Monday, June 14, 2010

"Avatar" (2009)

"Avatar" (2009)
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver
Written and directed by James Cameron

They're like badass Smurfs...
After twelve years shooting documentaries and producing semi-successful TV series, James Cameron returns to directing theatrical blockbusters with the ultra-massive hit, "Avatar."  Not content to simply direct a big-budget, effects-laden epic, Cameron went ahead and developed an incredible new kind of 3D camera technology.  While most 3D films have been loaded with gimmicky "throw stuff at the audience" shots, "Avatar" sought to give a more immersive, natural 3D feeling, and with a few exceptions, it succeeded spectacularly.

But now "Avatar" comes home, and is stripped of its 3D aspect on the small screen (a 3D edition is rumored to be slated for release in the fall, or possibly in 2011).  Rewatching it, it's a lot easier to focus on the faults of the story when you're not being constantly wowed by 3D effects.

This is not to say that "Avatar" is a bad film, per se.  It's certainly been accused of being many things, especially a "liberal white-guilt fantasy," so if you subscribe to that interpretation you may well hate "Avatar" for implying that the blue savages can't save themselves without the help of the fancy white-guy soldier. 

So here's what's what: "Avatar" is the story of Jake Sully, a paraplegic former Marine, who is recruited by a corporation to travel to the alien moon of Pandora.  There, he takes his deceased twin brother's place as driver of a genetically engineered 'avatar' which will help him blend in with the native people, the Na'vi.  This corporation has discovered a massive deposit of a rare, extremely valuable ore directly underneath the Na'vi's home village, but the Na'vi aren't interested in leaving.  While living amongst the people, Jake meets and falls in love with Neytiri, the daughter of the village chief.  He soon comes along to thinking like the native peoples, and decides he must rescue them from the evil corporation that's coming to kick them out of their homes.

Political or racial implications aside, the story simply isn't original in any way.  The setting is, and the story is executed well enough, but it doesn't attempt to throw in any twists whatsoever.  Every story beat is telegraphed well in advance, and anyone who's ever seen any of the other times this exact same story has been told ("Pocahontas," "Fern Gully," "Dances with Wolves," etc) will immediately feel that familiarity.  It's beautifully shot and well-acted, but without anything new to say about this story, "Avatar" can come across as stale or even boring.  It puts a heavier burden on the actors and effects to save "Avatar" and depending on how willing you are to get sucked into this world and these characters,  your mileage will vary.  I've certainly seen a wide reaction to this film - I know someone who cried watching it, and I know people who've detested every moment of it.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle.  Much of "Avatar" is visually exquisite.  Each shot is utterly packed with information, a feast of colors and detail.  I can let myself go and simply enjoy the beauty of the images, if I'm not particularly wowed by the story.  The actors all do good jobs bringing their characters to life, even if much of they are saying and doing is fairly pedestrian.  They are very capable of giving real emotion to their CGI avatar creatures, especially Zoe Saldana as Neytiri.  There are parts of "Avatar" I think are very effective.  It's certainly the only movie to ever make me care about a tree getting cut down in the woods.  The action sequences are thrilling, a controlled chaos that few directors can handle like James Cameron can.

For much of its (lengthy) runtime, the CG Na'vi are very capable of moving past the uncanny valley.  That alone is an astonishing achievement, and worthy of respect.  While crowd shots can feel animated, closeups look incredibly real.  There are literally thousands of names listed in the end credits all related to computer animation for characters, creatures and locations; the amount of work that went into creating this incredible feat of visual effects is astounding. 

James Cameron, who has proven himself one of the world's best directors with classic, iconic films like "Aliens," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and (sigh) "Titanic", works with a steady hand here.  None of the action ever gets lost in shaky cameras or rapid-fire editing, which gives "Avatar" an almost old-school feel since you rarely see things like that these days.  Sadly, he brings back longtime composing partner James Horner, who hasn't delivered an original or interesting score in a long, long time.  Horner's musical score for "Avatar" is a cut-and-paste job of every score he's ever written from "Wrath of Khan" all the way up to "Titanic."  It's disappointing that "Avatar" is a winner in every technical category except it's music.

The blu-ray disc is absolutely bare-bones.  There's the menu and the movie.  There are no trailers, no commentary, no interviews whatsoever.  This was a conscious decision, as Fox's claims were that the movie would take up the entire 50gb blu-ray disc.  It's well worth it, since the film looks and sounds astounding.  Details are razor-sharp, colors are bright and deeply saturated, with thick, thick blacks. The surround sound mix is lively and enveloping, with sound effects whipping around all sides.  Dialogue is crystal clear in the center, and ambient effects are entrancing.  Without a doubt, this is a demo disc for you right alongside 2009's "Star Trek" or 2007's "Transformers." 

"Avatar" has racked up well over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office and now continues to sell like hotcakes on disc.  Talk has already begun of a sequel exploring the oceans of the world of Pandora.  I have no doubt that it will be another scrumptious visual feast.  I just hope Mr. Cameron can come up with a story as beautiful as his images.