James Cameron long ago reached that pinnacle of Hollywood Celebrity reserved for that oh-so-elite few who automatically inspire sprays of internet venom the second their name becomes attached to a project. The last straw for Cameron was the wild success of Titanic which ensured that if he chose to do so, he would never have to lift another finger or even change out of his pajamas again for the rest of his life to ensure an expensive roof over his head and warm meals on the table.
Unearned hate is the common backlash to mainstream success as the masses of unwashed internet talkbackers make feeble attempts to lend credibility to their sense of taste by hating someone or something that enjoys general mainstream succes. This makes Avatar, as one of Cameron’s most ambitious and expensive projects the perfect canvas for that giant bullseye of criticism even before the first frame of the film ever hit the internet.
I have a healthy respect for Cameron’s career and work, though I can’t admit to be a really care enough one way or another to make a judgment call one way or another just based on his name being attached to a project. Though I spent much of my formative years of film appreciation worshipping the work of Steven Spielberg, films like Hook finally broke that spell he cast and made me realize he’s just as fallible as anyone.
There’s nothing really wrong at all with the technical aspect of Avatar. While some of the early trailers and released footage did feature some CG work that had a little bit of a unpolished unfinished look to it, the final film looks incredible. Since the success of the film relies entirely on making masses of computer generated characters look and act real enough to make you believe and care this was a must. In the end, it’s not the best CG work I’ve ever seen, but it’s more than impressive enough to get the job done and definitely the most ambitious CG work ever. Only a few moments seem a little stilted, but with the ambitious nature of the making an entire race of people that don’t exist in the real world the pivot point of the entire story I do have to give it a glowing positive response. Avatar looks great. And even more so than the CG characters themselves, what really makes the entire style more awe-inspiring is the scope of the film’s setting.
I have to dredge up Mr. Spielberg’s 1990s failure Hook again, it’s the polar opposite of Avatar. Hook was supposed to be set in the massively vast forests of Neverland in a retelling/sequel to Peter Pan, but virtually every exterior scene in Hook looked like 250 people jammed into a soundstage with sub-par matte paintings slapped in behind them in long and medium shots. Every exterior scene in Avatar seems to burst with an overwhelming sense of natural awe that takes a rather pedestrian, formula story and dresses it with a sense of class that is absolutely necessary for making this film work.
If you need the rundown, Avatar is a film set about 150 years in our future when the human race has moved out into the universe to find additional resources to perpetuate the human race as we’ve slowly destroyed and used up the planet’s natural resources. In this case, the small small forest moon of Endor…excuse me, sorry…the small forest moon of Pandora is the target of human attempts to mine a rare mineral that is a highly precious commodity for the human race. This mineral is laughably called “Unobtanium.” It’s never really adequately explored what the real application or importance of this item is, but apparently Cameron managed to take this project from original treatment through theatrical release without actually remembering to change the “placeholder” name of this mineral. “Unobtanium?”
Gimme a break. Granted, a minor nitpick, but one of the little things that immediately draws me as a movie-goer out of the moment much in the same way seeing someone recite a phone number with the prefix “555” tends to immediately remind people that they are watching a movie.
The inhabitants of Pandora are large, slender, cat-like race of natives who are not necessarily hostile, but resistant to the human’s attempts at moving in and setting up shop in the middle of their home. Trying to avert a public relations nightmare, human science and military teams have been sent to Pandora to try to peaceably have the blue natives, called the Na’vi, move off of the most significant mineral deposit on the planet. The hook of the film is that the Na’vi are much larger and tougher than humans, so in order to move among the natives, the humans have created Na’vi-Human hybrid clone bodies called “avatars” that can be symbiotically controlled remotely from a safe locations.
In spite of their attempts to enlist the cooperation and trust of the natives, the humans continually fail at being accepted by them. While the human “avatar” pilots have all been scientists, through a serious of unfortunate circumstances a young paralyzed marine ends up being assigned to this task, the first “military” member of this program as opposed to a scientist.
Through the course of the film, the marine played by Sam Worthington becomes somewhat accepted by the Na’vi and begins to integrate into their society albeit somewhat stormily. The Na’vi completely understand what is going on with the human avatars, who they call “dreamwalkers” since they understand that the avatar’s are basically just tools the humans use to interact with them. This is what makes the characters more compelling. While not being technologically advanced in a traditional sense, the Na’vi have no trouble accepting or comprehending the technology of the humans, nor are they even slightly intimidated by it. As the story unfolds, we begin to get a picture of the Na’vi and how they are part of a deeply rooted symbiotic relationship with all living things on the planet.
If I have any major beefs with Avatar, they starts in the story construction and the plot itself. Apart from some interesting concepts, there’s not much original in the 2 and a ½ hour plus run time. I get the feeling that in the interests of conveying this massive sense of scale and awe of his story, Cameron really does a disservice by not being more economical with the story. In addition, the script itself is full of two-dimensional characters including many basic cardboard stereotypes that really make a film of this length very hard to invest deeply in. Probably the most disappointing is the commander of the marine units on Pandora who is an astoundingly shallow characterization that we’ve seen hundreds of times before. The character is written so thinly that by the climax of the film where things finally come to blows with him being a key component, it’s nearly impossible to even muster up enough emotion around him to even care about hating him.
In addition to the absence of original and rich characterizations, the film crosses the line from being a standard formula story to being surprisingly derivative in the most negative sense. I took about half the films run time before it really hit me that not only is this fairly simplistic paitn by numbers Hollywood story, the movie itself comes dangerously close to being able to be touted as a faithful remake of the 1990 Kevin Costner classic, Dances with Wolves. While there are many different sources of the material in Avatar, the Wolves parallels cease to become just formula similarities and stray well past the line of probably having to give the 19 year old best picture winner story credit. That may be unfair criticism and surely invites the argument that there few original stories left to tell. However, if you’re going to remake a classic story and do it on epic scale like this, it’s true disservice to the audience to not give us one single original or memorable character, and that’s the difference between Avatar being just an above average fantasy/action film and being what could have been something so much more. There’s really no excuse for us to get well past the 90 and 120 minute mark of a film like this and still not really know much more about any of the characters than we did at the 30 minute mark, but that’s really how I strongly feel about it. If Cameron expects me to invest in a character deeply enough to believe that he goes from a cynical human marine to someone that leads aliens into a battle against humans, that takes a deep emotional investment to swallow that he doesn’t succeed in delivering. Yes, it’s okay for us all to cheer for the “evil” 2-dimensional marine commander to get his comeuppance by the end, but it’s still unsettling to be put in a position where we’re supposed cheer for the aggressive and somewhat nasty and gratuitous visuals of young marines doing their duty following their orders being impaled and exploded but aliens being lead by a marine that just landed on the planet 90 days earlier. It even seems more drastic to swallow since the human battle plan was not even truly an assault against the Na’vi directly, but a morale killer battle plan to destroy a sacred landmark.
So my final feeling on Avatar is that it is an absolutely stunning film in many respects, but still falls short of being one of those really special movie moments that it could have been. It’s just way too long for the amount of effort that was put into the characters. In that sense, it’s much more spectacle than it is substance. Don’t take it for granted, the spectacle is damned fine, but it really took the stunningly well constructed climactic battle that closes the movie to elevate a film that has way too much baggage in the story and character department. Begrudgingly, I admit that it ‘s one of the more memorable films of 2009, but it comes at the expense of being constantly reminded through the overly long run time how much better it could have been. Sitting 2 or 3 hours in a theater is never a problem if you can get me to toss my heart into it in first half hour or so, but Avatar waffled well past the hour and half mark before you ever start to develop your emotional relationship with it. Highly recommended, but with a big “temper your expectations” sign scrawled on the poster.
As a post script, I should note that there are three different ways you can see this film currently. You can catch standard 2-D screenings, Digital 3-D screenings and IMAX 3-D screenings. Due to an incredible run of IMAX sellouts opening weekend, I caught a standard digital 3-D showing and walked out wishing I had gotten an IMAX screening in. I don’t know if it was final look of the film, poor calibration of the digital projection equipment or sub-par 3-D processing, but the colors seemed very muted compared to advance and trailer footage. The 3-D was great but not flashy, but it felt really flat. With the digital 3-D screenings costing about the same as IMAX 3-D tickets, I would have to think that if any recent film calls for the IMAX treatment it would be a film with the incredible scale of Avatar. The Digital 3-D screening we sat through was somewhat disappointing.
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