Hubble 3D & Avatar: Special Edition

Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by outer space. I’d love to travel to the moon, the international space station or just to orbit the blue, white and green rock we call home. Since that’s not likely to happen, I’ll just have to make due with documentaries about and movies set in the final frontier. Imagine my excitement when I discovered an IMAX 3D documentary about the Hubble space telescope was playing at the same theatre as the re-release of James Cameron’s “Avatar: Special Edition” also in IMAX 3D. When Stan’s Choice won this week’s movie poll, I knew it was preordained that I head for the theatre and begin star gazing.

“Hubble 3D” documents the last repair mission to the Hubble space telescope. Hubble, launched in 1990 by the space shuttle, has been providing images of the deepest corners of the universe thanks to five repair missions. With the shuttle fleet facing retirement, Hubble has been touched by human hands for the last time. A 2009 repair mission fixed and replaced equipment that should keep the space telescope functioning until 2014. The images produced by the orbiting observatory have broadened our understanding of the universe, as well as posing many more questions. This short, 45 minute documentary, narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, follows the last mission and also gives viewers a look at some of the breathtaking photos taken over Hubble’s life. The images are rendered in 3D allowing the camera to move among the stars, nebulae and galaxies, providing the viewer with the kind of experience that’s impossible even for astronauts. The IMAX format and sound gives the audience a unique view of shuttle launches as well. The thunder of the solid rocket boosters vibrates your body as the clouds from launch envelope the camera. While the documentary is long on footage of the repairs and short on Hubble images, those stellar photos are the most “Wow!” inducing moments of “Hubble 3D.” Personally, I could sit and watch Hubble pictures for hours and never get bored. If all of this documentary had been 3D renderings of Hubble’s images, I would have been in heaven…literally. As it is, “Hubble 3D” is an amazing journey following brave crews of scientists and engineers to one of the most important pieces of scientific equipment in history.

“Hubble 3D” is rated G.

This last repair mission nearly didn’t happen as it was deemed too dangerous following the shuttle Columbia disaster. Pressure from the public and some member of Congress convinced NASA to put the flight back on the schedule. The science provided by the added and repaired instruments will be keeping astronomers and physicists busy for decades and the images will be mesmerizing space geeks like me for just as long.

“Hubble 3D” gets five guitars.

James Cameron added some deleted scenes and fleshed out a few others with eight additional minutes of material in “Avatar: Special Edition.” Below is my original review from December 2009.

Earth of the 22nd century is a barren, dirty world. Having stripped the planet of its natural resources, humans have ventured deep into space to find other worlds to plunder. They discover Pandora, the moon of a gas giant planet. While visually similar to Earth, Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic and will kill humans in about four minutes. A rare material called unobtainium could provide Earth with a power source for centuries; unfortunately, the largest deposit of the mineral is beneath a village occupied by the native people of Pandora, the Na’vi. Ten feet tall, blue and with cat-like features (including a tail), the Na’vi live in a symbiotic relationship with the forest and animals. To learn more about the Na’vi, and to figure out a way to move them from the unobtainium deposit, a mining corporation develops the Avatar Program. Human and Na’vi DNA is combined to create living creatures who can be operated by human “drivers” to interact with the Na’vi. One of these drivers is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine who became a paraplegic due to injuries sustained in battle on Earth. Able to walk again in his Na’vi avatar, Jake begins his mission under the watchful and cynical eye of Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the head researcher of the program. While in the forest, Sully’s avatar is saved by a Na’vi woman named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). She knows there’s something different about and wrong with this odd Na’vi, but a sign from nature suggests she should bring Sully to her village. This greatly excites Grace for the research opportunity it presents, but mining corporation director Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Rabisi) is less interested in science than in profit and has former Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) in charge of a large security force primed to move the Na’vi by any means necessary.

James Cameron’s first film since the mega-blockbuster “Titanic” hits the screen with a splash of color, sight and sound that is truly unique. The film is visually breathtaking. Pandora, rendered with CG images, is a wonderland of bizarre beasts and glowing plants. The Na’vi themselves are an elegant, sensual creature, at one with nature and each other. The CGI used to create the Na’vi is impressive. Using motion capture suits and a head-mounted camera to film the actors’ facial expressions, Cameron has delivered on the promise of this type of CGI. While the physical performance hasn’t been an issue, the look of the face in past motion capture movies has. The face has usually appeared frozen and lacked expression, especially from the eyes. Filming the face with a dedicated camera and transporting that image to the CGI character is a massive leap forward and is a technique that should always be used for this type of image.

From deep jungles to high mountains and islands of rock that float in midair, Pandora is a glorious place to see. While the story of the big, civilized bullies picking on the poor, simple native people has been played out on screen many times, Cameron (who also wrote the screenplay) is able to amplify the emotion of his simple story with the impressive visuals. There were times I felt very caught up in the excitement and challenge of what the Na’vi faced against the military might of the mining company. Of course, the film deals mostly in clichés as far as the characters go. Everyone plays pretty much according to type with no real surprises. Still, “Avatar” is a beautiful and exciting film to watch and is probably best experienced in 3D. While there isn’t a lot of the usual 3D trickery of bits and pieces flying toward you from the screen, the depth provided adds more realism to the computer created beauty of Pandora.

“Avatar” is rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking. While there isn’t much gore in the battle scenes, there is some blood and one Na’vi is shown impaled by part of a tree. We also see several people shot with arrows. The sensuality is minimal and brief. Grace is shown smoking on several occasions (which seemed a bit odd in the enclosed environment). Foul language is sprinkled throughout the film.

“Avatar” is reported to have cost $300-million to produce. If you include the research and development costs of the new 3D cameras, motion-capture techniques and CGI software created specifically for this movie, then the actual cost could be closer to half a billion dollars or more. While many hyper-expensive films don’t look like all that, “Avatar” appears to have succeeded in putting every penny on the screen. While it has been billed as a movie that will change films forever, I can’t see that many studios investing that kind of money into that many films. And the first one of these super-expensive movies that flops horribly will also change the way films are made, at least in the immediate aftermath. For now, I don’t think “Avatar” will be that film. It may not be the box office juggernaut “Titanic” was, but it will make back its investment and is worthy of your entertainment dollar.

“Avatar” gets five guitars.

Four new films, including George Clooney’s annual Oscar bid, hit theatres this week. Vote below for the film I review next.

The American--George Clooney stars as a skilled assassin who lets his guard down when he retreats to the Italian countryside for one final assignment.

Get Low--A backwoods recluse wants a 'living funeral,' in which anyone who ever had heard a story about him will come to tell it, while he takes it all in.

Going the Distance--Drew Barrymore and Justin Long are a madly-in-love couple who tackle the challenges of a cross-country relationship.

Machete--Danny Trejo stars as Machete, a renegade Mexican Federale and tough-as-nails vigilante for justice who is out to settle the score.

Stan’s Choice--Stan sees and reviews any film currently in theatres.

Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.

Have a question? Send it to Follow Stan on Twitter @moviemanstan.