Tales from topographic oceans: Avatar **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2009)

If I was restricted to writing one-line movie reviews (which would undoubtedly make many readers rejoice) I would summarize James Cameron’s super-hyped, epic fantasy-adventure Avatar as: “A three-dimensional masterpiece with a one-dimensional script.”

Then again, Cameron has never lost any money underestimating the attention span of your average  film goer. Sure, his movies tend to go on longer than the Old Testament, but there’s usually an easy-to-follow 90 minute narrative buried somewhere within those 2 ½ to 3 hour running times (padded out by the protracted action set-pieces).

If you do  go for it, you might as well go all the way (you know-get your $300 million worth). This film is like the Baskin-Robbins of movie events-you may be confronted with 31 different choices of viewing experiences. At the multiplex I went to, it was offered  in three auditoriums and in as many formats: 2-D, 3-D and 3-D IMAX.

No one warned me that there would be a pop quiz, so I suffered a few moments of embarrassment. I visualized the people in line behind me rolling their eyes and miming a garroting to amuse their friends as I was vacillating. To save face, I muttered “IMAX” and sheepishly pushed my check card under the window. I suppressed the urge to exclaim “Fifteen fucking fifty? For a matinee?!?!

I hear you. “There IS a 90-word movie review, buried somewhere within this 2000 word rant about the cost of an IMAX screening, right, Dennis?” I just wanted to clarify that prior to this, I was a 3-D virgin. It always seemed gimmicky to me; if I’m really itching to experience the sensation that the actors and I are in the same room , I could attend one  of those oh, what are they called…“stage plays”?

Cameron’s story is simple enough; thematically it is an inverse re-imagining of his 1986 sci-fi adventure Aliens (with more than a few suspicious similarities to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest).

Set sometime in the future, the story centers on a lush, verdant planet called Pandora, which has been targeted for deforestation and mining by an Earth-based corporation. This doesn’t set well with the planet’s inhabitants, a relatively peaceful race of aboriginal forest dwellers called the Na’vi.

A contingent of Marines has been deployed to help “convince” the locals that it would be in their best interest to cooperate. This doesn’t set well with a small team of research scientists who have been studying and interacting with the Na’vi  via an experimental assimilation method using avatars, which take on the physiology of the aliens. Deadlines have been set, and tensions mount.

Faster than you can say Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, we are presented with The One Human who could save the day, in the person of a brave young wheelchair-bound Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Sully is assigned by the gung-ho Marine commander  to be the military liaison with the tribe (played by a hammy Stephen Lang, getting his Col. Kilgore on).

Sully soon becomes the political football between his C.O., the head researcher (Sigourney Weaver) and the corporate weasel from the mining company (Giovanni Ribisi). Yes, I was thinking “Halliburton reference”, too. Oops-we can’t forget the rote love story-Sully hooks up with a Na’vi babe (a 10 ft. tall and very blue Zoe Saldana).

This is all academic. How many people are flocking to see this for the “plot”? Don’t get me wrong, there were elements that did appeal to me. I liked the idea of a paraplegic hero; the scene where Sully first “finds his legs” in his avatar body is quite moving. Aside from that brief moment, I didn’t find myself getting emotionally invested in the film or its characters.

The “save the forest” theme performed its requisite tug at my big ol’ softie lib’rul tree-hugging lefty heart and all, but it’s become such a hoary movie cliché anymore. By the time the final third dissolved into interminable mayhem, they lost me.

In pure visual terms, the film does live up to its hype, and then some. There are some real knockout scenes, particularly in the film’s first half (before the novelty starts to wear off a bit and it just becomes shit blowing up). Cameron’s inventiveness and flair for mind-blowing production design is the real star here.

Pandora’s otherworldly creatures, topography, and stridently colorful flora and fauna recall Disney’s Fantasia or Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet at times. In the film’s best “through the looking glass” moments, I felt like I had been transported inside the world of a Roger Dean album cover.

When all was said and done, the question I was left pondering was this: At what point does a film cease being a “film” and transmogrify into an “event”-or (if I may turn the cynicism up to “11”) a glorified 2 ½ hour infomercial for a video game?

Yes, Cameron has perhaps “changed the game”, regarding the purely technical aspects of film making and movie presentation. But is this ultimately for the good of the art form? When I think of my all-time favorite films, there are two things that they all seem to have in common: heart and soul. And you do not a need a pair of 3-D glasses and IMAX to experience that.

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