28 January 2010

Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)

Ever since he ruled the Academy Awards and the worldwide box office with Titanic, his effusive marriage of outsize old-fashioned romance with a real, historical, tragic backdrop as well as awesome (in the true sense of the word) special effects, anticipation was building for James Cameron’s next big film. What could the “king of the world” possibly deliver after 12 (and more) years to meet these lofty expectations -- partly generated by the director’s own claims that the project would change movies as we know them? Avatar, at its best, is a rousing and proficiently staged action movie and, even more importantly, a ravishing technological display and a beautifully detailed and even hypnotic work of visual art. Unfortunately, it’s also a bit jarring. The scenes in the lush jungles of Pandora are so richly deep and detailed -- a gorgeous environmentalist dream -- and Jake’s experiences therein are so well orchestrated, they deliver an undeniable twinge of pleasure. But the human characters are (perhaps partially by design, but nonetheless irritatingly so) so one-dimensional, their goals so obvious, and their dialogue so bland and full of clichés that it is obvious why Jake eventually starts to prefer the company of the Na’vi; unfortunately, it takes us out of the film as well. Aiming for the kind of giant-scale populist success of blockbusters like The Dark Knight or The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar nails the scale, the efficiency of action, and the dazzle of the special effects, but misses the emotion and the complexity of character and theme.

The story, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, is about a paraplegic Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is given a new lease on life while on a mission on Pandora, thanks to the “Avatar” program, which places him inside the body of one of the Natives, ostensibly to gain intel about their ways and force a compromise with the military and big business (the Na’vi live atop a giant deposit of a rare fuel source). As such, the film is a bit of a hero’s journey, a bit of a Pocahontas-style imperialists-vs.-peaceful Natives narrative, and a bit of a sci-fi dreamy Alice in Wonderland, what with its through-the-rabbit-hole transformation scenes from Jake’s real, damaged body to his new, lithe, towering, blue figure. Upon landing on Pandora, Jake runs in with Dr. Grace Sullivan (Sigourney Weaver, that tough yet womanly Cameron staple), the scientist in charge of the Avatar program and communication, as well as Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), leader of the military presence on the planet, both of them working under the thumb of the giant corporation attempting to mine the planet of its “unobtainium,” led by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). Grace and the Na’vi are the good, peace-loving, environmentally conscious side of the equation; Quaritch and Selfridge are the bad side, bombastic adrenaline/explosion junkie and money-grubbing puppet of the shareholders, respectively. It’s all fairly neatly spelt out by Cameron in a few none-too-subtle lines of dialogue and few shadings of grey in the characterization; all that remains over the course of Avatar’s titanic running time is for Jake to decide where his loyalty really lies. The colonel promises him the use of his legs back if he succeeds in either convincing the Na’vi to leave or else forcing them out. But after meeting a sexy, wise, playful Na’vi local named Neytiri (a sultry Zoe Saldana) and learning her exotic language and thrilling culture and ways -- the depiction of which provides the bulk of the film’s scenes -- which side do you think Jake goes for when all is said and done?

It’s crucial that we have a hero we can believe in with an enterprise like Avatar. Luckily, Worthington is an immensely capable and appealing actor. His Jake is just interesting enough to make us want to watch him but just blank and simply drawn enough to make him a flexible, viable access point for the masses to Cameron’s brave new world of Pandora, the eyes through which we see this magnificent landscape. On second viewing, I was even more impressed with Worthington’s raffish charm and his palpable excitement each time he enters his Avatar body. The narration is also quite effective. Weaver is also appealingly tough but also (pun intended) graceful, justifying her status once again as Cameron’s go-to tough chick after Aliens. Saldana is the only other actor who really makes an impression, and she’s feisty, impetuous, and wise as Neytiri; although unlike, say, Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings movies, her performance does tend to get a little smothered by the technology rather than breaking through it in any astonishing way.

The other actors unfortunately don’t fare as well, especially up against the backdrops against which they are placed. The jungles of Pandora are extraordinarily well-executed visually, with little bits of plant life and exquisite glowing firefly-type creatures flitting around the edges of the screen and bigger, equally lavish creations (a giant beast with horns or a colourful flying pterodactyl-like creature) popping out at you from right in the middle. (The 3D screening on a regular-sized screen allowed me to see these numerous gorgeous details better, actually, than the IMAX version I saw initially, which was just huge and loud, if more immersive... one more reason I warmed up to Avatar just a little bit more on second viewing.) And the rituals of the Na’vi -- especially the communal healing/prayer assemblies and the scenes where Jake learns to ride a moody, stampeding land creature or an equally ill-tempered flying animal -- are often breathtaking. The 3D is mercifully not just a gimmick used for the director to throw things at the audience; instead it is used to deepen and enhance the world it has created, making it feel tactile and almost hyper-real. As such, Avatar is undoubtedly an intermittently thrilling spectacle, never less than competently made, with plenty of surface imagination; it is a good first step in utilizing this brand new cinematic technology.

But as much as it is often amazing to behold, it is also frustratingly predictable and even clichéd. Individual characters, except, perhaps, for Sully and Grace, never really materialize into tangible, real entities. As much as we feel for the Na’vi as a group forced out of its home, they never become much more than a symbol of the tragic beauty of nature on the brink of destruction, and none of the individuals of the tribe really stand out -- as much as Saldana, on paper, would seem to make an excellent muse for Cameron. The characterization of the military and big business figures is even more laughably bombastic and flat, ciphers there primarily to deliver Cameron’s tirades against the insensitive, destructive evils of, well, the military and big business. Ribisi’s Parker Selfridge is little more than a stooge of the shareholders, with little hesitation about bulldozing sacred trees for the sake of profits. And Lang is about the most clichéd, square-jawed, gung-ho army colonel seen in ages. Michelle Rodriguez's initially gung-ho, later fed-up, decidedly Rodriguez-like army chick is supposed to undergo a change of heart, but it is so sloppily delivered (She actually says, and I quote, something as cliched as "I didn't sign up for this shit.") and telegraphed that it never really feels organic. At least in something like The Lord of the Rings, you had conflicted villains like Gollum. The characterization in Avatar is straightforward, black-and-white, and, by and large, flat, which, when coupled with Cameron’s smack-over-the-head blatant environmental message (even Al Gore went about his business with more subtlety and elegance in An Inconvenient Truth -- only half kidding, there), means nothing much is ever really at stake and that there is never any doubt which side will and should win out in the end.

The scenes in the jungles of Pandora, breathtaking, enveloping, and beautiful, are achievements not likely to soon be matched. The sense of community, nature, and ritual captured by Cameron is fitfully engrossing. The battle scenes (with rampaging beasts, colourful flying creatures, gunner helicopters and planes, and some skilled, lithe, blue-skinned warriors who know how to wield a bow and arrow) are well staged and satisfying, logistically speaking. But all the money that went into this pet project isn’t worth a fig if it doesn’t sweep us up in an original world or hook us into complex characters whose personalities and fates haven't been already telegraphed in in advance. Avatar, in 3D, is an interesting and largely successful experiment, a fascinating novelty. With a capable hero, a durable if familiar story, and, of course, downright luscious visuals, it certainly glides pretty well for a two-and-three-quarter-hour epic; however, there is a reason it never quite soars nor embeds itself in your memory as firmly as it should. B

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