Friday, January 8, 2010

“Avatar” – Ooooohhhh. Aaaaaahhhhh.

(Disclaimer: Regardless of what you are about to read, I really did enjoy this movie.)

My Christmas present to myself was what I call the Christmas Trifecta; three movies in 24 hours (in theaters). I’ll be following this one up with the movies two and three, so stay tuned. The first movie was “Avatar,” which I saw on Christmas Eve. For me, seeing “Avatar” was actually a difficult decision. Based on the previews, I was not very impressed, not to mention the early reviews were not very kind. One of them described it as all flair and no substance, which is usually a big red flag for me. On the surface, it looked more like a nerdy movie aimed more at teen boys who enjoy anime. Red flag number two was that they were aggressively pushing the 3-D aspect of the film, another thing that I believe to be more of a gimmick than something that adds positively to a film. What convinced me to see it was an article in Wired magazine interviewing James Cameron.

While you probably knew that Cameron wrote, produced, and directed “Avatar,” you probably didn’t know that he has been patiently (read: obsessively) waiting until the right time to make this film. In fact, he has been waiting since the original release of Star Wars (1977) and for advances in computer graphics and 3-D filmography to progress far enough before he would even entertain the notion of making this film. You also may not know that he has been directly involved in the development of the new cameras and marketing of 3-D-capable theater equipment, just to make sure that the technologies were maturing. Like I said, obsessed.

On one hand, I’d like to thank Cameron for his devotion to technology. I’m all for technological advancement and it’s really amazing what his new cameras are capable of doing. You’ll have to read the article (Wired, issue 17.12) for all of the details and I have no intention of rewriting what they already wrote. What I will tell you is that the camera is programmable and allows him to film with a green-screen set , but see the actors and background while filming as they would be after being digitally rendered. How cool is that? On the other hand, he completely forgot that movies are still stories and require decent plots.

I’ve been procrastinating this review because I really had no idea how I was going to write it until today (January 6, thirteen days after seeing it). I’ve also been eating a lot of chocolate and butterscotch fudge, which really distracts from my creative thought processes. Anyway, I read a review of “Avatar” where the author really got after Cameron for creating another movie with typical Hollywood storylines, especially for depicting the military as sadistic murderers who itching to rack up body count. The author points out (correctly) that American soldiers (everyone in “Avatar” speaks American English) should be outraged at the continual depiction of them as such. He also points out that the story completely ignores certain technologies, as well as the economics of the situation. He goes on about other things that are ignored (by the way, “Avatar” is not the only film guilty of this), but it made me realize something about my own opinion. Even though I enjoyed the film, I was trying to convince myself that it was an excellent movie instead of just an okay movie.

Have I completely confused you yet? I’ll explain. My wife did not see the movie with me, so when I got home she asked me how it was. I said that it was really good and definitely worth the extra three dollars for seeing it 3-D. Then, she asked me why it was good. I responded by telling her how great all of the visuals were and how the 3-D really enhanced what you were seeing. I even described a scene where the characters are climbing these floating mountains and when they looked down I actually felt a twinge of vertigo. Finally, she asked me what it was about. Hmm…. That was literally my response. I had to think about it for a minute because the first thing that popped in my head was a bunch of soldiers killing blue tree-huggers for rocks. I really liked the movie and that sounded completely wrong. So, I said the next thing that popped into my head: “It’s like an updated version of ‘FernGully.’” She then told me she had never seen “FernGully” so I had to think about it some more. I started to describe the details of the events in the movie and summarized it by saying that it was a lot like a space version of “Dances with Wolves.” That, she understood, and we moved on with our lives.

It wasn’t until today that I replayed that conversation in my head and realized that my “FernGully” reference is really the most accurate description of what this movie was about. In “FernGully,” some random corporation is chopping down the rainforest to profit from a resource. While doing this, they are going to displace the native population (a colony of nearly-nude fairies) by destroying their home (a giant tree). In addition, the fairies are very in-tune with nature and it is tied to their religion. In “Avatar,” some random corporation is chopping down the native plant life to profit from a resource. While doing this, they are going to displace the native population (a colony of nearly-nude blue natives, or Na’Vi) by destroying their home (a giant tree). In addition, the Na’Vi are very in-tune with nature and it is tied to their religion. And no, I am not over simplifying. The only real difference is that the main villain in “FernGully” is some weird smoke/pollution demon that the corporation is unaware of, where in “Avatar” the villain is a blood-thirsty, insane soldier that the corporation doesn’t try to stop. Hell, even the main character in both movies is physically altered (shrunk to fairy size in “FernGully;” consciousness placed in artificially created Na’Vi), spends the majority of his time with the natives, and ends up fighting his own kind at the end.

After accepting this correlation, I turned back to my wife’s first question. Why was it good? It definitely wasn’t the story. It was much too reflective of current issues (global warming, military incursions, uber-greedy corporations) to be truly engrossing and there were too many things in the movie that were left unexplained. Until I read that other review, I had no idea what the purpose of the resource of the planet was, a mineral called unobtainium (seriously). Not only is that a stupid name, but it’s proof that Cameron’s politics were featured far too prominently. As it turns out, the mineral has anti-gravity properties, though they still never explain its uses or why it’s so valuable, but they have no issues with genocide to obtain the unobtainium (ha). I was also annoyed that the Na’Vi were basically ten-foot tall, blue Native Americans, complete with bows and arrows and spears. That actually makes the battle scene at the end that much more contrived as the humans have armored, flying gunships with sophisticated weapons and Cameron wants us to believe that arrows can pierce the vehicles and be taken down by flying lizards. People should hate this scene for the same reason they hated the end of “Return of the Jedi.”

But again, I didn’t hate it and I finally realized why. The visuals are so spectacular that you don’t really care about the plot and you barely care about the characters. (Which my wife would say means it was NOT a good movie.) Going back to that Wired interview, he said he brought botanists, linguists, and other experts in order to create an extremely well-detailed world, called Pandora (also more political naming). They even created an almanac of the world, detailing the plants, animals, climate, etc. for reference during the filming. That’s the kind of obsession, er, dedication, Cameron had for this thirty-year-old idea. Above anything else, that is what this movie is really all about; Cameron’s fantasy of an alien world that could be brought as close to reality as possible. That is why I enjoyed this movie. Now what did I do with that fudge?

Rating: It’s worth what you pay for it, especially the 3-D. The only reason you aren’t paying more is because you already saw “FernGully” (or “Dances with Wolves”).

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