Friday, January 29, 2010

KumbayAvatar

Where to begin? Here's an epic movie delivered in the most epic way currently possible. James Cameron is obviously a genius, and that this creation originated in his brain is staggering. "Avatar" will break every record imaginable. It will indeed change the way movies (not all, but some) are made. I'm an hour removed from seeing it in 3D at an IMAX theater, and it's as hard for me to return to this world as it is for Sam Worthington's character.

And yet, just as evaluating Sarah Palin requires you to first imagine that she looks like Madeleine Albright, to really evaluate "Avatar," you have to somehow, some way, look beyond the technology. (BTW, my one digital effects criticism is this: Why is there still some element of "weight" missing from all animate objects? When they run, they still seem to float.) When you do that, "Avatar" doesn't exactly crash back down to earth, but it does lose some of its "ground-breaking" street cred.

A disclaimer about the angle I'm approaching this with; even I'm not sure what it is. In some ways I'm a film snob, generally favoring Hitchcock classics, your basic Oscar-nominated foreign and indie fare, Charlie Kaufman screenplays, Christopher Guest mockumentaries and modern documentaries that truly educate. On the other hand, I despise some art-house fare (most notably "Magnolia" and "The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover"), I'm an unapologetic fan of "It's a Wonderful Life," and just yesterday I launched a defense of that other small James Cameron movie, "Titanic," that may cost me a friend or two (just kidding, Dave and Terry).

I won't criticize "Avatar" in ways that I imagine the Academic Disgruntia already are (that it patronizingly glorifies "the primitive," that its Na'vi body designs objectify women, that it ultimately seems to advocate fighting violence with violence). Nor will I look through the lens of the Reactionary Right ("it's just another Hollywood elite, anti-corporate, anti-military, anti-imperialist fairly tale about native tree-huggers beating up on an enemy that's two-dimensional even in 3D"). Nor will I point out the obvious irony that somebody used every Western tool known to man to make garbillions of dollars on a movie essentially about preserving the rain forest--that is showing all over the world in energy-sucking air-conditioned IMAX theaters (oops, I guess I just did).

I have no problem with Avatar's epic fairly tale structure. I have no problem with making good guys good and bad guys bad. I came in expecting action, and calling "Avatar" a mere "action movie" is an insult to the movie. I guess my perspective is similar to the one I recently took with "Up in the Air," that of a coach who reserves his most virulent criticism for his best player:

"Avatar, you're good. Really good. But you could be better."

All it would take is a little more care with the script. I realized with "Avatar" that there's something I miss when watching a non-Spielbergian epic. Spielberg brings a certain breeziness, wit and sense of humor to his projects. Remember Indiana Jones watching the Ninja expertly cut the air with his sword, then sighing, shrugging his shoulders blowing him away with his pistol? James Cameron wouldn't have thought of that. Remember the plane propellers approaching the unsuspecting musclehead goomba, then the cut to blood hitting the airplane? Cameron wouldn't have done that. I watched "Saving Private Ryan" again recently and was amazed at how much Spielberg revealed with only sound. In other words, Spielberg knows how to speak in visual subtext. There's a wonderful moment early in "Avatar" when a huge American tank-like machine returns to the Pandora base, and we see the tires littered with arrows. That tells you a lot, and that's what I'm talking about. Unfortunately, it's the only visual-subtastic moment in the movie.

The rest of "Avatar" is on the nose, as is much of the dialogue. Again, don't get me wrong. When a blood-thirsty marine commander says, "Let's get this over with before lunch" (or whatever he says), or a turncoat pilot shoots at said commander and says to herself, "You're not the only one with a gun, bitch!", I'm not surprised and it doesn't ruin the movie. Plus, keep in mind that one of the main reasons I'm so critical of ham-fisted dialogue is that I've written a lot of it myself. (If I wrote a script half as good as "Avatar," I'd think I was a genius.)

But when I realized that "Avatar" is pretty much devoid of any kind of subtext or sense of humor, I felt ever so slightly let down. Because while I'm being transported to this amazing, imaginative paradise of a cinematic universe, I'm still thinking about what could have been.

2 comments:

Brady said...

Wow, good review joel siegel.

Have to agree on the odd "lack of gravity" with CGI.

Disney has been guilty of the overly fluid, lack of gravity movement for years.

Must be a learned technique in animation schools across the globe.

Seriously, ins't there a true-to-life gravity filter in these 3D animation programs?

Sorry for the superficial comment, but it is my number one CGI complaint.

Jar Jar Binks moves link he's a sack of water.

Malaproposition said...

Ya know, my only real criticism of Avatar is that I had seen it before. I'm trying to think of the name... oh yeah. It was called "Dances with Wolves".

Somehow James Cameron got 'Conked'.