Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Avatar: A Review (Review #31)


What Happens When You Mix Green & Blue?

THIS was the film that was to change EVERYTHING. THIS was the film that was to be to science-fiction films, and computer-generated imagery, and motion-capture, what Citizen Kane was to cinema itself, what Seven Samurai was to foreign-language films, Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs was to animation, Akira was to anime, Einstein was to science, Gandhi was to independence movements, or Obama was to Presidents: genius. Brilliant. Unquestioned in its Magnificence. In fact, as I understood it, Avatar was suppose to topple Citizen Kane as THE GREATEST FILM OF ALL TIME. How it got to that state, I don't know. James Cameron has always had a following with fanboys, no doubt due to The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens, and True Lies. Girls will always be grateful to him for Titanic (I will always harbor some hatred for him BECAUSE of Titanic), but I digress. Fourteen years in the making I'm told. Was it worth the wait? Certainly. Is it worth the hoopla and adulation? That bears closer examination.
Paralyzed Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has been chosen to replace his twin brother on Pandora, a distant planet that contains a rare mineral, unobtanium (I suppose it's unobtainable on Earth). He is part of a plan to infiltrate the indigenous population, the Na'vi (I suppose they are the Na-ti-ve peoples there) and learn their ways. Humans cannot breathe the air of Pandora, and that's where the avatars come in: a hybrid of human/Na'vi that is controlled by the individual via their mind. This gives them access to Pandora.

Assigned to protect Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), they're attacked by a native animal; he gets separated, and encounters a Na'vi woman, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, who is seen only as a Na'vi). He soon becomes part of their tribe, and the military/industrial complex sees a great opportunity in Jake--he can provide valuable information to them so that their conquest of Pandora and destruction of the Na'vi (savages to them) can be made easier. As he spends more and more time with the Na'vi, Jake's sympathies start shifting to them, and he falls in love with Neytiri, who does the same. Not wanting to wait anymore for Jake to either negotiate and suspecting his motives, the military/industrial complex decides to move in.

Now let's get on to the good things of Avatar: the visuals. What Robert Zemeckis cannot do with motion-capture, James Cameron can. Why is one different from the other? It has to do with the fact that the former wants it to look REALISTIC while the latter wants it to look FANTASTIC as in fantasy. Cameron has done an incredible job creating a whole new world (stop singing) which you are fully immersed in. There are incredible images of sheer beauty on Pandora, and they are created so well you don't really question them as being anything other than realistic. The visuals alone are worth the cost of admission.

Having said that, I had MAJOR problems with the story. The first big problem was that this story isn't very original. As I watched, I kept flashing back to primarily Dances With Wolves (Dances With Na'vi?), though I also saw elements of Braveheart and at one point, The Ten Commandments. I'm a bit tired of movies that portray the native population as being ethereal, spiritual, at one with Nature & The Universe. This is the case with the Na'vi: all mystical enlightenment as opposed to the military/industrial complex about to ravage their homeland. If one found the indoctrination from Captain Planet a bit on the obvious side, Avatar does them one better.

While that can be expected, other bits may come as a shock. Near the end of the film, as the Na'vi and their human associates prepare for the onslaught from the military/industrial complex, Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez) comments something along the lines of how she wishes her mission wouldn't involve "martyrdom". At the very least Cameron is completely oblivious to how loaded this word and phrasing sound. While I didn't gasp I was surprised. Right after that, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is rallying his troops for the final assault, he uses the phrase "preemptive strike" (which is rather ridiculous since they've already invaded Pandora so the Na'vi know they're there) and then tells them, "We will fight terror with terror".

That, Governor Palin, in case you didn't know, is the Bush Doctrine as explained by James Cameron.

It's at this point that the parallels between Pandora and Iraq (and by extension Vietnam and pre-Columbian America) become so obvious they take one out of the film and into a preaching mode. One gets the sense that we are suppose to draw comparisons between the invasion of a planet with an extremely valuable commodity at the expense of the innocent, pure natives (for whom the military/industrial complex has nothing but contempt) and the Iraq Intervention...where we went in to steal their valuable commodity at the expense of the innocent, pure natives (for whom the military/industrial complex has nothing but contempt).

For myself, I detest movies that I feel lecture me about ANY subject, even if I sympathize with the viewpoint. Documentaries I can accept insofar as they are drawn from reality and nowadays are advocacy films that lead you toward the conclusions they want you to get to. Fiction films, however, are different. They can be educational, but the primary goal of film is to entertain. You can have allegory and have it done well (the original The Day The Earth Stood Still and more recently, District 9). What makes them successful is that they can work on TWO levels: as entertainment and as commentary.

If, however, it is too blatant, too obvious, I believe it becomes tedious because it no longer seeks to entertain but to hammer a message the audience may or not agree with. I had a BIG problem with the word "martyrdom". It is an expression used now by Islamofascists: people who've combined a twisted form of Islam with the fascist beliefs of their superiority and the inferiority of others, in this case, infidels, and the justification for the extermination of whole people. I refuse to believe that Cameron is actually on the side of the Iraqi Insurgents blowing up his fellow citizens (even if he opposed the Iraq Intervention). However, it was a poor decision to have that kind of language.

Leaving aside the questions of parallels to current events, let's move on to the acting. Allow me to play the Ghosts of Worthington Films Past, Present, and Future. Past: the frightful Terminator: Salvation. There, he played a military-type individual (OK, a convicted murderer but he does join the Resistance). Present: Avatar, where he's an actual Marine. Future: a remake of Clash of the Titans, where he plays Perseus, a warrior. I'm beginning to wonder if he's more an Action Star than an Actor since his roles tend to be the same. Not only that, but I noticed that his native Australian accent was more pronounced here than in Salvation. I admit to taking it for granted that he was playing an American since all his cast-mates speak with American accents, but I thought it was odd to hear Sully sound as if he were more New South Wales than New England.

Particularly bad was Giovanni Ribisi as Parker Selfridge (do you think his character is Self-Ish?). He plays the evil industrialist with no variety at all. Out of the whole cast, Sigourney Weaver saves herself because she is a first-rate actress who can play just about anything with great deal of conviction.

I want to mention something else about the script that came to me now. Self-ridge, the Na'vi, unobtainium...why do all these sound rather lacking in imagination? Why does it seem that all of Cameron's energies were into what he put ON the screen rather than what he put IN the script?

Finally, I want to make a point about the "military/industrial complex". I've used that phrase deliberately, since in Avatar it's exactly that: the unholy union of the military doing the bidding of a company...just like Iraq. As the evil corporation makes money out of destroying the environment and the native population with the aid of the armed forces, the American Indian...I mean the Vietnamese...I mean the Iraqis...I mean the Na'vi have no choice but to strike back. It needs to be done to save Earth...I mean Pandora.

I don't take away from Avatar's extraordinary achievements in visuals, in taking us into a world that has no limits except one that an imagination will impose. I do wish that the story itself weren't so loaded with Environmental Movement cheerleading. Perhaps Avatar is a harbinger of things to come. That I welcome gladly.

I can only hope that the visual genius of James Cameron is united with the storytelling genius of Neill Blomkamp (co-writer and director of District 9). Then we would have a movie that may join Citizen Kane. One thing is certain: Cameron has opened the door. It's up to future filmmakers to make the best films from it, not just the most technically awesome of them.


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