Friday, December 25, 2009
This review contains SPOILERS
Avatar is not a movie meant to be seen. It's a movie meant to be looked at. A lot of money was poured into the cauldron to make James Cameron's vision a reality, but money alone cannot account for the sheer beauty of Pandora. Over and over again the movie gives us gorgeous vistas, awe-inspiring floating mountains and fantastic creatures that look like amalgamations of prehistoric and present day beasts. Light plays an important role, as nearly half the plant and animal life seem to be bioluminescent. Creepers glow when stepped on, unearthly, spiral orchids give off gentle yellow light and are sucked into the ground when touched. My brain tells me it's all CG, but me eyes find it difficult to believe . When James Cameron says it took twelve years for technology to catch up to his vision, he isn't lying.
But if the visuals are the films strongest selling point, the story and dialogue are the weakest links. While not particularly bad, Avatar employs every hackneyed cliche, every stock character and every predictable plot twist to tell the tale of a soldier who starts sympathising with the enemy and jumps ship to fight the good fight. Sam Worthington is Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine brought to the alien planet of Pandora as a replacement for his twin brother who was murdered in a voice-over. Since he is genetically identical to his brother, he has been indoctrinated into the avatar program. Avatars are lab-grown Na'vi, natives of the planet and are basically shells into which the consciousness of certain handpicked humans can be transported so they can mix freely with the local population.
The reason for this incredibly convoluted diplomatic exercise has to be laziest Mcguffin in cinematic history, a mineral called, of all things, unobtanium. Apparently it sells for twenty million dollars a kilo on earth. Why, we never have the privilege of knowing. Of course, evil suit-man who represents the organisation financing the operation and fanatic military leader who is charged with protecting it, would rather just blow up the locals and take the unobtanium, if only it wasn't such bad press. So the strategy is to infiltrate them with avatars, introduce them to earthly pleasures like roads and schools and diplomatically drive them out of their happy hunting ground. Of course avatar-Jake gets to be part of the local Na'vi tribe, and of course he realizes that their way of life (which is somehow almost identical to Native American philosophy) is so much better than his, and of course he falls in love with the local princess, and of course this makes the Na'vi general angry because HE was supposed to marry the princess, and of course they fight, and of course the princess renounces him when she learns of the truth, but only temporarily, and of course he ends up saving the world against the evil white man....oops, earthling. Not a step outside the tried-and-true.
The story would be a deal breaker in almost any other film. But to Cameron's credit, he keeps it moving, and does not allow the viewer to get bored. The characters may have no shades of gray, but the scenery is usually a riot of colours. Set-piece follows set-piece, whether it's a a battle with some of the local fauna that look like jet black jaguars blown up a hundredfold, to Jake's first flying lesson where he takes control of his dragon-like mount to soar and sweep and glide through the air as the camera savours every little nuance of this gorgeous world Cameron has created. And then there are the battle scenes. Shots of giant steel mechs clanking into battle against the twelve foot tall Na'vi, or the humongous airships firing rockets at dragon-mounted warriors are done with remarkable precision. Any good battle scene needs to be choreographed like a piece of music, with the tension rising and falling at precisely the right moments. The final battle of Avatar, which is more than half an hour long, proves Cameron's still got it.
Another high-point of the movie is Cameron's attention to detail. There is no doubt Pandora is a fully realized world inside his head. Little things like how the Na'vi have four fingers but the avatars have five (presumably to help the human mind adjust to the new body), to the dragon-flame decals that adorn every mech, plane and tank by the humans. Experts were brought in to develop a Na'vi language, and botanists were consulted to ensure the plant life of Pandora follow basic biological principles. While not dramatically influencing the experience, such attention to detail definitely help in making Pandora feel like a living-breathing world of its own.
Cameron's handling 3-D is also mature, as he eschews gimmicks like things rushing at the screen in favour of more subtle uses for this technology. Sure there are moments where spaceships zoom by and animals rush at the camera, but mostly it's about using the added depth to immerse rather than shock. Glowing embers seem to pop out of the screen, sheer drops stretch out to eternity. Instead of making the viewer flinch every moment, the 3-D builds a cocoon of visuals around him, cradling him into this world.
The problem with Avatar, and the reason why the review seems to teeter between two extremes is where it's bad, it's very insipid, and where it's good, it's mind blowing. The story has been told a hundred times before, and mostly told better. The visuals on the other hand, are truly revolutionary. Never before has a world been created from scratch with such depth and precision. If the lack of a story kills the whole experience for you, avoid this movie, but if images are more important, or if you know what to expect and go in with a mind open to enjoying the good bits, Pandora is a hell of a ride.