Friday, December 25, 2009

Zaki's Review: Avatar

The one thing you can't say about Avatar, director James Cameron's return to mainstream filmmaking after twelve long years toiling in the salt mines of IMAX docos, is that it lacks for sheer audaciousness -- in execution, if not content.

In an age when high-def TVs and Blu-Ray players have made the home viewing experience an increasingly appealing alternative, this is the Titanic helmer's defiant challenge to apathetic filmgoers to stake out a seat in a crowded multiplex and experience his epic the right way: In front of an IMAX screen, with state-of-the-art 3D projection.

I suppose if anyone has earned the right to boss his audience around, it's James Cameron.

Having redefined the action genre in the 1980s with The Terminator and Aliens, having expanded the reach of CG animation with The Abyss and Terminator 2, and having dunked Leo DiCaprio in ice water to both commercial and critical hosannas, one can be forgiven for thinking the man behind Piranha 2: The Spawning had no more icebergs left to scale.

Well, after sitting out most of the aughts, the self-appointed King of the World is back with his self-proclaimed magnum opus. Fifteen years in the making, said he. Waiting for the technology to finally catch up to the magnitude of his vision, said he. Seriously, the term "schadenfreude" was invented for people like this.

Anyway, Avatar wraps its premise around a corrupt corporation (as if there was any other kind) setting up shop on the distant moon Pandora, hoping to mine its supply of the extremely rare mineral (wait for it) Unobtainium. Yes, that's what it's called, and yes, the rest of the script (as usual, by Cameron himself) is a model of that kind of subtlety. I suppose we should just be grateful it's not called "McGuffinite."

Finding that the native Na'vi, ten-foot tall, blue-skinned quote-unquote savages, are averse to giving up territorial claim to their own land, the industrial-types (headed up by weaselly Giovanni Ribisi, channeling weaselly Paul Reiser from the director's own Aliens) team up with some military-types (making for some kind of a military...industrial...oooh.) to force them out. This is where star Sam Worthington, as embittered, wheelchair-bound marine Jake Sully comes in.

Seems our Earth scientists (led by Sigourney Weaver's Dr. Grace Augustine) have figured out a way to clone completely lifelike Na'vi bodies that can be controlled via some kind of a virtual mind-link (think The Matrix, minus the USB port in the back of the neck) allowing the human user to experience life through their (here it comes) Avatar. Sully agrees to use his Avatar to infiltrate the Na'vi and spy on them from the inside after Evil Military Guy (who we know is evil because he's played by Steven Lang) promises him that completion of said mission will lead to his legs being surgically restored.

Soon enough, Sully's experience with the planet's natives opens his eyes to the richness of their culture, and he finds himself increasingly drawn to token native girl Neytiri (Star Trek's Zoe Saldana, plus a whole lot of CGI mo-cap). When the looting-and-plundering plans are moved up, with Evil Military Guy intent on escalating the body count in pursuit of his fiendish agenda, Jake must choose which world he will embrace. Go ahead, guess.

Anyone who's seen Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, David Lynch's Dune, or even the '90s 'toon FernGully knows where things head from there. In fact, let's just lay it all out. There's not a single narrative beat or character moment here that we haven't seen a thousand times before. The story is mired in cliche, the dialogue is stilted and obvious, and the muddy warpaint the Na'vi warriors smear on their bodies is about as "layered" as things get.

Maybe this was Cameron's way of fully embodying the "green is good" message at the center of his sci-fi parable. How else to explain his recycling of countless tropes from countless previous movies before it, putting them to work here like so much garden mulch. Heck, even composer James Horner obligingly cribs from his own catalog with his choice of music score. And yet, there I sat in rapt attention for 163 minutes, my eyes never once leaving that giant screen for fear of missing some new cinematic delicacy, some new feast for the senses.

Cameron had done it again. Damn him.

In transplanting the world of Pandora from the recesses of his mind into a movie spectacle, he has given form to an entire ecology of predators and prey, flaura and fauna, and oceans and peaks that make this an immersive experience unlike any other in recent history. This is what George Lucas strove so mightily to achieve with his most recent trips to the Star Wars well, but that remained just at arm's length.

The project also benefits considerably from Worthington's presence. Thesp (whom you may remember as The Best Thing About Terminator Salvation last summer) makes an appealing blank slate of a leading man (all the better, I suppose, to be pushed, pulled, and otherwise pixelated into his Na'vi configuration), and Saldana imbues Neytiri with enough otherworldly allure that it's easy to see how Jake's loyalties become divided.

Further strong use is made of the supporting players, including Weaver (reuniting with the Aliens maestro for the first time in almost a quarter-century) and Lang (who has forged a very healthy career out of making us hate his guts). As he's proven so many times in the past, Cameron rarely steps wrong when it comes to finding the right actors to inhabit his imagined worlds.

But far beyond the cast, it's the movie itself that's the attraction here. Like the best of roller coaster rides, Avatar is invigorating and exhilarating, but like all roller coaster rides, that momentary thrill grows more faint the further into the past it recedes. This is a magnificent film. A splendid film. A captivating film. Yet, with its visual opulence standing in direct opposition to its staggering unoriginality, it falls just short of being a truly great film.

A+ (for the visuals)
B- (for the story)


The Mad Swede said...

Another great review, Zaki. Meaty and informative without being spoiler filled (as so many bad reviewers these days manage to churn out).

Really looking forward to catching this on the big screen.

Anonymous said...

Zaki, are you getting paid to do this? If not, you should. Your review, and only your review has convinced me to go watch this film. You deserve a cut. Well done, Zaki. Now if I could only find my custom 3D glasses. -javi

Zaki said...

Thanks, guys!

Ian Sokoliwski said...

See, once you make a Dune reference, I'm in. Of course, this means that I'm gonna be comparing it to Dune. And not just the movie ;)

Stephen Segal said...

Zaki, you just said exactly every thing I thought about Avatar.

Amina said...

Great to read this again after seeing the movie finally!

Rob Hearn said...

Great review Zaki. Bang-on to my feelings... I saw the film last night and loved it even though the basic story was very Disney-esque.