009 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved]

This Visual Masterpiece is a Must-see Despite a Dreadful Script

James Cameron’s resume is extensive and vividly familiar to anyone who’s ever had the notion to watch science fiction films. The man brought us the screenplay for Alien, then he directed the first two Terminator movies, then he was behind Titanic, one of the highest-grossing films in history. It shouldn’t be a surprise that once again, he’s ahead of the technological curve with this year’s holiday release, Avatar.

For Avatar, a movie the director has dreamed about since his twenties, Cameron used a “physics based sim” and a modified version of the Fusion camera to create a three-dimensional experience like absolutely none other. The movie has been heralded as a turning point for film technology, and frankly, that is probably true. The film is, visually at least, wholly unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Due to the technology Cameron used (and helped to invent, according to advance press), CG in Avatar doesn’t enhance the movie, it is the movie—but watching the flora and fauna of Pandora doesn’t feel like watching CG. In 3D, the film is an experience in immersion: once the characters are placed onto the moon Pandora, the audience is drowned in gorgeous scenery the likes of which earth has never seen before.

The film follows Jake Sully, a marine who lost the use of his legs in battle, as he travels to Pandora, a moon orbiting a far off planet, ostensibly in order to play dual roles as security guard for researchers and military spy. Sully and his counterparts are Avatar drivers, which means they inhabit surrogate creatures created from a mix of human and native DNA. The natives, called the Na’vi, are twelve-foot tall, blue-skinned, cat-eyed humanoids whose behavior and rituals are similar to that of Native Americans. They are a highly spiritual and naturalistic tribe whose connection to their planet lies not just in their ancestry, but in actual biological synthesis with its creatures and vegetation. If this all sounds silly, that’s because it is.

Historically science fiction allows immense room for playing with societal concerns. The Red Scare, the Cold war, fears of the A-bomb, mistrust toward technology, racism, environmental issues: all have been tackled by sci-fi’s greatest authors and filmmakers. In the current economic and social climate, this year’s science fiction films have taken on hot-button issues including human greed, apartheid (District 9), and ecology. It can’t be a coincidence that in the year’s best science fiction humans are the enemy. In Avatar, the greedy corporate CEO (Giovanni Ribisi) and the seasoned, hardcore colonel (Stephen Lang) lock horns with biological researcher Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and her team of avid conservationists. As well as being home to the Na’vi, Pandora is populated by a natural fuel resource the government will literally kill for.

The story and script fail to create multifaceted characters, sticking instead to the inherent malevolence of military invasion and corporate America’s insatiable appetite for resources and money. In our current time of war and economic instability, these are significant social issues, but the film handles them ham-handedly, pitting stock characters against one another in an epic moral (and physical) battle between conservation and greed. The dialogue and Jake’s voice-over are terribly written (Cameron is also responsible for the screenplay), and the characters are static. Anyone who’s seen a science fiction film before will know the tropes: man travels to another world, falls in love, and ends up fighting for the culture he ostensibly came to study/gain resources from/demolish. Luckily the movie is a visual spectacle; else it would be yet another played-out sci-fi epic.

Cameron has been in the news recently regarding his tendency to write strong female roles. In a lengthy New Yorker article, he mentions that in order to create strong women, you write dialogue for men and then change the names. Sigourney Weaver’s career truly began with her role as Ripley in Alien (a character whose masculine tendencies are highly debated in feminist film criticism), and she returns to Cameron to play another strong-willed but ultimately doomed character. Grace smokes like a chimney, curses like a sailor (as much as can be done in a PG-13 film, anyway), and she’s willing to resort to physical combat for her beliefs. Zoë Saldana’s Na’vi love interest Neytiri and Michelle Rodriguez’s fighter pilot Trudy are yet other dominant females, but Cameron is no feminist ally. In a Playboy interview, he discussed how to create the perfect alien breasts for Neytiri, although the Na’vi aren’t placental mammals and therefore don’t require breasts. He knows how to appeal to teenage boys, and he does it well.

Visually, the film is truly a masterwork. Pandora is an affectionately rendered bioluminescent paradise. Characters physically link to their surroundings via grasping tentacles that appear from their long braids. Seeds float through the air like jellyfish, flora gleam with incandescent radiance when touched, and creatures unlike any you’ve seen before synthesize a world that is as unfamiliar to us as the bottom of the sea. But the magnificent flying creatures and the gorgeous vegetation feel so real you could reach into the screen and stroke them.

Though the movie is flawed and ham-handed, it’s imperative to view in the theater; the visual splendor and realism are absolutely jaw dropping. Home theater technology hasn’t advanced enough yet to be able to support a film like this one, so if there’s any movie you see in theaters this year, it should be Avatar. It’s a challenge not to be completely captivated and immersed despite the script’s laughable stupidity, and audiences searching for an escape from the winter doldrums will not be disappointed.