Some of the best stories out there are simple stories that are well-told. A straightforward plot doesn’t necessarily make for a bad escapist experience, if there are elements of that plot that transcend its simplicity. Take District 9, for example. Aliens come to Earth in bad shape and they’re exploited by corporate douchebags. Simple, right? Yet that story is so well told, expertly executed and subtle in its soapbox moments that the simplicity of the story can be completely ignored. How about Daybreakers? Alternative energy sources are good things, we get that, but the point is made without distracting from the fact that the lack of energy in that film’s characters causes them to bite people’s throats open, and getting Willem Dafoe in a 1978 Firebird Trans Am with an arsenal of crossbows to go after cannibalistic bat-monsters is so cool I don’t care what soapbox he’s standing on.
Avatar is no District 9. Avater is no Daybreakers. Without its stunning visuals, embarrassingly good hero cast and the word of mouth given by legions of fans whose eyes were short-circuited thanks to the insidiousness of 3-D, this film wouldn’t have a blue spindly leg to stand on.
Avatar introduces us to Jake Sully, the reluctant brother of a scientist who was gunned down in a back alley mugging. Jake’s brother, a twin, was part of the research team interested in making contact and establishing relations with the native population of Pandora, a moon 6 or so light-years from Earth. Earth has become something of a strip-mined deforested smog-covered pipe-dream-of-the-military-industrial-complex wasteland, and humanity is hungry for more resources. Luckily, Pandora is home not only to a thriving, vibrant, nature-conscious sentient race of ten-foot-tall aboriginal blue feline humanoids called the Na’vi but also a universal powers-anything totally-not-an-allegory-for-oil mineral called Unobtainium. In order to mine their MacGuffinium, the corporation in charge needs to move the Na’vi off of rich deposits. Jake’s brother was part of the Avatar program, designed to reach a diplomatic solution. Right behind them, though, are butch manly gun-happy violence-for-pleasure-seeking beer-swilling cigar-chomping Americans. Okay, they’re probably not ALL Americans, but I think you can see where I’m going with this.
Anyway, Jake’s a paraplegic and he’s told that if he helps get the Na’vi to abandon their homes that sit on top of the Plotdevicium, they’ll pay for the spinal operation to restore function to his legs. Unfortunately, somebody’s been looking at way too much shiny Plotconveniencium because they didn’t realize that an avatar, a genetically grown artificial body composed of both human and Na’vi DNA, not only gives Jake his legs but also enhanced senses, a USB interface with the world’s wildlife and, oh yeah, makes him a ten foot tall warrior crystal dragon Jesus. Nice work there, guys.
“Sam, go over there and emote. I’ll stay back here and think about how much money this movie’s gonna make me.”
Before I get to what bugs me about the film, let’s talk about what works in it. The visuals, as I’ve said, are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The eco-system of Pandora is designed to take one’s breath away, and it certainly does do that job. There’s an organic feeling to everything that belongs on Pandora. By the same token, the sense one gets from the human contraptions, from the modular buildings to the badass fighting mechs, is that these were welded or hammered together by human hands, not assembled in a graphics program on $300 million’s worth of computers.
The other really good thing about Avatar is the cast. I’m not just talking about Sam Worthington, who’s quickly becoming someone I really enjoy seeing on screen but needs to stop attempting an American accent, or Sigorney Weaver, who’s right at home being in a film like this. (Oh, and side note, thank you James Cameron for putting Michelle Rodriguez in Na’vi war paint. Rawr.) No, the Na’vi themselves are rendered beautifully. Now, I know they were pretty much designed to be appealing to a human audience in an aesthetic, emotional and sexual way, but that doesn’t stop the end result from being impressive. I think it was pretty clear from the outset that if the Na’vi and their world didn’t truly come to life, even on the flat screen upon which I saw it to say nothing of 3-D, the whole opera’d fall apart. Thankfully, Pandora and it’s flora and fauna do pull you in, and the scenes in the lush, luminous forests are some of the most immersive I’ve seen in quite some time.
This guy’s evil. You can tell because he drinks coffee while burning down trees.
But just like the fist of an angry corporate-funded gung-ho jarhead trying to punch his way to a deposit of Bullshitium, the illusion of Pandora’s perfection is shattered by so many bad story elements it’s difficult to say where one should begin. There is no way in hell this operation should run the way it does. Too many military and money-grubbing types are at the top while the scientists who might actually have a clue as to what humanity has stumbled across are treated like a nuisance rather than an asset. If it weren’t for the fact that these bozos exist for the same reason Adhominemium does, it’d be completely incomprehensible how these clowns even got off of Earth, let alone ended up in nominal control of Pandora. But James Cameron has a point to make here, and as much as he spared no expense bringing his vision to life, he pulls no punches in letting us know exactly what he’s trying to say, about whom and why it’s bad. Those bombs in the back of the shuttle in the film’s climax might as well be goddamn anvils.
The villains’ aren’t just evil for evil’s sake. Oh, no. They’re evil for America’s sake. Beyond the obvious “respect for nature” message and other aspects of the story discussed to death elsewhere in other reviews, parodies, tired internet memes and episodes of South Park, Avatar does everything within its power to underscore the major flaws in the neo-conservative movement. The villains see the worlds before them in black and white, foster a strong “us versus them” mentality, disregard a multilateral approach to solving their problems and opt instead for military intervention in the extreme. I’d say that the corporate stooges were Germans and the Na’vi Polish Jews, if it weren’t clear Cameron were going after Bush-era Americans instead of Nazis. Hell, at one point, Colonel George Herbert Walker Whatever-The-Hell-His-Name-Is uses the words “shock and awe” when discussing his pre-emptive war. It’s clear that James Cameron is underscoring the evils of deforestation and corporate greed. But hey, these are Americans we’re talking about, and they on the whole really don’t give a shit. Deforestation is only something that happens in other countries that didn’t have the good fortune to be America, and Americans love themselves some corporate greed. Just look at how our banks and real estate markets are set up.
“So wait, there’s no civilian oversight and your career military men are basically mercenaries? Come here, let me teach you the Na’vi word for ‘Bullshit’.”
The interplanetary love story is a bit trite, but it works because it’s well-acted. We do feel something is at stake during the action sequences and they’re not confusing at all, being well-shot and choreographed, but the messages that drive the action are so obvious and ham-handed you can hear the bacon sizzling when the Hometree burns. All in all, there’s stuff to like in Avatar and it’s worth seeing for the visuals and sweeping sci-fi/fantasy warfare that honestly rivals some of the set pieces in Lord of the Rings. So put it on your Netflix queue.
Oh, and don’t worry about not seeing it in 3-D. Let’s face it, 3-D’s a fad. It was a fad back in the 50s and it’s a fad right now, people are just a bit thicker than they were back then so it’ll take somewhat longer for the fad to go away this time. I mean, look at the way some people reacted to Avatar. Other than the immediate declaration that it is THE BEST MOVIE EVER and dumping piles of money and adoration on James Cameron, who probably can’t get it up unless he’s contemplating how fucking brilliant he is, some people actually fell into suicidal depression when they beheld the landscape of Pandora and had to be told it’s not real. I was personally reminded of some of the vistas from games like Aion and World of Warcraft, which makes me a pretty massive nerd in case that wasn’t clearly obvious. While I could see a lot of the flaws in this movie – I didn’t even mention the weird application of physics on Pandora, what with floating mountains and “low gravity” that operates just like Earth’s gravity – I still enjoyed it, which I guess means I’m powered by just as much Retardium as anybody else.
Spotting the flaws, though, and calling them out without mentioning all of the other films Avatar plundered like Doctor Frankenstein in a graveyard looking for fresh parts, probably means my internal derp furnace is running a bit low.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
May 23, 2010 at 10:33 pm
I completely agree with you, except for on one point: I think 3D is here to stay.
Too many movies have accepted it as mainstream, and this movie in particular (the first one shot natively in 3D, rather than the 3D being added in post) will help push 3D technology to become the norm, but hopefully will soon settle into the background. Like movies being in color.
Too many movies are intent on screaming “Omg, we have 3D” and just cheese it up.
May 24, 2010 at 6:41 am
I dunno. If they keep charging $20 a ticket (and I wish I was exaggerating) for a 3D movie, I’m going to just watch the 2D version in my basement. =P