Saturday, December 19, 2009 2 reflections

A new 'Avatar' of CGI benchmarks

Alright – the suspense is over. After zooming past large billboards smeared with glowing yellow eyes set within a dark blue face spotted with tiny stars for a few weeks now, I finally caught the screening of James Cameroon's latest sci-fi flick 'Avatar'.

I already knew before settling down to watch the 3 hour tale, that it was going to be filled with all the ingredients necessary to make an epic movie of the kind 'Titanic' was made of. I also knew that the onus of most of these components would rely heavily on the CGI that I had seen in the teasers for a while now. 20 minutes into 'Avatar' and my thoughts were confirmed. One look at Pandora – the imaginary planet weaved out of Cameroon's multifaceted armor, and it was like getting a glimpse of an enchanted forest that seemed to have all the answers to questions a man could ever ask. One look at the Na'vi clan and I knew that Cameroon had created yet another hard-to-follow act by stitching together reality and fiction with such accuracy and detail.

The plot is pretty simple though. Pandora is a planet that is inhabited by the natives called the Na'vi – a humanoid race that has its own roots, belief system, Gods and language. They are skilled warriors who have advanced physical features like an exaggerated height, feline facial structure, dark blue skin that glows in the dark, deep-set golden yellow eyes, a furry tail and the extreme sense of where to find good and what it takes to preserve it. One short – true off springs of Mother Nature.

On the other side, as always, are the humans – us. Ignorant, arrogant and self-serving folks who have managed to destroy what was blessed on their own planet and are now onto Pandora to extract valuable minerals that will help them rebuild what they ended up destroying thanks to their own disturbing ways. One problem though – the natives wont let the humans destroy what they consider sacred...what they consider home. To enable this process to be as smooth as possible, humans have created scientific biological identities known as 'avatars' that allow humans to go into Pandora and interact with the locals. Our hero – paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully – whose twin brother was killed in battle, is chosen to replace his brother in this mission of 'go convince the natives to abandon their home and let us suck out their resources'. A bizarre battle of science and faith is poised to be let loose.

As ordered, Jake gets into his avatar and manages to befriend Neytiri – a Na'vi with whom he later falls in love with. Neytiri, much to the reluctance of her community, trains Jake in their ways and gives him everything she has – including complete trust. Little does she know that Jake is in fact a spy who has been sent into their world to collect intelligence for Colonel Quatrich. As Jake spends more time in Pandora, he finds himself transforming into a true Na'vi. He finds himself being able to identify with the Na'vis who are proud of who they are and revere their land more than anything else. This, needless to say, is counter productive as far as the suits in the flying spaceships are concerned since this means blood spill is going to be inevitable. This also means that Jake will have to choose what he will eventually be – a marine who has been promised his real legs back, or a Na'vi who is in love.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot thins out after the first 90 minutes since it gets quite predictable after that. But what really makes 'Avatar' a classic are the breathe taking visuals. Never before have I seen such a unique blend of CGI and reality. I mean, they actually have places like the floating mountains of Pandora, shockingly real looking Na'vi facial expressions and skin texture, amazingly well choreographed flight sequences with dragons and other extra-terrestrial creatures. Truly, it is something one can only experience to feel its authentic magic.

While I don't think Avatar has a storyline that is out of the ordinary, what I am convinced about is that the presentation of this tale will go down as a serious turning point for future CGI based projects. I would certainly like to think of Avatar as the beginning of something spectacular rather than the peak of what can be accomplished with today's technology.

It is curious that the movie has some interesting references to what I have heard about in Hinduism. For instance, as my wife Jaya rightly pointed out, the word 'Na'vi' (or Naa-bi) means the belly button – or the central spot where the umbilical cord bonds a child to its mother. This bonding and connectivity concept is well tapped in Avatar as almost every bond the Na'vis share happens with some sort of physical contact. There is also the reference to how important a role trees play in connecting souls in their world. All the literature in the Vedic culture have constant mentions of trees playing a vital role in matters of life and the concept of death. Jaya also mentioned that there exists references to tall, dark blue humans who roamed the Earth during Satya Yuga, where it is believed mankind was governed directly by the Gods. I also couldn't help noticing that the mark on Jake's forehead during his training resembles the naamam worn by Hindus. Of course, all of this could be mere coincidence but we certainly noticed it and hence I thought of mentioning it here for what its worth. I also must add that despite not having any hugely known names in the movie (except maybe Sigourney Weaver!) the performances are competent and everyone chips in well. You don't even feel that you are missing out huge names on the brand since the visuals keep you busy.

All said and done, Avatar is a visually stunning experience for those who'd want to take a ride around the celestial place called Pandora and live among the selfless creatures called Na'vis. I am sure that if you are bored of Earth and the pains it comes with, then Pandora might just be the spot to visit!

Thursday, December 17, 2009 1 reflections

An unabridged emotion

It finally happened. After what seemed like a nervous wait for the unknown eventuality, it finally did. Actually it began quite fervently yesterday but took on the gorgeous form of a relentless wave last night as it showered generous flakes of soft feather-weight white snow all over Copenhagen. What made it particularly special for me was that it was Jaya's first real chance at indulging in some serious snow fights. As she threatened to swing a big fist full at me last night, we stood in our cargo shorts clicking warm photographs under a cold blanket and became children for a few brief moments.

I couldn't help but relate to her unabridged enthusiasm at the whole affair. I remember being absolutely ecstatic back in 1992, when I had first encountered snow at the foothills of Kedarnath in North India. As a lad in the prime of his teenage years, I recall being absolutely fascinated with the cold and hard chunks of natural ice that seemed to give me so much joy just by being themselves. I then met snow again in the Xmas of 2000, during my first visit to the United States. I remember being equally fascinated by it even the second time but I also remember being subtle about the whole thing in the presence of my American-born cousins. Had it just been me I'd have probably danced in euphoria once again.

As I watched Jaya show me the photographs she had taken of the heavy snowfall around the city, I could feel that familiar pulsating emotion that only folks like us can experience. And by that I mean – people who never grew up around snow. Even though I traveled the country growing up, I never lived in a place where it snowed. Heck, I used to think it would snow everywhere except in India until I realized that snowfall had nothing to do with countries and had more to do with where they were located. That fact was rather unsettling since all geographical aspects aside, I felt suddenly alienated from this wonderful experience. As I'd watch New Year celebrations on the television from New York or Moscow or somewhere else in the foreign lands where snow was a regular feature during this time of the year, I'd always wonder what it was about snow that made us – well, so child-like. We would be tempted to go out there, even in sub zero temperatures, to make snowmen or have intense snowball fights. We'd want to jump, crash, hop and even slide down the terrain as long as we knew that the cool and comforting mattress of pure white snow was there to help us along the way. Maybe it was in that innocent sense of natural care, that my imagination, of snow always being associated with something so joyous and entertaining, found wings. I cant say for sure.

All these thoughts returned to me as I watched Jaya call her family up and share her wonderful first experience with the big bold white. I am sure she will see many such snowfalls in the months, and even years, to come. But I am also certain that no matter how many winters and snowflakes embrace her from this point forward, she will never forget this day when she got up and the entire city's stony silence had been transformed into a giant canvas of pure excitement. wondrous would it be if it would snow everywhere in the world at the same time so that all of us – earth citizens – could, for one brief fleeing moment, forget about hating or loving each other and just … just enjoy this unabridged emotion.

Oh well. If what I hear about global warming is true, then this hope of mine could definitely be a reality. Perhaps with tragic consequences...but definitely an undeniable reality. Until then, I am happy that Jaya now has something that is certainly so unique.