Monday, January 4, 2010

The Most Expensive "Smurfs" Reboot Yet

Did you see Titanic? Of course you did. Years later, do you look back on it with particular fondness? I doubt it. When you join the rest of the world in shelling out $11.50 to see Avatar, you are signing up for a very similar deal.

James Cameron's latest siege on Hollywood's bank accounts, after all, is about as shallow as a movie experience can get. Despite being heralded as "revolutionary," Avatar is really a $300 million coat of paint on a story that is so ancient it would have bored nineteenth century audiences. The highest praise that can be bestowed on the film is that every dollar spent shows on screen (apart from the $150 million Fox spent on marketing, that is). It makes Avatar a decent spectacle, but only in the most fleeting way, as not one facet of this movie is emotional, thought-provoking or innovative enough to remain in the viewer's mind long after viewing.

When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) takes the first push out of his cryogenic casket and floats into the huge spaceship surrounding it, the audience in the theater will likely let out a few gasps from behind their 3D glasses. This is with good reason, too – the shot is stunning, as it reveals a bustling, immersive world of technology. What is truly stunning, however, is how quickly that sense of awe wanes. This, a film that was supposed to be the best argument for the return of 3D yet, exposes the technology as an absolute gimmick.

Avatar's first couple of shots set the expectation that the entire film will be this impressive when, in reality, only a few shots in every scene display considerable dimensionality. The audience is left searching for these shots, being disappointed when they fail to appear and distracted when they do appear. Of course, making every shot conspicuously 3D would have been equally distracting. I have only seen two films in 3D (Coraline was much better, by the way), but I am already convinced that the technology is useless outside of theme parks.

Granted, the film can always be seen in good ol' 2D. Besides, the distractions of 3D would not really matter if the visuals stood up well on their own. The quality of Avatar's art design is debatable. The human military base that figures heavily into the early scenes makes for the least interesting visuals of the film – stealing its metal-on-metal aesthetic from countless recent video games, such as Gears of War and Killzone. The natural settings of the planet, Pandora, are far more diverse and certainly display a certain beauty. I would stop short of calling its design original, as much of it looks like Ferngully by way of Roland Emmerich, but Cameron's art department clearly made it all as pretty as they could, even if they did not make it terribly interesting.

Populating this environment is the Na'vi, a race of big, blue, bipedal creatures and easily the film's greatest achievement. While Avatar's motion capture work may not be as earth-shattering as advertised (Seriously, have some people not seen a video game in the past ten years, or The Lord of the Rings?), this film easily achieves a level of quality not previously seen with the technology. The computer-generated creatures convey performances from Worthington and company with striking nuance and, had the script called for it, would have communicated considerable emotion.

Cameron obviously sank a lot of time into conceptualizing the visuals and their accompanying technology. Perhaps, then, it will be surprising to hear that his directing is nothing special. Action sequences play out with considerable scale, but they never quite thrill. Nothing so harrowing as T-1000 clawing his way up the back of a moving car in Terminator 2 or even the tipping deck of the Titanic is to be found in Avatar. Cameron certainly does not do much between action scenes, either, mainly flaunting the scenery and carefully maintaining the mystery of whether or not the female Na'vi have nipples.

Naturally, the action scenes would have enjoyed more dramatic weight had they been aided by a decent script. That a 160 minute film, fifteen years in the making can be so horribly underwrought is a sad irony. Main "character" Jake Sully is really just the weight that drags the plot forward – not that it is much of a plot to begin with. Briefly: Boy is hired to spy on natives. Boy infiltrates natives. Boy beds girl native. Boy changes sides. Boy fights against civilized folk. It is all so predictable that Cameron even seems bored with it. What should be a major plot point – boy changing sides – is never even shown on screen. Instead, we see him feeding intel to the human military over many weeks then, after some dicking around with his inevitable love interest, he is suddenly warning the Na'vi that they will be exterminated in a matter of minutes.

The aforementioned love interest – Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) – also jerks through her development, disapproving and cold one moment, then hopping into Jake's lap and proclaiming her love the next. There are, of course, stoic elders on one side and a battle-hardened military man on the other, but these characters are written and performed with such incredible banality that their presence drags the movie into tedium. Even the champion of the middle ground, Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who is initially quite promising, never gets a chance to do anything more than smoke and complain.

The greatest irony of Avatar, however, is not its shallowness. It is that a film produced with such modern techniques can be so woefully archaic in its ideas. The concept of the "noble savage" is one that was already being mocked back in Charles Dickens' time. That James Cameron sees fit to lecture us spoiled ignoramuses with a story about simple natives and their untainted wisdom is laughable. The hypocrisy of the concept is totally lost on him, as he casually mashes Native American spirituality together with Hinduism, and has it all performed by black actors, portraying them as a patently undeveloped society and then telling us that they are righteous, even after they slaughter hordes of human soldiers.

There are a few interesting concepts raised by this script, such as a natural internet linking all of the living things on Pandora and Jake's fading sense of identity as he moves between the two races, but very little is done with these ideas. They are quickly abandoned for the more predictable aspects of the plot, and they create innumerable plot holes, anyway. (The Na'vi can see the future by way of their ancestors and this internet. Was their connection down when they were supposed to be informed of their impending slaughter? ...I could list many more, but I will refrain.)

Avatar never manages to be as socially irresponsible as Transformers 2 was and it does not exist solely to sell a sequel, like Star Trek did. It is apparent that Cameron still wishes to entertain the audience, so it is difficult to hate him for this film. Still, his naive ideas, absurd budget and obsession with digital effects do a great deal to undercut this film's entertainment value. This is simply not the James Cameron that brought us the gritty, character-driven brilliance of The Terminator. Like the millions of dollars Fox spent on the film, as well as the income moviegoers are providing in return, it is all so very, very disposable.

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