Thursday, January 7, 2010

At Last: Avatar

In a year that brought us giant robots, living museum pieces, mutants, super-soldiers, and guinea pig spies and had them all be endlessly dull clattering noises and nonsensical spectacle, Avatar feels like a breath of fresh air. Here’s a story with real characters and arcs that matter. Here’s special effects that have real impact in a plot that has peaks and valleys and room to breathe. Of course, it’s a shame that the plot is a hodgepodge of other sci-fi extravaganzas with a bit of Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas thrown in for good measure, not to mention its sledgehammer metaphors for modern ailments, but at least it’s shaped and developed in a cohesive way. I’m not exactly sure how every aspect of the world operates, and some of it gets a little silly, but here’s a movie that sets out to excite and entertain and actually accomplishes it.

The first thing we see is a too-good-to-be-true jungle as we glide across the canopy, the branches whisking past our faces. The 3D is hardly revolutionary; movies just this year like Up and A Christmas Carol used the technology in similar ways to similar effects, deepening the landscape with a more fluid technique arising from their animated nature. The live action nature of Avatar achieves something closer to the multi-plane animation of early Disney works where the foreground, background, and everything in between look like they exist on separate plates creating a convincing illusion of depth. But because of this 3D technology the movie, to my eyes, looked pretty much 2D. After all, regular movies are perceived to possess depth as well by simply showing us an image that represents the real world as we see it. A normal image doesn’t appear to flatten the background into the foreground, does it? Throwing 3D in to the mix only distracts here, especially because Cameron isn’t interested in throwing things into the audience, the trick 3D does best. For most of Avatar I felt like I was watching a 2D movie while wearing an extra pair of glasses. Now that the disappointment with the most trumpeted revolutionary aspect of the film can settle in, we can get back to the plot.

After the jungle soars by, we meet the man who will guide us into the story, Jake Sully played by Sam Worthington, the young Australian actor who stole Terminator Salvation right out from under Christian Bale. Worthington’s not quite as good here, but his role is just as intriguing. Sully is an ex-marine who is forced to take his brother’s place on a corporation’s mission to a planet called Pandora. His brother had been trained to control an avatar grown with his DNA mixed with that of the natives of Pandora, the Na’vi, a race of blue bipedal felines. This avatar is, well, I’m not exactly sure what it is. Is the creature a separate being that Sully can control or is it an empty biological vehicle that he merely drives? Oh, well. Cameron doesn’t stop to tell us. Whatever it is, the fake Na’vi is controlled by Sully, who uses a wheelchair but when he enters his avatar he has control over a fully functioning, albeit alien, body. It’s an escape but one that leads Sully to end up being torn between Sigourney Weaver’s sassy scientist who wants to use the avatar program to learn about the peaceful natives and Stephen Lang’s brutish ex-military company man who wants to use the avatars to learn how to relocate the natives in order to get at the rich deposits of futuristic minerals.

Luckily, all of this is set up within the first act of the film, allowing for us to ignore the plot for much of the middle portion of the film, which finds the big blue Na’vi Sully interacting with the natives, especially the one played by a motion-capture Zoe Saldana who begins to take a romantic interest in the strange outsider. It’s a somewhat compelling romance, but luckily the true love story is between Cameron and the fantastical world he’s showing us. The film wanders through the jungles of Pandora and, make no mistake, it is some kind of spectacular. There are floating mountains and glowing moss, dizzying drops and lush fields. There are plants that glow when tread upon and a holy tree that can read your mind. It’s a rich and detailed exercise in world building and it’s a delight to explore as it unfolds on screen, every little detail satisfying. Well, that holy tree is kind of hokey, but other than that this is a satisfying sci-fi universe.

The movie zips right along and, despite nagging problems with the details of the plot, I was caught up in the action. There’s a devastating moment of mass destruction that hits about two-thirds of the way through the film that jolted me, surprising me with how much I cared about this world. The movie may not have the relentless forward momentum of Cameron’s Terminator or Aliens, but it does have a comfortable pacing that allows the spectacle to settle in before the massive all-action finale that sends creatures and technology hurtling into each other in a slick and awesome cacophony as good as a Star Wars battle or the kind of comic book panel that feels so packed with carefully choreographed motion and detail that it should probably be a centerfold. Even in 2D, this epically satisfying climax would be totally enjoyable.

So, is Avatar a groundbreaking, jaw-dropping motion picture event unlike any we have seen since maybe Star Wars or even The Jazz Singer? In short, the answer is no, and it doesn’t matter how groundbreaking Cameron thinks it is. Instead, the movie is just a well paced, entertaining, special-effects extravaganza. It has a derivative plot and some thin characters, but I kind of cared about them, and I certainly cared about the planet Pandora. When some in Hollywood seem to have lost the ability to make us care about thin characters in fantastical situations, it’s nice to see a blockbuster that’s actually worth the blocks it’s busting.

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