Monday, January 4, 2010

"Avatar", the Product and the Principle

"Avatar" is unavoidable.  Unless you prefer to be excluded from the cultural conversation, one might as well climb the bandwagon, and take the ride.  For those of you, like this reviewer, who generally don't care for this kind of movie, having to purchase the special eyewear (you must, if you go, see it in 3-D) is akin to drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid.  Knowing that your purchase will support the efforts of a megalomaniac director (who needs no encouragement to divert popular attention away from literate, emotional and personal films with modest budgets and efficient shooting schedules), you might die a little; but I can tell you that the death is relatively painless, the experience mostly inoffensive.

That's because, at heart, "Avatar"is an amusement park ride, a throwback to childhood thrills, a harmless entertainment that only pretends to say something about war and imperialism and ecology.  It is big, often hugely imaginative, its visuals created with obvious care by scores of craftsmen and designers and technicians, and loaded with gorgeous detail and color.  Some of it is irresistible; although, in the end, it's an  enormous, hyped-up version of the kind of action and fantasy pictures that sensitive viewers, in general, successfully avoid. 

Yet it won't be just the film alone that draws record crowdsfor many, it will  be almost impossible to withstand the virtual tsunami of marketing and promotion; so we will allow ourselves to be swept away by this massive, faddish wave, and hope to survive, and be deposited safely, relatively unscathed, to reality in three dimensions.

Filmmakers misrepresent the grosses of blockbusters like these in order to justify making more of the same. (As I write, "Avatar" is proclaimed to be the fourth-largest moneymaker in movie history ...with no mention of the adjustment for inflation, and the highest admission prices in movie histoy).  But more of the same is already in the can, so to speak, so there is a lot at stake in ensuring the success of "Avatar". 

In fact, the trailers at the afternoon screening I attended New Year's Day featured a  remake of "Clash of the Titans" (creatures, explosions, lots of noise); Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood" with Russell Crowe (or, "Gladiator: Men in Tights", more noise and explosions), and two 3-D films (a sequel to "Shrek" and Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland"). So for now, those moviegoers who prefer human stories and engagement with real characters in recognizable human situations are left to go begging. 

Is it a great film?  I think for about 90 minutes, "Avatar" is a work of visual splendor, trapped inside an inane battle movie stretched to 162+ minutes, bloated to the size of director James Cameron's ego.  Cameron has actually stated that "Avatar" was the integration of  his life achievements, boasting that it was the most complicated job anyone had ever done.  (Give me 4 years, 250+ million dollars and over 1000 employees, and I'll hand you a review to end all film criticism.)

Is it art?  Aesthetic pleasure is so elusive, and subjective.  If one is satisfied with sumptuous surface appearances and textures, then it could suffice.  A lot of sincere imagination went into the creation of the plant and animal life we see on the fictional planet of Pandora, among the Na'vi, a culture of blue-skinned humanoids with large eyes, slender buff bodies and wiggling ears, who revere nature and possess a natural resource ("unobtanium") that the evil earthly military wants to mine. Some of the graphics have the layered delicacy and palette of  a Chinese silk painting, and the mysterious glow of underwater sea creatures.

The detail work is top-notch. I especially loved the whorled plants that withdrew quickly on the slightest touch; or the lovely "milkweeds" that descend on special souls as if by instinct; the flying insects that appear to escape the bounds of the screen and float perpetually in front of us; the way light reflects off the eyes of the Na'vi, and the way their ears move to catch sounds; their sleek bodies and four-fingered hands; even their jewelry, the feathers, and finery are a designer's dream.

But "Avatar"'s ideas, as well as its physical beauty, have been manufactured by a committee, factory-like.  It's meant to be admired for its technical success, for its surface detail, but we are not meant to look at it too closely or think about it too long, the way, I think, art invites us to do.   

With the staggering (some may think obscene) amount of resources committed to this one entertainment, I think it's not unreasonable to have expected something more profound than it delivers.   "Avatar" in 3-D is a new kind of movie triumph, but it is a triumph of logistics, like "Titanic";  it's also a franchise.  One wonders, after seeing the 2-dimensional trailer, what kind of life the film will have after its theatrical run.  The "flat" images were colorful, but not remarkable.

If only a bit more of the budget were committed to the script, and to logic.  The story is promising: The year is 2154, and paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is sent to Pandora as a Na'vi avatar operator (given a "virtual" body) to bond with the native population of Na'vi. He must convince them to relocate away from their homeland in order for his employer to mine the unobtanium that will be carried back to earth (which vaguely, has burned out, or something).  Since the Na'vi are wise and are able to commune with the plant and animal life around them, it's never clear why they don't just give the unobtanium away, since we never see how it's crucial to their own survival. 

Jake, with the aid of his mentor, botanist Grace Augustine (Siguorney Weaver, often sporting a pristine Stanford University T-shirt...more on that later) and a motley crew of fellow scientists and sympathetic military folk, enters the Na'vi world, learns the customs of the natives and the sacred place of the creatures there, and falls in love with the beautiful (by Na'vi standards) Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña).

Jake sees the unfairness of his assignment, and sides with the Na'vi against the insensitive mining company's corporate hack (Giovanni Ribisi) and the evil, neo-con-like colonel and head of the mining company's security detail (Stephen Lang).  Battle lines are drawn, and by the third hour, when all is clashing hardware, swooping creatures, and James Horner's cliche-ridden score to remind you to be awestruck, you may be too worn down to care that Neytiri happens to know how to use an oxygen mask (there is no oxygen on Pandora, by the way) to save our hero's life.

Dazzling, yes, but not wholly original. "Avatar" owes a huge debt to "The Lord of the Rings", and shows the definite influence of "Star Wars", so when the weapons and the creatures start their airborne battles, you may have the sense of having seen all of this before. (Industrial Light and Magic had a hand in the production).  In fact, lots of movies came to mind, in not always flattering ways.  Jake's introduction to the nest of winged creatures recalled Rod Taylor's cautious steps around the crows and gulls in "The Birds"; the Na'vi's tails wave to and fro as if in tribute to Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion; the fall of Home Tree was a green version of the final plunge of the "Titanic"; and Grace is brought to the Tree of Souls for healing, in a scene hilariously reminiscent of  the Lourdes of Jennifer Jones in 20th-Century-Fox' own "Song of Bernadette".

If Cameron were really revolutionary, if he had the full confidence in the power of his images and his technology, he might have tried scrapping the music entirely, and gone strictly with "natural" sounds. Some small portions of the score were developed with a musicologist to create a musical culture for the Na'vi;  but I felt more wonderment and awe in the first 10 minutes of Terrence Malick's "Thin Red Line".  Malick, using traditional, luminous photographic lighting to capture the natural jungle and the creatures therein,  accompanied his images with the sweet exalted chorus of voices of an actual native people.

(Cameron is said to have developed an entire Na'vi culture, and a language with a thousand-word vocabulary, little of which appears to be used in the film.  Is there really so little left to discover about our own world?)

The performers are fine in their limited "human" roles.  For their computer-generated incarnations, the use of motion-capture techniques employed tiny cameras affixed to the actors' faces to be digitally manipulated, creating the look of a new species, while keeping the performer's features recognizable. Credit must go to the technicians who "created" Sam Worthington's "performance" as an avatar. Worthington is much more expressive in "animated" form than in his human scenes.  No matter---he is quite watchable nonetheless.  Weaver is a pro, and thoroughly convinces as the tough-as-nails botanist.  Saldana, Wes Studi, and C C H Pounder all lend expert vocal acting skills to their Na'vi characters.  As the "villains", Ribisi and Lang are stock characters, their dialog a thinly-veiled representation of America's involvement in current global wars. 

Finally, I admired the attempt to create some wonderful creatures, patterned after our own dogs and horses, and mythical pterodactyls and other fierce beasts; but, apart from enlisting them in battlefield heroics, we learn little about them.  For "Avatar" to have worked for me, I would have preferred the whole film to take place on Pandora, drop the bracketing military story and the battle sequences, keep it completely "animated", and linger there; create a story involving the mystic bonds between the Na'vi and the nature around them.  Of course, there would be little material in that for a video game.


A bit more about SiguorneyWeaver and her surprising collegiate sportswear: Stanford University must have done something right to last another 100 years on a burned-out planet (or, at least, to keep up their on-line merchandise sales!).  Weaver is a graduate of Stanford, and my research has not yet uncovered whether she brokered a deal for a "product placement" for the school. I do understand, however, that the University has an incredible Virtual Human Interaction Lab for developing motion capture for the purpose of studying and predicting human behavior.  I was heartened by the practical use of this technology. 
You can read more about it here.


  1. I have no desire to see this movie at all. For one thing the faces on these "avatars" creep me out! I feel so out of touch with todays popular culture Tom it won't matter if I see it or not.
    Thanks for the interesting insight and review though.
    The Old Curmudgeon,

  2. Another tremendous movie review, Tom! At first I was want to follow the rest of the lemmings into the theater to see what all the hubbub was about, but now after reading your review I think I will wait until the DVD release. Why? Personally it's not my style and I think that a movie needs more than stunning visual effects to gain my approval. It's a cliché but this movie is all sizzle and no steak! Maybe a more substantive movie with depth and meaning might have moved me to see it, but this film just reeks of commercialism and mass merchandising opportunities. Indeed, your description of it as a product was a very apt one. I, for one, will wait for a film that engages me and put this multi-million dollar comic book on back burner.

  3. Tom, I was awaiting your review of this film. Yes, we are awashed in the hype, but I have been relucant to dive in. Thanks for taking the plunge so I can stay high and dry from a sci-fi saga with video game crossover.

  4. Thanks everyone! I was beginning to think I was the only one with misgivings. Yeah, I decided to give it a chance, and see it to maximum effect. What I find alarming is the lengths to which the demand to see this movie has been manufactured. Moreover, I think many fans have misapplied the word "important" when they mean "impresive". More print and enthusiasm ought to be devoted to the technological advances that really are important, and I don't mean in the development of even more entertainment hardware.
    I liked many aspects of the film, but it was impossible to enjoy fully it in the face of so much frantic hyperbole, and hubris....