Sunday, January 3, 2010


Avatar is a movie that I wish I could have seen when I was seven.

It had been more than a decade since James Cameron's last "real" film, and I could only wonder what sort of passion project had so consumed the time of this visionary writer and director who had given us Terminator, T2, and Aliens. Then finally the first Avatar trailer debuted, and upon seeing the blue people in a CG FernGully, my expectations were lowered somewhat. We still had months to go before the film itself hit theaters, however, and in that time I had somehow come back around. I suppose I wanted to be amazed. Now having seen it, I can say that Avatar is a good film, at times a great one. I think it's a movie that I would have loved as a kid. But it's not one that I love right now.

Avatar is a bit Disney's Pocahontas, a lot Dances with Wolves, and what seemed to me a pinch of Gorillas in the Mist. But the script is not the reason to view this film, and visually this is more like the second coming of Jar Jar Binks crossed with, yes, FernGully. There was nothing so mind-blowing for me as seeing the CG Transformers for the first time, but there are some amazing sights in this film. The giant six-legged panther was a highlight, and I wish I could have seen more of those anime-esque mech suits that came equipped with oversized hands for gripping oversized knives. The final battle (actually the only one, I'm pretty sure) ranks up there with any of the action scenes that thrilled me as a child. Unlike Coraline or Up, the 3-D in Avatar feels more layered and thoroughly implemented, suggesting it was a more deliberate part of development. At the same time, it's also less gimmicky than Beowulf, which contained multiple shots of pointy things stabbing in the audience's direction.

Of course it is a beautiful film and a technical achievement. Not only are the panthers and mechs created out of nothing, but Cameron and crew have, in Pandora, painted an entire world both wholly convincing yet unlike anything on Earth. But I found that I was having to force myself to appreciate the craft on a technical level, rather than enjoying it on a personal level.

The problem is that I've already seen the greenscreen stuff, Zemeckis's performance capture stuff, and a few of the recent 3-D pictures. I've seen Jar Jar Binks before, I've seen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and I've seen Beowulf. Avatar is perhaps more technically sophisticated than any of the things that came before it, but because I've seen the evolutionary steps leading up to it, this doesn't astound me as a revolution in special effects. It doesn't change the way I view film. And as complete experiences, setting aside the sheer numbers behind the effects, I would say that I enjoyed all of the aforementioned films more.

It is the plot of Avatar that I just can't get behind. We've seen it before in Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and any number of other stories; white man goes native, proves himself a better savage than any of the real savages, then saves them by leading them into war and indiscriminately slaughtering scores of soldiers who could just as easily have been him, had not fate or some "deity" chosen him for a higher purpose. The story is so tired that I needn't even bother marking spoilers. Within seconds of meeting the characters, you know exactly who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, which hostile jerk is going to come around and redeem himself before going down in a blaze of glory. I didn't come into Avatar expecting to love it for its story, but I also didn't expect it to bother me as much as it did.

As the story developed, I realized that I didn't respect our "hero," Jake Sully. In fact, I think a small part of me even kind of hated him. Near the beginning of the movie, he narrates that he told himself he could "pass any test a man could pass," but what does that even have to do with anything? He scores the Avatar assignment, not because of any personal merit, but because, by some horrible fluke, he happens to be the one guy alive who can step into the role of this multi-million dollar investment. Paraplegic due to a combat injury that ended his career as a soldier, he is delighted upon first entering his Avatar and being able to walk and run again. After he later switches sides, he claims that the humans ruined their own world and would do the same to Pandora. But Earth is never actually depicted in the movie, and because of Sully's personal situation, of course he'd find his Avatar life preferable to his impaired human existence. He was supposed to aid diplomatic relations between the two cultures, but there's no indication that he ever even broached the issue of the miners' intentions during his three months among the natives. From what we see of his time in the village, he was not interested so much in helping either the humans or the natives, but rather in enjoying himself. Ultimately, what I perceived in Jake Sully was a coward, running away from an unpleasant reality and waiting for fate to simplify his choices. Even the word "avatar" makes me picture some overweight World of Warcraft player pretending to be Viggo Mortensen. These are the things that I would not have seen as a seven-year-old, but I cannot now ignore them.

Cameron at least tells his story with confidence, and were I still a child, that might have been enough to instill belief in the movie's simple themes. Avatar is a family film, but it gets the difference between family film and kids movie; the characters are all adults, and it doesn't resort to including obnoxious comic relief characters to distract the audience from possible script deficiencies. And whether or not I like what it has to say, Avatar is clearly about something, unlike, say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Maybe Cameron is a little too confident, as the film is way too long. As was the case with Ponyo earlier this year, I hate to accuse a film of such visual craftsmanship of wasting even a minute, but the reality is that I grew bored of Cameron lingering on his own creation.

Avatar is a well-made film, worthy of attention. I liked it as a whole and loved parts of it. I wouldn't say it was worth waiting twelve years for (and I'm glad I didn't actually spend the last twelve years waiting for it), but it does not shake my belief in James Cameron. I think he at least knows what he wants to do, and I can only hope his next project will be closer to what I want to see.


Czardoz said...

A James Cameron quote from an Entertainment Weekly online blog:

On early reactions comparing the Na’vi to Smurfs and Jar Jar Binks: “I think the Smurfs thing is funny, personally. Jar Jar is a bit of a low blow.”

So Cameron's going to take the artistic high ground against Jar Jar? That's rich.

Henry said...

Na'vi, Naboo--you tell me the similarities!