Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Avatar (2009) Review

Sex for the Eyes

Robert Zemeckis must be shitting his pants with jealously right now. It took him three attempts at motion-capture with The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol, three valiant efforts that have just been sucker-punched by a director who hasn’t made a movie in twelve years. Granted, this man is the creator of such prestigious action classics as The Terminator, Terminator 2, and Aliens as well as providing both the highest grossing and most award winning movie in history with Titanic, but I’m sure poor Robert is still feeling the sting. The man to do it is James Cameron, the self-proclaimed “King of the World”, and he is back to show audiences how an epic, action-adventure blockbuster should be done. It is a movie that only someone in Hollywood could make, someone who has a vision, and a determination to see to it that that vision and every penny it took to create it, is up on the screen for everyone to gawk at. You can call it “Blue Thundercats”, “The Smurfs Movie”, or even “Dances with Wolves in Space”, but you will only be pulling yourself out of what could purely be described as a unique movie experience. One that you soak in, become immersed with, and get caught up in the excitement of the moment. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Avatar.

Plot Synopsis: Jake Sully is a paraplegic ex-marine who is sent to the moon Pandora in order to fill in for his twin brother, who was killed in a mugging before leaving Earth. His brother was supposed to be in the “avatar” program, headed by Dr. Grace Augustine, which consists of a person taking remote control of an man-made avatar body that is mixed with the DNA of it’s designated driver and that of the Na’vi, the alien species indigenous to Pandora. A Na’vi tribe is currently settled on top of the largest deposit of unobtainium, a Pandoran natural resource that is extremely valuable and can help rebuild the dying Earth. The avatars are used as a means of communicating with the Na’vi and in the hope of coming to a diplomatic solution. Of course, the military, led by Colonel Quaritch and company man Selfridge, are just itching to get in on the situation and force the Na’vi out of their homes quickly, so Jake is given three months to coerce them into a peaceful relocation. After being separated from Grace on their first outing, he is rescued by Ney’tiri, the Na’vi princess of her tribe. The Na’vi believe that, despite Jake’s allegiance, he may be of use to them and goes through the various trials required to be accepted into the tribe.


I’ve heard things being leveled against Avatar such as a “been-there-done-that” story, occasionally cheesy dialogue, and simplistic characters, and I’m willing to address each of those criticisms. First I’ll take on the dialogue, which is probably the most valid. Yes, James Cameron has always had some corny lines in even the best of his movies, and Avatar definitely contains some wincers. However, it must be noted that probably 80% of that is heard from the military grunt characters, mostly taunts and yells that you hear in almost every single war movie ever made. Now for the “familiar” story and characters, which I can take down in one swoop. This isn’t a complex and layered character study like The Dark Knight people, this an epic sci-fi fantasy adventure that uses the most advanced technology possible. Remember a little movie that came out about 32 years ago which blended tried-and-true story archetypes with boundary-pushing technology? It was called Star Wars, a rousing blockbuster with a straightforward story that was so entertaining and enthralling because of its beautiful simplicity. There was the ordinary hero thrown into a situation seemingly out of his hands, the hissable villain who will destroy anything that gets in the way of his goals, the tough princess fighting for her homeland, the hardened mentor, and even a few sidekicks who help along the way.

That’s not to say that the characters in Avatar are replicates of Luke, Vader, Leia, and Obi-Wan, but I think it’s important to view the movie within the right context. Jake’s physical disadvantage plays a big part in his story, whether you realize it or not because it is only hinted at. You get the sense that his character arc is a result of not only the type of transformation you would expect from this type of plot, but also because of his own personal flaws. Sam Worthington conveys his slowly increasing disinterest with the normal world excellently, notably in Jake’s hesitance to video log everything (which also serves as a form of narration) because he just wants to get back into his avatar body and reenter the Na’vi world. When controlling his avatar, Jake feels freedom, freedom to do whatever he wants and to learn more about the ever-fascinating Pandora as opposed to the oppression and limitations he feels when confined his wheelchair and looked down upon by his human coworkers. Worthington’s inherent likability and down-to-earth earnestness help us to relate and invest our sympathy in his plight. It’s this type of character-driven action that James Cameron has been known to create throughout his career, and it feels great to have his style back after so many hollow action flicks began their rise (which have merits of their own, mind you).


The supporting characters don’t have quite as much depth to them as Jake Sully does, but they aren’t entirely one-dimensional either. Ney’tiri, played by Zoe Saldana, is the prototypical princess of the plot, yet here she’s the one in control and not distress (for a while at least). Even though her performance is entirely composed of motion-capture CGI (which I will get to), Saldana is still superb. Working with Cameron once again after their incendiary collaboration on Aliens, Sigourney Weaver brings the same intensity to Grace, but also has some beautifully poignant emotional moments, one of which is probably my favorite scene in the movie. Sparring off with Weaver is the villainous tag team of Giovanni Ribisi and Stephan Lang as Selfridge and Quaritch respectively. Selfridge is like the middleman who wants to get the job done with as few casualties as possible, but Ribisi makes it clear that he is still very much a villain of the plot. Lang, on the other hand, makes no bones about his hissable role. Quaritch is a villain in every sense of the word, emphasized by Lang’s ridiculously entertaining scenery-chewing performance.

Okay, enough about the story and characters; what about those much hyped effects that have been talked about so much? To put it mildly, they are quite possibly the most mind-blowing effects since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Actually no, scratch that, I meant the original Matrix. In this age of special effects overkill, it has become increasingly difficult for filmmakers to impress audiences with improved effects, namely CGI. So leave it to James Cameron, the man who popularized CGI with the T-1000 in Terminator 2, to push the boundaries of the technology even further. Of course, stuff such as the Pandora environment is hardly revolutionary, but the true mind-bogglers are the motion-captured Na’vi actors. In scenes where the Na’vi and humans are together, the seams between the real and the fake are nowhere to be found, with flawless interaction and communication. The emotions displayed by the actors, especially Worthington and Saldana, shine through the digital makeup without the worries of stiffly animated expressions and dead eyes.


But Pandora itself is also a feast for the eyes. While at first glance it may look like just another jungle planet, look closer and you’ll discover a wealth of riches. From the unique plant life to the cat-like design for many of the animal predators, the ecosystem of Pandora is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Like George Lucas for Star Wars, James Cameron envisions an incredibly detailed world for the duration of Avatar. And for about two hours, we slowly get sucked into the world and learning more about the Na’vi culture customs, until Cameron pulls out the big guns and flexes his action muscles for the final half-hour. Aerial combat, ground battles, mechanical suits, giant animals tearing through metal, Na’vi archers picking off gunships, you name it and this battle has got it (and not one scene of shaky-cam to be found). And because Cameron has held off the big action for the climax, he allows for the story to develop enough so that the finale has actual weight and impact.

Is Avatar the game-changer that Cameron has been selling it as? I think so, but not in a way that will catch on very quickly. He certainly makes a strong case that special effects filled movies can in fact be filled wall-to-wall with eye-popping visuals without sacrificing a strong story and developed characters. You can criticize the plot for being unoriginal and derivative of various other movies, but it’s undeniable that if you allow yourself to be lost in the experience, then it’s hard to be too cynical. Will other writers and directors follow in Avatar’s footsteps? All we can do is wait and find out.


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