Monday, December 14, 2009
A critic should endeavor to go into a movie without any preconceived notions or biases. When that is not possible, they at least owe it to the reader to be honest and forthright about it. So I am compelled to say that I expected "Avatar" to be underwhelming.
Alright, let's be blunt: I really thought this movie was going to suck.
Boy, was I wrong -- wonderfully, joyously wrong. Never have I been so happy to have my expectations shattered.
Like many, I watched the trailers for "Avatar" and cringed. This is what writer/director James Cameron spent $300 million on (and by some estimates, much more) for his return to feature filmmaking after 12 years away? Never has a movie been so ill-served by its previews.
"Avatar" is epic in scope and in ambition. Cameron uses computer-generated characters and imagery not as accompaniment to live actors and sets, but as his main instrument.
This movie is visionary, a word that gets bandied about but has real weight here: This is a vision like nothing you've ever seen.
The blue-skinned aliens called Na'vi who looked so cheap and cheesy in the trailers are fleshy and corporeal (and nearly nude) in the finished film, best viewed in eye-popping 3-D. The lush forests, floating mountains and waterfalls of the world of Pandora are like a National Geographic pictorial on hallucinogens.
The story is familiar -- by my count, the third film this year portraying humans as exploiters of an alien world -- but feels fresh. The depiction of corporations as mindless mechanisms destroying in the name of greed is a common theme in Cameron's films ("Aliens," "The Abyss," "The Terminator" and its sequel).
Giovanni Ribisi plays the company flunky in charge of extracting a rare and valuable ore under Pandora's surface, even if it means displacing and killing the Na'vi. (Cameron shows some of his penchant for goofiness in naming the ore Unobtainium.) His right-hand man is the scarred, scary former Marine colonel (a terrific Stephen Lang) now commanding an army of mercenaries to do the dirty work.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Hollywood's new It Boy for big-budget spectaculars) is a crippled ex-Marine whose murdered twin brother volunteered for the new Avatar program, which grows special human/Na'vi hybrid bodies controlled by humans. Since Jake has the same DNA as his sibling, he's enlisted to take over his brother's avatar.
Jake's stuck between competing interests of the colonel, who wants to use the avatars to infiltrate the Na'vi, and the chief scientist (Cameron fave Sigourney Weaver), who envisions a peaceful outreach mission.
In his avatar form, Jake meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a Na'vi warrior and daughter of the clan chief (Wes Studi). She saves his blue bacon from some jungle dogs, though she's resentful of his presence and bumbling ways. But she gets a sign from the earth spirits her people worship to trust him.
The months pass, and Jake is eventually accepted into the tribe. The human bulldozers grind ever closer, however, and soon he'll have to choose loyalties.
Cameron slides easily between live action and computer-animated sequences, and while I won't overstate their success by claiming the transitions are seamless, they aren't jarring.
Some of the movie's metaphysical constructions have a dollop of hokum -- the depiction of the Na'vi as an emblem for American Indians grows stronger, and more strained, as the film progresses.
I still don't quite know what to think of the Na'vi's ability to mind-meld with flying dragons and other creatures via tiny tentacles every critter seems to have. It's like an entire world of animals outfitted with USB ports.
But quibbles aside, "Avatar" is a spectacle not to be missed. The game has changed.