Friday, December 18, 2009
Film critics Beth Accomando and Scott Marks discuss Avatar on the KPBS Film Club of the Air.
James Cameron hasn’t made a feature film in 12 years and hasn’t made a good one since 1986. But nothing I can say will stop people from spending their money on “Avatar” (opening December 18 throughout San Diego) this weekend. You can also listen to our Film Club of the Air discussion about the film.
I love the old James Cameron. The guy who made the gritty genre film “The Terminator” and then delivered a kick ass Hollywood film with “Aliens.” But then he faltered with “The Abyss;” tanked with “True Lies;” and got bloated with “Titanic.” Now he’s been given state of the art 3D technology and some $250 million to basically remake – as my friend said – “FernGully.” But I appear to be in the minority with my complaints as the film keeps racking up awards and good press (good enough press to make the studio lift their review embargo and allow critics to post their reviews before the film opened). But I feel like the guy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – I don’t see anything.
20th Century Fox
“Avatar” is set in some unspecified future where we find Jake, (Sam Worthington) a paraplegic war veteran, about to enter into an experiment. He has been brought to the planet of Pandora (if you’ve read your Greek mythology then you might be tempted to think about the dangers that name implies). The planet is inhabited by the Na'vi, a tall blue humanoid race with their own language and culture. Jake’s job, according to Grace (Sigourney Weaver) the lead scientist, is to assimilate into the culture and learn as much as possible about the Na’vi, their ways, and their planet. The way he will do this is by inhabiting an avatar, a Na’vi alter ego of sorts and a body that’s no longer damaged as his real one is.
But the military – which of course is working in cahoots with a big corporation out to destroy the planet for its natural resources – has a different mission. It wants to know the best way to attack the planet and move the Na’vi off the richest deposit of a mineral called Unobtanium (pronounced kind of like "Un-obtain-ium," get it) that’s apparently a hot commodity. Of course Jake’s loyalties start with the military but soon shift when he meets a pretty Na’vi (Zoe Saldana). So in simple terms: Na’vi are good, scientists mean well, and the military and corporations are evil. And if you don’t know where this will all end then you haven’t been paying attention to movies in the last ten or twenty years.
20th Century Fox
“Avatar” clocks in at 162 minutes and it feels even longer because you know exactly where the story is going so there’s no tension or suspense. Yet Cameron insists on dragging predictable events out. It’s like going to your friend’s house down the street but having someone drive you out of state first. No matter how you may insist there’s a faster, more efficient route, you are still forced to go the long way round. We have been through every scene before – outraged scientist confronting military/big business; tough gung ho commander with no sympathy for the natives or such touchy-feely notions as nature and culture; stranger in a strange land trying to befriend the natives; greedy humans pillaging natural resources; etc. It may all look more fancy here but it’s sadly familiar. And for the epic battle at the end, well let me just say it’s as believable as the Ewoks beating the Empire at the end of “Return of the Jedi.”
There has been a lot made of the new state of the art technology Cameron uses. There are some amazing live action shots involving an incredible depth of field (most notably an opening shot on a ship). There’s also an amazing color palette on the planet of Pandora with some impressive creature renderings. But Cameron doesn’t really dazzle us with the technology. On a certain level that’s a good thing because he’s not merely using it as a gimmick. Yet he doesn’t really integrate it into the story or push it to its limits. In a sense, films like “Up” or even “Coraline” employed 3D to better thematic and stylistic effect. With the exception of that early depth of field shot and maybe one or two more -- Cameron never uses the 3D in a visually innovative way. Plus he can’t resist pointy sticks and arrows aimed at the audience.
Cameron lifts elements from other films including his own. The Stephen Lang character of Colonel Miles Quaritch feels like a rip off of the war vet in “Starship Troopers” with Lang trying hard (but failing sadly) to be like actor Michael Ironsides. But then Lang is saddled with such punchy dialogue as we’re "not in Kansas anymore." Wow! How did Cameron ever come up with that? Quaritch gives a speech to the young recruits much like Ironsides did in “Starship Troopers,” explaining how dangerous the planet is because the inhabitants want to kill you and, while it's his job to keep soldiers alive, he will not succeed in this task -- "not with all of you.” But the Na’vi got nothing on those killer bugs; in fact they don’t seem especially threatening at all once we meet them.
20th Century Fox
Cameron also rips off his own “Aliens” by using the same gimmick of a human manning a robot to battle an alien. But this time around the alien’s good and the bot is bad. Plus Weaver sits this battle out so baddie Stephen Lang can get in the bot and battle Jake’s goodie Na’Vi avatar. But maybe what Cameron should have been looking to rip off is a film like “Princess Mononoke” in which the dynamics of good and evil are much more complex and interesting. As with “Avatar,” “Princess Mononoke” presents a newcomer to a foreign culture and has him try to mediate between two sides. But while “Avatar” provides black and white distinctions, “Princess Mononoke” allows for shades of gray. “Avatar,” ultimately, is a film free from subtlety and complexity.
If Cameron had tightened up the film and livened it up with some innovation, it could have been a fun action/adventure tale and one perfectly primed to be turned into a video game. As it stands, I think even those who like the film would agree that you could shave a good half hour off the film and only improve it. But Cameron has been unable to bring a film in under two hours since “The Terminator.” I think he just falls in love with his own material and can’t bear parting with shots or scenes.
Actor Sam Worthington seems to be the current go-to guy for action. He began the year with “Terminator Salvation” (he was actually the best thing in it), now adds “Avatar,” and will also be seen next year in the remake of “Clash of the Titans.” He’s an action star who shows some soul as well as a six pack, and it’s a pleasing combo. Weaver plays the stock scientist who realizes too late that her technology has been shanghaied for evil, and she’s matched cliché for cliché by Lang’s colonel and Giovanni Ribisi’s corporate honcho.
20th Century Fox
Technically the film impresses intermittently. Some of the fast horizontal movement looks bad and the most impressive looking shots are ones that are fairly still. The creature designs are good but not particularly fantastical. And I’m not sure I buy that spears could really break through the ships used by the army to attack the Na’vi.
“Avatar” (rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.) probably suffered additionally from the fact that I saw it right after seeing Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.” Now you could give Gilliam a piece of cardboard, some watercolors and $100 and he’d come up with an innovative film. But Cameron with his $500 million budget (if you add in marketing and such) and state of the art technology and it looks like paint by numbers. I’ll take Cameron’s “Terminator” over “Avatar” any day.
Companion viewing: “FernGully,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Starship Troopers”