Archive

Posts Tagged ‘cyberpunk film’

The Fifth Element (1997)

05/23/2011 1 comment

What do you get when a teenaged art student writes a sci fi film?? What do you get when a French director noted for his contributions to the cinema du look style direct it? What do you get when they’re both the same person? You get this.

The Fifth Element is a Friench sci fi film co-written and directed by Luc Besson, starring Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, and Chris Tucker.

In 1914, when planet Earth is on the verge of World War I, an alien race called the Mondoshawan arrives at an ancient Engyptian tomb to retrieve a weapon capable of fighting a Great Evil that appears every five thousand years: four stones representing the four classical elements, plus a fifth element that can unite the other four. They promise to return when the Great Evil returns, presenting a key to be kept safe until then. Fast forward 349 years. Planet Earth is now a bustling, futuristic, visual cacophany, and the Great Evil is drawing closer, eating a Federated Army starship. The Mondoshawans attempt to return to Earth with their anti-evil weapon, but their ship is ambushed and destroyed by Mandalores, a race of shapeshifting mercenaries hired by one Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg. In the remains of the Mondoshawan ship, Earth’s scientists find a sample of astonishingly complex genetic material, and reconstitute it into a supreme being named Leeloo, who escapes and winds up in the company of Korben Dallas, an ex-Army Major with the Federated Army Special Forces turned cab driver. After the situation is explained to him, Dallas is ordered to recover the stones from their current holder, an opera singer. Dallas isn’t so sure about the saving-the-world thing, but he thinks Leeloo is hot, so what the hell. And a very beautiful action movie ensues.

The first thing you will notice about this movie is its beauty. The Fifth Element is a definite treat for the eyes, giving you plenty to see as the story unfolds. The future Mr. Besson offers us is colorful and chaotic, from the costumes to the sets to the vehicles, with everything enhanced with CG just enough that the effects don’t get in the way. New York City of 2263 is just as busy as its modern counterpart, but in three dimensions – perfectly understandable in a setting with flying cars – leading to a unique twist on the car chase seldom seen in science fiction. The costumes are garish and exotic, offering a unique flavor to the setting without making the eyes bleed, though this is turned up until till the dial breaks with Chris Tucker’s near-brush with drag queen fashion as Ruby Rhod (incidentally, the costumes he wears during the Phlogiston scenes are not the most garish the costume designer had cranked out; those were shown to Tucker first to make the actual costumes seem tame by comparison). Pair the Technocolor palette with a handful of unique alien designs (without having the whole movie crawling with weird races), and The Fifth Element is a lot of fun to watch without even touching the story.

Fortunately, unlike some other pretty movies I’ve seen, the plot rises to meet the challenge and doesn’t drown in the spectacle, offering a unique take on the “saving the world” plot, set against the flashy backdrop of this colorful future. The action parts are about average for 90’s Bruce Willis, with gunfights, bad guys, car chases, and snarky one-liners tossed about. Dallas is delightfully deadpan about the whole thing: with his history in the Special Forces, absolutely nothing phases him about getting chased by cops after an alien woman falls into his cab from about five stories up, hostile Mandalores shooting at him while opera plays in the background, or even the impending destruction of Earth by a Big Ball of Hate. He assesses, he reacts, he powers through, and he goes about his business. One unusual point that I didn’t notice for a long time after I watched this movie for the first time, though: You have the hero, Korben Dallas. Fine. You have a human antagonist serving the Hateball, Zorg. These two people never meet. At all. They’re never in the same room with each other at any time in the movie. They never see each other. This seems like it wouldn’t work, until you realize that the movie isn’t about Dallas vs. Zorg, but rather Dallas vs. the Hateball. Zorg becomes an incidental pawn in the Hateball’s plans, and while he’s entertaining to watch, he’s only a part of the grand scheme for the annihilation of all life. Brilliant.

If you’re tired of the same old sci fi action movie with the same cookie-cutter settings and conventions, check out The Fifth Element. It’s sheer eye candy, backed by a solid plot that will entertain any sci fi fan.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)


In a future of simulated experiences and hackable memories, what is reality? In a world where cybernetic implants and bodies are commonplace, what is humanity? In a city where robots and artificial intelligences exist alongside humans, what makes a soul?

Ghost in the Shell is an anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii and adapted from the manga of the same name by Kazunori Ito. Widely lauded as the first taste of adult anime for many Western viewers, it features the voices of Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka, and Iemasa Kayumi.

Major Motoko Kusanagi is a cyborg assigned as squad leader of Public Security Section 9, a division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission. Because her body is fully synthetic, she can’t be sure that she still possesses a true soul, referred to as a “ghost”. She has been assigned to investigate a series of “ghost hacks” perpetrated by a hacker known only as “The Puppetmaster”, in essence altering and rewriting memories of humans that are then used as tools to carry out other ghost hacks. Things start to get weird(er) when a, unauthorized female cyborg body is suddenly assembled at Megatech. The cyborg escapes the factory, only to be creamed captured by Section 9, who studies it to try to figure out why it was built. They make a strange discovery as they analyze the cyborg: despite being completely synthetic, and therefore having absolutely no organic brain tissue, the cyborg body possesses evidence that it has a ghost. Kusanagi, for existential reasons outlined above, wants to contact this ghost, but it appears that a lot of people want to get hold of this entity for their own purposes, particularly since it appears that it is connected to the Puppetmaster and a mysterious Project 2501…

When some people think of anime, they imagine giant robot battle, pubescent superheroines in sailor suits fighting giant monsters, improbably powerful ninjas and martial artists, or tentacle rape of any of the above. While these are valid themes found in some anime works, Ghost in the Shell contains none of them. Instead, it is a beautiful, serious, occasionally talky but often philosophical sci fi drama exploring such concepts as humanity and life over a backdrop of virtual reality and computer hacking. As one of the first fusions of traditional cel animation and CGI graphics, Ghost in the Shell boasts beautiful scenery, smooth animation, an distinct character designs in a genre where corner cutting might otherwise lead to cookie-cutter characters distinguished only by clothing or hair color. The characters, though definitely drawn in the anime style, don’t feel as stylized as some characters I’ve seen, and their expressions are subtle. Scenes where Major Kusanagi goes into action are well-rendered and smooth, and although there is some nudity in this film, it is tastefully invoked, and never used sexually.

While the plot is complex, it had to be condensed a lot from the source manga for length reasons, trimming out pretty much all the subplots except for the Puppetmaster story. Although I haven’t read the manga, it doesn’t seem that this distillation really hurt the movie much. The philosophy and Buddhist topics and imagery provide the necessary depth to keep this from becoming Transhumanist Philosophy for Dummies, and the idea that neural implants are so commonplace that a skilled hacker can just dip in and mess with your memories is plausible (and frightening) in the world that Oshii has created. Combine this with the idea of life developing in the other direction – that a being that was synthetic from the start can develop a soul – and you’ve got a neat little exploration of what it is to be human, seen through the respective eyes of Kusanagi and Project 2501.

For many current anime fans, Ghost in the Shell was one of their first samples of what can be a complex and beautiful genre. While the plot can be complex, it also hints at a greater world beyond it, the world explored in greater detail in the manga. I highly recommend this for anime newbies and fans alike.

12 Monkeys (1995)


James Cole is almost sure he isn’t crazy. He might not be able to reconcile his memories and visions with his current surroundings, but he is almost sure he’s not crazy. The trouble is, if he is crazy, everything will be fine. If he’s not, 5 billion people are going to die, very soon.

12 Monkeys is a sci fi film directed by Terry Gilliam, inspired by the short film La jetée by Chris Marker. It stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Jon Seda, David Morse, and Christopher Plummer.

James Cole is a convict living in a future where humanity has been ravaged and forced underground by a deadly virus, believed to have been released by an extremist group called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. In order to earn a pardon, Cole is sent on a number of missions back through time in order to gather information of the virus and the Army of the Twelve Monkeys and if possible, to gather a pure sample of the virus so a cure may be engineered. However, his explanations about the virus and the grim future it causes are dismissed as the deranged ramblings of a schizophrenic, and he is sent to a mental institution. It soon appears that other “crazy” people might also be temporally displaced individuals like Cole himself on similar missions, and Cole desperately recruits his own psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly, for help in saving a future he is starting to believe might not exist…

Ah, Terry Gilliam. One of the founding members of the Monty Python troupe, Gilliam has gone on to direct some of the trippier movies in the spec fiction genre. Like Tim Burton, Gilliam’s movies tend to have a dark fairytale vibe to them, and 12 Monkeys is no exception. Messing with the viewer through the eyes of its protagonist, this movie explores themes like insane prophet vs. harbinger from the future, and whether the viewer can fully trust the POV character’s own observations, or if, as many of the 1996 characters believe, they are just delusions. The post-virus future is disorienting and trippy itself, to the point that it is logical for Cole to start believing it is only the product of an insane mind.

Of course, the film would fall flat without the superb acting of its principal cast. Bruce Willis (who worked for free just to get the chance to work with Gilliam) switches genres again, from action to drama, in effect playing an anti-badass here. Yes, he kicks ass when pressed, but most of the time he doubts himself, doubts his perceived mission, doubts his own perceptions of reality. Madeleine Stowe as Dr. Railly acts as his grounding force, trying to link him with the present even as she finds evidence that he might not be delusional, first fearing him but then wanting to help him find some sort of closure, either in fulfilling his mission or simply finding a place to be. Blurring the line between sanity and insanity is the inclusion of Brad Pitt as Jeffrey Goines (whose twitchy mannerisms were induced by simply taking away his cigarettes during filming), a genuinely(?) crazy character liked to the Army of the Twelve Monkeys whose own ramblings mirror Cole’s desperate attempts to warn the people about their impending near-extinction.

If you’re looking for a movie that messes with your head, you want to see Bruce Willis playing against type, or you’re just a fan of Terry Gilliam, check out this movie. It’s a delightful little Inception-lite puzzle that will hold your interest as you watch everything come full-circle.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)


With every successful movie, there is a good chance that the studios will want to repeat their success. Occasionally, this may result in an unrelated film being repurposed as a sequel, but more often the same people will simply make a sequel. As sequels go, there are three basic types:

  1. Sucky sequel: This sequel falls short (often far short) of its predecessor’s level of quality, and comes off as an obvious, half-assed money grab.
  2. Equivalent sequel: The sequel does not fall short of its predecessor’s level of quality, but neither does it improve on things.
  3. Improved sequel: A rarity, the improved sequel not only meets but also exceeds the quality of its predecessor, taking the concept in new directions that still fit with the established storyline.

In a pleasant surprise, this film finds itself in the third category. And it kicks all kinds of ass.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a science fiction action film directed by James Cameron, and is the first sequel to The Terminator. It stars Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, and some really cool CGI effects.

It has been eleven years since Sarah Connor was last menaced by the (nearly) unstoppable Terminator. John Connor, the future savior of humanity, is now a troubled youth of ten, living with foster parents in Los Angeles after his mother was arrested for trying to bomb a computer factory and sent to a hospital for the criminally insane. Even though he spent his entire childhood being prepared for the impending apocalypse, John isn’t sure what to believe now. Little does he know that in the future, Skynet is going to make another temporally-assisted attempt on his life, this time with the T-1000, a newer and more dangerous model of Terminator composed of liquid metal, with the ability to mimic anything it touches, including people. Fortunately, the human resistance is able to send back yet another guardian, this time a familiar face – a T-800 identical to the one who previously tried to kill Sarah, but reprogrammed to defend John. The two converge on John in a desperate race, and their mutual target is about to learn that his mother’s crazy rantings are anything but delusional…

When I first saw this movie, I hadn’t seen the original in years, but I heard all the hype about the groundbreaking computer generated effects – only two years since The Abyss, in which Cameron also used groundbreaking CG effects, except the hard way. It was amazing to see the advances in CG since then, even though in the fifteen minutes or so of transformation time the T-1000 had, only a relative handful used CGI. And it looked amazing. As the first movie which had a major character be partially (and in a couple scenes completely) created in CGI, the results were impressive and eye-popping. Even though morphing effects had been in use since Willow, and CG-created characters were as old as Young Sherlock Holmes, this time through it looked amazing. Arnie, of course, gets enhanced with old-school makeup effects and animatronics, and the two types of effects mesh well.

The acting was also superb. Linda Hamilton, having previously played Sarah as a meek little mouse of a woman being menaced by things that technically hadn’t happened yet, buffed up to play Sarah Connors, Mother of the Human Resistance, and I could easily believe that she was a little unhinged, albeit with a very good reason – she’d been beaten over the head with a really bad future, she was having nightmares about the impending nuclear apocalypse, and she’d been told that her son was the only thing standing between humanity and its own annihilation. The movie does make it clear that even though John loves his mom, her behavior does not make her a good mother. If anything, it makes her borderline psychotic, to the point that she nearly tips over the edge into the same territory as the focused, emotionless killers whose creation she was trying to prevent. The opens the door for a surprisingly philosophical discussion about humanity, as the inhuman T-800 turns out to be a more dedicated parental figure to John than even Sarah was. Robert Patrick makes an effective rival Terminator as well, sleeker and faster than the T-800, in effect a leopard compared to Arnold’s grizzly bear. Also, sharp-eyed fans of the first will recognize Earl Boen reprising his role as Dr. Silberman, the police psychiatrist in the original, now responsible for Sarah’s care in this one (and about as effective), though of course he gets belted across the face with the truth in a very satisfying sequence at the psychiatric hospital.

It is very rare to find a sequel that improves so drastically upon the first, but it is not surprising to find that James Cameron managed to pull it off. If you enjoyed the first but felt it needed something more, watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and then just sit back and enjoy the action.

The Matrix (1999)

02/12/2011 1 comment

The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.

The Matrix is a sci fi action film written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski. I stars Keanu “Whoa” Reeves, Laurence “Event Horizon” Fishburne, Carrie-Anne “Memento” Moss, Joe “The Goonies” Pantoliano, and Hugo “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” Weaving.

Computer programmer Thomas A. Anderon (Reeves), a.k.a. “Neo”, leads a double life, using his hacking skills to try to learn the answer to the question “What is the Matrix?” Strange messages popping up on his computer screen lead him first to a run-in with mysterious MIB-like figures called Agents, led by Agent Smith (Weaving), and then to a group led by the enigmatic underground hacker Morpheus (Fishburne), who offers him the opportunity to learn about the Matrix. After locating and removing a tracking device inserted during what Neo had thought was a horrible nightmare, several members of Morpheus’ inner circle take Neo to meet their leader in secret. Neo is offered two pills: a blue one that would send him back to his old life, and a red one that would allow him to finish his quest. He chooses the red pill, and his perception of reality turns completely upside-down.

He finds himself in a liquid-filled pod – one of countless thousands – attached with tubes and cables to a massive mechanical structure. He is rescued by Morpheus’ team in the hovership Nebuchadnezzar and nursed into physical functionality, whereupon he learns the sickening truth: The year is closer to 2199 than 1999, and humanity has been enslaved by intelligent machines created in the early 21st century, locked away to be used as living batteries; the Matrix is a Lotus Eater program designed by the machines to keep their batteries docile. Morpheus is a member of a group whose mission it is to “unplug” people from the Matrix, freeing them from this dream world and recuiting them to fight the machines. Fortunately, his awareness of the Matrix allows him to learn how to hack the simulated reality, bending the accepted laws of physics and using the jack in the back of his head to instantly download the information he needs to take down the Matrix from within. His mission is not without hazards, however, not least of which are the Agents, sentient security programs who hunt down and eliminate redpills like Neo, and of these, the most dangerous seems to be one Agent Smith…

I admit – I was impressed by this movie, from the concept of OMG NOTHING’S REAL to HOLY SHIT I CAN HACK REALITY. The bullet time effects were effective in showing events that in real time would go by too quickly to really perceive, and the CGI helped to enhance the pseudoreality effect rather than detract from it. All the “Matrix” scenes have a slight greenish tinge to subconsciously let the viewer know that something is Ever So Slightly Not Right, but in a way that you can’t specifically put your finger on it. And the homogenous, identical Agents were effectively menacing in their anonymity and their little talent of taking over “human” programs pretty much at will, as demonstrated by the “woman in the red dress” simulation. It tries to be philosophical at times about the perception of reality, the nature of reality, and transcending mental limits, but really, you watch a movie like this to see reality stretched to its logical limits.

However, the acting at times was… meh. I’m not just talking about Keanu’s performance (though everybody does), but most of the main cast. There just didn’t seem to be enough there to make me sympathize with Morpheus’ team of reality hackers, not even “digital pimp” Mouse. Only Fishburne seemed to realize that emoting = good, and that was mainly in the scenes where he was having his brain hacked by Agents. That said, the particular brand of non-acting utilized by the Agents did help to highlight their inhumanity, and made Smith’s first steps into glitchiness subtly discernible. Weaving’s drawling American accent was menacingly artificial, and reminded me of the G-Man in the Half-Life games (probably the exact same character archetype, but anyway). In fact, it was not for a long time that I learned that Weaving was actually Australian. Props to you, Hugo.

As a philosophical discussion of the nature of reality and fate, The Matrix falls eversoslightly short, but as a flashy action movie with reality-bending and innovative (for the day) effects and stunts, this movie wins. Switch off your brain and enjoy the ride.

Repo Men (2010)


Good news: In the near future, biomechanical replacement organs will be perfected, eliminating our dependency on organ donation. Liver gone bad? Get a new one, no problem. Heart defect? Get a new one, guaranteed for a billion beats, no problem. The Union is happy to aid those with good credit or enough money to afford these miraculous devices. With the aid of these artiforgs, you could live to a ripe old age, as long as you keep up on your payment plan. Now comes the bad news: These replacement organs are expensive, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. The payment plan is simple, but charges between 20-25% interest. And if you should default on your payments, the Union is authorized to repossess your shiny new liver. Or kidney. Or heart. You didn’t know? You signed a contract authorizing them to do so. It’s no different than defaulting on your house or car. Oh, don’t cry. It’s nothing personal… just business.

Repo Men is a science fiction action-thriller film directed by Miguel Sapochnik, based on the novel Repossession Mambo by Eric Garcia (also written in-universe by the main character), and is probably unrelated to Repo! The Genetic Opera. It stars Jude “Sherlock Holmes” Law, Forest “The Last King of Scotland” Whitaker, Liev “Scream” Schreiber, Alice “Predators” Braga, Carise “Valkyrie” van Houten, Chandler “Knowing” Canterbury, and Robert Fitzgerald “RZA” Diggs.

Remy (Law) works for the Union as a repo man, an agent assigned to track down Union clients who have defaulted on their artiforgs and reclaim them by any means necessary – generally by paralyzing the target and surgically removing the organ with little care for their survival, though he does ask them (post paralysis) of they want to have an ambulance on standby. Naturally, most of their repo targets do everything in their power to avoid repossession, but that’s part of the fun. He and his partner Jake (Whitaker) are considered the best at what they do, but Remy’s wife Carol (van Houten) is horrified at his job, causing Remy to request a transfer to sales. At his final repo job to reclaim a man’s artiforg heart, Remy’s defib unit malfunctions, shocking him into next week and requiring him to get his own damaged heart replaced with an artiforg. Now Remy has a big problem. His sales job can’t hope to pay for the artiforg, forcing him back into repo. Bigger problem: he finds himself starting to identify with the people whose artiforgs he is assigned to repo. No repos means no big salary means he can’t pay for his artiforg means guess who’s on the run from his own co-workers? Remy is forced underground, into the seedier underworld created as a side-effect of the artiforg industry, desperately seeking a way to get out of the system alive.

Now, I was intrigued by the premise of the movie, happily deconstructing the shinier future visions of artificial replacement organs down to the underlying question of how to pay for them and what is to be done if you can’t. From there it could easily go into drama, or thriller, or even black comedy if you played your cards right. The actual execution of the idea was thrilling, and had me on the edge of my seat at times. Law and Whitaker are both excellent actors, and I had to smile and nod at the inclusion of Schreiber (whom I’d previously seen in morally-ambiguous roles in the Scream trilogy and the remake of The Manchurian Candidate) as the lawful evil executive in charge of doling out these super-expensive wonder-organs. Remy’s evolution from “It’s Just Business” to “My God, These Are Actual People” is generally believable, but Frank just seemed to be there as Remy’s foil, the barometer against whom we measure Remy’s change in point of view and growth of a conscience.

The violence and gore was expected, considering the central premise was a bunch of guys whose job it was to take back organ transplants, though it raised the question of how thoroughly the artiforgs would be cleaned before being transplanted into their next victim client. I wondered, though, at the battle training apparently given to every single executive in the building (but in light of the ending, that probably didn’t matter a while lot). Another plot hole I wondered about was how the general public would stand for the sort of legally binding contract that would allow a corporation to cut you open and take back an artiforg, or why there was no mention of health insurance to defray the cost, but my eventual conclusions were “viva dystopia” and “It’s a sci fi movie, so sit back and enjoy it!” If there was a deep social commentary buried in there, I didn’t see it, though it could easily have compared the artiforg repo business to the tendency of insurance companies to refuse to pay for life-saving treatments.

Overall, this was a shallow sci-fi film pretending to be a thought-provoking thriller, splattered with blood and sprinkled with paranoia. Jude Law is pretty, the Union is evil, and the artiforgs are the ultimate deal with the devil. Good for a rental, but be ready to shut off your brain.

Avatar (2009)


Great things happen when James Cameron makes a movie these days. Sometimes it’s spectacular, frequently it’s philosophical, and occasionally there is a fresh, deep, multilayered plot with excellent writing and interweaving plotlines. Often new filmmaking techniques must be devised to convey his sweeping vision. Did Cameron succeed with Avatar? Having had good experience with his movies in the past and having heard all the hype surround his latest Biggest Movie Ever, naturally I wanted to know.

Avatar is an epic science fiction film directed by (who else) James Cameron. It stars Sam “Remake of the Titans” Worthington, Zoe “Vantage Point” Saldana, Stephen “Project X” Lang, Michelle “Resident Evil” Rodriguez, Joel David “Grandma’s Boy” Moore, Giovanni “Gone in 60 Seconds” Ribisi, and Sigourney “Get away from her, you bitch!” Weaver.

In the year 2154, the RDA corporation is mining a mineral called unobtanium on a lush, jungle-like moon called Endor Pandora, a planet where absolutely everything is deadly to humans, but not to the Na’vi, a race of Native American cat girls nine foot tall sapient humanoids, who live in harmony with nature and follow a mother goddess they call Eywa. To interface with the Na’vi and learn about Pandora, the researchers use genetically engineered human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called Avatars, controlled from afar via mental link by genetically compatible operators. Jake Sully (Worthington), a paraplegic former Marine from Earth, is recruited to replace his dead twin brother, a scientist for whom the body was originally created, but who was murdered during a robbery. Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), the head of the Avatar program, doesn’t think Sully is sufficiently prepared for intergalatic diplomacy, but when he is separated from the group to whom he was assigned as a body guard, attacked by native predators, and rescued by a Na’vi named Neytiri, he is brought to a local village, as signs portend Great Things for him. The Na’vi teach him the native ways, and Colonel Badass Miles Quaritch, who to judge by his facial scars has already had a less than diplomatic encounter with the Na’vi, promises to help Sully walk again if he gathers intel on the Na’vi, but plans to get his Unobtanium by any means possible. But then the plot gets lost in the goddamn beautiful scenery.

This movie is really frapping gorgeous. The lush jungle scenes are filled with plantlife that you would expect to find on an alien planet, but with enough parallels with Earth flora that you almost recognize many of them. Some of the glowing blue ferns look like something from the bottom of the ocean, and the trees are huge, organic, old-growth behemoths that look like they’ve been there since the beginning of time. The wildlife is vicious but plausible, with claws and spikes and armor that have a purpose other than for sheer scary factor, and the Na’vi are believeable as a native race, with their own ways and customs, and a unique appearance that automatically precludes the “dude in a suit” limitations that less ambitious directors might try. 95% of Pandora is completely CGI, and Cameron worked with a small army of designers, artists, costumers, linguists, botanists, anthropologists, and CGI creators to bring this alien world to life. Which would be great if this were a pure mockumentary of Pandora, and we had time to explore without worrying about any plot-based reasons for being there. Unfortunately, the plot that we are given is fairly thin and derivative, and easily gets lost in the beauty of this created world.

When I saw Avatar in theaters, my main impression was, God, that was pretty. And… that was pretty much it. While the visuals were impressive, like I’d come to expect from Cameron, the actual story was kind of disappointing. It was like, okay, there’s this alien world with this really awesome stuff on it that humans want (and I have a hard time taking Unobtanium seriously as a scientific name since they used it with a straight face in The Core), but OMG LOOK AT THE PRETTY PLANET AND THE AWESOME HALF-NAKED CATGIRLS and wait, we need an actual story? Meh, just retell Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves, nobody will notice.

So, if you’re looking for impressive visuals and an overall very shiny movie, see Avatar. On the other hand, if you want a unique, well-developed story that doesn’t ride exclusively on visuals, give this one a miss.