Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Transported to Nowhere

Avatar (2009)

Writer/director James Cameron’s first film in 12 years is a visual effects-filled shrug.

The story is a very basic tale: Humans in the near future travel to a planet to mine a valuable mineral. They can’t get the primitive alien population, the Na’vi, to move with the futuristic equivalent of “wampum and brandy” so they use ugly brute force to get what they want, natives be damned.

Every movie-goer should be issued a checklist so they can note each cliché as they occur: Hero Jake Sully meets Grace, doctor in charge of avatar program; she immediately dislikes him. Check. Generic military colonel gives, “You aren’t in Kansas anymore” speech. Check. Jake’s first contact with the Na’vi is with the chief’s daughter Neyteri, who immediately dislikes him. Check. Neyteri brings Jake to tribe, who immediately dislike him. Check. Jake, cocky and stupid, slowly wins over Neyteri. Check. Best warrior in tribe wants to marry Neyteri. Check. Best warrior really dislikes Jake. Check. Jake learns tribe’s ways. Check. Tribe accepts Jake, but best warrior doesn’t. Check. Best warrior will fight Jake at some point nearly killing him. Check. Later best warrior will accept Jake as a brother and/or leader. Check. And it just goes on and on. Or should that be “yawn and yawn.”

Clichéd plots aren’t necessarily a bad thing if they can be tempered with interesting characters that can offset the aching familiarity, but that isn’t the case with Avatar which has been called Dances with Smurfs and Pocahontas in Space by some viewers.

In addition to the clichés, Cameron is recycling himself, with the mechanical Power-loader cousins, the drop-ship like helicopters and the tough Latina soldier (all done before in Aliens). Cameron is a bit like George Lucas in that he can't let go of an old idea.

None of the characters are memorable for the right reasons. The villain of the piece, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has all the depth of a cartoon character. Well, not all cartoon characters as Jonny Quest villains were better written, with more believable motivations. Quaritch just wants to kill and destroy (he must be a terminator or a robot: "Crush! Kill! Destroy!"). All he was missing was a cigar to chomp on. Giovanni Ribisi as the corporate shill in charge of mining the “unobtanium” mineral is too goddamn young to hold a position that literally has the fate of the Na’vi in his hands. Ribisi is in his mid-30s but he looks about 25 years old. I propose a better idea would have been to have Sigourney Weaver as the corporate head on Pandora. She’s the right age, projects intelligence and resourcefulness; plus, wouldn’t this be a great spin on things, having Ripley who famously fought against the company in the Alien series now BE the company (see my comment earlier about interesting characters offsetting the clichés)!

Hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is as bland as bleached white bread. Worthington barely registered in Terminator Salvation where he was a secondary character, but here he gets the lead role and he’s terrible. He comes across as a bored high school football player going through the motions on the field.

Perhaps the best performance is by Zoe Saldana as Neyteri (she also scored last summer as Uhura in the Star Trek reboot). She voices her role with an exotic accent and convincingly speaks in the made up Na’vi language, which was created by a linguist (shades of Land of the Lost’s Pakuni). Saldana's movements are supple and graceful and replicated through the movie's motion-capture technology.

One idea I did enjoy immensely was the Na’vi’s connection to their world. It wasn’t just a spiritual but a LITERAL one, as they are able to "plug in" and connect with many of the animals and even the trees. But it was this idea that the movie mishandled the most. When Jake's avatar “plugs into” the alien flora and fauna it should have been a profound experience. Humans often talk about a spiritual connection, but Jake is the first person to actually connect with the world around him, and its an alien world to boot. So what does he do? He just smiles at little. Way to be overwhelmed by your experience, Jake. Oh, and he never shares what this was like with his human colleagues. Not once. Another thing that bothered me was Jake never showed any regret at having to unplug from his extremely agile avatar to go back to his true body with its crippled useless legs. That should have been a given but apparently NOTHING REGISTERS ON THIS GUY!

Also, I simply did not believe that the nameless “company” that sent the miners to Pandora and hired Quaritch and his private army would simply murder with such glee an intelligent alien species that had this unique connection to their world, not matter what “wars” are going on on Earth, no matter what we've done in the past. The scientific and spiritual curiosity alone would ensure that they are untouched. It wasn’t mumbo jumbo; they all knew this about the Na’vi. Perhaps if the characters were better drawn I would have accepted their motivations, but as it stands their motivation was “because the script says so.”

I did see the movie in 3D at L.A.’s famed Cinerama Dome on its big curved screen in the XpanD 3D process (with the big goggles). I have to say I was not impressed; this presentation did not make me a fan of 3D movies. Previously I had only experienced 3D in theme park attractions such as Captain Eo and T2 3D: Ride Across Time. I thought those were much better presentations than Avatar. My friend BW pointed out that Avatar’s 3D effects were mostly “innies” and not meant to “pop out” of the screen and into or up to your face. But to my mind THAT’S what 3D is about – without that popping out, it’s just a needless distraction. After a very noticeable start that reminded me of an old Viewmaster with Jake coming out of cryosleep in a huge cavernous spaceship interior, the 3D seems to “settle in,” only every once in a while making itself known (as with the glowing hanging vines of the Tree of Souls).

I thought the 3D projection dampened down the colors too much, especially the luminescent plant life (my friend DC’s wife B made the astute observation that “the planet looked like a teenager’s room full of those fuzzy posters that glow when you turn on a black light”); the colors simply weren’t as vivid as in 2D.

The actions scenes are pretty thrilling, and thank goodness you could follow them. We probably have the 3D process to thank for that; if Cameron shot the movie with the trendy Shaky-Cam and edited it with a Digi-Blender, the viewers heads would have exploded from the dimensional frenzy.

All in all, Avatar is much ado about nothing: A generic story, with dull characters, a pretty setting and an eco-message. It's like a glossy brochure. There was no true sense of wonder: it was all in the production design and visuals and not present in the story and characters. That's like going to a fancy restaurant and the best thing you could say about the food is that the plates and silverware were nice.

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