Thursday, January 21, 2010

Movie Review: Avatar (2009)

For the greater part of a year, I sat gnawing my fingers in anticipation of James Cameron's latest sci-fi feature. Few of his films have been disappointments, and given the increasingly horrifying lack of depth afflicting the latest entries of this genre, I had high hopes that Mr. Terminator/Mr. Titanic would, at least, not leave me lumbering out of the theater in malaise.

I was excited to see this film in 3D. I heard the hype, the stories about how new technologies were developed to help film the entirety in full perspective. Yeah. To say I was skeptical would be an understatement -- several recent sci-fi films have left me underwhelmed, outraged, and/or despondent.

Could even the great James Cameron resist the temptation to load up on overwrought special effects at the expense of plot? Would he resort to the same, breathtakingly tacky film making fads as other directors -- like gratuitously shaking the cameras in an effort to trick the audience into feeling excitement?

Yes, and no.

The movie is rich in highlights:

  • Sigourney Weaver's acting, as it always has been, is simply stunning. From her delightfully brusque introduction -- I just loved the chain smoking -- to several emotionally moving situations later in the film, her portrayal of Grace Augustine consistently captures the screen, at once both direct and nuanced. Sadly, none of Avatar's younger cast -- and indeed, few actresses in any recent sci-fi film -- even approach the vibrant substance she breathes into this part.

  • A stunningly detailed ecosystem. The planet Pandora is rendered with a degree of exactness that makes one suspect the inclusion of entire teams of botanists and evolutionary biologists throughout the storyboarding and animation process.

  • Despite all the attention given to other aspects of the film, nothing impressed me more than the rendering of the computer interfaces. Even after several minutes of introduction toward the beginning of Avatar, the visual candy created by the characters' nonchalant manipulation of portable, clear, handheld computers was simply stunning, pushing even this jaded viewer to a vocal utterance of "wow!"

Sadly, for all the attention given to certain aspects of its development, and the seemingly endless time spent exploring the Pandoran ecosystem, Avatar falls a bit short.

  • Neither the 3D filming nor the special effects are as game-changing as the popularity suggests. Come on, people, did no one else see unfinished textures and animation artifacts? Next to the flawless CGI of The Matrix: Reloaded, this film looks downright Shrek-like. Case in point: while what must be the movie industry's 8,658th conception of generic flying dragons dive across the screen, the film presents countless low-budget looking -- and totally flat -- backdrops. Apparently, audiences were so distracted by the creatures flying across the foreground that they never even noticed.

  • The film's plot would not support a 45 minute television show, were it not for non-stop special effects. Military officer infiltrates the enemy camp, sympathizes with enemy plight, and goes native. Yawn. Yawn. Yawn. Only a heavy pouring of militant environmentalism prevents this device from becoming blatantly derivative. Speaking of which, what is Kevin Costner up to these days?

  • The film shows an almost diabolical negligence in character development among its antagonists. We're expected to believe that Colonel Miles Quaritch is simply a very bad man -- a violent neanderthal with a grudge, just because, well, that's what he is. (That's what most Marines are, right?) Considering the degree to which he's meant to drive the plot, an astonishingly minuscule amount of screen time is dedicated to showing us why Quaritch is such a trigger-happy lunatic. We know absolutely nothing of his past, much less why he is such a ludicrously simplistic madman. You're joking, James. Right?

  • Michelle Rodriguez plays yet another superficially charming but ultimately disposable QuasiGoodGirl (a rogue cop, a rogue marine -- and a typecast actress if ever there was one).

  • Could the score have been any more evocative of "Titanic"? While it did have its soaring moments, at countless times in the middle of Avatar I had to suppress my inner diva and its attempt to burst into song, "Near, far, wherever -- oops, that was wrong movie!" FTLOG, fully half the score felt absolutely interchangeable with the composition prepared for the melodramatic escapade of the doomed giant cruise ship.

The fact is, while I enjoyed Avatar, I simply can't see myself watching this film again and again, year after year, sitting around with friends to discuss various nuances of the plot or characters, as has been the case for generations of fans of the original Star Wars trilogy. There is little of the depth of personality, and none of the legend, the mythology, or the epic scale that characterizes such instant classics. A week after viewing it, I could no longer even recall the name of any of its main characters.

Avatar is a fun and generally satisfying movie with some truly spectacular moments. It may well be the best sci-fi movie since the Matrix trilogy -- although that is a dubious honor, given the abysmal quality of the genre over the last five years. Ultimately, the film is a relatively cold, contrived product of fancy computers, and much the same as those state of the art processing machines, it very likely will age into a dry, gray obsolescence. 3.5/5 Stars.

1 comment:

earthscape said...

I sum Avatar up as such: "Even though I saw the movie in 3D, the characters were still 2D."