Monday, March 28, 2011

Dances With Wolves Meets Return Of The Jedi Meets The Matrix Meets District 9: Avatar!

The Good: Moments of performance, Moments of effect, Moments of message
The Bad: VERY predictable, Erratic special effects, Long and feels long, Very light on character
The Basics: Sloppy in effects and formulaic in the storytelling and characters, Avatar is a huge disappointment.

About halfway through watching the new science fiction "epic," my wife turned to me and began calling what would come next and she continually got her guesses right. About forty-five minutes from the end of the film, I turned to her and observed "I have absolutely no emotional investment in any of these characters." It was true. It was then that I came up with my title for this review and the truth of it left me dramatically disappointed. Under the heading of "it's all been done before," the longer Avatar went on, the more familiar it seemed and virtually everything that happened in it came from either Dances With Wolves, Return Of The Jedi, The Matrix, or District 9. The result is a surprisingly unsatisfying film.

My wife and I went into Avatar blind; we had each seen a single preview. I actually enjoyed how this was a film I knew almost nothing about from the outset. And having generally enjoyed the works of James Cameron, I was game for something that was truly original. Unfortunately, seasoned fans of cinema and especially science fiction are more likely to be disappointed than impressed in any way with the content and even effects of Avatar.

Taking over for his brainy brother on a project on planet Pandora, Jake Sully, a Marine who has been wheelchair-bound for years, to join the Avatar program. The indigenous evolved lifeform on Pandora, the Na'vi, have resisted Earth's attempts to extract unobtanium from Pandora, so the Company has a two-prong effort going on on Pandora: a Marine commando operation and a scientific-diplomatic effort. The Avatars are genetically-engineered Na'vi/human hybrids which are tailored to suit specific "drivers," essentially Na'vi puppets run by human brains off-site, and Jake quickly is used to bridge the gap between the two human camps working on Pandora. As part of the Avatar program, he is encouraged by Dr. Grace Augustine to learn the ways of the Na'vi and explore the planet and its inhabitant's cultures. But the nefarious Colonel Miles Quaritch enlists the ex-Marine to spy for the military and Jake agrees.

But when lost in the jungles, Jake's avatar is met by the Na'vi woman, Neytiri, who takes him back to the tribe for judgment. On the inside, Jake quickly learns the language, philosophy and survival tactics of the Na'vi. But when Parker Selfridge, the Company's representative, insists on making a move for the unobtanium quickly, Jake finds himself empathizing more with the Na'vi and taking up arms against the human armada intent on wiping out the flora and fauna in the way of their mining expedition.

Avatar is creative, to be sure, but it is a whole string of cliches stolen from other, more engaging movies, that it quickly becomes tired and predictable. As well, there are distinctly campy elements to the story from the obvious naming (Pandora?!, really?!) to the ridiculous: the one element the planet has is called "unobtanium?!" Yes, that's unobtainable anywhere else. Sadly, this is not said tongue-in-cheek in the actual film and as a result, amid a plodding film viewers are expected not to laugh out loud at such ridiculous conceits. My wife, in fact, wanted me to highlight the most ridiculous conceit, the appearance of a knife at the most unexplainable juncture, but because that comes in the last fifteen minutes, I refuse to name this "When All Else Fails, Pull A Knife." My wife is right, though, the movie takes only the most absurd and nonsensical turns when it is not being utterly predictable in the plot and character aspects.

To be fair to James Cameron's Avatar, some of the predictable character elements actually work in the film's favor. When the paraplegic Jake stands on his own two Avatar legs, he is not patient to do the things like run, jump and frolic that he has been missing for years. This is very human and reads as very true for the character. Similarly, Dr. Grace Augustine is a deeply intelligent and spiritual character who quickly overcomes the stereotypical "cold scientist" archetype.

But, the moment Neytiri appeared on screen, everyone knows that she is Jake's romantic interest. The two begin to form a bond as Neytiri is forced to become Jake's tutor, but there is an inorganic attraction between the two that comes solely from her being the first female Na'vi Jake sees and the one who he is proximate the most with. In a similar way, Jake's character arc is almost play by play the archetypal "hero" role with little that defines him as unique. In fact, the plot and character marks are so regular they are cliche: Jake uses the Na'vi for information, but has a change of heart, but is exposed by his own people before he can illustrate that, but goes back to try to warn them, but finds them not wanting his help, until the humans attack and they beg him to become a leader and it's been done before.

So, for those wondering, the four films I selected that I realized this was a combination of . . . here's how that works. Avatar is like Dances With Wolves in that a man from one culture finds himself assimilating with another culture that has a love of the planet and nature and the harmony of individual and ecosystem. Both are long films with a military protagonist, but where Dances With Wolves may be viewed with the hope and expectation that humanity will grow beyond its petty need for conquest to the detriment of other cultures, Avatar simply illustrates that we do not. Avatar is like Return Of The Jedi in that the indigenous people are vastly outgunned and overwhelmed by the technology of their oppressors. But where the Ewoks are pitiable or even stupidly heroic for trying to take on the Imperial machines, the Na'vi seem ridiculous continually shooting arrows at armored flying vehicles, even after they see this has no effect on them.

As for The Matrix, the Avatar suit concept is just an extension of plugging into the Matrix and having virtual experiences. The special effects in that earlier film knock the socks off the ones in Avatar. Herein lies one of the most serious problems with Avatar. Avatar is a live-action film which relies heavily on CG special effects from the tall Na'vi to most of Pandora, which is a lush jungle setting filled with glowing animals and collapsible flora. But there are large sections of the film where there is so much CG that the world is so unreal it LOOKS like a computer-generated animation. There is no reality to it and in some of the battle sequences, the physics of the characters - even in the lower gravity environment of Pandora - are not rendered realistically. The lighting, though, often makes the CG characters and sets look animated and markedly different from the live-action characters, equipment and set pieces that are present. As for District 9, James Cameron takes a serious hit for being the second-to-market with a virtually identical story of assimilation into an alien species. But whereas District 9 made the transformation literal, Avatar has a predictable cultural assimilation as Jake becomes one of the Na'vi. But, also, some of the camerawork is similar to District 9, so Avatar does not look or feel as special as it ought to.

On the acting front, James Cameron gets good use out of Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Augustine), though she performs many of her scenes with a ballsy quality familiar to anyone who liked her portrayal of Ellen Ripley. As well, Zoe Saldana's acting is mostly voice acting as she plays Neytiri, a CG-character. She is adequate in the role, but so much of her material is cliche that it is hard to say this is an outstanding performance by any measure.

It is Sam Worthington who is given the brunt of the acting chores as Jake Sully and while his character's arc is predictable, he is good in the role. He has a wonderful physical presence in his human presentation of Sully when moving in his wheelchair and from his wheelchair to the bunk where he interfaces with the Avatar. As well, Worthington has a good vocal presence in the points where he is playing a virtual character and they work, though so many of his lines are exactly the type of campy lines that make mainstream society cringe at the idea of science fiction.

At the end of the day, though, Avatar is slow and plodding until it becomes exactly the action-adventure film viewers would have expected it to be. It looks like a computer game in the last half and when it fails to track logically, it just goes for big explosions. The saddest part is that there is, throughout, a smart motif of the dangers of overwhelming capitalism and the importance of preserving and respecting the environment. But rather than dealing with the consequences of the most egregious acts the humans perpetrate against Pandora, the film is content to bow out as soon as the bloodshed is done.

For other alien movies, please check out my reviews of:
Battle Los Angeles
The Alien Quadrilogy
Battlefield Earth


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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