Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movie Review: "Avatar"

James Cameron has directed some of the biggest films in history. He is responsible for The Terminator and its first (and best) sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies, and he personally won 3 of the 11 Oscars awarded to Titanic. He also produced an excellent IMAX 3-D documentary Ghosts of the Abyss about exploration of the Titanic wreckage that I thought was superior to his big-budget fictionalization about the doomed ocean liner. Cameron has been absent from the screen for several years now while mounting his biggest spectacle yet, Avatar. Cameron is credited as writer and director, and as with his other productions he is deeply involved with virtually every aspect of production. This is his third feature film in a row that has supposedly set a record for its budget (reportedly between $200 and $300 million dollars) and as with most of his other films, there is a lot of tech up there on the screen. I read many reviews (probably too many) of the film before seeing it, with opinions ranging from "this is the most amazing film EVER" to the derisive description "Dancing With Smurfs." As a result, I expected to be both wowed and underwhelmed. And sure enough, that's what happened.
The story takes place on a distant moon, Pandora, which contains a valuable mineral called "unobtanium." (Subtlety is not one of Cameron's strengths as a storyteller.) A mining company is desperate to get to the biggest underground deposit, located under a massive tree that is the home of a tribe of Na'vi, Pandora's 10-foot tall blue-skinned humanoids. Jake Sully, the story's hero, is a former US Marine whose battle injuries have left him in a wheelchair. Despite having no training for the program, he is selected to operate his late twin brother's avatar, a genetically-modified Na'vi drone which acts as a sort of virtual-reality body in which the operator can interact with the natives in the poisonous-to-humans atmosphere. The avatars are part of a program, headed by chain-smoking scientist Sigourney Weaver, to study and understand the Na'vi though the corporation's militaristic security operations chief sees them as a way to get intel that can be used to overthrow the primitives. Through his avatar, Jake falls in love with his new-found mobility, the spectacular environment, the chief's daughter...you get the idea. Rather than gather information, he decides he wants to join the tribe.
The environment of Pandora is quite impressive: the CGI-rendered world is magnificent in its detail and execution. The bright, phosphorescent colors are a bit overwhelming after a while and the effect is what I would describe as "convincing" rather than "realistic." Pandora's lower gravity presumably is what allows for its incredibly large plants, creatures, and floating mountains, all of which do provide a suitably alien setting, especially when seen in an IMAX 3-D theater. The 3-D photography still suffers at times from the motion blur common to 3-D films, but the effect of true depth is the best I have ever seen. The glasses do become a bit annoying during the over 2 hour 40 minute running time. Some of the aerial sequences are genuinely breathtaking, and as a whole this film is the only one that rivals this summer's Star Trek for realism.
Part of the realism involves the Na'vi themselves, created through the most detailed and painstaking motion-capture yet used in a movie. The details of the characters' mouths, noses, and eyes make for very convincing characters and it is easy to believe that you are seeing a close representation of the actors who play the Na'vi. As a technical achievement, I'm not sure there is much that would improve it.
As a story, there are problems. If you have seen Dances With Wolves, you won't be surprised by a single element of the plot. For all the time, effort, and money that went into this film it is disappointing that Cameron didn't take another couple of weeks or bring in other writers to flesh out what is essentially a bad cowboys-good Indians action flick. As I wrote earlier, Cameron is not good at being subtle. We are told how vitally important it is to the "company" that unobtanium be acquired, but my reaction throughout the entire film was "so what?" It was difficult to believe that anyone would invest so many resources and risk so much destruction for this stuff. Maybe that's the point of the story, but if I'd been told the stuff could cure cancer or cause the growth of giant, delicious radishes I would have found the motivation of the villains more believable.
The villains. If a story doesn't have good villains, its success as a story is likely to be compromised. The bad guys in this movie, a gung-ho former Colonel and the corporate manager, are so one-dimensional that I was waiting for a "soon Metropolis will feel the sting of my death ray" monologue. From the moment they appear on screen, there is no doubt: these guys exist only to make bad decisions and be hated by the viewer. They want to destroy the Na'vi, because bad guys like explosions and hate kittens. When the battle tactic of "fight terror with terror" is mentioned, it is a jolt not just because it is an obvious "James Cameron commenting on modern warfare" moment but because there is no aspect of the plot up to that moment that in any way resembles terrorism. It falls into the narrative trap of "every war is Vietnam" and "modern armies bad, primitive armies good" (unless the good guys are using modern weapons they swiped from the bad guys) because the narrative is now making an important statement rather than letting the story unfold in an organic manner.
That's a shame, because despite my misgivings after seeing the film's overly-long trailer several weeks ago, I wanted to get wrapped up in the story. The effect was similar to experiencing a great roller coaster ride, only to be told at the end-by the person operating the ride-that cutting down trees to make room for roller coasters is bad. I appreciate the message, but do you have to be that heavy-handed?
The romance story is actually well-done, and the explanation for why the Na'vi are so dependant upon their environment made the almost literal "tree hugging" aspect of the story consistent and plausible within the realm of the film. In some ways that aspect of the film works better than the rather simplistic teen romance of Titanic, which also was visually spectacular but suffered from having a cartoony bad guy. It seems to me that Cameron is at his best when the antagonist is an amoral killing machine or an impersonal group of flesh-eating aliens, but at his worst when he tries to write conflict between humans (or Na'vi). While we can accept that robots from the future have no motivation other than the orders given by the programmer, humans don't work that way. It's a shame that a movie with such convincing 3-D effects should have unconvincing 1-D characters.
But don't get the wrong idea if it seems I'm being a bit harsh--Avatar is an adrenaline-packed experience with some truly exciting action sequences and amazing visuals. If you are even considering seeing it, GO. Despite its shortcomings, it is a landmark film, a testament to what a whole lot of time, money, and technology can do to create a world that previously only existed in the imagination. Watching this on even a good television in your living room would be like watching a video of the aforementioned roller coaster: it may technically look the same, but it won't match the experience of being there.

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