Monday, January 4, 2010

AVATAR: Style Over Substance - Oh, but what style


The first 90 minutes of James Cameron's latest little personal film, Avatar, are jaw-droppingly beautiful.  One of the things that cinema is uniquely able to do is transform you into a place you've never imagined before - and Avatar does this amazingly.  The advanced motion capture technology and fully-realized CG alien realm, combined with the latest in 3D allow the viewer to enjoy a fully immersive experience - kind of like, well, controlling one's own personal avatar through Cameron's movie.  Within it you are able to experience moments of pure cinematic bliss.

And then... reality steps in.  The reality that Avatar eventually has to unwind its pedantic, cliche-ridden story - basically Last of the Mohicans/Dances With Wolves, with a touch of white-man guilt thrown in for good measure.

Now, this story is well-known and well-used for a reason. It works. We want to root for the underdogs. We want to believe in a world in which nature has inherent value and we are nourished by it. We want to feel a deeper connection to all things - and embrace the mysticism inherent to that connection. We want to fight against corporate greed and militaristic evil. Those are all good things and so we willingly follow down the well-worn path of this story because it is heart-felt and it is comforting.

With this film I realize what the problem I have with Cameron is - he is an incredible craftsman, but not an artist. And Avatar shows this with great clarity.

Cameron plays it so safe here, that he sucks all the magic out of this world that he has conjured for us.  It's as if he is so visionary, so far-reaching in his technical achievements that he has nothing left for the actual story, which is what ultimately frustrates me because having spent the $400 million on the tech, he had an opportunity to do something really ground-breaking, something truly revolutionary.

Instead, we have the basic soldier goes native and winds up fighting with the natives and against his own country. Now this might be interesting if there was an actual difficult choice to be made here - like having to fight against his former friends and comrades, but Cameron obliterates any inherent drama in that decision by allowing everyone he cared about go AWOL with him, and also making the remaining soldiers and corporate goons paper-thin "bad guys" so they can be easily disposed of without any internal conflict. Gee, nothing like eliminating any tension and drama from the last 3rd of the movie where it sorely needs it, eh?

And as far as this being a visionary Sci-Fi flick - forget about it. This is Kindergarten-level Science Fiction - everything is spoon-fed to the viewer with very little mystery allowed. The viewer never has to "catch up to the film" because they are seeing it clearly in their rear view mirror.

And really, do I need to see yet another exo-skeleton battle in the 3rd act - like, oh I don't know...

Ultimately, I just want to smash Cameron's head against a wall and scream - "Hey dipshit, you had me in the palm of your hand - now spend the extra scratch and have a real script doctor polish up your story so I don't see every single thing coming my way!" How about throwing me a freakin' bone - like oh I don't know, like a little twist, or a misdirection, or hidden meaning - how about letting me bathe in the air of mystery a little bit, eh? How about some actual art beneath your amazing matrix of CGI - how about some fucking poetry!

Oh well - if I want that I can always throw this baby in the DVD player:

Now there's a master craftsman AND master artist!

As far as Avatar goes, if you want to see this movie, you really must spend the extra cash to see it in a big-ass theater with 3D glasses - it's all about the wow factor.

This movie is so schizophrenic, I have to give it two different ratings:

Special FX/Art Direction



  1. I agree with you. Visuals are perfect, I specially loved the part where they connected with the living things, the animals, the trees, the ground, with their plaids. Story lacks imagination. But it is a must-see anyway.

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