Monday, February 14, 2011

Michael5000 vs. James Cameron: "Avatar"

At the Movies with Michael5000

James Cameron, 2009

When I announced my retirement (prematurely, as it turned out) from movie reviews a few months ago, I forgot that Avatar was lurking deep in my library queue. It hadn’t quite made the cut in reader voting, with several recommendations to watch it cancelled out by several recommendations not to watch it. However, I was more or less compelled to write this review on the instructions of my attorney.


No point in being coy about it: I enjoyed Avatar about a thousand times more than I thought I would. But then, I expected to regard it with cold loathing, so “fairly enjoyable despite countless flaws” is actually a real triumph by comparison.

The Plot: So there’s this planet where humans from Earth are extracting a valuable mineral (the name of which is, as we learn in the first of quite a few cringe-worthy moments in Avatar, “Unobtainium”). There is an indigenous population that is inconvenient to mining operations, so bioscientists are using remote-control genetic hybrid drones in an attempt to conduct diplomacy. The mining corporation boss is weak and Evil, and the Marine Colonel providing security for the operation is strong and Evil, but the bioscientists are Good and more or less wish to help the natives preserve their way of life.

Out of this set-up springs a revenge fantasy on behalf of every human community that has ever been walloped by technologically superior invaders from the next continent over. Indeed, Cameron’s “Na’vi” humanoids embody an obvious pastiche of Euro-American imaginings about African and Native American customs, lifestyles, and spiritual practices. It’s not especially offensive, I don’t think – although that’s not my call – but it is often kind of embarrassing to watch.

The first half hour of the film is the strongest, setting up the situation, the central characters, and a pensive mood in what is essentially a single long montage. We catch fragments of conversation, look in on brief scenes from an interstellar journey, and see a few short episodes that, along with some well-placed voiceovers, tell us what we need to know about the principal characters.

It is, in fact, a pretty swell movie right up to the point that our hero (in the form of his drone “avatar”) ventures out into the planet’s wilderness. From here, the promising set-up falls away and we will remain in the predictable conventions of the adventure movie for the duration. An extended chase scene with wild animals culminates in the meeting with the Immediately Obvious Love Interest, and it is a short step from here to feeling conflicted between one’s loyalty to human peers and affection for one’s new community among the indigenes.

You could in theory really make some narrative hay from Avatar’s reasonably fresh sci-fi premise. You could, say, create a situation where the protagonist must use his drone body to destroy his actual body in order to save the day. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen, and events remain firmly on the rails that will take us to the Love Scene, the Big Setback, and the Culminating Battle. I won’t spoil things by telling you which order they come in. But, I will give away the ending.

The Endings: There are in fact really only three logical places where you could roll credits on this puppy.

1) Ending number one occurs at about one hour and forty minutes in, which is incidentally a great length for a movie. It is the most realistic ending point of the three. The protagonist has seen the indigenous community that he has come to love crushed by the massively disproportionate power of the Earth people, and realizes now that he is but a powerless tool in the service of forces far greater than himself. “I was a warrior who dreamed he could bring peace,” he says. “Sooner or later though, you always have to wake up.” Fade to black. Not a bad final line, but a bit depressing for the mass market.

2) Ending number two is the one actually used in the movie, and although preposterous it has the advantage of being more or less upbeat and inspiring as long as you don’t pay attention to the thousands of horrible deaths it entails. It features the protagonist leading the united indigenous peoples (including “the horse people of the plains” – cringe!) into a resistance against the Earthlings. This is insanely reckless megalomaniacal behavior, as he has no battle plan whatsoever, but we can tell from the music that he is being very heroic. Happily, the Earthlings are also dumber than dirt, deploying their flying machines in a tight cluster as if they learnt their tactics by studying the Battle of Waterloo. Whatever.

The ensuing battle is very spectacular and very ludicrous, with the natives aided greatly by a sudden leap of scale of their flying beasts relative to the human equipment and by a remarkable tendency for their arrows, which of course normally just bounce off of the human warships, to start penetrating windshields when it matters most. Yay! The humans from Earth are put to slaughter! Wait, what?

Well, never mind. Somehow – it takes place offstage, as indeed it would almost have to – the natives subdue and capture the Earthling encampment. The surviving humans are transported back up to their ships in orbit and are given a stern warning to leave town. It’s all very uplifting, despite an immediate transition to a jarringly inappropriate and weak-ass song played over the closing credits.

3) Ending number three is simply the logical extension of ending number two. In it, the human ships lay down some serious hurt on the disputed area from orbit, send the shuttles back to the surface, and have mining operations up and running again by the end of the week. Kind of a downer, unless you happen to have a personal stake in the Unobtainium industry.

The Visuals: Apparently pretty spectacular on the big screen or in 3-D, but nothing to write home about on the small screen. Space travel and futuristic technologies are rendered very nicely. The planetary landscape is pretty like a prom dress, and the movie knows it, so we spend many tedious minutes leaping and soaring through digital trees and canyons, the music swelling up helpfully to remind us that we are experiencing grandeur.

Dialog: By and large, the script is quite good for a movie of this kind. Characters are consistent and fairly well-realized, despite an absence of sustained conversations.

Prognosis: If you enjoyed Cameron’s Aliens, Titanic, and the Terminator movies – as indeed I certainly did – you are likely to enjoy this one as well. On the other hand, if you watched those movies, you don’t especially NEED to watch this one. But, if you have some hours to kill, and want to see a visually compelling movie.... why, then, watch Everlasting Moments, a sad but enchanting Swedish film about a woman who escapes the pain and poverty of her life through her love of photography. After that, if you’ve still got time to kill, you might well enjoy Avatar.


MulchMaid said...

Just saw it myself - you're spot on. Thanks for coming out of retirement to give words to my inchoate feelings.

Michael5000 said...

All in a day's work, ma'am.

Jenners said...

It was called Unobtainium? Really??? I totally missed that. That is pretty darn bad.