Mr. Beaks Goes To War With James Cameron's AVATAR!
Published at: Dec. 16, 2009, 8:32 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
It's been an excruciatingly long wait, but, in holding off ten-plus years to allow the technology to catch up to his fertile imagination, James Cameron has delivered in AVATAR an exemplary piece of world-building that will likely be cinema's CG and 3-D gold standard for years to come. It is frequently awe-inspiring, a triumph on several levels - unfortunately, none of these levels are marked "storytelling", "dialogue", "character development" or "subtle integration of theme".
Cameron has struggled in some of these areas before, but he's typically compensated for his shortcomings by blowing the audience away with his keen sense of pacing and a string of expertly shot-and-edited action sequences (this is why many people didn't complain about the ear-splittingly awful Terminator-John Connor banter in T2 until their third or fourth viewing - and, for the most part, still didn't give a shit). While he can still bring the militaristic, planet-decimating fury with more muscle and swagger than any director working today, he's misguidedly opted for the slow-burn approach with AVATAR's narrative, therefore relying on a broadly-drawn collection of cliche magnets to hook the audience into his on-the-nose tale of interplanetary conquest. The film comes to life periodically, thanks to Zoe Saldana's sinuous and soulful portrayal of Neytiri (and a number of vertiginous flights through the verdant expanses of Pandora), but the story is so painfully predictable - and, sad to say, corny - that one spends most of their time ticking off the seconds until the big final battle - which is impressive, but not nearly as rousing as it ought to be.
The film really labors in the early going as Cameron attempts to get us to identify with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a wheelchair-bound jarhead who's been recruited to take his deceased brother's place in the experimental Avatar Program. Jake is delighted by the idea of taking up residence in a genetically-bred Na'vi avatar with working legs, and, once he's jacked in, has no interest in waiting around for a mandatory physical adjustment period. Jake wants to take his ten-foot alter-entity out for a spin. The unbridled joy with which he sprints away from his laboratory handlers is an exhilarating declaration of personal freedom (and classic Cameron); though Jake has largely come across as a complete bore up until this point (both the writing and Worthington's charm deficiency are to blame for this), in this moment, he seems ready to assert himself and take over the movie.
Doesn't happen. What does happen - and what has been widely glimpsed via Comic Con, "AVATAR Day" and officially released clips - is a fact-finding excursion through the Pandoran jungle that leads to a hackneyed confrontation with a couple of huge, rampaging beasts - "hackneyed" because it turns into that scene everyone loved from THE BEAR twenty fucking years ago, then leads to a long chase punctuated by a life-threatening leap off a cliff, and, a few seconds later, a stay of execution for Jake because one of those floaty jellyfish things lands on the tip of Neytiri's poised arrow. Oh, native cultures! You'd still be around today if not for your ignorant obeisance to ancient customs and omens. (Actually, everything really does shift and alight for a reason on Pandora; the entire planet - from the Na'vi to the beasties to the grand, old trees - is neurally connected.)
Faster than you can say "Tatanka", Jake is hard at work earning the trust of the Na'vi in order to advance the agenda of (evil mining company) SecFor's Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) - who, in one of the film's more nuanced moments, is introduced putting a golf ball into a coffee mug in the middle of a bustling situation room (how fiendishly cavalier!). Now, why would a seemingly decent guy like Jake want to play a pivotal role in the displacement of an alien civilization? Well, the kill-happy Quaritch has promised to requisition him a pair of working legs provided the operation is a success. Since Jake has no chance of paying for this procedure himself (a genuinely poignant nod to the enduringly shitty treatment of veterans in this country), he's willing to play both sides if it'll get him walking on his own again.
For a punishingly long stretch of the film, Cameron cuts back and forth between Jake's gradual induction into Neytiri's tribe and the slow-mounting intrigue at the base; meanwhile, anyone who's watched a fair share of movies is screaming to themselves, "Just get on with the big betrayal already!" Yes, sooner or later, Quaritch is going to welch on his deal, Jake is going to be ostracized, and Weaver's scrappy research team is going to be forced into performing some kind of covert operation in order to save the Na'vi from certain extinction. To Cameron's credit, he does manage to build some momentum as the expected occurs - but, for the first time in his career, it feels like he's going through the motions rather than telling a story in which he's emotionally invested. At least TITANIC had the wrap-around gimmick (and adherence to the historical record as an excuse for predictability); AVATAR is straightforward, spoon-fed and only surprising when someone slips and falls off a tree branch (or the back of a winged creature) hundreds of feet in the air. There may not be much suspense in AVATAR, but there sure is a shitload of vertigo!
AVATAR was doomed to fall short of expectations the minute it was sold as a "game changer" for the medium. After all, what, short of ushering in a newfangled era of Feel-A-Round, could a 3-D movie offer audiences that they've never seen before? Though there are select sequences in AVATAR which suggest a more immersive experience is on the horizon (particularly the opening, painstakingly-layered shot of technicians hauling intergalactic travelers out of hyper-sleep in zero gravity), wouldn't all of these advances be more useful in video games, where such immersion would heighten the liberating sense of first-person control? And, if so, isn't this a bit disquieting for cinephiles? Of course, there will always be a need for great storytellers to take an audience somewhere they can't possibly get to on their own, but when the path is this well-trod, wouldn't it be nice to have the option to stray? If tentpole films continue to embrace formula this rigorously, perhaps "game ender" is more apt.
As AVATAR launches into its grand finale - which, again, does work on a visceral, vengeful level - the gulf between visual invention and narrative originality keeps widening. There is honestly not a surprising beat in the entire battle; everything unfolds as it would in a bargain, made-for-SyFy movie. Thankfully, Cameron summons all of his crowd-pleasing powers and, at times, overpowers the decibel-shattering sameness by sheer dint of his considerable talent. And that's the one heartening takeaway from AVATAR: Cameron can still pin an audience to their seat and give them a spectacular night out at the movies; even on his worst day (and I do feel AVATAR is his weakest effort to date by a significant margin), he can plop them down in a fantastic world populated with fantastic creatures, and make them never want to leave. That said, he only engenders audience sympathy when Saldana is on the screen; when she's not around, and we're stranded with Worthington and his charisma-free crew (as long as Cameron's in recycle mode, he could've at least given us a Hudson-esque wild-card), the film becomes empty spectacle. But there's another positive: if nothing else, it looks like Cameron's found his next ass-kicking female muse!
Where Cameron goes from here will obviously be dictated by the success of AVATAR. And while I'm pulling for him to break all box office records despite my overall disappointment with the film (the medium needs guys like Cameron, Spielberg and Jackson operating at full strength, if only because there's a legion of studio-mollifying hacks like Shawn Levy ready to spring up in their space), a minor humbling probably wouldn't hurt. Cameron's best films deal with blue-collar Americans battling aliens, machines or, in the case of his masterpiece, THE ABYSS, nature (without and within). True, AVATAR offers an interesting twist in that it's about bidding farewell to our wasteful, warlike race (and the nihilist in me kinda loves this), but it would be far more interesting (and tragic/bittersweet/controversial) if the film had an actual human in it.
Sadly, his characters are just ciphers - either pure of heart or evil to the core of their being. And if the future of our country/planet really is in the hands of the Quaritch-es (as Cameron seems to be indicating, given the sorry state of Earth in AVATAR), I'm all too good with the systematic elimination of humankind. Maybe that's the point of this film. And maybe we've found a filmmaker who's even more disdainful of Americans than Jean-Luc Godard. And maybe I'm talking myself into loving this movie.