The film industry has produced no shortage of spectacles over the last hundred years, from “Ben Hur” to “Star Wars.” In terms of technological sorcery and visual wonder, James Cameron’s “Avatar” now ranks chief among them.
We are entering an age when one must draw a distinction between the film and the experience. “Twilight,” it has been observed, is more teen social outing than entertainment. “Avatar” is an OK movie and more than a little hokey. But it is an astounding experience that takes showmanship to a new level.
As I sat down for a press screening Monday, the woman behind me blurted out “I just want to see what $300 million looks like,” a hint of skepticism in her voice. By that disputed estimate, “Avatar” cost $1.85 million per minute. It looks like a bargain at twice the price.
The technical achievement of the film cannot be overstated. Combining superior digital modeling, motion capture, IMAX and unparalleled 3-D, “Avatar” could easily be remembered alongside “The Jazz Singer” and “The Wizard of Oz,” movies that made the case for sound and color, respectively.
Profit-hungry studios and control-freak directors have abused these technologies in recent years. I give you Jar Jar Binks, star of George Lucas’ dreadful “Star Wars: Episode I.” Robert Zemeckis’ peculiar obsession with computer effects, motion capture and 3-D projection has yielded human characters that look more alien than Cameron’s lanky blue creations.
Weta / 20th Century Fox
In “Avatar,” Cameron uses these techniques to maximum effect and the results are stunning. The same skeptic who wanted to know what $300 million looked like couldn’t contain herself once the film started rolling. “Yes!” She shouted with excitement. She wasn’t alone. What does it say when the audience of a press screening erupts in applause when the credits roll?
It should be noted that 3-D projection makes some viewers nauseated. Those who can stomach it will find themselves rewarded—provided they see “Avatar” in IMAX 3-D. This isn’t one for your living room, drive-in or mini-multiplex. Get on a plane and fly to the nearest metropolis if you have to.
It is thrilling to have missiles launch from a 60-foot screen directly at your face or to fly through an obstacle course that seems to whiz by you on both sides, but it’s the simple shots that will really take your breath away—a plexiglass wall that floats between you and the characters on screen or embers that swirl all around. It’s difficult to convey the impact of such moments, which is probably why “Avatar” generated such negative buzz before the first reviews came out. The previews simply can’t do it justice.
The performances are good for an action movie, but nothing to write home about. Who doesn’t enjoy Sigourney Weaver’s tough mom act? Stephen Lang as Col. Miles Quaritch brings the right kind of machismo, and Michelle Rodriguez, who refers to her enemies as “bitch,” is a guilty pleasure. Sam Worthington isn’t the most dynamic leading man, but he’s charming enough to get the job done.
It’s a testament to the film’s technical crew that the performances of the actors playing digital characters are so compelling. Take Zoe Saldana, who nearly steals the show. She’s brilliant, sexy and sincere. That’s saying something for a cartoon character. There are long stretches of this movie that are pure fabrication—digital characters (played by real actors, such as Saldana), digital sets, digital effects—but, for the most part, it works.
ILM / 20th Century Fox
The story of “Avatar” is altogether less successful. Humans have come to a planet called Pandora to strip-mine a mineral known as unobtanium. Seriously. The native population, the Na’vi, is mysterious and hostile. Think American Indian with a dash of Taliban. The humans all work for a nameless corporation. They include, on one side, a scarred militarist and his private army and, on the other, Sigourney Weaver and her lovable team of scientists, nerds and hippies. They’re there, ostensibly, to “win the hearts and minds” of the Na’vi and avoid a blood bath that would play poorly in the press back on gray, environmentally devastated Earth. To do this, the scientists “drive” avatars, lab-grown human-Na’vi hybrids. One of those drivers, a crippled Marine, is torn between the two camps. If you’ve seen “Platoon,” you know how that goes.
You could play the “if you’ve seen ...” drinking game with this movie. “Star Wars” fans will enjoy hearing that the Na’vi believe in an energy, er, force, that permeates all living things. Would you believe that the main love interest turns out to be the chief’s daughter? For such an imaginative movie, “Avatar” isn’t short on cliché.
On top of which, the whole premise doesn’t quite make sense. Humans are able to walk around Pandora with nothing more than an oxygen mask, and those who bother are able to communicate with the Na’vi in both English and their native tongue, so why the need for these very expensive (we are told) avatars?
“Avatar” is a spectacle but it is also a love story and something of a jeremiad. All of James Cameron’s movies have some token social commentary. He’s an action director, perhaps the most successful ever, who trades in violence with a little medicine. Beware the corporation, he says in “Aliens.” “Terminator 2” ends with the line “if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.” You get the idea. His comments are generally sensible but, for the most part, window dressing. Not so with his latest, which is downright preachy.
“Avatar” is a mash-up of “Aliens,” “Dances With Wolves” and “FernGully.” Never saw that last one? It’s a 1992 children’s movie about a magical rain forest under siege by evil, resource-hungry humans, and it bears an uncanny resemblance to “Avatar.” Here’s where Cameron shows that this isn’t his area of expertise. This social commentary stuff is valid and, with Afghanistan escalating and Copenhagen tanking, remarkably timely. But it’s also gratuitous.
At one point, Weaver declares that Pandora’s riches can be found in its ecosystem, not its lifeless minerals. We get it. We got it the first 10 times you said it. Life, good. Rocks, bad. The “Dances With Wolves” bit wears thin, too. Yes, we ought to respect native peoples, but is it really a cultural exploration to listen to a made-up language for nearly three hours? It’s just too hard to take some of this stuff seriously, and, as a result, the movie lags before the final act and while we learn the intricacies of Na’vi culture. This is how they learn to ride horses, this is how they hunt, this is how they brush their teeth in stunning 3-D! Can we get back to the part where my brain is exploding?
While they can be tiresome, not all of Cameron’s political efforts fall flat. There is something very powerful about the nature argument, the suffering of indigenous peoples is always upsetting and no one will walk away from this movie thinking a well-armed ignoramus is a good idea. Will moviegoers make the leap from “Avatar’s” Col. Miles Quaritch to Gen. Stanley McChrystal? Doubtful. Although there were some references that won knowing chuckles in the theater—the “hearts and minds” line, for instance. Quaritch also tells us that we must fight terror with terror and argues the virtue of a pre-emptive strike, which earned a golf clap from the presumably lefty Los Angeles crowd.
One might also quibble with some of the production design. The human stuff in the movie is all very slick, but the look of the planet was clearly inspired by a black-light poster in someone’s rumpus room. The flora and fauna of Pandora, it appears, evolved not to perpetuate the various species, but to inspire pot smoking. This is where “Avatar” has taken the most heat from sci-fi fans. Things just look too weird, they say. Maybe, but who cares? They’re supposed to be aliens—what are aliens supposed to look like?
WETA / 20th Century Fox
It’s hard to tell whether “Avatar” is the future of movies or the past. Hollywood can’t really afford to keep making $300 million juggernauts, even if some succeed. And where exactly is Cameron supposed to go from here? Each of his blockbusters has been bigger than the last. Assuming “Avatar” does well at the box office, is there someone out there who wants to finance the $400 million Cameron movie? Probably.
There are going to be plenty of people who don’t like “Avatar,” but then Parisians at first thought the Eiffel Tower was an eyesore. “What does it do?” they demanded. It shows us what we’re capable of. “Avatar” is not a work of high art or substance. As a call to action, it is simplistic and awkward. But James Cameron has created a movie monument of unrivaled technical sophistication. Even if “Avatar” isn’t your bag, you should go see it. Spectacles can be dangerous distractions, but some demand to be witnessed. This is a moment in film history. It’s also an absolute thrill ride that makes skeptics shout “Yes!” in wonder.