Sunday, December 20, 2009

Love: Avatar

I wasn't buying into the nearly two years of hype leading up to James Cameron's blockbuster effects blitz Avatar. While I was admittedly intrigued by all the discussion of revolutionizing cinema and the early buzz claiming Cameron's work was a shoo-in when it came to being remembered as one of the greatest films ever made, i did my best to remain cynical. It was surprisingly easy. When the early pictures of the Na'Vi were released, i thought they were a joke. With the first trailers, my pessimism was sealed with a George Lucas kiss off. Giant, hulking, bright blue cat people? Pshaw. You needed to be insane, i thought, to look at those first glances as anything but a horrendous waste of Hollywood cash. I mean, cartoonish creatures running about a lame looking forest planet? Here we go, i thought, Smurfy tribal Gungans to sell some action figures to the same bunch of kids who think Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel is a work of genius.

Of course, I'm not one to pass on a major spectacle, or a major science fiction film. I couldn't really pretend i wasn't going to see it, in 3D no less. At the very least i hoped to finally see a theatrical movie this season i could trash a little bit. So, I kept quiet and didn't get my hopes up. As i went about not expecting much in the weeks and days leading up to Avatar's release, I was just a tad surprised when critical feedback was mostly positive. Ok, i thought, maybe i can be a little excited about this. The information increased and my own excitement mounted. And then, you know, i saw it.

James win. I concede. I'm not saying you're King of the damn World, but we can put Titanic behind us and speak of Avatar as something you can definitely be proud of. But (and there is a caveat), we have to straighten out a few things first. First: yes, everyone should see this in the theater. If you're planning on watching it at all, do so in the theater, with the 3D glasses, in IMAX if available. Second: yes, this is the sort of film that will turn you into an awestruck four year old with bug eyes and a slack jaw. Third: yes, it's the swiftest 3 hours you'll ever spend in the theater. Fourth: yes, and i say this with all seriousness and in all caps, IT. IS. BEAUTIFUL. Do not doubt the bright blue ridiculousness of the Na'Vi, you will grow to love them and the environment they inhabit. On the merits of visual imagination alone, Avatar earns serious bonus points. As with special effects breakthroughs of yesteryear (Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, etc.), Avatar is a film that will wow you. It's impressive. Really impressive. The 3D is integrated so well that it never feels like a gimmick, but instead a tool to transport you into the world the film inhabits. All that said, we reach the final point of my disucssion. Fifth: Avatar is not perfect. It's something of a mixed bag. On one level it's legitimately groundbreaking, on the other it's mere pastiche.

What are the drawbacks, you ask? Simply put, the story is nothing unique and there are moments when you get the feeling that if you weren't already high on the visuals, you might be laughing a little bit at how ridiculously predictable some of the dialogue and caricatures are. For those who haven't gone seeking out the plot of Avatar, the film follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, who wisely points out many of your friends will soon have gigantic crushes on), a crippled Marine who arrives on the alien planet Pandora to take part in a scientific study that has him essentially puppeteering a part-human, part-alien hybrid of the indigenous people based on his DNA. While the scientists (headed up by Sigourney Weaver) do one thing, most of the human activity on Pandora is devoted to mining Unobtanium, the richest source of which is located beneath the home of a large tribe of uncooperative Na'Vi. The Na'Vi, of course, are a peaceful folk who are tied to their environment through deep spiritual understanding and odd fiber-optic looking neural cords at the ends of their braids. As human greed increases, so does human destruction. The plot thickens as Jake Sully's interactions with the Na'Vi become exponentially more complicated.
The film then becomes a mammoth parable on human gluttony and disregard filled with all the of scoldings of colonialism one would expect. If you think too hard about it, this is James Cameron's variation of 1992's animated fairy-flick Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, blended with the higher class complexity of Miyazaki's soaring Princess Mononoke, and peppered with a sort of Pocahontas/Dances with Wolves romanticism and fetishization of native culture. What i'm saying is, without the bells and whistles, you've seen it before. You'll see it again. You already know the story and how it will end. Granted, it's a good story and a positive message: humans (cough, Americans, cough) suck, we destroy everything we touch, we should maybe stop killing the things that sustain us and exploiting other cultures... it's just, you know, not the biggest creative stretch.
What sets Avatar apart from those other films are the little details. The creatures, the rituals, the futuristic setting, and the astonishing beauty. These are the selling points, and i totally buy them. What i have a bit of a harder time buying into, however, is some of the acting that's going on in the live action scenes. While it's nowhere near the sort of vapid dreck that occurs in a Michael Bay film, Avatar's dialogue is still of the bland action film variety. A fair amount of exposition occurs alongside some hard-assed military tough guy talk and overtly sappy moments ("I see you" will be joining the ranks of "I wish I could quit you" and "you complete me" and "never let go"). There were several moments while watching Avatar (particularly in the opening scenes) that i was startled out of the majesty of the images and forced to mentally backtrack to a 'did they really just say that?' place. I was actually afraid, in Weaver's opening spitfire scientist scenes, that the film was headed towards an epic fail.

Yet, all this might be forgivable. Irrelevant, even. Avatar is a deliriously spun headrush of a film that is legitimately not quite like anything you've ever seen. It's rich in its fantasy imagery and so remarkable in its scale that its slip of a story can be forgiven and perhaps even fully embraced. James Cameron has succeeded in reminding us of a time when going to the theater was an event in and of itself. This is no small affair, it is a dazzling piece of work that reminds us of what movies are capable of and leaves us feeling happy and dazed. For the spectacle alone, Avatar is worth those 4.5 stars, maybe more.

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