Thursday, January 7, 2010

I See You: The Road to Avatar

When one walks into a movie like Avatar, with all the advance hype and two camps, one of worshippers and one of haters, seemingly pitted against each other, one definitely wants to have a strong opinion of it. And as that nominal one I can tell you I certainly wanted to have a strong visceral reaction, one way or the other. I wanted to either hate it and let everyone know why and how wrong they were if they loved it or I wanted to love it and admit that the bashing is just so much senseless backlash. The last thing I wanted was to have the closing titles emerge to a feeling of overwhelming indifference and yet, here we are. While it's true I am rather stunned anyone could be very impressed with it I'm also a little stunned at anyone truly hating it. But all of this requires much more elaboration than that so let us begin.

Avatar is James Cameron's latest science fiction film after years away from the genre and his first sci-fi done in 3-D which, I must agree with Jim Emerson, looks simply like multi-planing and, for me at least, simply recesses into the background after the first fifteen or twenty minutes. I forgot it was even in 3-D enough of the time to make me question why anyone would or should go to the trouble of filming it in 3-D in the first place. I can honestly say that I believe a new viewer would be better off seeing the 2-D version and that James Cameron's movie would be better off without the needless P.T. Barnum hucksterism inherent in hyping a technical process as the main attraction to get asses in the seats, to quote Joel Silver.

As for the story it involves a security group of former Marines and assorted military types (think Blackwater), the corporation they work for, a far away moon named Pandora and that moon's indigenous people with whom the corporation has been trying, futilely, to negotiate in order to get mining rights to a precious ore. The indigenous people, the Na'vi, are also the subject of study by a group of scientists headed up by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who want peaceful relations with them. She runs the Avatar program which allows human users like Augustine and paraplegic Marine veteran Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) to mentally enter the bodies of the lab-grown Na'vi, bodies that have been made expressly for this purpose. The user goes to sleep and enters into the avatar, not in a dreamlike state but literally having their thoughts and movements transplanted to the avatar. This is done, presumably, for better relations with the Na'vi except that, one, the Na'vi know they're just avatars (they call them "dreamwalkers") and, two, the users headed up by Augustine seem to have no concern for going all the way with fitting into the Na'vi culture because they make sure their avatars wear safari shorts, tee-shirts and baseball caps. It's a bit like doing a movie about a group of people wanting to make peaceful relations with a village under Sharia law and making sure the women cover their head with a veil only to have them also wear mini-skirts, fishnets and spike heels.

And the first observation, that the Na'vi know the humans are just walking around in fake Na'vi bodies, is not a minor nitpick but a central flaw of the logic in the film. The idea of two cultures meeting and exchanging ideas revolves around just that, exchange, not pretending to look and act like the other one. But more importantly if the humans simply go as they are, in their own bodies (and why not since the Na'vi aren't fooled by the avatars), then they never have to fall into a stupor anytime they wake up. Allow me to explain: Because the humans only inhabit the avatars when they are asleep, the avatars are likewise comatose whenever the human users are awake. And so at several points in the movie, always of course when an important point is about to be made or physical danger is imminent, Jake Sully is awakened and his avatar collapses into a limp pile of jello. Now, what science team wishing to improve relations with another culture would devise a plan in which at any given moment all diplomatic progress could be halted or reversed because your avatar collapses into an immovable silent stupor?

But avatar comas aside I also question the very reality of a scenario such as the one devised here taking place in 2154.* 150 years into the future the human race can travel across light years of space in hibernation, transport millions of tons of heavy machinery, aircraft and military ordinance, grow alien bodies whole and then have the extraordinary ability to mentally link up to them and remotely use them while asleep but - BUT - they cannot mine an ore beneath the surface of the Na'vi village without all-out genocidal destruction. What? As famously described by Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood by using a milkshake analogy, men have possessed the ability to tunnel under and drain from an area far away from the starting point as far back as at least the 1920's but we're supposed to believe that 150 years into the future the only way this unobtainable ore (and yes, it is named unobtanium) can be had is by destroying a massive village that lays on top of it. I kept thinking, "Surely with their stunningly advanced technology they could just mine it out from a few hundred miles away and replace it with granite or some other solid substance that would maintain the support of the structures above it." That's not something we could do now, easily at least, but in 150 years?

In the end of course, the ore is nothing but a MacGuffin so I suppose it's more important to understand and discuss the characters and indeed it is. Problem is, there's not much to the characters. James Cameron provides no interesting or insightful dialogue from which to understand the characters on anything but a surface level. And as many others have already noted, Cameron relies heavily upon cliche in his dialogue. From "you're not in Kansas anymore" to "let's do this, people!" to at least four instances by my count where someone pumped their fist and said "Yeah!" or "Woooo-Hoooo" or "Whoa!" much of what the Avatar viewer must sit through in terms of character expression are truly cringe-worthy. Also, when the Na'vi ask Sully his name and he says, "Jake Sully" you just know they're going to call him by his full name for the whole movie, and not to disappoint, they do. As for the rest of the Na'vi dialogue, it is almost entirely extracted from fortune cookies or some heretofore unknown book entitled Chicken Soup for the Na'vi Soul in which every phrase that drops from their feline pie-holes is encrusted with pearls of wisdom. I'm afraid I must confess that my eyes rolled dozens of times during the showing I attended. And their method of greeting friends and loved ones, "I see you", is a bit too cloying for this viewer. If Dances with Wolves, it's closest cinematic relative, turned the Lakota Sioux into cuddly Native American plush dolls then Avatar ups the ante and turns the Na'vi into angelic tree elves who kill wild wolf-like creatures to save themselves or others from being eaten alive and then mourn the death of the animal they just killed. You know, the animal that just tried to kill them. Goddamn do they respect life!

But all of this is moot because Cameron is a visual storyteller so that's where the attention should be focused. And this is the area in which I seem to disagree with most people, even the film's detractors. I've read several reviews, Jim Emerson and Larry Aydlette excluded because they didn't seem very impressed with the look either, that say even if the film's story isn't that great at least it looks great. Well, not to me unfortunately. The Na'vi, after two hours and forty minutes, never looked like anything more than CGI creations, and this bothered me. Why? Because it was and is wholly unnecessary to use CGI in the first place. With the exception of their faces, skin color, tails and height, the Na'vi look like humans which means the facial features, tails and skin color could have easily been taken care of with the age-old Hollywood craft of makeup which would have instantly Made. Them. Real. And if one wants to use CGI then fine, use it to increase the height next to humans but this is only even apparent in the very few scenes in which the two species share the same space onscreen. So what we're left with is the fact that, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum's famous declaration from Jurassic Park, James Cameron was so thrilled with the idea that he could create CGI Na'vi that he never stopped and asked himself if he should create CGI Na'vi. Really, if you've seen it, or hell, even if you haven't and have only seen the stills, ask yourself, "Wouldn't it look so much better with real actors being filmed with makeup instead of using barely updated versions of Jar Jar Binks?"

Despite all of this, Avatar does have several things going for it as well. For one, Stephen Lang is quite good as the former Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch despite being given nothing but standard issue dialogue to spout. When it comes to acting I'm always a little sensitive having spent years acting myself, so when I read statements like "the acting is terrible across the boards" I know this is not true and it irks me. No one in the film gives anything near a great performance but given the dialogue I'd say almost everyone acquits him or herself quite admirably. Lang is the best but even Weaver and Worthington are fairly good. Zoe Saldana, although never actually seen behind the deluge of CGI artwork, probably gives the most fully realized performance in the film, if not the most charismatic (again, that goes to Lang).

The action sequences are also a high point of the movie with Cameron handling them deftly and confidently. He manages to do so without resorting to any of the hackneyed gimmicks employed by most action directors today in which it is thought, for some unknown and bizarre reason, that making the action on the screen blurred and visually indecipherable makes it more exciting. Hacks like Michael Bay could learn a thing or two from James Cameron about how to handle an action sequence that keeps the audience engaged by, horrors(!), allowing them to see the action. Several times during the final battle sequence the camera follows the central figure from point A to point B without furiously cutting away and only twice did I notice any form of ramping and even then, when Jake battles Quaritch, it was quite graceful compared to the ramping jolts of a Zach Snyder.

Finally, the politics did not match any of my worst-case scenario expectations. I walked in thinking I was going to be seeing a mindless Hollywood anti-American screed and realized soon enough that its politics most resembled Aliens updated. Cameron's military group is a group of guns for hire working for the main villain which very much resembles the "Company" of Aliens. It's easy to build up an enemy in faceless corporate greed even as we all patronize corporations daily and reap the benefits of their success with our indulgent lifestyles (and I don't imagine Cameron lives in a grass hut using only windpower himself). Nothing earth-shattering going on here, just Cameron putting white and black hats on the characters and pointing the finger, as have so many sci-fi writers before him, at humanity and its abuse of nature. Sure, the ore could stand in for, and in Cameron's mind I'm sure it does, the oil in Iraq but the political message of the film is so incompetently handled (once or twice the word "terrorist" is used in case you're not getting it) and put on a backburner to the whole "we humans just don't understand and respect nature" routine that it's final result is one of impotence.

And so I exit Avatar with neither disgust nor adoration but an existential shrug of the shoulders. I truly don't mean to come off as flippant when I say that I genuinely don't know where the worship came from, or the hatred (not the pre-judging kind, I mean the kind after seeing the movie). I walked away from Avatar thinking it was an at times enjoyable, at times sluggish, and at all times mediocre sci-fi adventure. True, I am a bit more bewildered at the praise from some critics than the condemnations if only because anyone who has taken in their fair share of the world's cinematic treasures, which I would fully expect, nay, demand of a film critic, and still thinks Avatar is very impressive makes me wonder just how much they understand about film. Avatar is average, standard stuff. I wish I could say more, or less, but I'm afraid it didn't impact me either way with any substantial weight. I'd recommend Avatar only to hard-core sci-fi fans for a decent two and a half hours but would suggest seeing the 2-D version or just watching it on the home theater setup in a few months. For everyone else I'd steer clear. There simply isn't much to offer in the film and no way to describe it honestly except as a mildly successful entertainment for viewers not expecting much in the first place.


*Another mild nitpick is that Sigourney Weaver smokes. I mean, it's 2154. We all know how impossible it's becoming to be a smoker in 2010 so I found a character 150 years into the future puffing on smokes about as believable as a teen flick made today where all the high schoolers have snuffboxes.