Experience The World Of Avatar

By now everyone, especially tourists and sci-fi fans, have heard of the recent opening of Pandora-The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This land devoted to James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar has been gestating for several years and puzzled many people. After all, why would Disney pour so much resources into creating a new themed land based on a film that came out last decade? Worldwide, Avatar is the highest grossing film to date, but it has not resonated deeply with most of the general public. Theme park and Disney fans wondered about the quality of the land and its attractions; for some time, The Walt Disney Company has faced criticism in recent years for neglecting its theme parks in the U.S. and Universal Studios has stolen Disney’s thunder with its hugely successful Harry Potter lands. Last month, the company formerly announced a slew of new rides and attractions for its parks and Pandora, which opened on May 27th of this year is the opening salvo.

pandora entrance

After finally being able to visit the land and experience the attractions, I can honestly say that it was worth the wait. Pandora-The World of Avatar is so deeply immersive and stunning with details and it is the best themed land in Walt Disney World. The Disney imagineers have taken great pains to recreate the primordial world of Avatar and their efforts have paid off. Part of the appeal in this land is the land itself. It will take several visits to truly take in everything and the land’s nooks and crannies are begging to be examined in detail. Huge and beautiful alien plants are intermixed with our Earthly flora and the landscaping is highlighted by the jaw-dropping Hallelujah Mountains that seemingly float over our heads. It is fun trying to figure out how the imagineers pulled off this trick, but to be honest, I’d rather not know since the revelation will spoil the illusion. These mountains are a bonafide engineering marvel and what makes them so imposing are their majestic beauty and roaring waterfalls that cascade down their sides.

Hallelujah Mountains Pandora world of avatar

Completing the immersive experience are the attractions themselves. There are only two of them in Pandora, but they are absolute must-rides. The best one is Flight of Passage, which everyone fortunate to ride will attest is one of the best rides ever created, even contending with classic theme park rides like the Spider-Man and Harry Potter rides in Universal. How should Flight of Passage be described? Basically, it is a simulator experience that is more immersive than most simulators since riders are given individual ride vehicles that are mounted like motorcycles.  The ride’s story is that you are linked to a Nav’i avatar that is riding the flying animals called mountain banshees. Thanks to state-of-the-art 3D and well-timed movements, I felt like I was actually riding a mountain banshee as seen in Avatar. The scenes in front of you are panoramic and the motions trick you at many times into thinking you’re diving through Pandora’s tropical forests, mountain ranges and beaches. Yes, there are many instances where you fly over the alien world’s seas, which provide distinct clues as to the sequels’ content. The ride even features new alien animals to marvel over and hope they appear in the Avatar sequels. As I flew over Pandora on my banshee, I actually wished James Cameron would hurry up with the followup films!

Comparing Flight of Passage to Nav’i River Journey is unfair. The former ride is a genuine thrill ride and worthy of being designated an E-ticket attraction. Nav’i River Journey is decidedly more tranquil and relaxed. It is a short boat ride taking you along Pandora’s river at night. Wondrous and unworldly sights and sounds surrounded me and made me feel like I was navigating the waterways of this alien world. The bioluminescent flora and fauna really pop out and my group and I had a joyous time picking out them out. Do not be put off by some reviews about the gentle ride. After the intensity and excitement of riding a banshee vicariously through a Nav’i, this boat trip is a nice way to settle down.

navi shaman

The complaints are probably due to the long wait times for the Nav’i River Journey, which can be more than an hour. Flight of Passage has even longer wait times (I’ve seen times posted as long as five hours during the day!), but since it’s a thrill ride many feel this justifies the long wait. Personally, I would never spend so much time just to get on a ride. If you are unable to get a FastPass and you are not staying on Disney property the only decent option is to arrive at Disney’s Animal Kingdom an hour before it opens. This guarantees that you will be able to get on the rides and be done in less than an hour. Or wait until the hoopla dies down, which probably will be when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens in two years.

In many ways, Pandora-The World of Avatar is a good primer for Disney in crafting the next generation of immersive lands and attractions. Even if you are not able to get on the rides or are a fan of Avatar, it is worth visiting the newest land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom just to take in the ambiance. Plus, it gives us an idea of how Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will be like when it is finally unveiled. Regardless, Pandora-The World of Avatar and its Flight of Passage and Nav’i River Journey are definite must-dos for your next visit to Disney World, they already are for me.

José Soto

The Dark Tower Film Adaptation Aims With Its Hand

After decades, we’ve finally gotten a live-action adaptation of Stephen King’s epic novels of The Dark Tower. Unfortunately, as many of us feared The Dark Tower is a pale and hollow adaptation. Actually it is not even a faithful adaptation (never mind the casting of Idris Elba as Roland the last Gunslinger, he was superb as the Gunslinger) but a mish mosh of the seven novels in the series. As you can expect, it is impossible to do the sprawling storyline any justice with a paltry 90 minute screen time.

For those who don’t know the background, The Dark Tower novels are about a lone, Jedi-like Gunslinger from another dimension who is pursuing his arch foe, the Man in Black. This bad guy  wants to destroy the mythical construct called the Dark Tower, a nexus point of sorts that connects and separates all the universes. Destroying the Tower will unleash chaos across dimensions and obliterate reality. Part Western, part fantasy, part sci-fi and part horror, the novels were some of King’s best works and actually revealed that all of the Stephen King works are interconnected. The wild and wonky storyline was complemented by memorable characters. Not just Roland but the small band of Earthlings from different time periods who join his quest. Too bad only one of them makes it into this film, young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor).

Roland and Jake

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect this one movie to cover the entirety of the novels, but as an introduction to this rich mythos, The Dark Tower cannot adequately do it. There is a popular line in the books “I do not aim with my eye, he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I aim with my eye.” This film commits the sin of aiming with its hand not its eye or heart. On the whole, the entire film is a barebones adaptation that lacks the nuance and for the most part, the epic scope of the novels. It does a just an average job of enticing viewers to want to learn more about Roland and his quest. We never feel the animosity Roland has with the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who is not well developed. The film just moves along so quickly we don’t have time to absorb any of the information given to us. And with the rushed editing and running time, there isn’t enough in the film to win over non-fans or satisfy die-hard fans of the novels. In fact, many of them will be enraged with the missed opportunities and the thin surface details.

Idris Elba as Roland

This does not mean that the film is a disaster, but a rather frustrating watch because there are nuggets of wonder that struggle to get through the film’s banal tone. For one, the actors in the film are quite good and it has several fine moments. We get glimpses of why Roland is to be revered as he wields his guns with near-supernatural precision. For Stephen King fans, there are more than a few Easter eggs of his other works and overall, the film is not dull. It’s just that so little time is spent on these highlights because the film is so intent on getting from point A to point B and in the end, we cannot enjoy the ride. The bottom line is that fans know that the source material is rich and enticing and most of that is missing in the film. This is beyond annoying for fans who have waited so long after so many false starts for a film adaptation. These novels have such sprawling stories with off-the-wall imagery that they deserved a film or a film series that would adequately adapt them. Unfortunately, this film does not accomplish this goal and instead of being a monumental film experience it is just your standard summer film.

The sad thing about The Dark Tower is that it will wind up being forgotten and unlikely to be a hit film. Meaning, that it is doubtful that future films will follow that will better explore Roland’s world and his epic quest. There are plans for a TV show that will tie-in to this film but who knows if that will ever come and the film’s reception will probably mean that it will be a long time before fans get a proper adaptation.

C.S. Link and Lewis T. Grove

Disney To Do A Proto-Westworld With Its Star Wars Hotel

star wars lobby

The big news to come out of the D23 Expo was the announcement from The Walt Disney Company of its plans to build a Star Wars-themed hotel in Walt Disney World. This hotel or resort is not going to consist of just slapping on Star Wars wallpaper and bedsheets into hotel rooms, but an immersive experience for guests. From the moment guests checks in they will be transported to the Star Wars universe while the resort doubles as a massive starship. This will allow guests to have interactive, role-playing experiences as they become part of a Star Wars story.

Imagine going to this Star Wars hotel to cosplay as a Jedi Knight or a Sith Lord and living out your space fantasy. Bob Chapek, the chairman of the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, promised that the experience for guests will be “100 percent immersive, and the story will touch every single minute of your day.” Adding to the immersive experience will be new tech that gives the illusion of being onboard a starship which will feature wandering droids and all the Star Wars creatures and aliens that will excite any fan.

Sound familiar? Just swap out the droids and space pirates for gunslingers and cowboys and you’ve got Westworld. For anyone who hasn’t seen the old movie or the acclaimed TV show on HBO, Westworld takes place in a futuristic theme park where guests are fully immersed in elaborate recreations of the Wild West as they have shoot outs with android cowboys and interact with other Western archetypes that are also androids. The only difference between the two parks is that Disney will be using actors and not androids (that is if you discount the assorted non-humanoid droids who won’t have the level of intelligence as those seen on Westworld). Given time, Disney will be able to replace human actors with androids. After all, they are pushing the envelope with their famous animatronics. Already we are seeing experimental mobile animatronics that can interact with guests at the parks.

This concept is not exactly new. Dude ranches exist, as well as zombie cruises. Universal Studios Orlando has Diagon Alley, which is a richly detailed recreation of Harry Potter’s hidden wizarding alley in London. What also sells the illusion of being in Harry Potter’s world is the Hogwarts Express train ride that transports you from London to the famous wizard academy. Expect that similar technology will be used to showcase epic space scenes outside the hotel’s windows. Not that long ago, there was the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas where guests were literally transported into a replica of the Enterprise and Deep Space Nine and interacted with famous Star Trek aliens. The actors playing the various Ferengi, Vulcans, and Borg always stayed in character while they served cuisine and drinks inspired by the franchise. Disney will probably look to the Star Trek Experience for ideas and inspiration and learn about potential problems.

One thing to consider is that not everyone who visits the Star Wars hotel may not want to be fully immersed in the experience. They can just be companions of more devoted guests who will wholeheartedly plunge into the experience. So how will they be catered? Will the actors simply ignore them if they see the guests are unwilling to play along? That has happened in the Star Trek Experience, which was fine since it wasn’t a completely immersive experience, but won’t this shatter any illusions in the resort?

Also, trying to keep up the illusion will strain logistics, which will translate into increased costs. So, we all know what that means. Yes, be prepared to shell out a substantial amount of money, probably several months’ worth of rent money, to pay for a short stay. But, maybe Disney will feel benevolent and provide coupons and discounts to us poor peons as the slimy lawyer suggested in Jurassic Park. In the end, most of us will not be able to afford to spend time at the hotel, and do not be surprised if visitors are not even allowed into the lobby for fear of disrupting the illusion. After all, how can a serious cosplayer all decked out as an X-Wing fighter pilot enjoy his or her stay in the Star Wars hotel if they encounter not Jawas, but tourists in tacky t-shirts? But, it was expensive to stay at Westworld so a high cost in this coming hotel should not be unexpected.

star wars hotel story

If this takes off, no, when it takes off, expect other immersive resort stays and not just Disney. Already there are rumors that Disney’s main theme park rival, Universal Studios Resort, is looking into creating a fully immersive Harry Potter experience, which might include a Hogwarts hotel. Some may complain about this but this competition will induce creativity and maybe make these experiences affordable. In any event, this is exciting development for Star Wars fans as they ponder this resort experience and have something else to anticipate from Disney.

Lewis T. Grove and José Soto

 

 

Comic-Con 2017 Movie & TV Highlights

San Diego is host once again to Comic-Con and after a slow couple of days, interest exploded into unbridled passion today with the reveal of several high profile trailers and announcements. By no means does this mean that the news coming out of Comic-Con before today wasn’t anything to laugh off, it’s just everyone was waiting for the big guns today.

ben-affleck-as-batmanBefore today’s revelations, the biggest news coming out of the comic book/genre convention could have been considered negative. First, was the rumor that Ben Affleck was stepping away from the role of Batman in the DCEU. That was disturbing to the fledgling cinematic universe since his character was supposed to be the lynchpin tying the DCEU films together. It was kind of ironic because when he was first announced as Batman/Bruce Wayne in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, his casting was widely derided among fans but since the release of that film, many have come around to embrace his portrayal as an older and embittered Batman. In fact, many have claimed that Affleck has been the best actor to play the legendary superhero to date. Today, the actor dispelled the gossip and stated his intention of remaining in the role. Whether that holds up as filming starts with The Batman remains to be seen, but hopefully it will be true.

Next was the unveiling of the second trailer for Marvel’s upcoming TV show Inhumans. Overall, it was a better looking trailer compared to the first bland teaser, but what ruined it was the cheap looking CG used to animate Medusa’s hair, something that everyone was waiting for and it was a disappointment. With the IMAX pilot coming in less than two months it is hard to see how the effects will improve significantly. The other disheartening news was that 20th Century Fox is apparently not letting go of the Fantastic Four film rights with the announcement that a Doctor Doom film is in development. If this were to happen, the rights will stay with the studio instead of going back to Marvel Entertainment since Marvel’s premier supervillain is so closely associated with the Fantastic Four. The fact that the film is being developed by the showrunner of Legion is a bittersweet salve for fans hoping and desperately wishing that Marvel Studios would get back the rights to the superhero team given Fox’s abysmal record with their versions of the Fantastic Four.

Today, the big guns were brought to bear as trailers after trailers were released to hungry fans attending the crowded convention or scouring the Internet. In many ways, Warner Bros. and DC Studios won the day with the universal acclaim received for the third trailer for this year’s Justice League. Building on the success of this summer’s Wonder Woman, the new trailer opens with the Amazonian princess doing her thing then quickly cuts to showcase the other members of the team and a tantalizing tease of the film’s villain Steppenwolf. The Flash stole the trailer with his awkward and funny demeanor that called to mind Spider-Man. Sadly, although he was teased, there still isn’t any sign of Superman. Come on DC throw us a bone!

Speaking of Superman’s absence, DC Studios announced their updated slate of films and a sequel to Man of Steel was not on the roster, which is disappointing. However, some of the announcements made up for it with Green Lantern Corps, Justice League Dark, Batgirl, Wonder Woman 2, Shazam, Aquaman (this one is no-brainer given that it’s currently filming and footage was shown tonight), Suicide Squad 2, The Batman and The Flash: Flashpoint. The last film sounds very exciting since it can be the method used to reboot the DCEU if needed, and on the other hand could explain the recasting of Batman if that were to happen.

Marvel Studios, like DC Studios, had a huge presentation with stunning announcements and teases of their upcoming films. We got a glimpse of concept art for Captain Marvel and sweetening that presentation was the news that Captain Marvel will be set in the ’90s and have her fighting the Skrulls, one of the core enemies of the Fantastic Four. We also learned that Lawrence Fishburne and Michelle Pfeiffer are joining the cast of Ant-Man and the Wasp as Bill Foster/Black Goliath and Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp.

The highlights for Marvel Studios’ presentation were the trailers for Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War. While the visually stunning and trippy Thor: Ragnarok trailer was released online, the ones for the latter two films so far are absent. This has been super frustrating for fans online since we have all been teased for a week about how jaw-dropping the footage is in Avengers: Infinity War. It was first shown in the ultra-exclusive D23 expo last week and everyone was hoping to see it this weekend. For some reason, probably for marketing, Marvel has refused to drop the trailer and most of us have to contend with leaked grainy footage. Our best hope is that enough leaks forces Marvel to release the trailer like DC did with Suicide Squad two years ago. But seriously, Marvel stop the tease, you could have topped DC tonight but you let that victory slip from your fingers!

Other trailer highlights include these nuggets:

Stranger Things 2! With our favorite ’80s geeks cosplaying the Ghostbusters as they come upon another sci-fi mystery!

Defenders, which has a kick ass trailer featuring a grounded and gritty version of the Avengers and Justice League!

A new trailer for Star Trek: Discovery, looks stunning though the Klingons seem weak compared to the classic space viking look!

But the most exciting trailer for the day was the first teaser for Steven Spielberg’s next sci-fi epic, Ready Player One. This trailer about a futuristic video game player is so loaded with genre Easter eggs, it warrants multiple viewings! Who knows how jammed the final film will be? But the awesomeness of this trailer will make anyone want to go out and read the book that inspired Ready Player One. Those shots of the Iron Giant and the DeLorean from Back to the Future sold it!

That does it for this year, sure there is one more day left of Comic-Con 2017, but no major announcements are expected, but you never know. Maybe first looks of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, The Predator, or Avengers: Infinity War will finally be unveiled to the entire world. Check out our Facebook and Twitter pages for updates, and here, of course!

The True War For The Planet Of The Apes Is Within Caesar’s Soul

war for planet of the apes poster

The third film in the Planet of the Apes reboot/prequel, War for the Planet of the Apes, is a fitting conclusion to this unexpectedly great film trilogy. The film series follows the emotional journey of Caesar (motion captured by Andy Serkis), the super intelligent chimpanzee capable of speech who fights to defend his kind, while while he grapples with intense moral questions. In this film, Caesar is an embittered and weary leader who finds himself fighting a very different kind of war.

Taking place 15 years after the first film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this film opens with Caesar and his band of super smart apes besieged by human military forces in the thick forests of the west coast U.S. During the trilogy a deadly virus wiped out most of humanity and apes rapidly evolved to have human-level intelligence. Both humanity and apes are in dire straits. Caesar only wants his kind to be left alone, while the desperate humans see the apes as a threat to their dominion of the Earth.

Tragic events lead to Caesar undergoing a dark metamorphosis where he has come to hate humanity as vengeance rules his heart. He sets out on his own to hunt down the human responsible for his misery, a crazed soldier known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) that leads a rogue military unit. However, his closest compatriots, which include the gentle and wise Maurice (motion captured by Karin Konoval), an orangutan,  refuse to leave his side. During their journey, they come across two new and interesting characters, Nova (Amiah Miller), a young mute human girl, and Bad Ape (Steve Zahn in a motion capture performance), a nearly hairless and humorous chimpanzee who is also able to talk. Both characters in their ways represent the downfall and promise of both species. While both Nova and Bad Ape’s arcs were fascinating to watch, Caesar’s emotional turmoil is the heart of this film and that is where the real war rages.

maurice and nova

Without giving too much away, the film’s title is misleading. War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t an action-packed military film with epic battle scenes boasting large armies. There are some well choreographed battle scenes, but this film is more of a meditative drama that makes viewers think about the moral complexities facing Caesar. It is disheartening to see Caesar’s arc from the wide eyed and innocent ape in the first film to an angry and dark soldier in this film. He is not some bloodthirsty savage and deep inside he is a good being. It is just that sad circumstances have challenged Caesar and he questions how he has changed for the worse. That is the true war in this film, where his soul is the battlefield and prize and it is not clear how this inner battle will conclude. This spiritual conflict define Caesar and makes him seem so…human and is the true highlight of War for the Planet of the Apes.

Of course, the film has so much more going for it than Caesar’s soul searching. The other characters are just as engaging as the lead ape. The Colonel is a truly frightening beast of a man who wants to ensure the survival of his species. What is disturbing to us is that we can relate to his point of view and wonder if we would be as desperate as him if we faced the same dilemma. Unlike the past films, there is less emphasis on the humans as the apes dominate the film. So as a result the human characters are not as nuanced as in past films. There are some other drawbacks to this film; mainly that the plot features some biblical allegories that are a bit heavy handed and telegraph how some stories will play out. But the film’s merits make up for the flaws.

The film boasts the best special effects of all the Apes films. By now, the CGI apes look flawless. There were many instances where it is easy to believe that real apes were used. The motion capture and the special effects are completely convincing. The film is beautifully shot with rich colors and perfect composition as we witness a richly textured post-apocalyptic world that is being reclaimed by nature and the apes.

war-for-planet-apes-poster-caesar

However, these merits would not mean anything without the brilliant performances of Serkis and the others. It is a crime that Andy Serkis has not won an Academy Award for his work and he certainly deserves one for this film as it’s his best work. The Academy just has to get over its hang up about motion capture and recognize its powerful artistry, which is this film exudes.

So, how does War for the Planet of the Apes compare with the other films in the trilogy? It is hard to say at this point, but this film holds its own compared to the earlier films, although Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the best one in the series. Nevertheless, War for the Planet of the Apes is a powerful and thoughtful finale to this trilogy that should not be missed.

José Soto