Dir: James Cameron
20th Century Fox
When the lights came up on the Avatar press screening, one of my fellow critics stood, stretched and exclaimed (as critics are wont to do), “Well, that was the most beautifully made piece of crap I’ve ever seen.” Though Avatar will neither change the way we view films or win any awards for subtlety, I could not disagree with my fellow critic any stronger.
For some reason, most of my friends have been hoping that Avatar is a titanic (forgive the pun) failure. I am not sure what director James Cameron has done to attract so much ire in the past 12 years since his last feature, but it seems people are hovering over voodoo dolls and waiting to set fire to Cameron effigies at any moment. I’ve heard people claim they hope this film “cuts that ego-maniac down to size” and that Avatar “puts an end to all CGI crapfest films once and for all.” Though, I do agree that CGI has been overdone and that the costumes in Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are felt refreshing, Cameron has done nothing to me besides deliver one entertaining film after another.
Something seems to happen in our adult life where we lose the wonder and awe of childhood. We bemoan the lack of films like the original Star Wars trilogy and Back to the Future, yet these may seem infantile if viewed through fresh, adult eyes. Perhaps it’s the lack of heart in the big blockbuster epics such as Transformers that turn us off to special effects and aliens. But let’s get this straight, Avatar may be technically amazing with a script that is too formulaic, but it certainly does not lack heart.
Perhaps Avatar’s green is good, militarism is bad message may be too wet-behind-the-ears for some, but it’s a refreshing change from a lot of the nihilistic films Hollywood feeds us these days. Maybe the characters are the standard science fiction movie tropes we’ve come to expect from a film of this ilk, but hobbits didn’t really suffer too many existential crises either, did they?
The plot is straight out of Dances With Wolves as wounded marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) joins the Na’vi, a blue-skinned, tailed indigenous people of the planet Pandora using technology that allows him to enter the one of their bodies. See, the deadly duo of the military and a rich corporation want to exploit the natural deposits that are under the Na’vi settlement. You can see where this is going as Jake slowly realizes these natives really know how to live and that the bad guys are out to take advantage of them, even if it means using force to kick them off their lands. Sounds pretty familiar.
I could spend hours picking apart Avatar’s peccadilloes such as its fetishistic use of foreign women, dumbed-down black and white baddies and a seemingly contradictory anti-violence message. However, I wasn’t bored and I didn’t feel insulted. In fact, the gorgeous visuals of the film drew me in and at times I felt like Pandora was a living world. The 3-D felt like a key aspect of the film, not put to an obscene use such as having things lunge out of the screen or make up for shoddy storytelling. Rather, the 3-D allows us to enter the immersive world of Pandora, surrounds us with lush forests and flying creatures. More than once, people around me gasped at the rushing water, the beating of wings, the canopy of the forest and the jungle floor that felt so far below.
It is difficult to talk about direction and cinematography when most of the film appears animated. Yeah, a big portion of the film felt like watching a video game, but one that took $300 million and years of production. Cameron also opts to paint his creatures in a bright palette of colors. Though these intense colors feel jarring at first, they eventually seem essential to a world where the people have blue skin and trees sprout brilliant white leaves. However, this is not just some kiddy fantasy flick. Danger lurks in the jungle and when the humans attack the Na’vi Cameron gives us an action sequence that is both wrenching and horrifically amazing to behold.
Avatar entertained me for nearly three hours and I left the theatre satisfied, even if my critic spidey-sense tingled at some of the clichés and formulaic filmisms. It doesn’t take great art to entertain and I can think of many worse ways to spend my three hours and $10.