Tuesday, December 22, 2009


"I Was a Marine in the Na'vi Reserve"

"Avatar" is this Holiday season's elephant in the room. It is too big a target to not take pot-shots at, and will probably be too successful to avoid the temptation. Not that one needs motivation; there's plenty to be critical of. Like that proverbial elephant, take away the visuals and it will be seen as bits and pieces of other films: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Something old, nothing new, something borrowed, and mostly something blue. Yes, it's derivative* (all James Cameron's films are). Yes, it's 3-D effects are spotty (Cameron can't resist getting too close to the "lens" frequently, so that the tip of things lose their coherence, and close-up ferns tend to become transparent, and there are early sequences that just move too fast for clear 3-D optics). The right-wing pundits will blast it for being "anti-military" (Can't argue with that—an occupying Army force that is the muscle for a rapacious corporation is the villain**—we've seen that in "The Abyss" and "Aliens"—on the other hand, Cameron gives them the coolest toys). Yes, it's too expensive. Yes, it's big and obvious and dumb. I'll grant you all of that. Sure.

But, damn,
if it isn't fun. And thrilling. And at times stunningly beautiful, even breath-taking. There are moments (when Cameron actually feels the need to slow things down so you can appreciate it) when the imagery evokes such awe that you forget that you've seen it before in other films, and sometimes done better.

In the year 2175, paraplegic Marine Jake Scully (
Sam Worthington—well, his head, anyway, the rest is an actual paraplegic) is offered the chance to replace his late twin brother in a scientific program to blend in with the indigenous tribe of ten foot tall aliens called the Na'vi. Brother Scully had been in training for years for the task, but because Jake's DNA matches his brother's, it's easier to let an untrained rookie with conflicts of interest take his place rather than train a replacement for such an essential mission. That mission is to move the Na'vi off their sacred land that contains a rich source of what the decimated Earth needs to run its machines, a floating mineral called "Unobtainium."***

There were legitimate titters in the audience at that one. It is indicative of Cameron's grab-bag approach to "Avatar" that he seriously uses a scientific in-joke, as well as exposing how little care he was taking with the story. "Unobtainium" is just lazy writing, like a detective looking for an actual "McGuffin," or a tech explaining that those scanners run using the latest "Vaporware." He couldn't come up with a more clever name like "dilithium," or "adamantium," or "Upsidaisium," or "Wedonthavenuffovum?"****

Apparently not. Because what we have in "
Avatar" is a case of James Cameron becoming George Lucas. The two have been at odds over the years with competing films and competing SFX companies (although Lucasfilm's ILM—not Cameron's acquisition Digital Domain—worked on the FX of "Avatar," the majority of which were done by New Zealand's WETA) that now the Tiger-hunter has become the Tiger. "Avatar" is the equivalent of the sumptuous "Star Wars" prequels, with more care given to how ships look when they land than to how people sound when they talk. We have more of the 22nd century humans using contemporary 20th century idioms and lame wise-cracks. No one's advanced—Earth is infected with a military-industrial simplex whose short-term strategies have decimated the planet (the corporate weasel is played by Giovanni Ribisi, rather than Paul Reiser this time, and the off-his-rocker military honcho is Stephen Lang, rather than Michael Biehn--Michelle Rodriguez plays the Latina soldier in the wife-beater, and Sigourney Weaver...is still Ripley, believe it ot not.) Your afterward discussion meal will be peppered with discussions of "Well, if they could do THAT, why couldn't they do THAT?" and so on.

The Na'vi are innocent cat-like savages with golden eyes bigger than those in Keane paintings. They have three fingers and a thumb on their hands and six toes on their feet—if that sounds a little evolutionarily suspect, here's another one for you: the horses on Pandora have six legs, two in the back, four in the front. The people are based on every "noble savage" cliche ever used in the English language—everyone speaks in low, measured pronouncements and the chief is played by Wes Studi (it's always Wes Studi--I love him, but, c'mon!), his obligatorily high priestess of a wife is CCH Pounder, and their daughter, the princess—with whom Scully becomes romantically involved, opening up the floodgates to sources—is played by Zoe Saldana (Uhura of the new "Star Trek"). Nice cast, but they weren't given much to do to stretch their acting muscles—in fact, the roles are a little regressive. There's more challenges voicing a Disney film.

One watches with a gob-smacked smile on one's face, but before too long it's apparent how it's going to turn out...and what complications are going to ensue before we get there. One has to conclude that, except for his technological savvy and
his rather loopy art design, Cameron just doesn't have any new ideas. If you're looking for revolutionary in your films or film-makers, it is not here.

And, as you know it would, it all climaxes with
an all-out battle between the Na'vi and the military, which Cameron knows how to direct so it's quite a bit more effective than a "Transformers" battle. It's mighty violent with lots of explosions and death and some nasty punctures by big Na'vi arrows. Parents should be warned—I saw a bunch of kids go into hyper-activity during the battle scenes. You're going to wish you had one of Cameron's heavy-lifting "AMP suits" to get 'em back into the car.

as a sci-fi re-telling of the "Native" tropes written by European writers, it's fun. Just don't be disappointed once the fancy wrappings are taken away, you find it's the same present you got last year.

"Avatar" will lose lots on the small-screen, so it's a Matinee.

* Aw, why drag it out? The sources are "Run of the Arrow," the "Pocahontas" story, Poul Anderson's "Call Me Joe"(which is about humans using brain-linked native avatars on Jupiter), "Dances with Wolves," "Dune," "FernGully," heavy doses of Edgar Rice Borroughs' "Tarzan" and "John Carter of Mars," the "Dragonriders of Pern" series, the original storyline of "Star Wars" (in which a primitive tribe defeats a technologically advanced one—a Lucas favorite theme), allusions to the decimation of the American Indians, the VietNam War and the War in Iraq. And if it's a "'civilized' man learns from indigenous tribe that they're more civilized" story, it's in "Avatar."

** There wasn't. I'd forgotten—The company releasing "Avatar" was 20thCentury Fox, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. There were no conservatives grumbling until after the movie had cleared $1 billion dollars in receipts.

*** "Unobtainium" was also used in "The Core"—it is the metal coating plating the ships to make them resistant to molten temperatures and pressures.

**** "Dilithium cystals" power the U.S.S. Enterprise (rather than what Dr. McCoy prescribes Kirk for...his...ADD), "adamantium" is the metal that coats Wolverine's bones, "upsidaisium" was an anti-grav metal in "Rocky and Bullwinkle
," and "Wedonthavenuffovum" I made up.


John said...

Good summary Jim. I agree wholeheartedly. The only thing I would add is that the film uses that contemptible literary device of having the savior of the primitive culture be a white middle class American Joe that we can all relate to. How nice that their messiah/savior happens to be a white man.

Yojimbo_5 said...

I keep hearing that "Avatar" is "a game-changer" for the industry, when the story is MOS from the silent era. As I used to say (snottily) during the "Reagan revolution," "You can't 'revolt' backwards. That's called a retreat."

I think we're going to be two white guys in the minority on this one--I know I was, re: "Titanic."

My question is: why did they use Cameron Diaz's face on the poster?

Walaka said...

Jim, at the end of the year, it's prolly good for me to say out loud that you are continuing your streak of excellent, strong reviewing, and I don't know if you know how valuable it is to many of us. Thanks so much.

And I, for one, have been hatin' on "that contemptible literary device of having the savior of the primitive culture be a white middle class American Joe" since I saw the trailer.

But I think I'll see this anyway.

John said...

I think you should Walter! I shared Jim's complaints about the film, but I also agree with Jim's positives. The visuals are rich and the alien world feels very alive and immersive.