Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Avatar (Review)

     I had been seeing the previews for months, as I'm sure a lot of you have, and I was worried.  James Cameron knows how to make a movie, and I'm willing to give (almost) anything he makes a chance, but "Avatar" seemed unnecessarily over the top.  The more I heard about the truly amazing, new techniques and technologies being used, the more I worried about more basic story elements being overlooked.  The more hyped the movie was, the more I worried that anything less than an absolute masterpiece was going to be a complete letdown.  In many ways, my fears were realized.

      "Avatar" is about a planet of primitive, alien natives who just happen to be living directly on top of their planet's largest concentration of valuable ore. (Upsidasium)  A corporate mining operation wants the natives to relocate and the space marines protecting the mining operation are all too happy to blow the indigenous population up if they resist.  At the same time you've got xeno-anthropologists, led by Sigourney Weaver, studying the aliens, trying to teach them English, (and the American way) and, supposedly, trying to convince them to leave their scared tree and move so the Marines won't blow them up.  Enter our hero, played by Sam Worthington, a former Marine who is now confined to a wheelchair. (Yes, we have intergalactic space ships but are still using wheelchairs!)  His job is to use a genetically engineered alien body, that he controls with his mind, to help the xeno-anthropologists study the natives and secretly gather intelligence for the military so they can either convince the natives to leave or have an easier time blowing them up.  Of course, after spending three months living as an alien, he forms attachments, loyalties are called into question, and inner conflict arises.

     The story is an old one, even if it is significantly modernized.  Do you remain loyal when loyalty means injustice, or do you betray everything you know to defend the helpless?  (Or, at least, the seriously outgunned?)  With that kind of a story, you pretty much know exactly what's going to happen, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as you develop the story and characters well, move the plot along, and keep the audience emotionally invested; in short, you tell a good story.  Cameron does this, somewhat, but but he also sacrifices these basic story elements to showcase his new special effects techniques.  To be fair, the special effects are, for the most part, amazing.  The 3-D, however, was, at best, unnecessary and at worst, distracting.  During the CGI sequences, the 3-D is, of course, faked by computers, so it isn't all that amazing, during the parts that are shot on set, the 3-D is real, but useless as the sets are not that large, and anytime they mixed CGI with actual sets, the 3-D actually makes the computer graphics stand out and look less real.  The plot plods along at a terrible pace and is broken up by far too many extended CGI action sequences that do little or nothing to advance the story or develop the characters.  At two hours and forty-two minutes, you can afford to cut out a lot of the action sequences and add some character development.  The love story between Worthington's character and the alien 'princess' seems to simply pop into being rather than being developed over the course of the movie in a believable fashion.  Similarly, so does his character's detachment from reality and his native culture.  Both are spilled out quickly in awkward exposition.  We are never really given the opportunity to empathize or develop any real feelings for any of the characters.  Additionally, the CGI character's lack of facial expressions makes them seem emotionless and almost cartoon like.  Despite Cameron's new CGI techniques, which were meant to capture actor's facial expressions and transfer them to their computer generated characters, the CGI aliens still seem rather flat in most of their expressions.  We spend quite a bit of time with these aliens and not having the subtlety of realistic facial expressions makes it quite difficult to get a sense of their feelings or to form any real emotional bond with them.  

     "Avatar" isn't a bad movie, but it is far too long for an action movie and it doesn't have nearly enough character or story development for a sci/fi morality tale.  It feels more like an extended ride at a studio theme park; lots of eye candy but not a lot of substance.  I think Cameron shot way too high on this one and missed.

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