Avatar (2009) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Giovani Ribisi
By Alan Bacchus
If you like nine foot tall blue humanoid aliens, flying dragons, giant lizard creatures, floating mountains, neon willow trees etc ‘Avatar’ is the movie for you. If not, you will hate it. “Avatar” is a film so processed, so glossy, so colourful and so outside of the realm of reality it's purist fantasy of the highest order. But for this reviewer, there’s nothing I wouldn’t have wanted substituted for a real person, a real earth landscape, a real horse instead of a lizard-beast etc. So I therefore must admit, pure fantasy doesn’t turn my crank, so take this all with a grain of salt.
What does turn my crank is balls out action - that is, running, flying, chasing, gun firing, explosions, knife fighting, arrow throwing etc., On this level of filmmaking ‘Avatar’ is a triumph.
The story features a pretty cool sci-fi concept, the idea of a human having the ability to project their mind into the body of harvested aliens, In this film humans are the baddies, an invasive species into the world of Pandora - a pastoral planet full of lush greenery, mountains which reach into the sky, lovely waterfalls, neon trees etc. Two factions of humans have come - the scientists who want to study the species from an anthropological point of view and the military naves who want to rape the land of its natural resources at the expense of the lovely blue aboriginal inhabitants.
A paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives on the planet looking for a way to live the reckless lifestyle he led before he was injured in battle. When he infiltrates the blue native people’s society his orders as a spy comes into conflict with his new found love for one of the aliens and their eco-friendly lifestyle. The rest pretty much plays out like ‘Dances With Wolves’…
Additional plotting, characters, dramatic arcs and story beats are all rooted in familiar storytelling, borrowed from films like ’Braveheart’, ’Last of the Mohicans’, ’The Matrix’ and a number of westerns. Although I’ve heard James Cameron expound again and again that ultimately, ’it comes down to story’, it’s all BS because clearly story here takes a backseat for special effects and spectacle. So let’s leave the story as that - a functional skeleton for Cameron to hang all his fantastical creations.
The creatures are all rendered as perfect as can be compared to other CGI films. The blue creatures look almost real. But of course they can never look 100% real, because there is no such creature as a Na’vi. They run just like humans, can shoot guns and arrows just like humans and embrace and kiss just like humans. Everything works as good as it can. But their computer generated facial expressions can never substitute for the expressiveness of the humans - though Cameron would argue against that as well. And so, true immersiveness into the material comes down to whether you don’t mind watching nine-foot talk blue people interact and act like humans. ‘Titanic’ had worse dialogue and worse characters, yet when Jack was saying goodbye to Rose as her lifeboat was being lowered into the water the moment hit us in the gut because Leonardo Di Caprio was a real person and Kate Winslet was a real person. Avatar does not have that luxury and thus these moments never quite work as well.
As for the action, it’s a marvel and mindblowing. The final twenty minutes is a Transformers-like army vs. army battle, the kind of battle which could have easily been a wash of random swooshing imagery, quick cuts and incomprehensive movement. But even after 15 years since Cameron’s last action picture he hasn’t lost a step. Done.
Now let’s get down to the 3D… I am sure that I will never watch another 3D dramatic feature film ever again until they can do it without glasses. If this movie is supposed to revolutionize the medium and make a profound paradigm shift toward three dimensions of film, it still doesn’t work for me. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s pretty good, but unless its perfect, it’s distracting. I’ve mentioned this in other 3D reviews, but:
a) it takes a miniscule fraction of a second before each shot for my eyes to adjust to the 3D dimensions, thus distracting me from the movie
b) the 3D process, especially with wideangle lenses actually reduce the feeling of scope of the picture. Making the screen seem small, like I’m looking into a tiny diarama or through a kaleidoscope eye
c) The tint in the lenses actually dull the brightness and reduce the contrast of the picture.
Ok, Sure, I sound like an old curmudgeon refusing to accept the future of cinema. Maybe one day 3D will become perfect and equal that of flat 2D imagery, but until that day, 2D will always be the superior way to watch a dramatic film. As long as films are co-presented in 2D and 3D, I’ll be in the 2D theatre. Call me in 10 years or so.