January 17, 2010

MOVIES: Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)

I should begin, I suppose, by noting that I saw the movie in 2-D, because I have a lazy eye that keeps me from getting anything more than a headache from 3-D. But the stuff that works in Avatar would only be improved by 3-D, and the stuff that doesn't work wouldn't be helped at all by 3-D, so I feel like I can offer a reasonable opinion of the movie.

The story is a familiar one: There's a mining operation on the planet Pandora, which is inhospitable to human life. The miners wear oxygen masks, and there's a project to inflitrate the native population. That's done by creating avatars, Na'vi bodies made with some human DNA so that a human operator can be linked into and control the body. One avatar is controlled by Jake (Sam Worthington), who is a last-minute replacement for his identical-twin brother; since they share DNA, Jake can use his brother's avatar.

Jake hasn't gone through the extensive training that most avatar operators get, so he's improvising from the start. He meets the beautiful Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and falls so in love with her (and with the Na'vi way of life) that when the inevitable human military assault comes, he takes the Na'vi side.

If you're thinking of Pocahontas or Dances With Wolves or any of a zillion other "white guy goes native" movies, well, I told you it was a familiar story. And there's nothing inherently wrong with retelling an old tale, but if you choose to do so, it is incumbent upon you, I think, to find something novel or interesting in it, some new spin on old material. This is where Cameron and Avatar have failed spectacularly. The story is a painful collection of cliches; there's not a single story beat that you wouldn't have predicted after the first ten minutes, and you could probably have written more interesting and original dialogue for most of them.

The acting is adequate to the task, but almost never more than adequate. Stephen Lang brings the occasional glimmer of energy to his Evil Military Bastard, but it's the only remotely memorable performance in the movie.

Part of the acting problem is that so much of the movie is told through CGI characters and performance capture technology. I have yet to see a CGI character that I found convincing; here, as elsewhere, they lack the feeling of weight that a real body would have. The performance capture technology in Avatar is certainly the best I've seen, but it's still not very good at communicating subtle emotions, and the eyes are still cold, dead, and creepy. (To be sure, the dead-eye problem is less obtrusive since the characters aren't human.)

But on the other hand, the world of Pandora is a spectacular creation, filled with glorious landscapes and plant life unlike anything we've seen before. It's an entirely believable world, and I can only imagine how magnificent it must be in the 3-D version of the movie. There are one or two small design decisions I might have made differently -- I wouldn't have chosen to cover the entire planet in "Billie Jean" flooring that glows when you step on it, and the Tree of Souls isn't so much the awe-inspiring spiritual icon of a culture as it is a cheap fiber-optic toy from Spencer Gifts -- but there are so many remarkable ideas and images in Pandora that I think it's worth seeing the movie just for the visuals.

I say that with some reluctance, because I find myself increasingly frustrated by the current trend away from intelligent storytelling in the movies, and I fear that the success of Avatar well only exacerbate that trend. Certainly, we can already expect that by Christmas 2012, the theaters will be filled with Avatar ripoffs that use cut-rate versions of the new technology to tell even less interesting stories than this one.

Still, if you care about the movies as an art form, I think you have to see Avatar, on as large a screen as you can manage, and in 3-D if you can.

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