Thursday, December 9, 2010

AVATAR (2009): More than a 3D Movie?

I had the opportunity of seeing James Cameron’s Avatar in 3D in one of the IMAX theatres located here in Minnesota.  Avatar is without question visually the most spectacular movie I’ve ever seen.  Undoubtedly, that was Cameron’s intention and I’m not going to quibble that the $380 million spent upon this blockbuster was a poor investment.  Winner of the Golden Globe Award’s Best Picture, nominated for nine Oscars and seen by more moviegoers than any other film in history, it’s difficult to argue with and, at the same time, not be impressed by the numbers.  The story (part Star Wars, part Pocahontas and part biblical in its Garden of Eden rendition) does not even factor into its viewership unless one writes reviews for The New Republic or watches interviews on Charlie Rose.  Cameron threw in an anti-war statement that was obviously directed at the Bush administration for sending occupying forces to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Fortunately for Cameron, this will be missed by much of the viewership which is made up of twelve year old children.

Pandora is occupied by Avatars and has become the focus of interest of the United States Marines now teaming up with American corporate interests that want to exploit the planet for a mineral known as Unobtanium.  (Cameron could just as well have called it oil.)  Anyway, some scientists including the renowned Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) have great respect for the inhabitants of the planet and want to learn from the Avatars and treat them with decency.  Obviously, she will face opposition from the military and corporations.  In particular, she is opposed by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), a governmental dupe for corporate interests.  Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a war-wounded paraplegic that would like to take over for a mission that his recently deceased brother had been involved in.  Jake can, through Dr. Augustine’s program, “migrate” his soul into the body of an Avatar and thus comingle with the native population.  Jake tries it out, finds he enjoys the experience of being an Avatar, and in particular relishes the opportunity of “making love” to a beautiful female Avatar named Neytri (Zoe Zaldana).  Predictably, Jake finds himself sympathizing with the plight of the Avatars, fights on their behalf against further exploitation by the Marines and the corporations, and in the end helps the Avatars repel the invaders.  Unfortunately, the victory was at a great price as the Avatars witness the destruction of their “sacred tree” and the death of many of their loved ones.  Dr. Augustine also dies in the encounter.  What saves the Avatars is their belief that all life is interconnected and will work in harmony so long as we treat nature and each other with reverence and respect.  Not even Colonel Quaritch, tough hombre that he is, can withstand the power of the Avatars’ spiritual outlook and beliefs.  Jake thus plays a key role in bringing the evil Colonel down.

Depending on which side of the political spectrum one happens to be on, Cameron will be commended by a small minority of viewers for his “courageous” political stand.  Besides the film appealing to anti-imperialist advocates, there is also an environmental theme, a theme about the need for cultural understanding, and a theme about the evils of greed.  Nevertheless, Cameron gives us enough thrills in the movie to make everyone in the audience conveniently forget all of that.  The peaceful loving people of Pandora do turn out to be rather warlike when it comes down to defending their habitat.  For commercial reasons, the action scenes are perfectly justifiable.  These scenes pull in a whole different set of audience members that would otherwise be bored with being preached at in a film like this.  And though the one-sided badness of everyone that would stand up for the military or corporate interests is obvious and less subtle than contained in the most stereotypical of dramas, again most moviegoers of this film will be oblivious to the message being presented.  If anything, Avatar more blatantly panders to all tastes than Cameron’s previous blockbuster, Titanic, so it should now be completely obvious to everyone that the lack of a cohesive story can sell.

I’m willing to forgive Avatar for almost all of its faults in any case.  I wasn’t expecting anything more than visual eye-candy when I went into see it, and that was almost all I did get.  However, there are moments when the story is a tender one and I can’t fault that.  Especially when being shown in 3D, the movie is visually magical.  The cinema has attempted to make 3D sell for over fifty years, but Cameron is the first moviemaker to truly pull it off successfully.  Though much of its beauty is owed to spectacular special effects, the planet of Pandora looks remarkably like the planet Earth with trees, forests, mountains and valleys, rivers and waterfalls.  Pandora is merely earth unspoiled by man (with some added natural phenomena that never did exist here).

I will say that the acting is respectable.  If every character in this film happens to be a type, at least these were well cast types.  Stephen Lang has aged well and plays the stubborn and arrogant Colonel with a great deal of admirable cartoonish bluster.  Ribisi plays the non-entity corporate executive that cares for nothing but profits quite well.  The Avatars, and especially Zoe Zaldana, do come close to exhibiting actual personalities.  And Weaver is extremely competent at playing the tough, but morally correct scientist and woman.  (I can’t say that Sam Worthington would have been all that impressively cast if he had not been outfitted in an Avatar suit.)

I’m not sure if I’ll ever watch the film again.  At 162 minutes in length, I really can’t see watching it again unless it happened to be showing in another IMAX theatre where I could see the film in 3D.  But besides that, I’m also afraid that if I watch the movie too closely I’ll be concentrating more on what’s wrong with the movie than on the many things that are positive about the film.  To most audience members, Avatar will remain a fond and remote memory of a few hours of enjoyment that one had at a theatre.  It would be a great experience to first see this as a child rather than as an adult.  It will never be a profound movie going experience.  It would be the equivalent of having seen the original King Kong starring Fay Wray as it must have appeared back in 1933.  Or again, it would be like watching the original Star Wars as a child when it first came out in 1977.  That’s a movie going experience that in some cases is as it should be.

March 2, 2010 
© Robert S. Miller 2010

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