Awe-vatar ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, December 19, 2009


My rating:

James freakin' Cameron. Know who that is? Only the man who directed The Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Abyss, and Titanic. Those are some of the best sci-fi films ever made, and some of the best films ever period. It's been an even dozen years since his last movie, and that alone would've made Avatar the most highly anticipated film of the year - but add to that a four-year production, an over-$230-million budget, rumoured revolutionary new SFX technology and rumoured revolutionary new 3D filming technology, and expectations aren't just through the roof, they're through an entire 30-floor skyscraper.

Well, it met them. Didn't exceed them, but very much met them.

It is the year 2154. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine, is made an offer to join a corporate expedition to the planet Pandora. Their mining operation is being threatened by an indigenous race known as the Na'vi, ten-foot-tall blue-skinned humanoids who live in harmony with their environment. Sully gets the chance to operate an "avatar", an artificially-grown Na'vi body whom he controls remotely, who can survive in Pandora's atmosphere. He is nominally part of Dr. Grace Augustine's (Sigourney Weaver) scientific team, but the ruthless Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) orders him to infiltrate the Na'vi to learn their weaknesses. Sully gets his chance when he meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and is introduced to the rest of her Na'vi clan - and soon finds himself falling in love with her, as well as with their native way of life. But Quaritch grows more and more hostile and callous, and soon Sully must decide where his loyalties lie.

Y'know, it didn't occur to me till I was writing that synopsis above, that this is a pretty complicated story. So many concepts and ideas, so much backstory, and I haven't even mentioned a great many other supporting characters - Tsu'Tey (Laz Alonso), a Na'vi warrior and rival for Neytiri's affections; Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore), Sully's fellow avatar operator; Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), a Marine combat pilot sympathetic towards Sully, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the weaselly corporate drone; and more. So it's a credit to the film that none of this is confusing or overwhelming; you are effortlessly immersed into the story and the world.

And woo boy, is immersive ever the key word here. Pandora is a world, stunningly beautiful and vibrantly, gloriously alive. A good part of the four-year production was spent working out the look, the ecology, and the flora and fauna of Pandora, and their efforts all pay off handsomely; not since Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy has there been such a well-realised cinematic world. (The Na'vi even have their own native language, developed by linguists.) And it's all brought to life with some of the most seamless CGI effects ever. Were you not impressed by the trailers? Did you think they still looked a bit rough, a bit fake, like a videogame cutscene? That's because they were still being rendered. Those were WIP shots, folks. The final product has all the kinks and bumps smoothed out, and everything looks perfectly, flawlessly real.

And that includes the Na'vi. Okay, I shouldn't really gush too much, the performance-capture hasn't quite matched the quality of a real-life actor yet. But good gravy, Cameron has come closer than anyone so far. Sam Worthington is not the most expressive actor, but his avatar self still captures the nuances of his performance in a more convincing manner than I've ever seen - and I'm a tough one to convince. And then there's Neytiri. Zoe Saldana's performance is fiery and passionate; she is alternately angry, mischievous, ecstatic, heartbroken and fiercely badass, and both actor and CGI combine to create one of the best digital creations ever put on screen. The rest of the Na'vi - Tsu'Tey, or Eytucan and Mo'at, chief and high priestess of the tribe respectively - are just as impressive. I could hardly recognise veteran character actors Wes Studi and CCH Pounder in the latter two roles. Whatever Cameron did different than Robert Zemeckis, it beats A Christmas Carol easily.

And then there's the 3D. Yes, it is worth the extra 8 bucks or so to watch it in 3D, although I wouldn't say it's essential. It's never used as a gimmick; no deliberate shots of things flying or jumping at the screen, so if you were wowed by Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D and want more of the same, you might be disappointed. What it's used for is, again, to immerse you in the story and the world - and it works at that. It's fun watching a typically masterful Cameron-directed action scene in 3D, but what impressed me the most were quiet scenes of people sitting around and talking; you can clearly perceive the depth of field between the characters, the furniture, and every object in the shot. And it is very much not blurry or dim like my other 3D viewing experience, which is exactly what I expected from Cameron.

And that's what you can expect from Cameron - a masterful technical, technological, even aesthetic, achievement. And here's where I talk about the film as a story, which isn't as successful as the nuts-and-bolts aspects, and which is where it fails to exceed expectations. It drags. The midsection feels long and drawn-out, and I felt myself waiting a little impatiently for the next big action setpiece. And I think this is because the plot is - has become - too formulaic. It's basically Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai all over again, even a bit of Ferngully and Pocahontas sprinkled in. The film's midpoint is where the plot kicks into gear, when Quaritch and Selfridge finally start open hostilities with the Na'vi, and we all knew it was coming. And we all know a massive, all-out, nature vs. technology, natives vs. imperialists, bows-and-arrows-and-horses-and-flying-dragons vs. guns-and-planes-and-ships-and-mechs battle is coming, but it's taking its own sweet time to get there.

Cameron says the idea for this film has been in his head since 1994, and here's where it shows. The technology may be sparkling and new, but the story is somewhat tired. Even the oh-so-noble-savage Na'vi feel like a cliche, as does the we-must-be-one-with-nature theme. And I wonder when exactly it was that Cameron forgot how to write great dialogue. Aliens, Terminator 2 and True Lies had heaps of quotable lines; here, none. Not even in Sully's speech to the Na'vi to rouse them to war. "We will send them a message - that this... this is our land!" doesn't compare with "They may take our lives... but they will never take our freedom!" Or "But it is not this day! This day we fight!" Or "The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!" Or even "We will not go quietly into the night!" Why yes, I am very fond of this trope. And yes, Avatar disappointed me in this regard.

But see those three-and-a-half stars? That still means it's a very, very good movie. It is, in fact, an awesome movie. It is chock-full of awesome. The shuttle landing on Pandora was awesome. The mechs patrolling the base grounds were awesome. The first scene with Sully's and Norm's avatars is awesome. Sully's first encounter with Pandoran wildlife is awesome. Neytiri is awesome. The quirky, glowing Pandoran flora are awesome. The floating mountains are awesome. Sully learning the Na'vi ways from Neytiri is awesome. The taming of the flying dragon steeds is aaawwwwesooomme. I spent so much of the running time with my mouth open, my throat was dry when I left the cinema. This is the most spectacular film you'll see all year, and you owe it to yourself to catch it just for that.

And it's still James freakin' Cameron after all, not goddamn Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich. He may be a technical whiz, but he's still miles better at telling a story than either of those two hacks. Even if the story is formulaic and predictable, it's still told with far better care and heart than most directors who aren't also technical whizzes. I can almost forgive him for the dragginess, because he's using that time to ensure the maximum dramatic impact of the story's beats - Quaritch's first attack on the Na'vi, the avatar team's dismay at being shut down, Neytiri's feelings of betrayal toward Jake. It's a spectacular film, but it is in no way empty spectacle. On a scene-by-scene basis, there's nothing that doesn't work exactly as it's meant to - whether to wow you with cool visuals, thrill you with an action scene, make you laugh with a snarky line or sight gag, or make you angry at callous destruction and cruelty.

And he's pretty damn good with actors - flesh-and-blood ones - too. There's never a bad performance in a Cameron film, and always plenty of great ones. Worthington may be a little wooden, but he gives the film a grounding in reality that helps offset the fantastical settings and happenings. Saldana is, as mentioned, terrific, and I hope she doesn't miss out on the recognition she deserves just because Neytiri doesn't look like her. Sigourney Weaver is as good as ever, and it's nice to see Michelle Rodriguez in a role where she actually smiles. But the standout performance is definitely Stephen Lang's. Colonel Quaritch is a badass mofo from his very first scene; he starts out as someone you admire, then slowly and surely becomes a totally hissable villain. Lang plays him with just the right touch of larger-than-life that never crosses the line into over-the-top.

And this is getting to be the longest review I've written yet, but this film deserves it. If it were an unqualified triumph, I wouldn't even have so much to say; I'd just rave about it. But the first James Cameron film in twelve years is just that intricate a film, exhaustive a subject, and momentous an event. So yes, not an unqualified triumph, but undeniably a triumph. And hey! Is there not talk of a sequel already? Now this is something to look forward to - the same world, the same characters, the same technical perfection, but a whole new story. But first, go watch this. Go watch it now. (And try to watch it in 3D.) It is the film of the year. Even if it's not - in my not-so-humble opinion - the best.

Update: Rating revised to reflect my new five-star rating scale.

Expectations: siiiiggghh


chicnchomel said...

dances with wolves plus pocahontas is right man.

TMBF said...

Dances with Wolves in spaaaaaace! :)