by Mel Valentin
The television ads, trailers, and marketing promos for "Avatar," James Cameron’s ("Titanic," "True Lies," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "The Abyss," "Aliens," "The Terminator") return to narrative filmmaking (after a twelve-year hiatus) promise a revolutionary, game-changing experience. Never one to shy away from grandiose, hubris-influenced claims, Cameron hopes "Avatar," a 3D science fiction/action/fantasy epic, will transport audiences to a singularly immersive experience. That he comes close is a testament to that oft-used, oft-abused word, “vision” (that and an estimated production budget anywhere from $250 million to $500 million). Vision is exactly what Cameron brings to "Avatar" and its photo-realistic alien world, but it’s a vision partly undermined by clunky dialogue, awkward plot points, superfluous voiceover narration, and an over-earnest, over-obvious environmental message.Avatar is set in a dystopian future (2154 C.E. to be exact), a future we learn about through the occasional dialogue or background references. Humanity has continued down an environmentally destructive path (Cameron sees himself as a” serious” filmmaker and as we know, serious filmmakers make serious statements in their films, regardless of their entertainment value or genre-specific pleasures). Non-renewable resources are gone or in short supply, the rainforests are probably gone (a comment about the absence of plant life on Earth indicates as much), resource wars are the norm, and the military (and presumably what passes for a federal or national government) has become an extension of multinational corporations, providing security for corporate interests. And if the lead character’s disability is any indication, universal healthcare has been indefinitely postponed (his disability can be fixed, but only at great cost).
"Revolutionary? No. Evolutionary? Definitely."
The military’s role in protecting corporate interests brings us to Pandora, a lush, rain-forest moon orbiting Polyphemus, a Jupiter-like planet in the Alpha Centuri system 4.3 light years from Earth (it takes six years to reach Pandora from Earth). In interviews, Cameron has described Pandora as “Garden of Eden with teeth and claws.” Populated by fierce, dangerous animals, six-legged, multi-legged carnivores and herbivores on the ground and dragon- or pterodactyl-like creatures in the air, humans are too frail to exist on Pandora without the help of advanced military technology, including 12-foot tall A.M.P. (i.e., mecha) suits and heavily armed gunships, used to protect a civilian mining operation on Pandora to extract “unobtainium” ($20 million/kilo according to one character).
To interact with the Na’vi, 10-foot tall blue humanoid aliens, humans have turned to the “avatars,” human-Na’vi hybrids operated via neural link. Over the objections of Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the scientist running the avatar program, the corporation’s representative on Pandora, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), turns to Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine, to take his dead brother’s place (avatars are expensive to grow and maintain). Along with another scientist, Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore), Augustine, and Sully (in their avatars) leave the mining colony to explore Pandora. Almost immediately, Jake is separated from Augustine and Spellman, forcing him to fend for himself against a massive, puma-like predator, a Thanator. Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a warrior princess from a nearby Na’vi clan, saves Sully.
From there, Avatar follows the familiar assimilation/acculturation story (e.g., Dances With Wolves, A Man Called Horse), with Sully overcoming resistance from Neytiri, Eytucan (Wes Studi), her father and clan leader, Mo’at, her mother and spiritual leader (CCH Pounder), and another Na’vi warrior (and next in line for clan leadership), Tsu’Tey (Laz Alonso). The Na’vi are a warrior-based culture (they have bows and arrows, spears and knives, but nothing else), but they’re also deeply spiritual, believing in an all-protective Earth Mother (Gaia to us, Eywa to them) and a Force-like connection between all living things. Their animist beliefs stand in contrast to the non-beliefs of the humans, military or civilian, on Pandora.
The Na'vi would be all the more clichéd if they were Africans (in their physical appearance) or Native Americans (in their culture). And they’re blue-skinned because few alternatives exist (green is already taken, for obvious reasons) and anything resembling human pigmentation (i.e., from pinks to blacks) would add an unnecessarily problematic subtext to Avatar, something Cameron was obviously intent to avoid. Whatever his artistic pretensions and political beliefs, Cameron strove to make a film with wide demographic appeal for audiences in the United States and elsewhere. A budget of $250 million (some estimates double that amount) demands nothing less.
The corporation and the military, led by Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), have other ideas for Sully: infiltrate the Na’vi and pass back information that might prove decisive in a military confrontation and that, of course, is exactly what we get in the third act. Rarely one to subvert expectations, Cameron gives us an almost completely virtual (with the exception of human characters), photo-realistic battle sequence. It might not be revolutionary or game-changing as the pre-release hype has suggested, but it’s a major step forward visually and narratively. It’s practically seamless and with Cameron exploiting the possibilities of 3D, the immersive experience Cameron has repeatedly promised.Unfortunately, Cameron failed to write a screenplay equal to his talents as a visual storyteller (or the best visual effects money could buy). Clichéd, predictable plot points, on-the-nose dialogue, redundant voiceover narration (from Sully, mostly via a video log), and underwritten characters were all problems that could (and should) have been fixed at the screenplay stage. By his own admission, Cameron wrote the screenplay (actually a “scriptment”) fifteen years ago and put it aside when he realized the technology wasn’t available to actualize his vision for Pandora and "Avatar." Instead, we’re left with clunky, on-the-nose dialogue and logic-defying plot points that work against the visually immersive experience Cameron has crafted over the last four years ("Avatar" began pre-production four years ago). Whatever its faults (and it has many), "Avatar" has to be seen to be disbelieved, preferably on a 3D or 3D-IMAX screen.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=18294&reviewer=402
originally posted: 12/16/09 22:00:00