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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar (****)


Gone Native

Not to undercut the tremendous technological achievement of James Cameron's Avatar, but looking beyond the cutting edge CGI and 3D technology for a moment, you quickly realize you've seen this movie before.  It's basically every movie. I lost count of how many movies Avatar is.  It's Aliens, it's Dances With Wolves, it's Last of the Mohicans, it's King Kong (the Peter Jackson one), it's The Last Samurai, it's Pocahontas, etc,.etc.  It's a Star Trek  episode or two also (I'm thinking of the one where Captain Pike goes to live on Talos IV after he's crippled.)  

Avatar is also very long.  It could stand to lose a half hour.  Showing off the tech and the vast, impressive CGI vistas and creatures of the planet Pandora is cool and all, but at its worst, Avatar feels like the longest, most expensive, and elaborate video game cut scene ever made, where you sit in frustration for 160 minutes because you know you'll never get to play.

Sam Worthington plays a crippled space Marine who volunteers to go to Pandora, an alien world inhabited by blue skinned cat people called the N'avi.  The N'avi as a race look like a WNBA team who blue themselves Tobias Funke-style. Released in the same year as Watchmen, Avatar is positively Puritan in its depiction of blue-skinned people who live au naturel. The N'avi men wear loin cloths but seem to lack genitals.  If Dr. Manhattan teleported into Pandora with his big blue dick swinging in the wind, he'd probably replace the shiny tree as the N'avi's new god.

Inhabiting a genetically engineered N'avi body, Worthington lies in a space coffin and mentally controls and lives the life of his super athletic N'avi avatar.  Mistrusted at first by the other N'avi, specifically the one he has the hots for, played by Zoe Saldana (doing a voice over that sounds just like Calypso from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels) Worthington eventually becomes one of them, and rises up the ranks (in three months, mind you) to become leader of the tribe.

Trouble is, Worthington was sent to the N'avi by his asshole superiors in the military, and their asshole superiors in the mining corporation (lead by Giovanni Ribisi, playing Paul Reiser from Aliens) that wants to exploit Pandora's natural resources for human gain.  His mission is to figure out a way to get the N'avi to relocate themselves, or else they're coming in with their gunships, robot suits, and poison blankets.

Instead, Worthington totally goes native and leads the N'avi against the humans.  No shit, he does.  Worthington is positively shocked when he finds he treasures the N'avi more than his own people. It's as if he's never seen a movie like this before.  The asshole colonel is also surprised Worthington went native, despite his reading Worthington's video journals where he gradually describes his preference for living with the Thundercats, especially his favorite Thundercat, ho. 

To his credit, writer-director James Cameron brings his A game to A word: action.  The story may be familiar, much too familiar, but even after a 12 year break since Titanic, Cameron is still at the very pinnacle of action directors, and he stages some thrilling sequences.  Avatar also allowed Cameron to do something many of his peers have done but he hadn't had the chance to: stage a gigantic third act action set piece involving two huge armies, the high tech human Marines taking on the low tech N'avi warriors, going at it.

Cameron then shifts the action expertly into smaller and more personal sequences involving the main characters, culminating in the mano e mano showdown between Worthington's avatar and the colonel in his Aliens/Matrix Revolutions battlesuit.  I especially liked how Cameron had Saldana's N'avi deliver the final coup de grace; Jim Cameron has always been the most pro-woman, grrl power A-list director in Hollywood and proved it once again.

In IMAX 3D, Avatar is disorienting at first, like you're in a Universal Studios ride that absolutely refuses to end.  After about half an hour, your mind stops screaming "This is wrong!", accepts the 3D, and you stop noticing it (or you reject it entirely and go to sleep.) Still, Cameron achieved the immersive technological breakthrough he was looking for, which was clearly his primary objective for making Avatar. Cameron has successfully, aggressively pushed the medium of 3D cinema forward, all the while going a complete 180 on the (I suppose) less-than-important screenwriting aspects of filmmaking.

Some stuff baffled me.  For instance, Worthington spends many, many hours operating his N'avi avatar but must occasionally shut down and do stuff in the real world.  When he disconnects from his avatar, the avatar just lies on Pandora inert until he comes back in to operate it.  One would assume Worthington disconnects from his avatar while the N'avi are sleeping.  But when he's in the real world, he doesn't just go directly to sleep.  He goes and does other things like eat, talk to Sigourney Weaver, and record his video journals.

So if say, Worthington is a N'avi for 15 hours, and then he's gone for several more hours doing his human thing, the other N'avi must get kind of annoyed at how much their new friend sleeps.  This actually does get dealt with in one scene where the human miners invade a sacred N'avi space, but it must have happened a lot more than that.  There must have been moments where Worthington is hunting or some shit and then disconnects and his avatar just collapses in the middle of the forest.  The super active other N'avi must have been annoyed once or twice at this.

A lot is made of Pandora's natural life force and the mumbo jumbo about how the N'avi and all the other creatures draw from the spirit of the planet.  It's made clear early on Worthington's avatar is a genetically engineered clone of a N'avi.  It's an artificial construct at its core.  And yet the planet of Pandora embraces Worthington with open arms and every creature and N'avi eventually bows down to his specialness, completely ignoring that Worthington's avatar is in fact an abomination of nature, the exact opposite of natural creation.  Shit, Worthington is practically supernatural by the very end.  I guess the message is man's science can always trick nature.  Or maybe nature just won't give a shit if it's convenient for the movie.

If I have a favorite scene in Avatar, it involves Michelle Rodriguez. Rodriguez plays the role of "the snarly pilot who wears aviators". (Yeah, Cameron had one of those in Aliens too.) She doesn't have a character or arc to speak of, nor does she utter a single acceptable line of dialogue.  But in one scene, where Worthington and Weaver are arrested for helping the N'avi and are thrown in the brig, Rodriguez comes to bust them out.  It's the pivotal scene in the movie, because she does so wearing a torn white tank top.

What Rodriguez and Cameron are telling the audience is, "Hey fellas, you've been staring at blue, furry CGI cat boobs for the last two hours - here's what real human boobs look like!"  Then she wears the torn white tank top and flaunts the boobies for the rest of the movie. As far as I'm concerned, that makes her the most important person on Pandora. 

For the greatest, most accurate skewering of Avatar, read Avatar: The Metacontextual Edition. Absolutely correct, absolutely worth reading.