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“Avatar”: post-review musings

Given that “Avatar” topped nearly every critic’s Best of 2009 list or got some kind of honorary mention, I wondered post-viewing why it didn’t make mine. The first answer is the obvious one: I didn’t see the film before I made the list. M. Carter @ the Movies just had to — just had to — wait, dontchaknow, until all the hype died down. So I waited … and waited … and waited until I determined this movie had produced a Jason Voorhees brand of hype that would not go belly-up for years. So I went, I saw, my eyeballs went ablaze with joy at what they were seeing. What I saw convinced me that “Avatar” had blazed a new trail (hence the review title) for CGI in particular and filmmaking in general.

And yet I made no plans to review my top 10 list.

So I went back to pick through my original choices. Were they more flawless than “Avatar”? Certainly not. “Inglourious Basterds” had its fair share of problems, including sorely underdeveloped characters, while “(500) Days of Summer” had that dreadful sellout of an ending. And “The Hangover”? I mean, it’s a movie about four dudes getting wasted in Las Vegas! “Citizen Kane” it surely, surely ain’t. How could “Avatar” not merit a spot in this list?

Perhaps Vanessa at The Movie Ness said it best her review: The visuals wowed me for sure, but overall “Avatar” didn’t win my heart. I didn’t fall in love with it the way I did with “Up in the Air” or “Up.” I’m a character girl, and too many of the ones in “Avatar” felt … well, recycled. The music seemed to suffer the same problem. And I’d imagine most people would say something like “who cares about the characters? LOOK at the FRIGGIN’ COLORS!” But Cameron went this far in the name of originality for the visuals; why not go a bit further and give us a story that’s just as inventive?

Minor quibbles, though. Even though “Avatar” didn’t make my list, I cannot disagree with one thing: With this film, James Cameron has changed the face of CGI as we know it. “Avatar” is a hell of an achievement and deserves to be recognized as such.

Cameron blazes dramatic new trail in “Avatar”

One life ends and another begins when paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) agrees to infiltrate Na'vi culture in "Avatar."

Horatio: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

Hamlet: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
~~”Hamlet” (Act 1, Scene 5)

Before James Cameron’s gorgeous, vividly imagined “Avatar” absorbed me into it completely, Horatio and Hamlet’s exchange ran on loop throughout my mind. Though it’s doubtful Cameron based four years of hard work around a few lines in “Hamlet,” he nonetheless gives dazzling life to these words in “Avatar.” The director has implored us, just as Hamlet implored Horatio, to open our minds to the infinite possibilities of the universe, things our brains tells us are illogical or improbable. He wants us to believe big and dream bigger, and by the time “Avatar” comes to a close — 160 minutes never seemed to so quick — he’s made starry-eyed believers out of the lot of us, skeptics, optimists and everyone in-between. This is a film that will change the way you see your world, and one that redefines “possibility.”

“Avatar” begins, however, with a very human and somewhat familiar story. The year is 2145, and humankind has set up camp on the planet Pandora intent on harvesting unobtanium, an invaluable mineral, initially through bartering and other peaceful measures. Corporate tycoon Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the rough-edged Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) — both unfortunately written as one-note, stereotypical villains — would prefer to blast their way through the native inhabitants, a race of lean, tall, blue-skinned humanoids called the Na’vi who refuse to relocate or give up their land. For awhile, though, Dr. Grace Augustine (a cheerfully mouthy Sigourney Weaver) has convinced Selfridge and the colonel to let her interact with the Na’vi using avatars controlled by humans. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine called to Pandora when his twin brother, trained for years to inhabit an avatar created specifically for him, suddenly dies. Initially indifferent to the task, he finds with each trip into the Na’vi world more to love about the culture, such as their intense, respectful connection to the land and to Eywa, their maternal deity manifested in all living organisms. He also takes to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, who gets better with every part), the daughter of Na’vi’s leader who acts as his wary cultural attaché. She inherently mistrusts him. “Sky People cannot learn; you do not see,” she observes.

Though Neytiri is wrong about Sully, who finds his avatar life more fulfilling than his actual life, she is not wrong about many of Pandora’s human colonizers. Col. Quaritch, played with unkillable, Rambo-esque menace by Lang, views the Na’vi not as native inhabitants but as hostile enemies in need of extermination. To Selfridge (gripe alert: Ribisi deserves a deeper part than this), they are a nuisance in need of removal and the “how” doesn’t matter. And so “Avatar” becomes a film about the battle between humans consumed by Manifest Destiny-styled entitlement and the land’s native inhabitants. Cameron has an agenda and sways our sympathies accordingly, with our internal conflict manifested in the person and avatar of Jake Sully. And while Cameron pushes his agenda hard, he softens the message somewhat with the love story of Jake and Neytiri. Neither story is especially revolutionary; the same is true of a few characters, ill-written and flat, and the ending, a little disappointing in its predictability. Still, the interwoven stories ground this awe-inspiring, fluorescent world of make-believe — in a good way.

Besides, Cameron’s smart enough to know that visuals excuse a multitude of plot/writing sins. So much has been said about the visuals in Cameron’s multi-year, multi-billion-dollar labor of love that to say more seems unnecessary. However, “Avatar” is above all else a visual experience, and one engineered painstakingly to retain traces of our human world and expand it simultaneously. What Cameron achieves in the film is the successful marriage of computer-generated imagery (awe-inspiring to say the least) and real people. Never before have reality and fantasy meshed so beautifully, and never before has such a union seemed so astonishingly real. One scene stands out in a handful of others: a moment between Neytiri and Sully, visible to her in human form for the first time. There is tenderness in her face, the likes of which we’ve never seen in a CGI character, and there is fascination in Sully’s. He sees for the first time what he believed to be impossible, and he is changed. So are we.

Grade: A-