January 15th 2010 08:13
Avatar is amazing to look at but not much to listen to. The visuals have a vibrant yet languid, almost narcotizing lushness, but it’s hard to believe sometimes that this is the same James Cameron who wrote such pitch-perfect space-marine dialogue for Aliens almost a quarter-century ago. Maybe it’s because this time out the Marines are the bad guys and he doesn’t want to make them too endearing.*
So yeah, Avatar is indisputably worth seeing on the big screen (exclusively, I suspect), if sheerly as a case study in photorealism: for the first time ever, computer-generated characters appear to have authentically textured surfaces, possess convincingly scaled mass, and interact convincingly with real actors and objects (which this time out Cameron seems to view interchangeably in more ways than one). I love the geography of this dangerous, arboreal planet Pandora from its floating platformer-style mountaintops to its telepathic root systems and dark thickets of fanged horrors. If at times the place comes off more whimsical and like a Disneyland attraction than an actual alien world, it at least feels ecologically complex when stacked against George Lucas’ monochromatic desert-, ice-, and jungle-worlds. In fact, Avatar’s best stretches consist simply of characters just exploring the planet’s mysteries and being awed by them. There’s a predictable but vivid sequence where a dragon (a loyal beast who’s later dumped for a bigger, redder one without explanation) is tamed that made me feel more airsick than Heath Ledger’s final dangling in Dark Knight, and towards the end lots of stuff blows up, gets stabbed, and wails Lion King-y type music over the closing credits. Yeah, in this hard-sf mythos, there’s dragons. And elves. And sacred trees. And explosives bound up in giant cubes that are dropped manually out of gunship-hangars like para-drops from 1940. Avatar’s villain, the leader of the Marines, is even less morally nuanced than Paul Reiser’s accountant in Aliens, which makes the stalwart hero Sully having to choose between his superior’s ugly jingoism and a saintly piece of native blue ass slightly less than suspenseful. (Actually, there’s a Paul Reiser guy counterpart as well, played by Giovanni Ribisi, but his character sort of disappears without a payoff, along with Sigourney Weaver’s loyal assistant, a scientist named Norm. Loyalty’s not rewarded very often in Avatar. It's kinda like The Tonight Show.)
Like Wall-E and Day The Earth Stood Still, there’s a belabored, “green” message at Avatar’s shiny core, brought to you by the friendly climatologists of corporate America.
In this mythos, we learn that our clueless descendants are on Pandora to mine a nebulously useful mineral called “unobtainium,” as Ribisi’s corporate flunky character explains to scientist Grace (Sigourney Weaver), although she’s been planetside with him for a while and conceivably understands this mineral’s applications better than he does. This is exposition that could more gracefully and naturally have been dispensed to Sam Worthington’s newly arrived character Sully, but I guess they needed to leave Ribisi at least one scene.
Since I skipped out on Terminator: Salvation, this was also my first exposure to Sam Worthington, and while he doesn’t do bad work, I confess that I’m still not sure what the big deal is about this guy or why he’s the star of three CGI blockbuster movies for two different studios in under 9 months. It seems peculiar to me in this instance to hire a hunky young Australian actor whose hunkiness is promptly shelved so he can romp around as a CG Smurf. And from what we’re shown, his character Sully is a dull, predictable cipher selected arbitrarily by the planet’s dandelions (which he initially swats irritably at) to be the Chosen One. (New rule for post-Matrix/Phantom Menace Hollywood blockbusters: no more use of the term “chosen one.” Thanks and all, but we get it: his name was first in the credits.)
For a Chosen One, Sully sure is a crappy Marine: the second he’s first plugged into his blue Na’vi avatar, he immediately disobeys orders and runs around the lightly guarded, unsealed military compound. His first mission, guarding two scientists taking fungus readings, begins with his abandoning them, wandering into a field of purple buttercups, and promptly attracting the attention of multiple predators that all his weapons are useless against. (As per his rigorous training, he takes them on by running away, nearly dying of starvation and from wild animals, and falling for the first member of the enemy tribe he encounters.)
The “avatars” of the title are refer to the 10-foot tall blue-skinned clones of the native Na’vi, somehow or other composed of their DNA mixed with ours that we can jack into like WoW login screens and operate like mech-suits, even though this same generation also has and uses comparatively low-tech mech-suits. (I was curious how they grew the brains inside the avatars, or whether those came included.) The purpose of the avatars is to conduct recon on Pandora’s indigenous alien race the Na’vi, infiltrate their primitive society, and then somehow gain their support for their own impending genocide. Despite the fact that there are many different tribes of Na’vi across Pandora (all of them effortlessly united in a perfunctory montage by Sully after his people destroy their lifeblood), only the main scientist, Sigourney, and her assistant, that Norm guy, seem to be the ones actually doing this till Worthington shows up. It seems like a bad use of precious resources, especially since at council meetings, Sigourney’s avatar seems to wield consistently little influence.
Sully makes poor spy material too. Upon seeing him, the first impulse of Neytiri (portrayed with accomplished, lithe mo-cap and heartfelt voice-work by Zoe Saldana), the beautiful Na’vi who will become his lover, is to shoot an arrow through him. Wait, why is she considering killing him if she doesn’t know he’s human? Or does she? I’m still unclear on what the Na’vi stance is towards avatars when the story begins: the Na’vi shoot arrows through the tires of patrolling ATVs and seem wisely suspicious of humans, but Sully is instantly accepted into the clan on Neytiri’s say-so alone and rapidly administered numerous rites of passage. Where do they think he’s from? His cover story (“Uh, I’m Sully from the Jarhead tribe”) certainly seems pretty flimsy. Or do they take him for a semi-retarded outlander? Oddly, although the avatars are man-made forgeries, the planet has a sacred tree able to permanently transfer a human’s mind and memories into his or her avatar, although only if you’re the main character (and, also a bit curiously, only the Na’vi are privy to this important fact, even though they’re not exactly set up as avatar experts).
Though the Na’vi don’t have penises or nipples, Sully learns they’re a lot like us, or more precisely that their women are far more sexually attractive, which probably makes his decisions a lot easier. In a loving nod to Aliens’ Jenette Goldstein, the also attractive Michelle Rodriguez plays a gunship pilot who has a similar if more chaste, abrupt epiphany in the middle of battle, for which she suffers ZERO consequences from her superiors afterwards – a lapse she promptly capitalizes on to help our heroes escape so she can die nobly immediately following her final money line (spoiler alert).
Even at three hours and without any twists, Avatar’s story feels unnecessarily rushed. Sully winds up being incriminated based on a video diary entry that we never even saw him dictate and therefore can’t judge the context of. You rarely get the sense these characters are really driving the story, they’re just archetypal mouthpieces à la Crash. ( I don’t want to give anything away but more stuff crashes in the last 30 minutes of this movie than in all of Crash.)
I left Avatar visually stupefied as promised (although not nearly as much as I did after Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus), along with a lingering headache from three hours of wearing 3D glasses and tons of pesky questions. Like, won’t the defeated Marines exiled to Earth just come back with bigger gunships and nuke these rebels from orbit just to be sure? Or gas the place? What are the stakes in this war exactly? At one point Ribisi’s character refers to, um, obtaining unobtainium simply to appease stockholders but at the end, Sully refers to Earth as a “dying world”. A dying world with stockholders, let alone avatar technology and interplanetary travel that it then uses to ferry scientists light-years away so that their input can be totally ignored, doesn’t sound too terminal. Right?
Maybe it’s nitpicking to expect story depth comparable to its visual depth in a project that’s been gestating a tenth as long as Avatar. Generally speaking, though, story and characterization are cheaper and faster to improve than CGI. Just sayin’.
*A bit weirdly considering that here in L.A. recruitment ads for both the Marines and National Guard preceded my screening. Is there such a thing as pre-buzzkill?
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