Monday, January 25, 2010

Avatar (2009)

I’ll be the first to say that I had my doubts about Avatar when I first heard of it. For one, it was an original sci-fi tale, something that does not occur often anymore (though this year happened to be a banner one). Secondly, it seemed to me to be all hype around the technology used to create it, but no substance; I feared that the film would exist only to showcase James Cameron’s latest filming achievements, without any story or decent performances to anchor it. And when it was announced in 3D, I worried that it would be just another hodgepodge of “wow, look at how it comes out at you!” moments which have a quasi-story built around it.
When it started cleaning up awards that were not just technicals, I was surprised, and intrigued. At first I thought it was just honors for James Cameron making another movie, and that it was popular, and the awards groups wanted to make up for missing The Dark Knight and Wall-E last year.

Avatar left me jaw-dropped. Yes, of course it was a beautiful movie, I was expecting that ahead of time. But what I didn’t expect was the intricate, studied level of detail that was applied to that beauty. The world of Pandora and everything that exists in it, from the recreational area for avatars at the human base to the Tree of Souls, glowing bright pink amongst the darker hues of its enclave deep within the majestic Hallelujah Mountains, are so fully realized that getting lost in the visuals is impossible to avoid. This is a truly incredible feat, to me at least, since most movies nowadays feature effects that are made to appear real, but still retain a synthetic aesthetic that makes it impossible to fully accept it as real; this is most prominent in the blockbuster genre to which Avatar belongs.
It is because of this that Avatar is above its fellow blockbusters. Not only does it feel as if it’s a real world, it also makes great work of the action and interactions of the characters. The story is nothing new, but the details surrounding it create a new experience (again, the level of detail is mind-blowing). And despite its clichés, the central story, about an ex-Marine who enters the Na’vi’s society through his avatar, falling for Neytiri, the chief’s daughter, is moving and engaging.
Sam Worthington, as Jake Sully, does a decent meathead-with-heart performance, and Zoe Saldana, as Neytiri, delivers a great performance even though she never appears on screen as herself (though there is a campaign for her to receive an Oscar nomination, I don’t think its nomination-worthy; how much of her performance is really her, and how much is the animators’?). The rest of the cast play stock roles, but they play them well.
Overall, though, this isn’t an actors’ movie, nor was it ever intended to be. The true feat here belongs to Cameron, who has elevated himself from an excellent director to an auteur. Though he is no master of dialogue (see: Titanic, True Lies, either of his Terminators), he is a visionary director: no one else creates worlds with mythologies so complete. Even if he isn’t creating his own universes, as in Aliens, he expands the existing mythologies, taking them to new heights. As he showed in Titanic, something as stoic as the traditional drama can become an eye-opening experience in his hands. If Avatar proves anything, it’s that James Cameron is, in my opinion, the greatest director of epics of our time, if not all time (my apologies to Cecil B. Demille).
If I have any complaints with Avatar, it’s that it handles its themes and stabs at relevance a little too heavy handed. The film takes on environmentalism, the military-industrial complex, capitalism, xenophobia, terrorism, imperialism, the Middle East oil situation, and religion, which is a lot even for the almost three hour running time. It almost seems as though Cameron was trying to make it as topical and relevant as possible, and ended up missing a few of the marks. And as I previously stated, the dialogue is really nothing to marvel at.
Does it deserve the awards it’s received so far? Personally, I like Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker more when it comes to general movies. And as much as I hate to admit it after supporting Kathryn Bigelow all season, I do think Cameron is deserving of recognition as well for his incredible direction in this film.
However, Avatar is the best epic I have seen in a very, very long time. And I’m going to make a bold statement: Avatar has achieved a status that ranks the highest amongst epics, thanks to its groundbreaking visuals, fully-realized universe, complex mythology, and astounding popularity. That’s right kids: Avatar is our generation’s Star Wars.
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Disagree? Agree? Comment.

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