Monday, January 11, 2010

Movie Review: Avatar (20th Century Fox)

Avatar is a contradiction, both stunningly new and yet full of familiar cliche. Ultimately, though, James Cameron has pushed the technology of film-making to an entirely new pinnacle. Viewed in IMAX 3-D, as I saw it, Avatar is simply unlike anything we've ever seen before. The best achievements of previous effects-driven films were to push us from an initial suspension of disbelief into an acceptance of a new and different world, despite the cracks in its facade. Avatar is, I believe, capable of taking even the most cynical forcing us to accept the vision, because it is just too beautiful to ignore.

Let us dispel any doubt, first; there is nothing new in Avatar. All the "Dances with Thunder-Smurfs" or "Fern Gully in Space" jokes floating around out there in Geek circles are entirely apt. There is nothing new in this story. Nothing. Everything that you expect to happen is going to happen. As I was watching it, when Neytiri explains the role of the giant flying beast, the Toruk, in Na'vi society, I leaned over to my wife and said "I'll bet you five thousand dollars Jake flies one before the end of the film." Spoiler alert: don't take that bet.

And yet, despite the predictability of the story, despite the fact that I saw every single plot development coming, I loved every second I spent in that theater. Cameron brought a different world to life in a way no other director has, not even Peter Jackson. No, the film is not necessarily better than comparable epic films, not in the storytelling sense. But it is more vivid and more beautiful. The film's central dichotomy of nature vs. technology is simple, ham-fisted, and telegraphed from the opening act, yes. But once the film got to Pandora in all its bioluminescent glory I did not care. I just wanted to see more. The irony that this message was brought to the screen via specially developed technology does not, I think, concern the filmmakers.

If it weren't for the huge leap forward it represents, Avatar would be a sharply executed but thoroughly mediocre film. The only performance that really stood out to me was Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine, who stole most every scene she was in. Sam Worthington's ascent to stardrom mystifies me; I find him forgettable and bland. Inoffensive, never bad, but I can't imagine anyone going to the movie to see a movie because Sam Worthington is in it, despite the fact that Hollywood seems bent on pushing him into star territory. Stephen Lang chews the scenery into a fine froth as the overdone Colonel Quaritch. Giovanni Ribisi puts on a thinly veiled parody of George W. Bush; he is not helped by dialogue that asks him to tell his PR people to "win hearts and minds" and his military to "fight terror with terror." If you want to see the allegory, it's there. It's there like a hammer blow to the forehead, really. It is hard to comment on the 'performance' of the actors vis a vis the motion capture of the Na'vi and Avatar-driver actors; Weaver's avatar looked and seemed like a Sigourney Weaver character, so that's probably a mark in its favor. But I did not feel a connection to the characters the way I did with Gollum; probably not a fair comparison there, or perhaps I just connect more easily to twisted, evil hobbit-like beings than I do tall, beautiful, graceful cat-people.

And at the risk of repeating myself, it doesn't matter. The unfathomable spectacle that Cameron has put on the screen quite simply deserves to be seen, if you care about film, if you care about science fiction, if you care about technology. Sure, the film leaves some questions unanswered; what exactly is at stake for the humans in their colonization of Pandora, for instance? And yes, just to drive the point home, you've seen, or read, or heard this story before. Even so, perhaps it would've been impossible to tell a new story using this method. Perhaps it had to be an old, familiar story for the reality of Pandora to creep up on us and take hold. And perhaps the level Avatar works best on is as a metaphor for watching movies. In our favorite movies, we recline in a dark, cool place and get to live another life for a few hours. Jake Sully does much the same thing, only he truly lives a different, more vibrant, more meaningful life. Avatar is going to change filmmaking; I thought that was a preposterous boast when on James Cameron's part, but it's true. Epic, 'event' movies will probably be judged on how they stack up against it, the way they were once measured against Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. If you are interested in big movies, see it, see it in a theater, in 3-D, in IMAX if possible. I did nothing but mock Cameron and the trailers when I saw them. Nobody could convince me that this movie was going to be as special or important as it was pretending to be. I scoffed. One hour of giant alien fauna and luminous flora, I was completely convinced. Cameron and Avatar have changed the game. Try to keep up.

Dan Ford
Staff Reviewer

1 comment:

fryman86 said...

Nice review Dan. I completely agree with you. While I thought some of the Navi looked a bit plastic-y, it's really some of the best "total" effect work ever done. Curious that you didn't mention the action sequences. I thought they were really well done, being that you could actually tell what was going on lol.

- Terry Barnhill,
Staff Writer