What Price Spectacle? – Avatar 3-D

January 5, 2010

As the year draws to a close, the last great blockbuster of a particularly good decade of them is unleashed upon us all.  It’s a convenient, albeit entirely constructed, narrative that the greatest single advance in cinematic technology heralds the end of one digit and welcomes the change to another.  Like The Matrix back in 1999, there is little doubt that James Cameron’s Avatar heralds the future of overblown, over budgeted, and overwrought spectacles of the 2010s.

If you’ve read any reviews for Avatar, you’ve probably noticed that everybody agrees on what the film is like and yet have drastically different opinions on it.  It looks amazing and is an impressive technical achievement, but the story is severely lacking.  That’s basically how it is, truth be told.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a disabled Marine who travels out to the moon of Pandora with a mining operation and their private security force (i.e. Blackwater-style military).  His recently deceased brother was part of an operation which involved controlling an avatar of the na’vi, the tall, blue indigenous population that is not so keen to have their world strip-mined for the precious commodity MacGuffin (here called ‘unobtainium’, and if the movie showcased even the slightest sense of humour, I might consider that a joke).   He is working under scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who is forever at odds with the middle-management figure Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi in the Paul Reiser role) and the military wing run by Colonel Miles Quatrich (Stephen Lang).  Jake works to infiltrate the na’vi community with the help of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), helped in no small part by his being the protagonist and therefore ‘The Chosen One’ or some variation thereof.  If you can’t guess what happens next, you’ve never seen a film and are quite probably illiterate, in which case you wouldn’t be able to read this anyway.  So that’s basically it for two hours and forty minutes.  It’s a simple three-act structure of clunky exposition to prolonged learning of the people/exploring the world and finally the Crash! Bang! Wallop! What a War!

Perhaps we should get the obvious and bad out of the way first.  The story is, indeed, paper-thin.  Recycled paper, to be sure, for anti-imperialism and eco-friendly communing with nature are at the heart of the story, but wispy and frail all the same.  The dialogue is flat and lifeless, one character has an arc but I would hardly call it ‘development’, and everyone stays pretty much the same throughout (there is a mention to one of the scientist’s being jealous, but it’s never really shown and I presume most of that hit the cutting room floor).  The score by James Horner is terrible in all its bombastic and faux-new-age ‘tribal’ glory.  It does tend to sag in the centre and towards the end, and the climax leaves a lot to be desired (especially when it really cops out, and it does so a few times).  A lot of this is down to James Cameron not trusting the audience to work things out for themselves as well as his own self-indulgence, which has been going since around The Abyss in one way or another.  Tacky sentimentality is not the same as real feeling, and extended periods of time spent with a character does not an emotional bond create.  I yearn for the days of Terminator and Aliens, with their amazingly propulsive pacing that still managed to say everything it needed to in short bursts and asides, peppering the movies with little moments that said big things about the people we were watching.  In Aliens, when Vasquez turns to Gorman and says ‘you always were an asshole’ while they both clutched the grenade, it meant something, however small their roles were.  In those ten or so seconds you had redemption, recognition of kindred spirits, affectionate humour, and the acceptance of inevitable death and sacrifice.  Nothing so here, where a character’s death is often met with a shrug and the desire for everyone to just get on with it.  The themes are fine but still hokey and simplistic, though I guess we can’t expect anything truly audacious with the price tag.

So okay, we’ve accepted all of that.  The look of the film is, quite simply, astonishing.  The technical merits are beyond compare, and there is technology developed and advanced enough on display that I can honestly say that we could be looking at a whole new age of big-budget epics.  A lot of it has to do with fixing the problems of the old effects, such as the uncanny valley (the na’vi eyes are exceptional and expressive) and the camerawork possible within a fully CG environment, which also adds a whole new level of photorealism.  After a while, you’re in danger of taking the achievement for granted as it is so real and bizarrely plausible you forgot that pretty much everything you’re watching is made in a computer.  You never truly forget, however, as Cameron has a series of creatures and flora to keep us interested in the world, especially in the luminous night sequences which borrow heavily from the fluorescent deep sea creatures he’s been obsessed with for most of the decade.  One area I do have a problem with is the 3D, which is fine once you get accustomed to it and you’re wandering around Pandora, but I still have problems with it, especially when it comes to live action.  There’s a distracting strobing effect when real people are onscreen, and when it’s just the CGI, it’s nicely unobtrusive but hardly immerses us deeper in the experience.  Perhaps I’m a luddite, but what’s wrong with the painterly 2D canvas of your average film?  Maybe I’m just unable to read shot composition and the like when something is in 3D, but it hardly seems worth the effort and, yes, distraction to lure people in with a gimmick, even if this is the least gimmicky use of it I’ve experienced.  At any rate, I do think the technical achievement is worth the price of admission, and I urge people with any interest at all not to wait until the rental.  This is definitely something that must be seen on the biggest screen possible.

Okay it’s pretty dumb, the characters are nothing, the emotional arcs are so simplistic they almost become affecting (the image of the na’vi holding the human was the closest the film comes to touching), and the main message is fine but ham-fistedly presented as well as being pretty trite.  In a lot of ways, this film is a lot like Baraka, even beyond the visual debt (including an explicit recreation of tribal ritual).  What we have is a stunning visual experience, brought forth by technological advances developed specifically for the film, with an attempt at (what I find to be) rather trite themes about the beauty of nature and the primitive (these films border on the middle-class guilt white-man-wants-to-be-ethnic, though I wouldn’t go as far as Armond White and fully commit to that) versus the ugly evils of the modern, corrupted developed world.  Beautiful as ever, and worthy as far as it goes, but should we let a richer meaning or a better execution go because they got the look of it so damn right?  No matter how much you’re willing to forgive, I’m glad the technology is here, and I really am excited for somebody to do something worthwhile with it.  Demo reels are all fine and good, but they’re a cheap appetizer rather than a nourishing meal.

-M

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