Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"Avatar" Review

Months before I had seen so much as a vague concept sketch for "Avatar," I remember hearing that it would "fuck my eyeballs." This statement was never employed in any official capacity by James Cameron or his marketing team, but rather coalesced online from Hollywood hearsay and snowballing hype. After all, this was the film Cameron, geek champion of the early Terminator franchise and 'titanic' personage behind the highest grossing film of all time, had been taming for decades, patiently awaiting the maturation of computer generated imagery and developing dual-lens 3D technology to realize his initial dream in all its stunning audacity.

Well, the consumer-end product is much more subtle than the suggested act of ocular penetration would indicate. Cameron has indeed achieved a landmark in 3D storytelling, using the effect sparingly to enhance audience immersion rather than to superficially draw attention to the gimmick. Set against the risky backdrop of an epic sci-fi/action film, "Avatar" mercifully resists the urge to send bullets or arrows whizzing through the screen, or to dredge the forests of Pandora past the fourth wall. Convincing three-dimensional depth of field is his greatest triumph, and Cameron crafts a world both vibrant and vivacious. However, outside the technical mastery and aesthetic perk, the world beyond my curiously uncomfortable plastic glasses quickly unraveled.

To begin, "Avatar" is beautiful to a fault. Cameron's Pandora, home to the peaceful, humanoid Na'vi and gobs of subterranean 'unobtainium,' which draw mankind and its drills, is described by militant antagonist Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) as a perilous nightmare of a planet. "If there is a hell," he spits at a platoon of new recruits, "You might want to go there for some R&R after a tour on Pandora." Sounds terrifying, Colonel, but the visuals never really live up to it. Sure, our hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) comes to odds with some of the less friendly wildlife, but the forests themselves are always teeming with phosphorescent flowers and rich foliage illuminated by striking filtered sunlight. The bottom line is that Pandora is too utopian to ever feel like a real place, especially in contrast to the gritty live-action segments. There's a degree of intentional juxtaposition there, but the gap is ultimately too wide for a single creative world to bridge.

Besides being one-dimensionally wonderful, the design of Pandora's creatures and locales is seriously uninspired. As a love story, Cameron risks very little in making the Na'vi essentially nine-foot tall humans with tails, and the supporting creatures are textbook fantasy. You have your dragons, your (six-legged) horses, and your garden-variety re-imaginings of other familiar animals with supplemental eyes and appendages. Given that Cameron treats "Avatar" as an exercise in world building, its here that his film most disappoints. Beyond the intriguing concept of inter-species connectivity, which allows the Na'vi to link physically and spiritually with the flora and fauna of Pandora, Cameron's creatures are gorgeously rendered but safe and boring.

These predominantly aesthetic complaints may seem trivial in the greater context of the film, and to a certain extent they are, but "Avatar" is an effects vehicle, and those elements should be supporting the merely serviceable story rather than detracting from it. "Avatar," for all its unoriginality, still succeeds as a high-octane blockbuster, far surpassing forgettable summer fare like "Transformers 2," or the sorry state of the Terminator franchise Cameron founded. His film is confidently constructed, immersive, and often enjoyable, if overlong and unoriginal. It manages to weave its tale using a compelling new technology without feeling like a glorified tech demo, which is an accomplishment in itself.

"Avatar" may not be the monumental leap forward in storytelling some anticipated, but it proves 3D can be used for more than making an audience flinch. There's plenty to enjoy when you don't buy into the hyperbole, so mediate your expectations and let Cameron's latest looker do what it does best: fondle your eyeballs.


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