Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In Theaters: Avatar

Avatar poster and IMPAwards link
Before any discussion of James Cameron’s AVATAR can take place, I must establish one thing. I have not seen FERN GULLY: THE LAST RAINFOREST. Statistically speaking, you probably haven’t either. This is not some well-established icon of pop culture that casts a shadow over anything similar made afterwards, so let’s shut the Hell up about it, all right?

I have not, for that matter, seen DANCES WITH WOLVES, let alone THE LAST SAMURAI. Therefore when complaints circulated about how much this film was shaping up to resemble these pictures, I was confused as to why this mattered at all. There are no original stories, and I fail to see why this film’s unoriginality is more egregious than that of any other picture this year.

Sure, it looks like something out of the 1990s, complete with colors that aren’t brown and a totally unsubtle ecological message, and this is apparently no longer acceptable. But AVATAR, like all films, needs to be judged on the quality of its execution. It’s first and foremost a spectacle, and like most all of James Cameron’s films it delivers on that level. It’s beautiful and imaginative, using some very intense technology to bring some remarkable visuals to the screen. It does follow the familiar story model more closely than it needs to, and a number of minor things keep it from being a truly great sci-fi adventure, but it’s definitely worth seeing.

The film takes place on the distant world of Pandora, where an unnamed (I think) corporation is attempting to mine for a precious mineral. It’s called unobtanium, which tells you all you need to know about that. They’ve been trying to peacefully negotiate with a group of natives- known as the Na’vi- to get them to leave the giant tree they make their home in, since that tree sits right on top of a huge unobtanium deposit. To interact with the natives more easily (Pandora’s atmosphere is poisonous and the wildlife is less-than-friendly), the scientists have created “Avatars”, vat-grown Na’vi lookalikes that are neurally linked to human beings on-base. The newest candidate for the Avatar program is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine who takes over his dead brother’s spot. For him, it’s a chance to walk again, and he inevitably wanders off too far on a recon mission, getting lost in the jungle, nearly eaten by scaly dog monsters, and rescued by the beautiful (in a way) Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). As he learns more about the Na’vi, he comes to realize that they won’t be moved, and the military wing of the project starts to take over. The intense Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) prepares a full-scale assault on the Na’vi, but Sully now believes he’s on the wrong side, and tries to do what he can to prevent the society’s destruction.

This is actually the first “new” film that I’ve seen in 3-D (and IMAX, but it was one of those not-real-IMAX experiences where it was just a larger screen than usual. Apparently the owners of the trademark need the money and don’t particularly care who gets it.) I was surprised to discover that while the technology to make films in 3-D has apparently improved, the actual viewing technology has not changed at all. It still relies on polarized sunglasses, requires you to keep your head level (if you tilt too much the images aren’t side-by-side), and causes just a wee bit of eyestrain. In short, I don’t think they’ve gotten it right yet, which is a shame, because the film’s 3-dimensional composition is superb. It very rarely relies on the “throw things into the audience” trick, and instead focuses more on the layering of images and planes; the film probably still looks good in 2-D, but it’s worth seeking out a 3-D showing if you’re going to see it in theaters, because the spectacle is so much of the fun.

And it is quite a spectacle. There is a certain 1990s-blockbuster quality to the film’s aesthetic, rendered in bright neon colors and focusing on impossibly lush rainforests and the like, but frankly, I’ve missed this. The creatures in particular, designed by famed sci-fi/fantasy illustrator Wayne Barlowe, are impressively diverse. There’s something vividly real about all of Pandora, even though we know that over two hundred million at least was spent on bringing it to life in computers. The “performance capture” work in this film was probably worth the expense all on its own; the Na’vi never fall into the Uncanny Valley, and the emotions and expressions they produce are as authentic as anything.

It helps that the filmmakers have done some work to make the Na’vi seem like an authentic culture. Most notable is the Na’vi language, which Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, awesome as ever) is an expert in, and which Sully must learn if he’s to get anywhere with the tribe. They have the ability to bond with certain other animals via an organic neural linkup of their own, and use this to tame wild beasts for mounts. And while on the surface, their religion appears to be the standard animism/Earth-mother business that natives in these movies always have, Cameron twists that material into a genuinely fascinating science fiction concept.

Which is not to say the film doesn’t fall into cliché. The nub of correctness amongst the morass of silly generalizations amongst the various “FERN GULLY in space!” quips is that Cameron is not only telling the “outsider falls in with colonized people and helps save them” story that so many find objectionable even if you present it allegorically, he’s including parts of it that really aren’t necessary. There is no particular reason that Neytiri has to be the daughter of the chieftain, or that she has to be the intended betrothed of the tribe’s strongest warrior before the new kid came along. There are also a few other plot developments that are telegraphed just a bit too far in advance for the payoff to be as effective as it should be.

I’d go a bit farther to say that the film’s first two-thirds are much better than its last; Jake’s discovery and exploration of the Na’vi culture is a lot more interesting than the inevitable big action showdown, which is treated with more solemnity than it really earns. It’s definitely fun, and Cameron is one of the few action directors who still remembers how to compose this sort of thing, but it lacks that extra push over the cliff, whatever that would be. (Which is ironic, as Cameron is a filmmaker who never doesn’t turn it up to eleven.)

If it fails to be a genuine classic among sci-fi spectacles, AVATAR still succeeds at most of what it sets out to do. We’re presented with a convincing world, basic but well-acted characters (I fear it may be too late to ask Santa for Michelle Rodriguez this year), and a familiar but engaging story that eventually comes down to good against evil. If you can make it out to the theaters over the holidays, AVATAR is the kind of epic that adds the right amount of color to the winter.

Written and Directed by James Cameron

Grade: B+

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