Sunday, December 27, 2009

Review: "Avatar"

I'm not exeactly sure what I want to say about this movie. Last weekend's major snow storm kept me from seeing it when I had planned, and then it was last minute shopping and the holiday and gifting and eating and more eating...

Anyway, every review in the world is in, so I won't bore you with a summary of the plot (not that there's much of one, anyway), most of which Cameron seems to have written by assembling scenes and ideas from other movies (not just his own, either) like a jigsaw puzzle that fits together in different ways. There used to actually be a plot-tree, from which writers would chose various elements and weave them into a script, and Avatar comes as close to that as any movie I can remember seeing. What I will do is some picking away at it, later.

But let's address the thing everyone is talking about: Avatar's astounding visuals and the 3D. Yes, it is an astonishing film to look at, but at 162 minutes in length, one's eyes begin to get tired (or at least mine did) about 2/3 of the way through. I didn't get the headache or the nausea some have reported (though I never do), but eye fatigue was definitely an issue for your Uncle Prospero's aging eyes... sigh. That having been said, every penny is on the screen; gorgeously rendered colors and imaginative flora and fauna are painstakingly placed just so and the movie certainly looks like no other you've ever seen. And yes, the 3D is the best you've ever seen, but it is (thankfully) never used gratuitously or for a cheap shock.

The mostly excellent cast's talents are completely wasted on a beautiful, but ultimately unoriginal film. Sam Worthington is fine as the Na'vi born in a human body, destined -underdog-warrior-hero and Sigourney Weaver is... well, Sigourney Weaver. In completely motion-capture performances, I suppose Zoe Saldana, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi and Laz Alonso do good jobs pretending to be 9' tall blue cat-people who overtly represent oppressed indigenous peoples of our own species. But how does one know how said sexy blue cat-people behave? But we've all seen Pocahontas, so we know how imposed-upon indigenous people behave - OK, we're making a Space Western, here. from the Native Americans' POV. Hey, we can even call them the Na'vi so people will get that they're the natives. I get it now. Hmm... Wait, didn't Kevin Costner do that like 20 years ago? Oh, it's a Marines Vs Aliens war in space flick? Like Starship Troopers but less ironic? So, Aliens from the xenomorphs' POV? That's so original James. It's going to change movies forev... oh ,who am I kidding?

Anyway, back to the performances. As the power-mad C.O. (last seen as Michael Biehn in The Abyss) Stephen Lang is the ultimate Muscle Daddy top with a penis so tiny he has to smash everything in sight, while Giovanni Ribisi plays the corporate weasel last seen as Paul Reiser in Aliens. As for Sigourney's character, Grace Augustine is a renowned xeno-botanist. That means she studies alien plant-life. Indeed, she's fascinated by the symbiotically connected trees of Pandora. Why then, was she chosen to head-up a diplomatic program involving the genetic engineering of biological avatars controlled by human drivers? Oh, that's right. She's a BOTANIST! Everyone knows what great Diplomatic Genetic Engineers botanists make. Oh, and there's Michelle Rodriguez as the empowered Latina pilot with a conscience, last seen as Jenette Goldstein's Vasquez in Aliens.

And how about the Na'vi and their intimate relationship with Pandora's fauna? The Na'vi all have these braids, at the end of which are these wriggly scillia, capable of neuro-interfacing with, not only other animal species but trees, as well. Oh, that's right. Everything is literally connected (ew) to the Mother-Planet-Gaea-New-Age-Tree-Deity who will die if the Na'vi don't protect Her.

Oh, and there are these mountains that float. Yes, that's right. There's no logical explanation for why they do so, but they do. It's an anomaly. So that's how we'll explain it. It's a gravitational anomaly which somehow manages to knock out basic radio transmission and navigational equipment. It's Pandora's Bermuda Triangle. Yeah, that's the ticket!

So, now that we have this pastiche plot, let's throw in some pastiche imagery that references Aliens; King Kong; The Terminator; Stargate; Flash Gordon; Harry Potter; Star Wars; Little Big Man; Braveheart; Return of the Jedi; Jurassic Park and countless other films that have come before. Hell - let's give 'em a 9/11 reference just to to drive the nails a little bit deeper into the audiences' collective psyches. Sure, it's a whole lot prettier than it's ever been before, but that doesn't mean we haven't already seen this movie dozens of times. Do we care about Jake and Neytiri and the Tree of Souls? I suppose the performances are good enough to overcome the character's cardboard cut-out personalities. Are we surprised by anything that happens? No. And that, ultimately, is the film's tragic flaw. Good triumphs over evil; love conquers all, boy meets, gets, loses and gets girl again; a lost soul finds himself; it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature; those who live by the sword... blah, blah, blah, blah, blah... It's like Cameron just tried to see how much crap he could stuff his movie with. Sadly, it's mostly empty calories in that big, pretty, sugary sundae.

Will Avatar actually change movies forever, as the ads are proclaiming? I doubt it. As revolutionary as its effects and cameras are; it's plot is as squeaky as an old leather boot left out in the rain and Cameron's dialogue sounds like it came from a 1947 manual on screenwriting. Happily, Cameron's go-to composer James Horner provides a lush and exciting score, adding depth to the film's admittedly exciting battle sequences.

I'm not saying that Avatar is a bad movie. Far from it. I was entertained the entire time. And seeing it alone allowed me to really let myself become immersed in what Cameron was trying to give the audience. Sadly, as in Titanic, I could not immerse myself enough in the plot to care about anything else but the visuals. Maybe someday Cameron will direct a script written by someone else, and he will make an actually brilliant film.

Yes, you should see Avatar and you should see it in IMAX 3D. Just don't expect the revelatory experience some would have you believe. Expect instead, a rollicking Action/Adventure/Sci-fi film with visions of ecological grandeur.

Dances With Aliens... um, er... uh, I mean Avatar is great for a mindless escape from the stress of the holiday season. It will make a gazillion dollars, though I doubt it will earn Cameron another Oscar for artistic achievement. Derivative, predictable but visually unparalleled, Avatar will hopefully lead to films that can embrace the new technology while maintaining depth, substance and original ideas.

**1/2 (Two and a Half Stars).

More, anon.*

*Now with links. Edited 12/28/09


William said...

A thoroughly entertaining review, although I'm feeling a bit sad Prospero. A few weeks ago when I read Roger Ebert's early review, he was saying this movie was so good it would start a new cult. Now, reading your review, I'm saddened to hear it's so derivative of what's come before. I was hoping 'Avatar' would be this new generation's 'Star Wars'...have times changed just too much since 1977? Is our culture just too ADHD now to latch on and savor a new sci-fi blockbuster that'll have such a profound impact on the cultural landscape the way 'Star Wars' did? Am I just fooling myself to hope that another one'll come along someday? Hummpff!

Prospero said...

Part if the problem is Cameron's massive ego. No one on the project had the balls to call him on it, lest he go ballistic and eat them alive. The other problem are the special effects, which while extraordinary, aren't extraordinary enough. Never once did I believe I was anywhere that might actually exist (unlike 'Aliens). It's like someone added live-action sequences to 'Ferngully.'

But as I said, I was never bored or not entertained. It's worth seeing, as long as you don't expect the next 'Star Wars.'

trendsworld said...

James Cameron May Add Chinese suppliers Na’vi to ‘Avatar’ Sequels for more information

This tale first showed up in the September. 28 problem of The Artist Writer journal. Now that Wayne Cameron is doing company with Chinese suppliers, do not be amazed if Chinese suppliers Na’ve pop up in the Character sequels. In Aug, the...