January 16, 2010

Movie Review: Avatar

I know I'm late to the game here, but I don't like fighting crowds at movies, I was ill for about a week, and The Wife and I didn't find the time for a date night until just yesterday.  So it's been a while since this movie premiered and I only just now got around to seeing it.

Everything you've heard about this movie, good and bad, is true.  I enjoyed myself, and was absolutely amazed by the 3-D technology.

Story:  Yes, it's Dances With (Ten-Foot Tall) Smurfs, brought to you by James Cameron (literally) complete with lots of stuff blowing up and Sigourney Weaver in both regular and blue versions.  Sam Worthington's character is a paraplegic Marine whose spine was injured and signs up as a mercenary to interact with an alien race on a faraway planet on behalf of human colonists come to mine a valuable mineral.  Along the way he learns important lessons about life, love, living in harmony with nature, and the moral virtues of "going native."  Then a lot of stuff blows up and there is a happy ending.  Yes, you've seen this story before and yes, it isn't particularly deep and yes, if you have some kind of a chip on your shoulder about never, never admitting that America was ever morally in the wrong about anything even a little bit, the story will annoy you.  And the derivative nature of the script has drawn comparisons not only to Dances With Wolves but also Dune and a reasonably popular series of children's books and the comparisons are all apt.  But you know what?  A billion dollars in domestic box office receipts later (and partial ownership of the 3-D technology that will be used again and again in more movies this year and next) has substantially dulled James Cameron's ability to give a shit about your criticisms of his script.

Script: Unabashed Hollywood pablum, injected in pure form directly into your veins.  Is it a "liberal" script, as many conservative critics have charged?  You betcha.*  The mercenaries and the aliens are transparently obvious analogues for the U.S. Army and Native Americans in the 1800's, and indeed rather than introduce any slight ambiguity the script goes out of its way to polarize things further.  Nor did the scriptwriters work very hard to conceal things by way of names; the valuable mineral is not given a fanciful name but literally left bare as the engineering joke "unobtanium," the planet is literally named "Pandora," and if you have difficulty translating the name of the alien race, "Na'vi" into "Navajo," you aren't paying even the remotest bit of attention.  But here is the rare instance when hamfisted storytelling of a not-very-interesting story is not the most significant issue. The script is good enough for the movie's purposes.  There is just enough emotional depth to get it through and keep empathy for the heroes and antipathy for the villains throughout.  Are there plot holes?  Oh yeah, and all the characters are two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, too.  But you won't care.  This isn't a story-driven movie and you aren't going to see this movie for the story.

Cast: Serviceable.  One gets the impression that none of these actors particularly had to strain their abilities here because the characters are not all that deep.  Sam Worthington is appropriately good-looking and noble in demeanor in both his human and alien casts; Sigourney Weaver is an appropriate choice for the noble scientist struggling to work with grunts and savages; tough-guy character actor Stephen Lang is brusque and aggressive as the heavy; Giovanni Ribisi is shallow and callow as the mandatory evil yuppie; Michelle Rodriguez is luscious and admirable as the rogue warrior; Zoe Saldana is the ten-feet-tall blue-skinned warrior-chick love interest.

Cinematography: The art department got to let their imaginations go wild here.  The environment of the alien world is intended to be an idyllic, lush, heartbreakingly beautiful, and idealized pastiche of science-fiction portrayals of forested paradise.  Apparently finding George Lucas' use of Coast Redwood forests in Return of the Jedi unsatisfactory for impressiveness, Cameron's artists blend elements of Iguazu Falls, Amazonia, British Columbia, Congo, and pure fancy.  Mountains float on Pandora and no one bothers to explain why or how; the only reason there are floating mountains is because they look cool.

Costumes:  Standard paramilitary stuff, for the most part; Cameron has updated to the digital-camo now used by the U.S. military.  Non-military humans get to wear featureless gray jumpsuits and the evil yuppie gets to wear a collared shirt.  The aliens are generally portrayed as semi-nude to highlight their noble primitivism and the harmony with the environment inherent in their lifestyle.  About the only costume item of any real note is the mask humans must wear to breathe the air on the alien world, which is a recurring plot detail.  The aliens are pretty much entirely CGI creations; it's the same technology that brought Gollum to life in Lord of the Rings and which animates Cylon Centurions in the modern iteration of Battlestar Galactica, which is now good enough, based on motion capture technology, to replicate the fluidity of a real person moving and walking and doing stuff.

Effects: Staggering.  The 3-D technology is seamless, believable, and the real reason to go to this movie.  The technology uses grayscale polarized glasses rather than the old cruddy red-and-blue film lenses, which are both more comfortable and produce a much better and vibrant 3-D effect.  To my eye, it worked better during the pure CGI portions than the live-action portions of the movie.  The depth of the polarized lenses works well to establish three layers of depth to the picture -- far background really does look far away; whatever is in the focus of the shot appears comfortable in the "mid-range" and then there are things that appear in front of it and seem to be right in between you and the movie.  Ashes or leaves or other things falling are particularly effective and trigger your instinct to brush them away.  It works best to give depth to things in the focus of the shot and the background; occasionally there are objects that move prominently into the foreshot and seem to protrude into your personal space (arrows, guns, stuff like that) but happily, Cameron does not make a point of shooting arrows directly at the camera just to wow the viewer; using his experienced eye for action cinematography, he allows the progress of the set-pieces to dictate good shots and uses the 3-D to give you a good feel for the overall sequence.  This is why you should see Avatar and why you need to make it a point to do it in a good theater -- the movie delivers on its promise to make you feel like you are really immersed in the environment of this science-fiction universe.

Music: The orchestral score is generally subdued and drowned out by either dialogue or foley effects for much of the movie.  It is more powerful and prominent during the "money shot" CGI sequences, like when the hero learns how to do one of the many interesting things that the aliens can do with the native fauna or encounters a scene of particular beauty.  Predictably stattaco brass and tympani punctuate the battle sequences but are barely noticeable between the excessive amounts of ordinance being discharged.  The end title sequence contains the only music with vocals and it is in more of a pop-music style, and that seems jarring and out of place after the orchestral music preceding it, but by then I was walking out anyway.

Comments: This is one of those instances where I think I profited from reading all of the reviews and critiques of the movie before seeing it.  Doing that really downplayed my expectations for the story; I was expecting a grade-F script and got a grade-C, so in that sense it exceeded expectations.  The point was not to be entertained by a story but rather to take in a spectacle, and there, the movie delivered an A+ package.  After a while, I became conscious of the movie's two-and-a-half hour length but did not mind so much because I knew that plot elements A, B, C, and D all had to be resolved (in utterly predictable ways) and was prepared to enjoy the sights and sounds along the way while that happened.

* The script doesn't just infantilize the Na'vi, as my friend accurately accuses it of doing.  It infantilizes the humans, too.  It infantilizes the audience.  It is staggeringly beyond belief that humans would go to the trouble and expense of traveling to a world like this and so clumsily attempt to colonize it in the manner depicted, with such blithe disregard for the ultra-obvious and readily-reconciled moral issues addressed in the story.  The movie isn't intended to address the real, complex, and sometimes subtle issues of cultural clash and the interplay of economic and moral imperatives.  It is intended to make you go "wow!" when stuff blows up in 3-D and not a whole lot more than that.


Michael Grant said...

I still haven't gone, so you aren't the last one. The running time is hard to mesh with homework, tae kwon do, birthday parties and etc...

But I do find myself very reluctant to be subjected to a moral lecture. I hate it when Hollywood gets political because they're inevitably so shallow. So I found this review reassuring. It lowers my resistance to seeing the film.

IMAX you think?

And thanks for the ANIMORPHS plug!

Burt Likko said...

Definitely IMAX, if you have access to it. The point of the movie is to get the best visual experience possible.

Michael Grant said...

Oh, that's me, Michael Reynolds, by the way. I must be signed in under my writing name. Damned internet.