Thursday, July 21, 2011

Avatar (2009)

Visual Splendor.... Emotional Bore

- James Cameron is back directing a major motion picture for the first time since 1997's Titanic with 2009's sci-fi epic Avatar. Well, I did not miss him. I cannot (and, at this point in time, would not want to) bring myself to say that Cameron has ever directed a bad film - but outside of The Abyss (1989 - excluding the last 5 or 10 minutes of the film) and Terminator 2:Judgment Day (1991 - when able to ignore Edward Furlong's squealing), I cannot say that I have ever been gung-ho for a James Cameron film. Avatar continues this trend for me.

The word "groundbreaking" seems to follow Avatar wherever it goes and, in the realm of visuals, there is no question why. There has been some great CGI in film history but nothing comes quite close to the visual effects seen in Avatar - almost making The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy look like Tron (1982). The world that James Cameron introduces is absolutely beautiful, with nothing short of vibrant coloring and exquisite detail in every shot. Cameron's inventive style of film-making - using two cameras to film each shot, basically mimicking the way human eyes work - services the film greatly, as the film looks about as 3-D as a film can get without being fitted for an actual 3-D experience. The use of the motion capture technique is also utilized to perfection to the point where it looks more like the actors are in makeup rather than having CGI help. The visuals in Avatar are stunning and I must say that I really liked the film when nobody was talking on screen - however, there is much talking in Avatar and nothing of any real substance.

Cameron outdid himself with the visuals but he decided to not make a groundbreaking story with groundbreaking characters and groundbreaking acting. This is really too bad, because anything that is not related to the film's visuals is a huge snooze.

The story is certainly not the groundbreaking aspect of the film, the film's chain of events are incredibly predictable and you cannot find more sap in a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth. Also, if one is to strip down the plot to its essentials, Avatar is nothing new: not only have we seen films that depict humans as the sci-fi invader or aggressor before (E.T. (1982) for one and even District 9 & Planet 51 released during the same 2009 film year as Avatar!) but the basic story was done in Star Trek: Insurrection (1999 - with Earth people trying to relocate an alien race to harvest a planet's prime resource). While there is enough of a difference in the stories of Avatar & Insurrection to make them completely different films, I could not help but think of Insurrection during the entire runtime.

The film eventually expands upon the entire forest moon of Pandora (which sounds a lot like the forest moon of Endor from Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi (1983)) and specifically the humanoid alien race of the Na'vi, both of which are explored in an almost National Geographic way. The Na'vi are suspiciously Native American-like, which not only makes Sully's embracing of Na'vi life look a lot like Kevin Coaster's role in Dances With Wolves (1990) but it also really just hammers home the fact that Hollywood carries around nothing but complete romanticism (and maybe some white guilt too) for Native Americans.

Hollywood's romanticism for Native Americans is translated into the film through the Na'vi who are beyond in touch with nature, they are literally integrated into it - they can biologically plug into an animal and become one with it. The film also waxes spiritual about the Na'vi's wonderful religion - which is basically just worshiping the planet's biology (Hollywood would just love a religion they can scientifically prove) - but interesting or emotional it is not. All of this I found to just be very weird on top of lame. Moreover, Cameron force-feeds us his very heavy-handed, sophomoric, not-so-subtly environmentalist, and manipulative story. No other sappy environmentalist film posing as an adventure flick at the same time exists this side of Ferngully (1992)! The big bad cardboard cutout of a caricatures of the mean militaristic corporations vs. the spiritually and environmentally in-tune group of natives - who are you honestly going to choose to root for?

I have never considered James Cameron to be much of a director. He reliably delivers entertaining movies but, outside of The Abyss, I have never been impressed with his character building or stylistic approach to film-making and, outside of the technological feats of the film, I cannot say that Cameron did much of an interesting or stylish job with Avatar. Scene framing is very straight-forward here in Avatar and Cameron, quite frankly, just did not take any risks with the film's general presentation - taking into account the groundbreaking visual effects, the direction was very disappointing. Cameron did not do his actors any service either, Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi being the only actors who give a performance worth anything. Sam Worthington's rising fame is something I cannot understand - he has the same blank stare on his face in every scene. Joel Moore pops up and plays the stereotypical science nerd with particular banality, Michelle Rodriguez is as bland as she ever is, and Stephen Lang has the great misfortune of portraying the film's most 2-D character.

It is easy to see the great time, care, and money that was obviously fully invested into Avatar but when it comes to characters, story, themes, and emotion, Avatar failed to strike a chord with yours truly. Avatar, for me, really just ended up to be a visually splendid National Geographic/Star Wars/Dances With Wolves/Ferngully hybrid that is predictable, sappy, and blandly acted. The film looks great - but you are not missing out by missing Avatar.

CBC Rating: 5/10

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