December 17, 2009

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Leave behind the hype about “revolutionizing cinema”.  Ignore the half-billion dollar price tag.  Forget the numerous years James Cameron waited to make sure technology could match his imagination.  To include these external factors in an evaluation of Avatar would make the film a colossal disappointment. However, judged solely on its own merits, Avatar is a fine film but one that can feel limited at times.  Hampered by the disregard for advancements in computer animation, a lack of understanding the freedom digital 3D filmmaking provides, and a story both outdated and demeaning, Avatar still manages to come out ahead with strong performances (especially from Stephen Lang), excellent pacing, and Cameron’s unrivaled ability to capture action on a grand scale.

avatar_movie_image_james_cameron_sam_worthington_01.jpgIn the year 2154, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a marine paralyzed from the waist down, awakens from cryo-sleep to learn that his science-genius twin brother is dead and that RDA, the company he worked for, wants to hire Jake to continue his brother’s research as a member of the avatar program.  Avatars are ridiculously expensive, 100% biological replications of the indigenous Na’vi population who are agile, blue, ten-foot-tall humanoids who can breathe the air which is toxic to humans.  Avatars are controlled via neural link, so the fact that Jake is a soldier and not a scientist isn’t a problem because avatars are wired to match an individual’s genetic make-up.  The whole point of the program is to have humans communicate with the Na’vi, learn their culture first-hand, and then ask them very nicely if they would please get the hell off their land so RDA can mine the valuable mineral “Unobtanium.” Jake’s military background and his desire to walk again using expensive, future-y spinal cord surgery makes him the perfect candidate to repurpose the avatar program from diplomacy to espionage.

You see, diplomacy doesn’t really appeal to Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who’s the company’s chief of security and is positively horny to use every piece of heavy artillery on the base to wipe out the Na’vi.  With Jake’s arrival and introduction to the avatar program, Quaritch offers him a deal: be a mole and learn what makes the Na’vi tick, and in exchange Quaritch will make sure the company pays for Jake’s spinal surgery.  Unfortunately, once in his Avatar body (which lets him walk again anyway) and among the Na’vi, Jake becomes enraptured with their culture and the dangerous beauty of Pandora.  He also falls in love with Neytiri, a great warrior and the princess of her tribe.  Unfortunately, RDA is slightly indifferent towards Jake’s personal happiness and so he must “choose” between the evil, soulless corporation who wants to destroy the proud and peaceful natives or fighting with the Na’vi against his former employer in order to save his newly adopted people.  And no, I don’t have that backwards: the Na’vi don’t adopt Jake; he adopts them by becoming their new de facto leader.

avatar_movie_image_02.jpgAvatar is a noble savage story.  For those unaware of what that means, the “noble savage” concept came about in the 18th century and says that a civilization untouched by modernization is the most pure.  Man’s ambition is the undoing of his natural good, and in order to reclaim that good the modern man must leave behind the corruption of the modern world and go live with the noble savages.  But that’s just the dumb part of the concept.  The offensive part, although not inherent but often present, is that the modern man is white and he not only regains his humanity by living with the “savages” but turns out to be nobler than all of them and their true savior.  The comparison of Avatar to Dances with Wolves is unfair because in Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner’s character is ultimately saved by the Sioux rather than inciting them to rise up and fight the U.S. government.  It also features a warring Native American tribe who are a bunch of assholes so the noble savage concept doesn’t apply since they’re both “untouched” by modernity.

The simplicity of the story isn’t Avatar‘s flaw but rather its unwillingness to tweak the details to create something fresh.  Why can Cameron re-imagine horses with six legs and rhinoceroses with hammerheads but making his protagonist a non-white male seems to escape him?  The film isn’t overtly racist nor is the noble savage story enough to derail the proceedings but it is disappointing and perhaps the biggest sign that the story was an afterthought.

I wish Cameron had put half as much effort into the plot as he did into designing Pandora.  The attention to the plant life is particularly impressive as Cameron has imagined botany and forestry in a way we’ve never seen before.  Unfortunately, his imagination is far more limited when it comes to the animals.  All the creatures we see on Pandora are not only based on a recognizable animal, but the changes only feel cosmetic rather than serving some evolutionary purpose.  To those who may argue that all creatures have some basis in our world, I would say to look at the designs of Guillermo Del Toro, an artist who understands what “otherworldly” means.  Sure, the “Pale Man” from Pan’s Labyrinth, is a man but could you have ever imagined someone who shoves eyeballs in their palms in order to see?  But in Avatar you take a horse, tie-dye it, add some limbs, make it bioluminescent and now you have what my official Avatar “Activist Survival Guide” calls a “Direhorse.”  Players of the video game Spore will probably look at the creatures in the film and wonder what all the fuss is about.

avatar_movie_image_01.jpgAdditionally, you will find no creatures with fur on Pandora because fur is difficult to animate.  I know this because on the special features disc for Monsters, Inc., they detailed the process of getting Sulley’s fur to look and act real.  You’ll also notice that in Avatar, all the hair of the Na’vi is either braided or pulled back into a pony-tail.  All the Na’vi’s have this long hair-braid because it allows them to create a physical link to the animals of Pandora and to their Na’vi ancestors through the Tree of Souls.  Thematically, this natural connection is meant to mirror the artificial one humans are attempting through the avatars.  But on a technical level, the braid exists because hair is also difficult to animate.  I know this because the DVD special features for The Incredibles, they go into the challenges of animating Violet’s hair.  Monsters, Inc. came out in 2001 and The Incredibles came out in 2004 and seeing the absence of these innovations make Avatar feel limited despite the terrific animation of the Na’vi and the overall scope of Pandora.

But the scope doesn’t rely on 3D nor does it require 3D to be appreciated.  Cameron’s ecstasy over the 3D in Avatar can’t help but feel slightly comical and deflating when you see that he doesn’t appreciate the true value of what 3D offers.  Despite having his own problems with the technology, Robert Zemeckis has discovered that two of the major benefits of digital 3D are you have infinite depth of field (meaning images will always be in focus no matter how far in the foreground or background they may be) and you can soar on long, unbroken shots.  Cameron shoots Avatar as if it were any of his other movies.  The 3D provides some nice clarity but I think anyone who sees it digitally projected in 2D won’t miss much.

avatar_james_cameron_movie_image_stephen_lang_sam_worthington_01.jpgThankfully, Cameron doesn’t get distracted by his new toolkit and forget to make a film that’s exciting and expertly paced.  Clocking in at 160 minutes, Avatar never feels long and the experience flies by, which is an impressive feat since most “epic” films make you feel the runtime.  As for the set pieces, Cameron has never had a problem shooting action and in Avatar, especially the grand finale, he challenges himself by taking to the sky and swinging through the jungle.  The marines and the greedy corporation may be very Aliens, but the action in Avatar is like nothing you’ve ever seen from Cameron before.

The film also has a terrific cast with everyone turning in terrific performances.  Sigourney Weaver looks like she’s having loads of fun; Michelle Rodriguez doesn’t wear a perpetual sneer; and Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington, even though their performances are motion-captured, show that they’re going to be among the next wave of Hollywood A-listers.  But the standout and perhaps the best reason to see Avatar is Stephen Lang.  Making his screen-acting debut in the 1981 Made-for-TV Movie We’re Fighting Back, Lang has had an incredible 2009 with Public Enemies, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and now Avatar.  Quaritch is one of the most fun and memorable villains in blockbuster history.  He’s the bad guy you love to root for because he’s so cavalier and arrogant without any hint of insecurity.  He wants to unleash hell on the Na’vi, not out of any personal vendetta or deep-seated trauma, but simply because he can.  It’s not a deep character but Lang makes him as exciting and delightful to watch as any of the big-budget special effects.

The most surprising thing about Avatar is its limitations.  Limited by its narrative, special effects, and understanding of 3D, Cameron never fails in these areas but he never excels in them either.  What saves Avatar aren’t the supposed innovations but strong performances, skilled editing, and Cameron’s ability to direct action so amazing that it demands you see it in a movie theater.

Rating —– B minus

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