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Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Just saw Avatar (in 2-D) this evening, and enjoyed every minute.

It was as predictable a movie as I've ever seen: you know exactly what conflict the hero will be faced with (whether to side with the rapacious earthlings or the noble nature-worshipping Na'vi of the planet Pandora). You know from the moment the female Na'vi heroine first appears (and spares the hero's life) that romance will ensue. In fact, you pretty much know the outcome of the entire movie after the first fifteen minutes.

All of the characters are two dimensional (the 3-D version of the movie does not add depth to the personalities). They all fall neatly into two categories, Good and Bad. Before even getting to the theater, you know from the publicity stills which category the Na'vi, with their big eyes, feline faces, elf-like ears, full lips, and thin bodies, fall into. Their nobility is just as obvious as Orlando Bloom-the-Elf's in Lord of the Rings: Hollywood may occasionally make good beings ugly, but it never makes evil beings beautiful.

One slightly discordant note: Stephen Lang, the accomplished stage actor who plays the evil Colonel Quaritch, has a much more intelligent face than Sam Worthington, who plays hero Jake Scully. Worthington, who was evidently up for the role of James Bond in Casino Royale before it was awarded to Daniel Craig, looks like a callow Ben Affleck (if that's not redundant). Lang has a more refined face, one which seems more capable of empathy, even as he struts and bullies in his role as chief bad guy.

The movie's anti-war and environmental messages are delivered in typically heavy-handed Hollywood fashion.

Avatar is also heavily derivative. When Jake Scully meets his first fearsome Pandoran beast, his dialogue is lifted from Will Smith's giant cockroach scene in Men in Black. The penultimate battle scene, with Na'vi on their Pandoran version of horses riding to their doom against the superior modern artillery of the earthlings, is straight from The Last Samurai. The Na'vi themselves are obviously derived from every Disney cliche about noble Native Americans.

And yet, despite all these faults, the movie was impossible not to enjoy. I don't like being instructed what to think -- and whom to root for -- anymore than anyone else. But I couldn't help but root for the Na'vi. (Who would argue against nature and for war?)

The idea of having a paraplegic Marine occupy the body of an avatar is ingenious. You can feel his joy at the liberation his new body brings him. But the real genius of the movie lies in the creation of the lush, beautiful planet. It is Pandora, and the essential sweetness of its inhabitants, that keep you involved, even as subsequent plot developments are telegraphed from a mile away. (I smell a well-deserved Oscar for art direction, probably along with a few undeserved ones, this coming March.)

Avatar reportedly cost upwards of $400 million. I'm not sure what that kind of money is supposed to look like, but it probably resembles something like Pandora. The rain forest is exquisite down to its last detail, and the colors are gorgeous (in contrast to the movie's messages, which are presented in black and white). The movie is like the cover of one of those old Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novels come to life. You can't ask for better entertainment than that.

Any movie which has the nerve to last two hours and thirty-six minutes had better be entertaining. This one delivered.

James Cameron is once again the king of the world.

Prediction: this movie will generate a whole slew of hardcore, Trekkie-type fans who will paint their faces blue and go to Avatar conventions as every opportunity.

Avoid them, but see the movie.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review John - glad you enjoyed the movie. For me the most discordant thing in the movie was that Sam W seemed too nice a guy to be the stereotype hard ex-marine, but perhaps that's why Neytiri falls for him. (Spoiler alert) My favorite scene in the movie was when she saves (human) Sam after the mech smackdown. As far as I can recall, this is the only Na'vi human (in human form) intimacy in the movie. Which speaks to the theme I liked in the story - the redemption and rebirth of our damaged human in the magical world of Pandora.
I won't be painting my face blue, but I am an Avatari.

John Craig said...

Thank you Guy. I liked that scene as well. As blatantly manipulative as the movie was, I was completely manipulated. I'm afraid I'm an Avatari too. (I've already painted my face blue.)