Wednesday, December 23, 2009

REVIEW: Avatar

Someone...somewhere...mentioned that watching Avatar is somewhat equivalent to dropping LSD (is LSD "dropped"? I really have no idea) and staring at one of those old sci-fi covers where some space man is fighting a giant lizard or something. They didn't take it this far, but I will - not only does that convey the visual experience of the thing, but also the pure emptiness one must feel afterward.

To say Avatar is writer/director James Cameron's worst film (and, like everybody else, I'm discarding Piranha Part 2: The Spawning from consideration because, like everybody else, I haven't seen it) is a complimentary way into pointing out its many, many flaws. What does it say about Cameron that something this extravagant, ambitious, and in many respects fully-realized counts as his worst film? Can you imagine what kind of filmography that must be that Avatar is your worst film? So believe me when I say, when it comes to Avatar and James Cameron, everything is relative.

And don't get me wrong, it's as visually extravagant as everyone, including Cameron, has promised. Is it a game-changer? I'm not really sure. My guess would be "yes," but at this point we're into improvement by degrees, and it seems completely unlikely to me that any movie will come along at this point and show the audience something they cannot believe they are witnessing. But like a lot of people, I don't know enough about CGI to say if this will truly change the way people make movies.

What I do know is that the sequences on Pandora, the main place in the film that Cameron created whole cloth, are, visually and aurally, staggering to behold on every level from conception to design to execution. I don't really buy it as a real place the way Cameron wants me to, but I was too overwhelmed and in awe to care that much. Do you have to believe a painting represents a real place, or is it better to get lost in  the beauty of it? I'd say the latter. And the 3D works here in a major way, nearly as strong an argument for the process as an artistic tool as Coraline was earlier this year. The way we fall into this world is so wonderful and truly magical in a way movies rarely are.

But what has dawned on me over the last day is how truly empty and underdeveloped the film is, especially once you find your footing visually, and especially considering Cameron wrote the original treatment in the 90s and has been developing it, to one extent or another, ever since. And no, these problems cannot be excused by saying "film is a visual medium" and leaving it at that. Simply creating pretty pictures is not enough. If you say "film is a visual medium," what that means is that the visuals accomplish something that cannot be accomplished with words, or that something is being conveyed through the visuals that you could not effectively or artistically communicate any other way. That is not the case with Avatar; the only thing that's communicated visually is "this looks really God damn cool." The camera, in and of itself, is never used to create emotion or thought.

Of course...neither is the script.

Shots like these, and there are a lot of them, with little bits of whatever floating around, are breathtaking in 3D

A lot has been made about the film's racial politics, and while I think it's an interesting point to discuss, it has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the film. If a movie wants to be bigoted/stereotypical/simplistic towards its representations of race, I suppose that's a choice; it's certainly a point of view. And I don't knock a piece of art for the artist's opinion. Along those same lines, while I really, really respect the environmentalist/anti-colonialist message Cameron is hammering away here (and using so much of Fox's money to do it), my appreciation for his total evisceration of humanity's more selfish tendencies does nothing to elevate my general opinion of the film.

(by the way, as a side note, in a year in which replacing black people with aliens was considered biting social commentary, I don't understand why more people don't consider replacing Native Americans with aliens to be the political statement of the decade)

My problem is that this simplistic representation of Native Americans (and it is very clearly supposed to be that) contributes to the script's fundamental lack of a reason for Jake Sully, the film's protagonist, to exist at all, besides giving the audience a white guy to latch onto. In the end, Jake's purpose (spoiler alert for anyone who's never seen a movie in their life) is to lead the Na'vi (those are the aliens who replaced the Native Americans) in a fight against their human (white) oppressors. This of course implies that the Na'vi are completely incapable of fighting their own fight without the White Man, in spite of the fact that we're told near the beginning of the film that, although they're limited technologically, the Na'vi are very dangerous and very capable. Again, I have less a problem with the racial implications than I do with the dramatic.

Nether Cameron nor Sam Worthington, the severely incapable star of the film, give Jake anything other than that. He just has to be a Marine at the start, gathering information to use against the Na'vi, and then change his mind about it after meeting the hottest Na'vi chick ever. At no point was a single important question asked about his character, nor any other character, except "how does this person push the plot forward?"

For instance...How does he feel about his brother's death? How does he feel about the Na'vi, and more importantly, about how they and their planet are treated before visiting Pandora? How did he develop this viewpoint? How much of his change is based on genuinely appreciating their way of life, and how much is based on hormones? Any one of these questions, and a thousand others that could have been made up from nothing (does he like soup?) would have improved this shell of a character, as would Worthington changing the way he read any line. His performance is exactly the same throughout the film.

And guess what? The supporting cast isn't any better. The entire film is full of stock characters who we understand solely because we've seen them in another film. We have the tech guy who doesn't trust the brash new guy; the benevolent scientist working under a military regime, covertly trying to improve the lives of the natives while not ruffling any feathers with the board of directors; the noble savage (who also happens to be a slammin' hottie who has no problem putting out), true to her people but fascinated by the mysterious outsider; the gruff, tough-as-nails, no-nonsense, militaristic general (maybe he's a captain?); the totally uncaring bureaucrat, concerned only with the bottom line; the tribal chief who doesn't trust the mysterious outsider, largely because they're both gunning for the same woman (don't worry, they'll get along later). Am I forgetting anyone? Oh, yeah, and Michelle Rodriguez, who might as well be starring as herself at this point (I wonder if Rodriguez is secretly great at playing some other type of character, and so resents the fact that she's relegated to the same role over and over again that she never gives a good performance as a result).

The thing is, Cameron's used ALL of these types before (except for the Native American ones), and many other stock characters, but guess what? In every other film he, or the actor playing them, gave them some layer or texture that made them compelling. Every single character in this film fits perfectly into one of these slots, and not a single one of them has anything to offer besides that. Zoe Saldana, as the hottie savage, actually manages to give a good performance, but always in the precise range noted above. Nothing she or the character does will surprise you in the least.

For most of the first half of its running time, Cameron manages to make it work. The visuals are so overwhelming, the filmmaking so precise and measured, all set to a very fine flow, that I was caught up in something truly pleasant. It's only around the turn at the start of the final act, or maybe just before that, that every one of these characters falls into the role the story dictated for them, when it really becomes a problem. Because, suddenly, I realized that I didn't care about any of these people, at all. And what should have been the most thrilling part of the movie (the final showdown) becomes totally rote, predictable, and (worst of all) completely free of any tension.

Cameron's three greatest strengths, thus far, have been a) creating and quickly establishing unique, compelling characters, b) putting them against an oppressive force, and c) driving narrative like the T-1000 drives a truck - relentlessly. When he's at his best (which, for me, is the Aliens-Abyss-T2 run), his narratives bowl over so fast, he is constantly introducing unpredictable elements and slight obstacles, and he simply never lets up, which is why most of us don't worry too much about the clunky dialogue. That all of this typically takes place against some unstoppable force (the Terminators, the aliens/space itself, the bottom of the sea, a sinking ship) means we're constantly involved in conflict, constantly on edge. It can be, and often is, really thrilling.

None of that is present in Avatar, and, with the exception of creating compelling characters, would not be a problem if he had strengths in the areas he wants to be strong in (and for most of the middle, it seems like he really wants to be Terrence Malick). It's not our basic knowledge that good will conquer evil that prevents tension from setting in. It's not like we really thought the aliens would kill Ripley and Newt, or that the T-1000 would kill John Connor, or even that Jack and Rose would get off the ship (hell, we know for a fact that Rose makes it). But there's a special touch Cameron had to create white-knuckle sequences within that larger framework that made those movies so exciting, and which is entirely absent at any point in this film (the sequence of Ed Harris swimming between airlocks in The Abyss is more tense and commanding than the whole of Avatar). And what's left is often quite pleasant, but once he saddles up and ramps up the "conflict," nothing has been established that feels like it's worth the effort.

Avatar is now playing...gosh, everywhere really. If you haven't seen it yet and still want to, see it in 3D. Preferably at Cinetopia.


Adrian said...

"The camera, in and of itself, is never used to create emotion or thought.
Of course...neither is the script."
I can't find the words to express how strongly I disagree. To imitate your style, I'll say you're a stock character - the insensitive snob who "has seen everything" and just over-simplifies, labels and dismisses almost all aspects of the movie.
There are SO many different ideas, parallels and possible interpretations in Avatar, and the story has many more (and not just 3) dimensions than "white guy saves the Native Americans' world".
Sorry if the movie was "truly empty and underdeveloped", the star was "severely incapable", and the final part was "totally rote, predictable, and (worst of all) completely free of any tension" for your standards. I thoroughly enjoyed it and have opposite opinions about all those points.
Now you're welcome to dismiss me as an uneducated skxawng :)

Rockwoodcomic said...

I, on the other hand, agree completely. Visually, "Avatar" is stunning, perhaps the most stunning movie I've ever seen. But the script... I was yawning and checking my watch for the last 45 minutes. It's almost worth checking out "Avatar" just to demonstrate how boring amazing effects can be.

Souvlaki said...

Many well made points here, and I'm glad to see there are other people who had the same problems as me with this film. While it was visually stunning as expected, I would say the plot and characters were more flat than any film I have seen in a very long time. I did also look at my watch for the last 1/4 of the film, as I knew exactly what was going to happen, I just couldn't help but hoping it would soon end. I don't understand how people can call this "film of the decade" when the characters are only duplicates of stereotypes we have seen so many times before, and when the story is following the traditional hollywood structure way to well, with no surprises whatsoever. Perhaps if watching this with a popcorn film in mind, it will give me more pleasure, but with the hype and expectations I had I was let down.