Avatar: Looking Back At The Sci-Fi Epic

Avatar Sully and Natiri

After it was announced recently that Avengers: Endgame had finally dethroned Avatar to become the all-time box office champion, everyone was whooping and hollering in joy. Sure, we’re entitled to feel that way and celebrate because Avengers: Endgame is so well regarded. But lost in all the hoopla was how dismissive many people were toward director James Cameron’s film which came out ten years ago. Yes, we all are entitled to our own opinions about everything, but some were too quick to put down Avatar, which is not warranted.

Even when Avatar came out in December 2009, there were those who were very critical towards the sci-fi epic. A common gripe was that its story was weak and derived from the “going native” trope, which is why Avatar was sometimes called Dances With Smurfs. Another critique was its too-on-the-nose environmental message or its simplistic evil capitalists vs. noble savages motif. These are valid points, but Avatar should not be disregarded so casually.

jake rides giant banshee

For its time, Avatar captured the world’s imagination thanks to the rich and immersive effects and world that James Cameron and his team of effects wizards created. Almost everything about the world of Pandora (a habitable moon orbiting a distant gas giant a few lights years from Earth) looked alien. From the six-legged creatures to the ultraviolet forests to the floating mountains. This was a landscape never before seen in live action. It was and still is breathtaking to take in.

While the story may be too familiar, it does resonate and has relevance to our times. It was reported back then that some viewers experienced a type of depression because they realized how unlike Pandora the Earth was with its pollution and disappearing nature. Now, climate change and other environmental concerns have become a more tangible problem and we can appreciate the idea of a pristine, untouched-by-man world. This is also inspiring many to look for other worlds and can be seen as a drive for the new upcoming space race. Avatar showed many the possibilities of what lies beyond our solar system.

Of course, the special effects and 3D technology are still unrivaled to this day. Cameron is known to be a perfectionist and insisted on the best usage of effects technology and 3D. This was why it took so long for the film to be made and this goes for the sequels that are only now being filmed. The result of Cameron’s strict standards was that audiences were floored by the stunning 3D and effects that gave the feeling that we were truly in an alien world. The 3D technology isn’t cheap and the top dollars spent on Avatar shows, and it lead to a new boom in the use of 3D in films. Sadly, much of the 3D in other films couldn’t compare and that is because truly impressive 3D has to be filmed with special cameras and is very expensive. Most films that use 3D these days are actually using a conversion process. Much of the time, it’s done well, but it cannot compare to Avatar.

Many critics state that the film isn’t anything without the effects or the 3D. That is not so. Avatar is actually very entertaining with exciting battle scenes and genuine moments of awe. The story is basic but effective; in the future, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former vet, takes an assignment on an alien moon being mined by a large company. He is to infiltrate the moon’s native sapient species, who are called the Na’vi, and get intel to use against them. He ingratiates himself by having his consciousness fused into a cloned version of the Na’vi. Over time, he comes to empathize with the Na’vi and eventually joins their side to fight off the human invaders. We have seen this story before, most famously in Dances With Wolves, but it is effectively reimagined in a sci-fi trapping that works for this epic. The film is still awe inspiring and packs some emotional weight. Just watching that final battle of humans against the Na’vi is so thrilling and inspiring.

It has been said that Avatar has not remained in the public eye for very long. That is debatable, the film represents the pushing of boundaries and a good example of this is with the land it inspired in Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park. In the land themed to Avatar, which opened in 2017, visitors were and still are awestruck by how alien and majestic the land looks with its Pandoran forestry and even more with its headline ride that simulates what it is like to be a Na’vi riding a flying banshee. Interest has been renewed for the property and although cynics like to say that no one cares about the upcoming sequels, it is foolish to bet against James Cameron. Undoubtedly, he will create another winning sci-fi epic, the likes that he is famous for. Avatar 2 or whatever it will be called may not supplant Avengers: Endgame but it will most likely be a big hit and help keep Avatar in the public eye. Maybe by then, the original film will be looked at more fondly.

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Alien: In Space No One Can Hear You Scream 40 Years Later

This month marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most influential sci-fi/horror films, Alien. Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Dan O’Bannon from a story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the film shocked and thrilled unsuspecting audiences in theaters and continues to scare us to this day.

Alien is still regarded as a landmark film that successfully merged two of the best genres in cinema, science fiction and horror. Its success is evident in the way that it showcases a universe that seems real and almost used up in a way and draws us in with its terrifying premise. The movie starts with a crew of interesting characters that are in basically an outer space version of a tug ship called the Nostromo carrying ore back to Earth. Their journey is interrupted by a signal from a planet along their path that gets them to stop at a desolate world that houses what turns out to be a parasitic alien life form that impregnates one of their crew and then kills him as it bursts out of his chest in one of the most iconic and horrifying scenes in movie history.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of the ship gives off the vibe of a haunted house in outer space that builds tension as the crew is killed off one by one until only Lt. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) is left to fend off the creature. The death of Captain Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt) earlier in the film was shocking and let audiences know that no one was safe and ratcheted up the tension even more.

The setting of the movie is also interesting from a sci-fi standpoint. It is very different from previous films that came before it such as 2001, which had a very clean, almost sterile look to it. Alien basically features a group of truckers in space flying what looks like an oil rig, trying to make a living hauling fuel for a faceless corporation that ultimately sees them as expendable.

Alien is set in the near future (early 22nd century), but still has a somewhat familiar feel with the bridge and living quarters having a lived-in look. The tension and mistrust between the crew members, caused by things like pay disputes and later on the threat of the alien, is also realistic and puts the characters in a relatable light. This universe would be expanded in subsequent sequels, some more successful than others, that further explored this unique take on our future that featured colonial marines and prison planets that always had humans facing off against the insidious aliens trying to wipe them out.

Another landmark of Alien is the design of the creature itself. Designed by H.R. Giger, it is both hideous and beautiful at the same time as well as incredibly original. Its dual mouth and razor sharp teeth and skeletal appearance is the stuff of nightmares and stands with any other horror icon.

The slow but methodical way in which the alien kills off the crew of the Nostromo builds the suspense of the film until the very end. The design of the crab-like creature that plants the alien xenomorph in unfortunate crew member Kane is also something that is instinctively unnerving to the audience, as well its brutal way of giving birth to its offspring. Later movies would add some wrinkles to the xenomorph design but the basic look of the creature is still based on Giger’s incredibly unique design.

All of these unique qualities resulted in a new genre of film, sci-fi/horror, which led to such films like Event Horizon, and Life and even influenced other mediums like video games such as popular fare like Doom and Dead Space that also feature humans in space facing off against similar alien threats. Alien’s success also inevitable led to a veritable industry of cheaper knockoffs that has the same basic plot of space crew finding an alien that wipes them out. Obviously none of them could match the seemingly perfect combination of chills, mystery and monsters in space that makes the original Alien still a classic film four decades after its release.

Weaver’s portrayal of Ripley is iconic as well and served as the blueprint for subsequent strong female leads in movies such as Linda Hamilton’s role of Sarah Connor in the Terminator series, Katniss Everdeen, Kira Nerys, Furiosa, and most recently the film version of Alita.

Needless to say, Ripley is one of the many influential aspects of Alien and among the greatest on-screen heroines that re-shaped the role of the female protagonist in cinema.

The franchise spawned by this movie is still ongoing as well, all these years later. The first sequel Aliens is a classic sci-fi action movie. Subsequent entries and spinoffs such as Alien 3, Alien: Covenant, Prometheus, and Alien vs. Predator were not as well received, but I have enjoyed all of them and look forward to more movies that take us back to this rich universe populated by arguably the scariest creatures in space ever imagined.

C.S. Link

The Matrix: Still Around Us 20 Years Later

matrix poster

Twenty years ago, when I worked at Starlog, I was invited to a screening for a film few people had heard of, myself included. There was very little known about The Matrix prior to its release, just that it starred Keanu Reeves. The only clue I had was that early in 1999 I picked up a mini-mouse pad at a horror convention in New York. Its image was of Reeves’ Neo emerging from his Matrix chamber. To me it looked like some kind of horror movie that was possibly about cloning.

When I went to the screening, the producers and possibly the Warchowskis (I cannot remember anymore) were there and introduced us to The Matrix. The film was 99% complete with a couple of F/X shots missing. One of the producers set up the film and said it was their way of doing superhero films in a more plausible way and they hoped The Matrix would do well so they could do more films later. With that, the lights dimmed, and the film began.

Midway through the film, most of us attending instantly knew we were seeing something unique and groundbreaking when we saw The Matrix. Stating that the cyberpunk actioner was truly a revolutionary sci-fi masterpiece is not an understatement. About six weeks or so later, on March 31, the rest of the world beheld this revolutionary masterpiece.

There are so many, too many to list, reasons why this sci-fi film changed the cinematic landscape, but let’s try.

The Core of the Matrix

How about starting with the fact that this was the first cyberpunk film to strike a resonant chord with the general public. Yes, there were earlier cyberpunk films before The Matrix with similar themes, but this film was the one that hit the public zeitgeist. Every similar film that was released afterwards was inevitably compared to The Matrix, even its sequels.

The next and most obvious reason could be seen with its visual effects. CG had become a standard by 1999 but The Matrix used it in distinct ways to subvert the reality of its world. People defied the laws of gravity and physics, which was most famously witnessed in the iconic moment when the main character Neo (Keanu Reeves, who took the role after Will Smith turned it down) dodges bullet fire in sequenced dubbed bullet time. We witnessed his POV where time slowed down, but the cameras didn’t and we could see the trajectory of the bullets, which left vortexes. This pulse-pounding moment during the climatic third act was built up from the opening moments of The Matrix when we first see Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) jump up and hang suspended in the air (a moment that was copied and parodied many times since), then run on the walls with ease like she was Spider-Woman.

The Matrix also boasts some of the most exciting fight scenes ever seen on film. In many of them, fighters spar by defying gravity, moving at superhuman speed and precision. The fight choreography was nearly flawless and framed expertly. The filmmakers were inspired by Asian martial arts films and the technique of Wire Fu, where performers carried out impossible physical feats thanks to wires.  It goes without saying that some fights are still considered the best ever shot on film. The standout has to be the climactic battle between Neo and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) as they fight throughout the city and subway. On a side note, Weaving should be lauded for his intimidating presence in the film as Smith, who was methodical, precise and ruthless. We could feel his disdain for humanity and growing frustration when dealing with Neo and his colleagues.

However, these dazzling effects and action set pieces wouldn’t mean anything without the story, subtexts and themes that formed the core of The Matrix. The film is stuffed with references and allegories to various religions, such as Christianity and Buddhism, philosophical thought such as nihilism and existentialism, and finally literary works like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It explored the concept of reality and how we perceive it, as well as the concept of free will vs fate. Tied to the last theme is Neo himself, as he struggles with the notion that he is the actualization of a prophesy that he will free humanity.

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Look! Up In The Sky! Superman: The Movie Turns 40!

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the first big budget superhero movie of cinema, Superman: The Movie. It truly is one of the most influential films of all time and is still considered one of the best superhero films ever made. That is no small feat considering all the high-quality superhero films that have taken over Hollywood. But it was not always like this. Back in the day, superheroes were something to be mocked and considered strictly for children. So, superhero films were a rarity. That all changed in December 1978 when Warner Bros. released the large-scale, live-action adaptation of DC Comics’ Superman.

Sky High Expectation – Delivered!

When released in theaters in 1978- a year after Star Wars, Superman was a commercial and critical success. There are several reasons for this achievement, so, let’s go over them. Start with the perfect casting of Christopher Reeve, who many still regard as the perfect Superman. For audiences leaving the theaters back then, and rewatching at home decades later- we hear from so many of them who declare that Christopher Reeve IS Superman. No other actor at the time could have successfully portrayed the greatest superhero of all time.

When it comes to the big-budge superhero film, Reeve was the first one to be perfectly cast. These days, there are so many spot-on castings in superhero films, but he was the first. As a respected Julliard graduate, Reeve’s dual role of the nerdy Clark Kent and the heroic Superman was like opposite ends of the spectrum. It was and still is amazing to watch. As Clark, his intention was to be seen as a shy, bumbling pushover, always tipping his oversized glasses to the top of his nose. Certainly not the center of attention, he purposely puts himself into Lois Lane’s “friend” zone, an unwanted role for any guy (it’s worse than being banished to the Phantom Zone!). But Reeve’s Superman secretly enjoys teasing Lois to make her have to be close to the bumbling Clark. Reeve’s look were perfect for the superhero. When he took the role, Reeve underwent an intense bodybuilding regimen and it showed! Not only that, he had the face of Superman as seen in the comic: square jaw, leading man looks and a robust mane of hair fashioned with the distinct “S” curl. Even in today’s comics, most artists draw Superman with this curl. For fans, this completes the look.

The film boasted a star-studded cast whose talents complimented Christopher Reeve; notably Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder. Each actor set the template for how their alter egos were in live-action that in many cases have not been topped.

Then, there was the perfect directing by Richard Donner, who demonstrated a true understanding of the heroic, epic and sincere tone  for the film. Unlike many potential directors considered for the job, Donner respected the character and it showed on screen. He helped present a Superman that was true to his comic book image and made him someone anyone could look up to.

Let’s not forget the timeless score by John Williams. His soundtrack was so stirring and epic. It captured the essence of Superman to the point that 40 years later it is still considered the character’s theme. Hum a few bars of the theme and anyone can tell it’s the Superman theme. Sorry, Hans Zimmer.

Another person who helped elevate Superman: The Movie was costume designer Yvonne Blake, who made Superman’s costume look like it leapt straight out of the comics. Richard Donner asked Blake to make Superman’s costume true to the comics. She referenced the Bronze Age Superman from DC artists Curt Swan, Neal Adams and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez. The costume was so accurate, it was impressive! The way the cape stemmed from an open collar in pleated folds; the oval yellow belt buckle, the “M” shaped top of the boots; the yellow S in the back of the cape, and the colors were just perfect. The other costumes were also cool to see- the white, glowing Kryptonian outfits, each with their own family crest symbol on the chests and the three Kryptonian villains dressed ominously in jet black.

When Superman: The Movie premiered a key concern among fans was over the special effects. It was vital that the film, as its tagline promised, made us “believe a man can fly”.  Superman’s flying effects had to deliver, and they did. Christopher Reeve’s aerial acrobatics were so fluid and natural that even though the effects are dated now, back then they sold the tagline. The Oscar-winning special effects utilized analog optical effects, and many techniques were invented for the movie itself and used in other productions thereafter.

The set designs by John Barry were just jaw dropping, including the otherworldly crystalline planet Krypton, a starship literally designed to look like a Art Deco depiction of a star and its rays; and the imposing and majestic Fortress of Solitude.

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Battlestar Galactica: The TV Space Saga Turns 40

BSG poster

“There are those who believe that life here began out there. Far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans, that they may have been the architects of the Great Pyramids, or the lost civilizations of Lemuria, or Atlantis. Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man, who even now fight to survive…somewhere beyond the heavens.Opening narration of Battlestar Galactica

Nowadays, it is easy to find original sci-fi shows on TV or streaming and it is hard for younger fans to imagine a TV landscape where sci-fi was virtually non-existent. So, when a sci-fi show like Battlestar Galactica premiered back in the 1970s to big fanfare, it truly was a big deal for fans back then.

When Battlestar Galactica debuted forty years ago in Sept. 1978, it generated tremendous buzz for many reasons. The most important being its cost (about $1 million per episode) and for its superficial similarity to Star Wars. In fact, 20th Century Fox sued Universal Studios (the studio behind the show) for plagiarism, though that case was dismissed. We have to remember that when a movie is a huge hit it is never long before TV shows with similar premises popped up. It’s just the way the things go. This does not mean that Battlestar Galactica was a rip-off of Star Wars. Of course, both properties featured expensive space battles, rich, bombastic scores, and took place far from Earth, but it ends there. Battlestar Galactica was a space saga about the remnants of an advanced human civilization trying to find a safe haven from their robotic enemies, the Cylons, in a convoy of spaceships led by Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) from his flagship the Galactica. The twist was that the humans sought safety in a long-lost colony world called Earth.

This was a clever twist, which spun around the sci-fi concept of survivors fleeing a doomed Earth. Actually, according to series creator, Glen A. Larson, the original concept for the show used the premise of humanity fleeing Earth in a quest to find a new world. It was called Adam’s Ark and like the show it morphed into, incorporated many aspects of Mormon theology. It is important to remember that Larson conceived of Adam’s Ark back in 1968, nearly a decade before Star Wars came along.

Battlestar Galactica captured the imaginations of many sci-fi fans who were hungering for something similar to Star Wars to at least tie them over until the inevitable Star Wars sequel came out. Others, however, were more critical over the show’s scientific inaccuracies, limited production values and scripts. Keep in mind, that though the show was expensive, it was easy to see that it tried to keep its budget in line. Hence, the overuse of stock footage, especially when it came to space battles. These same critics also decried its so-called juvenile nature and lack of vision.

BSG cast

These critics could not have been more wrong. Of course, Battlestar Galactica had its faults, but given its limitation, it was unusually imaginative and did a credible amount of world building. Most episodes added interesting lore and mystery to the world of Battlestar Galactica. This was best seen in its mid-season episodes, “War of the Gods” where the Galactica crew encountered an enigmatic being called Count Iblis (Patrick Macnee) who promises salvation. The episodes explored concepts of good vs. evil, faith, and temptation. What helped was that by this time, we had grown to care for the show’s leads. Although Adama was the leader, the show focused on his son, the heroic fighter pilot, Apollo (Richard Hatch) and his best friend, the roguish fighter pilot Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), along with many supporting characters.

Sadly, as things goes, Battlestar Galactica was canceled after one season. It garnered moderate ratings, but not enough to justify its hefty price tag. What made things worse was that the show was terminated before it could resolve its central storyline. The Galactica and its convoy never found Earth, though they had clues. A mixed blessing came about a year later when a sequel show was commissioned. In the show, Adama and the Galactica convoy finally found Earth, but Galactica 1980 was truly juvenile and lacked any of the charm of the original.

Books, comics, fan fics, etc. followed, which helped keep interest alive in the show. It never reached the heights of popularity like Star Trek or Star Wars, but the devotion was solid. There have been many attempts to bring the original show to a proper conclusion, including some by Bryan Singer and Richard Hatch. Of course, we all know of the popular reboot that came out in 2003, which is considered to be one of the finest sci-fi shows ever made. While the reboot has its justified accolades it is important to remember the original TV show that spawned it and to imagine that there is much more to that space saga that is yet untold, even now, forty years later.

“Fleeing from the Cylon tyranny, the last battlestar, Galactica, leads a ragtag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest: a shining planet known as Earth.”Commander Adama, closing narration of Battlestar Galactica

José Soto