Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Exfanding Review: Avatar

I felt like the only person on the planet who didn't want to see James Cameron's Avatar.

First came the hype: James Cameron is coming out of cryostasis to make a movie. JAMES. CAMERON. And he's bringing back Sigourney Weaver. SIGOURNEY. WEAVER.

Avatar James CameronNext came the previews: The movie has BLUE ALIENS. And PRETTY JUNGLES. Never before have we seen ANYTHING like BLUE ALIENS and PRETTY JUNGLES.

Avatar Blue AliensThen came the reviews: Avatar is AMAZING. Avatar is SO PRETTY. Avatar is THE MOST INCREDIBLE MOVIE I HAVE EVER SEEN.

Avatar Pretty JungleThen came the box office numbers: Nathaniel DOESN'T CARE about EXACT FIGURES, but Avatar basically jumped to the top of the charts, surpassing even Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.

I mean, why shouldn't I want to see Avatar?

Although I am an unabashed science fiction fan, I usually don't care much for fantasy, which should be baffling to anybody who knows how much I enjoy playing Dungeons & Dragons. That's a discussion for a different time, but it's worth mentioning here because Avatar appeared to be a strictly fantasy movie with a little bit of technology thrown in. While it looked pretty enough, I can think of several other things that are pretty that wouldn't cost me $10-$20 and consume almost three hours of my time.

Besides, the movie trailers didn't do much to appeal to my kind of pretty. Sure, it looked like there were action sequences, but I like my action sequences to have big explosions and laser beams and lightsabers and creatively choreographed martial arts and whatnot. The movie preview showed a big mech right out of StarCraft beating up on a forest animal. Whatever.

Avatar Goliath-type mechMore importantly, I am an unabashed science fiction fan--blue aliens are nothing new to me. Plus, anybody who's read my reviews of Space Quest II or Space Quest: The Lost Chapter might suspect that I'm not wild about jungles being the most frequent backdrop of an adventure. Furthermore, I'm not big on military movies, so the fact that the military is heavily involved in the story wasn't much of a selling point, either.

Jeez, the only way you could get me out of my house to see Avatar was if my girlfriend bought us both tickets for a 3-D presentation in IMAX.

I will say this: Avatar is very pretty. A great deal of care and creativity went into every little detail, from the swishy movements of the aliens' blue tails to the patches of ground that lit up when the characters stepped on them. Avatar is, if nothing else, a visual spectacle, though it's hardly unique.

Avatar's visuals are some kind of amalgamation of countless fantasy and sci-fi works: there are glowing plants that remind me of those huge Phazon-irradiated mushrooms in Metroid Prime; there are wolflike jungle creatures that look remarkably like displacer beasts from the Dungeons & Dragons monster manual; and those big mountainous islands floating in the sky are right out of Chrono Trigger, not to mention any number of nonspecific fantasy landscape paintings. Honestly, there wasn't much of anything in the movie that I hadn't already seen elsewhere (aside from the fact that the aliens can interface with pretty much anything--animals, trees, each other--through what are essentially organic USB cables attached to the back of their heads; that was pretty neat).

Avatar floating rocksHowever, I don't need every movie I see to blow me away with novelty and surprises. The fact of the matter is that Avatar pulls all of these different elements and ideas together in such a way that nothing feels like a cheap ripoff of something else. The film isn't a series of neat action sequences that flagrantly steals from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings; rather, the movie tells the story of the characters who inhabit a thoughtfully crafted universe that just so happens to have a spaceship that looks like it was borrowed from the movie Sunshine.

Yeah, nobody told me there'd be a big spaceship at the beginning of the movie. It's not on screen for long, but space? In IMAX 3-D? Cool! Cool cool!

So Avatar is, indeed, a pretty movie, and the action sequences are just as visually engaging. I will also tell you that there is at least one very large action sequence that involves one or more of the following: big explosions, laser beams, lightsabers, creatively choreographed martial arts, and whatnot. (There's a whole lot of whatnot.)

Avatar helicoptersBetween the ambient eye candy and the varied action sequences--really, each action sequence is quite different from the next, though most involve fantasy jungle animals--Avatar is a visual treat, and it's even more impressive than it would otherwise be, thanks to the huge IMAX screen and subtle-yet-breathtaking 3-D.

But is "pretty" enough to make Avatar a good movie?

I'm not talking about whether Avatar is entertaining; I'm talking about whether Avatar is a good movie, an all-around solid cinema experience that doesn't disappoint. The cast; the script; the music--all that other stuff that people pay attention to when they aren't overwhelmed by the fact that those ALIENS are BLUE.

As it turns out, I don't have much to say about most of the non-visual-effects aspects of the movie. The actors all fit their roles extremely well, and the acting was neither overwhelmingly terrible nor knock-your-socks-off exquisite. The sweeping orchestral music went well with the action in the film, though once or twice it reached the verge of melodrama. The dialogue accomplished what it needed to with a laugh or two along the way, and that's that.

Avatar cast planningI was mighty impressed with the pacing of the fairly lengthy film; the employees at the theater made a big deal about its running time of 2 hours and 40-something minutes, but it didn't feel long, at least to me.

Me, the guy who starts to squirm anymore if a movie is longer than one hour and 40-something minutes.

Whereas the good pacing of Seven Samurai was related to the constant cycle of anticipation and subsequent reward/release, Avatar's good pacing had more to do with how most anything nonessential was cut out. Often it was up to the viewers to use their imaginations and/or apply basic logic to figure out what happened, because it wasn't shown on film. You don't need to see the characters waking up every morning or talking over breakfast unless it's immediately relevant to the plot. Avatar only showed the things that kept the story moving and the things that were pretty enough to stand on their own without plot, and I'm very pleased that even the "throwaway" details usually come full-circle and become important again by the end of the movie.

I love it when a work connects back to itself, especially when it's connecting back to details that the audience largely took for granted at first glance. Good storytelling, says I.

Still, Avatar is not without its flaws. Yes, the story is a little predictable. I mean, if you've seen FernGully, you know how this is going to pan out. Misunderstood natives + greedy businesspeople + trigger-happy military + a few people who sympathize with the natives = I really don't need to spell this out for you. In fact, I believe you'll enjoy the movie more if you know nothing about it other than that it's pretty.

Avatar Big TreeIt's not the predictability that bugs me about Avatar; in fact, there were a few little twists along the way to keep the plot a little fresher, so it wasn't 100% predictable. No, what bothered me was the inevitability of the major turning points in the plot. Conflicts caused by characters who were, ultimately, too one-dimensional for things to happen any other way.

There were no Jurassic Park moments of, "Well, if you would have just stayed in the stupid vehicle, there wouldn't be a t-rex trying to eat us right now." There were no Romeo and Juliet moments of, "Well, that duel could have turned out better." The major conflicts aren't products of bad decisions and unexpected circumstances; rather, they all seem to have been predestined from the start--if you leave a starving college student in a room with a microwave and a bowl of Easy Mac, what do you expect will happen?

That being said, the scene in the movie where the Big Conflict officially began made me angry. This will require a few paragraphs of semi-vague *SPOILERS* to explain myself, so bear with me a moment. For something like two hours, the hero tries to develop a trusting relationship with the natives so he can use diplomacy with the natives so the businessmen can get what they want without sending in the military to slaughter everyone. Things go incredibly well. Then the military goes in to slaughter everyone, because nothing in the first two hours of the movie had anything to do with altering the direction of the plot.

The first two hours are there to make you ooh and ahh at the visuals and form emotional connections with the characters, and then the Big Conflict starts and completely disregards any progress up to that point, instead choosing to emotionally hurt you, the viewer, because you foolishly formed some kind of attachment to the characters and their world.


Avatar Michelle RodriguezNot that I was head-over-heels in love with the characters or anything, but I was starting to get a little invested in the characters and in the dynamic and interesting way of life that the blue aliens had. If Bad Stuff started happening because of a character's mistakes or events that didn't pan out so well, I might have been okay with it, but the whole situation happened because JAMES. CAMERON. wanted to grab you by the heartstrings and swing you around the room.

Or something like that.

Organic plot development, how I long for thee.

When the Big Conflict started, I needed to sever any and all emotional attachments to the film because the conflict was making me angry at both the characters and the storytelling, which is the worst kind of angry to have in a movie. The fact that I had to sever my emotional attachments in order to not get angry at the movie made me angrier still. Seriously, I mighta chucked my bucket of popcorn at the screen if nobody had been sitting in front of me.

Avatar just good businessOf course, you could argue that the conflict needed to be so anger-inducing to justify all the action at the end of the movie, and you could argue that all the cool and good stuff that happens afterwards makes up for it in the end. You could argue that.

Still, I've watched plenty of movies where a terrible conflict was set up perfectly, without me ever tightening my grip on the soon-to-be-hurled popcorn tub. Ever since watching Serenity and reading The Time Traveler's Wife, I've become a lot more sensitive about the horrible things writers do to their characters, and I no longer have any patience for bad things happening for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional response.

Despite that anger-inducing section of the movie, I found, much to my surprise, that I enjoyed Avatar. Is it a pretty movie? Most definitely. Is it a good movie? Not exactly. It isn't bad, but I don't think Avatar has what it takes to withstand the test of time.

Avatar jungle animalOnce it leaves the theaters, the visual appeal--the film's strongest selling point--is going to decrease somewhat. On an average-sized television without 3-D glasses, it'll still be neat, but not the visual spectacle it was meant to be. In another decade or two, I expect most sci-fi or fantasy movies with any kind of a budget will look as pretty as Avatar, or will at least come close enough. And while BLUE ALIENS and PRETTY JUNGLES might be wildly unique to Joe Moviegoer right now, it's only a matter of time until a more innovative sci-fi/fantasy movie appears surprises both the general public and the crusty old naysayers like myself.

Besides, Avatar only reinforces that such "geeky" genres as sci-fi and fantasy have a place in the mainstream; it's only a matter of time before Joe Moviegoer starts branching out and experiencing Metroid Prime and Dungeons & Dragons and Chrono Trigger and sees that Avatar may have done things well, but it wasn't the only one.

Avatar may be popular now, but I don't believe it has the staying power to stand up against the kinds of movies I anticipate we'll see in the next decade or two. To its credit, however, it is the first film that I have seen that so evenly balances fantasy and science fiction, and the way the two are integrated is refreshing. That's gotta count for something. And because of Avatar, I can finally ease up on my slightly exaggerated displeasure with Zoe Saldana's portrayal of Uhura in the 2009 Star Trek film, because she actually did very well as a BLUE ALIEN.

Avatar Whoa Blue AlienOverall, Avatar was pretty, entertaining, pretty entertaining, and totally worth the price I paid for admission.


Scott said...

I have no desire to see Avatar, myself. It's more interesting reading about the world James Cameron made for the movie and how everything works together in one cohesive ecosystem. A popular theory is that the Na'vi aren't actually native to the world given their not-inconsiderable physiological differences to, well, almost everything there.

That's what the sequel might be about, apparently.

On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes was a magnificent piece of work with wonderful music. It's also the first movie I've seen where I can say "I liked the ending credits." If there's some kind of award for Best Ending, Sherlock Holmes deserves it. And Best Soundtrack, of course.

zharth said...

I haven't seen it, and have no strong desire to, either. And Aliens is one of my favorite movies of all time. The whole "pretty graphics" thing actually kind of turns me off. The islands floating in the sky look nice, but I'll be honest, the BLUE ALIENS do absolutely nothing for me.

Flashman85 said...

Aliens was spectacular. I agree about the "pretty graphics" thing; yes, it all does look very nice, but it wasn't a reason for me to go.

Scott: I still want to see Sherlock Holmes. Thank you for reminding me.

I'm confused about this "popular theory"--for one thing, the Na'vi very naturally "plug in" to the animals on Pandora, which seems like a physiological similarity.

Sure, they're tall and blue, but then again we've got giant squid and aye-ayes living on the same planet, and I haven't heard any theories that either of them are from another planet. Maybe I'm just misinterpreting things.