Monday, December 21, 2009

The weird, often wonderful, world of "Avatar"

I don't really think its possible, but given the weather on the east coast this weekend, should we feel sorry for James Cameron? (I feel much more sorry for my poor friends in D.C. who got buried in snow - which I know from personal experience is pretty much a mini-apocalypse for the nation's capital.)

Thanks at least in part to the storms, his "Avatar" only took in $73 million domestic in its first weekend, finishing second for a December opening to Will Smith's "I am Legend," which opened to more than $77 million (you just don't mess with the Fresh Prince.) Cameron's movie did, however, take in a rather impressive $159 million overseas, so I suppose he just might eventually break even in a few weeks.

But, much more importantly, is the movie any good? The short answer: Yes, often magically so. It's also hokey, bloated and all the other things you might have feared going in, but if you give into it, he really has managed to make a genuine sci-fi epic the likes of which we haven't seen on the big screen for many years (I've heard "Star Wars" mentioned so many times this week that it makes me sick, so you won't hear it again from me.)

What he hasn't done is "revolutionize moviemaking," or at least I hope not, because as much as I liked visiting his world of Pandora, I really hope there isn't even more of a rush to embrace 3-D. (Yes, I'm well aware that there's nothing I can do to stop it, much as I might try.) He really needs to take some lessons from W. in the expectations game, because if he could just keep his big mouth shut for a bit, people would find that what he's actually crafted is a flick that would have been much more comfortable in the '80s, in spite of all its technological prowess.

That's not entirely an insult, because the often-cheesy dialogue fits the very familiar story just fine, but, as Nell Minow also pointed out, with all the brains behind this, couldn't they come up with a better name for the coveted mineral the humans are hunting for than "unobtainium"? Sheesh.

But of course, we don't go to a James Cameron movie for the story, and he doesn't waste much time at all on the setup. I was, in fact, more than a little confused at first about how or why exactly our hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is taking over the Na'vi avatar inhabited by his late brother. The Na'vi, as I'm sure you know by now even if you haven't seen this, look like extremely fit blue horsecats, which would make Napoleon Dynamite smile but can be seriously distracting from the world that Cameron has created here.

And what a world it is. Once the action moves to Pandora, a planet prized by we humans for the aforementioned mineral and because - as is apparently the assumption for any movie set 100 years in the future or so - we've laid waste to our own living space. Jake infiltrates the Na'vi in his avatar for the mining company but his allegiances start to shift to the natives, thanks in large part to his love for one Na'vi in particular, Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana. And, given Cameron's infatuation with the scantily clad Na'vi form, who can blame him, even if they are blue horsecats?

It's when Jake and Neytiri start to explore Cameron's brave new world that the movie finally takes off, and it really is amazing to behold. The realm of Pandora is essentially a rain forest at its roots, but Cameron has filled it with all kinds of wonders, from flying mountains to glowing trees, and we (or at least I) feel the thrill of discovery along with the two of them.

In fact, I know this is a reach, but in this middle stretch it often feels almost like a Terrence Malick movie - granted, a Terrence Malick movie on some seriously psychedelic drugs and with the volume turned up to 11. I'm still a 3-D skeptic, but for the first time since Henry Selick's "Coraline" I didn't mind wearing a second set of glasses just to watch this, and after a while I was so sucked in that I often forgot I was wearing them.

But, of course, we dastardly humans are there to ruin it all, and Cameron has found the perfect weapon of mass destruction in Stephen Lang. He hams it up throughout as Col. Quaritch, the muscle behind the hunt for "unobtainium" (just typing that makes me still giggle), and certainly brings to mind another Cameron hero who somehow managed to become the governor of California (it certainly helps that, in the inevitable battle royale, he inhabits a giant robot suit a la a Terminator.)

With a nifty transition involving Jake's mentor with the company, played with resolve and empathy by Sigourney Weaver, Cameron indeed shifts to unleash as much energy as he put into creating this beautiful place in an attempt to destroy it, which takes up most of the last 45 minutes or so. And the battle itself is electrifying. It's actually a good thing you have the 3-D glasses on at this point, which kind of keeps your head captive, because if it were to escape for just a second and think too much you might not be able to give in to just how ridiculously fun it is to watch blue horsecats on what appear to be neon pterodactyls and armed only with bows and arrows take on a force with considerably more firepower.

We know who's going to win this battle, but Cameron has imbued the movie with enough of his mythology in a surprisingly brisk two hours and 40 minutes or so that we actually care about the outcome. I'm still not sold on Sam Worthington as an actor, even in purely buttery popcorn fare like this, but that's not enough to take away from what Cameron has accomplished here.

Has he revolutionized moviemaking? Nah, but for $500 million or so he did at least manage to craft an extremely fun movie and just the sweetest kind of eye candy.

And that's about all I have to say about that. If you've seen "Avatar" and want to disagree with me, please feel free, and have a perfectly pleasant Monday. Peace out.


jeremy said...

I liked it well enough. I saw it with an 11 year-old who declared it was the best movie ever.
Also, unobtainium is used in engineering and science quite frequently and has graced the pages of many a sci-fi novel.

The Mad Hatter said...

I dug it too. Movies like this (and A CHRISTMAS CAROL earlier this year) that roll with 3-D in mind the whole time are flicks that I'll dish the extra loot for. Other movies - mostly animated - that just tack it on as a gimmick are the ones I'm straying away from.

I liked Cameron's use of 3-D. It was mostly subtle, and geared to draw us deeper into the fantasy world he'd created.

Had he used it as a plaything to send shuttles and banshees flying out towards the audience, I'd be less amused.

Good review - very insightful!

Reel Fanatic said...

That just shows you how little I know about sci-fi, I guess, Jeremy, because I thought it was something he had come up with!

Nell Minow said...

I got schooled in a comment about the term "unobtanium," too, but my point still holds. It's a generic placeholder term for use in hypotheticals like widget (okay, that one now means something but that is a recent development) and John Doe or, if you're Alfred Hitchcock, a McGuffin. It was still a distraction that took me out of the movie.

Great write-up, as always.

Anonymous said...

What a great resource!

free tv said...

Avatar is one great film of that year. I liked it well enough and can watch it again of somebody offers me any time...This is best movie I ever seen..