I'm still not sure quite what I think—on balance—about Avatar, which my wife and I saw last week. In one respect, it's one of very few movies (pretty much all of them fantasy or science fiction) that show you things you've never seen before, and which will inevitably change what other movies look like. It's in the company of The Wizard of Oz, Forbidden Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Tron, Zelig, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Jurassic Park, Babe, Toy Story, The Matrix, and the Lord of the Rings films. It's tremendously entertaining. Anyone who likes seeing movies on a big screen should watch it.
I also don't know if anyone is better at choreographing massive action sequences than Avatar's director, James Cameron—nor of making a three-hour film seem not nearly that long. Maybe, with its massive success, we'll finally see fewer movies with the distinctive cold blue tint and leathery CGI monsters stolen from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Maybe in a few years we'll all be tired of lush, phosphorescent Pandora-style forests instead.) Avatar is also the first truly effective use of 3D I've seen in a film: it's not a distraction, not a gimmick, and not overemphasized. It's just part of how the movie was made, and you don't have to think about it, for once.
But a couple of skits on last night's Saturday Night Live, including "James Cameron's Laser Cats 5," in which both James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver appeared, reminded me of some of Avatar's problems:
- Cameron has been thinking about this project since the beginning of his career over three decades ago, and it shows. Or rather, it shows in every other movie he's made. That's because Avatar includes a grab-bag of common Cameron concepts: humanoids that aren't quite what they seem (The Terminator and Terminator 2); kick-ass interstellar marines—including a butch-but-sensitive Latino woman—piloting big walking and flying machines (Aliens); state-of-the-art CGI effects pushed to their limits (The Abyss, Terminator 2, and Titanic); money-grubbing corporate/elite bad guys (Aliens, Titanic), hovering, angular, futuristic transport vehicles (True Lies, The Terminator, The Abyss, Aliens); a love story that turns one of its participants away from societal conventions (Titanic); people traveling to distant planets in suspended animation (Aliens), and of course a lot of stuff that Blows Up Real Good.
- The storyline, despite its excellent execution, is remarkably simplistic, and could easily have been adapted from a mid-tier Disney animation like The Aristocats or Mulan, or (most pointedly) Pocahontas. It's the Noble Savage rendered in blue alien flesh. No doubt much of that is intentional, since some of our most powerful and lasting stories are simple. But I think all the talent and technology behind this movie could have served something more sophisticated, or at least more morally nuanced.
- With all the spectacle of Pandora—the glowing forest plants, the bizarre pulsing and spinning animal life, the floating mountains, the lethal multi-limbed predators—somehow it didn't feel alien enough to me. The most jarring foreign feeling came in the views of Pandora's sky, reminding us that it is not a planet but one of many moons of a looming, ominous gas giant like Jupiter. The humanoid Na'vi, despite all the motion capture that went into translating human actors' performances into new bodies, still seem, in a way, like very, very well-executed rubber suits. The pre-CGI aliens of Aliens (especially the alien queen) were, to me, more convincing despite often actually being people in suits.
- Overall, Avatar isn't James Cameron's best film. I'd choose either Aliens or Terminator 2: Judgment Day as superior. I remember each one leaving me almost speechless. That's because they were exhilarating and—more important—profoundly satisfying, both emotionally and intellectually. Avatar, despite its many riches, didn't satisfy me the same way.
Now, if you're among the 3% of people who haven't seen Avatar yet, I still recommend you do, in a big-screen theatre, in 3D if you can. Like several of the other technically and visually revolutionary movies I listed in my first paragraph (Star Wars and Tron come to mind), its flaws wash away as you watch, consumed and overwhelmed by its imaginary world.
James Cameron apparently plans to make two Avatar sequels. Normally that might dismay me, but his track record of improving upon the original films in a series, whether someone else's or his own (see my last bullet point above), tells me he might be able to pull off something amazing there. Now that he has established Pandora as a place, and had time to develop his new filmmaking techniques, it could be very interesting to see what he does with them next.
Labels: film, movie, review, sciencefiction, space