Sunday, January 2, 2011

Avatar: Original or Overrated?

     When Avatar debuted in December of 2009, the trailers failed to capture my interest. Even when one person after another exited the theater raving about James Cameron's newest epic, the draw to surrender the $13 entry fee for this supposedly insurmountable 3D cinematic experience was still completely absent. When awards season rolled around and Avatar claimed recognition from multiple institutions, including the prestigious Academy Awards and Golden Globes, I dismissed it as being a ploy to entice viewers to watch the ceremonies by nominating popular choices. However, when Avatar continued to break records, make headlines, and spur conversation long after its December debut, curiosity was sparked. Now, almost a year after its release, I finally saw the film that has been hailed as the defining movie of 2009, and praised as a great revolution in moviemaking.

     There is no denying that James Cameron knows how to deal in big movies. From the Abyss, to the many Terminator movies to the ludicrously ambitious (and successful) Titanic, Cameron does his best (or at least most publicized) work on no small scale, and it would seem that he is amply rewarded for his zealous efforts. It is safe to say that if a studio were to give a 300 million dollar movie budget to anyone, Cameron is a good gamble. Many have labelled Avatar as Cameron's magnus opus; the work that he will be most remembered for. While this may be true, my impression of this grand epic that had been so hyped up is that Avatar, while initially interesting, visually sumptuous, and certainly fabulously entertaining, was plainly overrated. 

     Avatar as a story is much less original than it is given credit for. After hearing several assessments from various viewers, I determined that Avatar was a silver screen tribute to Earth Day or a thinly veiled effort to persuade the audience that "going green" was a moral and ethical philosophy that ought to be adopted by all who greedily consume our planet's resources. This is mostly inaccurate. Avatar's story follows more closely with Pocahontas than An Inconvenient Truth, borrowing an idea or two from Star Wars. Where Pocahantas had the adventurous explorer John Smith as the somewhat naive male protagonist, Avatar boasts Jake Sully, an adventurous explorer and paraplegic marine. John Smith's employers ruthlessly seek gold; the hostile military figures that recruit Jake are determined to pillage the world of Pandora to harvest unobtanium, an extremely powerful highly rare source of energy that sells for indecent amounts per kilo, and can bring cheap power back to a supposedly dying Earth. 

     Pocahontas had the curvy Native American babe in tight buckskins, and Avatar has an indigenous native of the Na'vi tribe named Neytiri in...well, mostly nothing. A few leaves and well positioned pieces of jewelry and occasionally pieces of clothing. But anyone with enough sense to tie their shoes will recognize that the Na'vi are humanoid except for a few feature differences. Na'vi for example, have tails, sleek blue skin, large catlike eyes, and flattened noses. However, even these additions and alterations to the basic human form do not change Neytiri's distinctly feminine shape and mannerisms (similar to Mystique from the X-Men movies). Like Pocahontas, Neytiri is sensitively in tune with the balance of the universe and the respect of all living things from the pestilent mongrels to the luminescent moss on the lush planet of Pandora. Inevitably, the human Jake with a hidden agenda and the uncorrupted lover of the earth Neytiri fall in love as their worlds collide. 

     Avatar is full of cliche characters, right down to the jealous would-be lover of the female protagonist. The Na'vi are the characteristically earthy and spiritualistic natives who are mostly good. The humans are mindless greed-driven machines that rape the natural world in search of wealth. In their defense however not all the humans are bad, and there are a few characters that almost redeem the race as a whole. Villains with absolutely no identifiable moral center are nothing new to any genre, and every now and then there is the inexplicably motivated mephistopheles whose bloodlust is rooted in unadulterated hate for another race, species, or living things in general -- as proved by the Patriot, District 9, the Dark Knight, and so on. The demon here is the crazed Colonel, who is so bent on completing his mission that no amount of reason or logic can convince him to alter his plans. He is an unashamed imperialist that believes his way is the only way, and that the inhabitants of Pandora are nothing more than superstitious animals who ought to be punished and abused for not being born subservient humans that can follow orders. There is definite political commentary in the undertones of Avatar but I chose to overlook it, as there are few things more unpalatable in entertainment than an irrelevant and badly disguised political agenda. 

     Main characters Jake and Neytiri undergo predictable development, and shortly into their acquaintance the only real question is if their story will be happily ever after, or take the road of Titanic when the credits roll. Jake starts out a quiet but thoughtful young man who accepts his mission without question, completely unaware of what his superiors are ultimately willing to sacrifice. As is standard in this sort of movie, once Jake meets Neytiri and begins his undercover "study" of the Na'vi, he is seduced by their pure and naturalistic ways and slowly assimilates into their culture, learning to appreciate and eventually embrace their beliefs. Jake's introduction to Neytiri-- a cross between an Amazon warrior princess and a lizard is when she saves his life, and he is immediately smitten. Neytiri, the strong-willed and athletic native who bounces effortlessly from limb to limb while Jake heaves deep breaths behind her trying to keep up, stays strong-willed and athletic. She immediately recognizes Jake's good heart, but she is annoyed by her assignment to be his guide and teach him the ways of the tribe. Naturally she gets over it in time to be "bonded" with Jake before all the secret plans of the military hit the fan. 

     Whether or not Avatar is truly revolutionary as far as moviemaking is concerned I could not say, but Avatar is undeniably a feast for the eyes with its colorful landscapes, sweeping scenery, epic battles, and smooth computer graphics. The Na'vi and avatar bodies move fluidly but not disconnected from their environment. The creatures and monsters that inhabit Pandora have elements similar to that of Earth's wildlife, but still possess a unique identity born of an original creativity that George Lucas would approve of. The unspoiled rainforest surface of Pandora is breathtaking in an extraterrestrial Eden kind of way, utilizing geographical features that a human photographer would kill to witness. In one particularly remarkable scene, Neytiri mounts a pterodactyl-type flying creature and soars and swoops around a gigantic tree, showing off the full scope of the scenery and the elegance of the way the creature moves in its natural habitat. 

     With all the stunning pizzaz of excellently engaging simulations, its only flaw is that it fails to feel completely real. This may have been intentional on the part of the filmmakers to remind the audience that this is an alien planet that is unlike earth, and therefore should not feel familiar. But beyond this lack of familiarity, several of (but not all) the scenes on Pandora seem intangible-- as though the glowing foliage not only does not exist, but fails to convince the viewer that it could, even on another world. The computer generated planet and its infinite number of details are thoroughly impressive, but ever so slightly artificial. The floating mountains, misty water, and fantastic beasts are so beautiful that they are perhaps a little too uncorrupted by things such as, say... dirt. 

     Avatar succeeds, even excels on all levels except one; the story. Avatar exceeds even high standards in the areas of special effects, spectacular music, meticulous art direction, and an initially engaging story. But once the movie has the foundation for the story laid, the script turns cliche and predictable. Although beautifully done, Avatar relies too heavily on its dazzling special effects, and not enough on a strong or varied plot. Its special effects are considerably gorgeous, but that is not enough to carry a movie. Jake is an interesting character with believable motives, and the screen time spent showing his various lessons from Neytiri are entertaining, but Jake as a character is somewhat static. His opinions and motivations change, but because he is portrayed as the "nice guy" from the beginning, it is hardly surprising when he chooses to risk his life for the Na'vi people, turning on his own species. Similarly, the colonel has a glint in his eye from his first minutes onscreen that hint at his obsessive drive, and he is identifiable as a villain long before he has done anything wrong. And as previously stated, the love story between Jake and Neytiri is standard.

To sum it all up, Avatar is definitely a good movie. Although the story might not be the most original or the most surprising, its setting is unique and executed with enough grace and style to be memorable. Avatar is most certainly entertaining on many levels, especially as regards the special effects. But as many breathtaking moments as there are in Avatar, they are just that-- a series of moments. The film as a whole, while a great popcorn flick, is slightly overrated. It echoes too closely every other movie ever made about colonization, imperialism, or love in war, and does not sufficiently veil its political commentary. However, due to the fact that all these themes are presented in a hitherto unseen way, the film is well-worth a night on the couch. Its many accolades were well-earned and there are several aspects of Avatar that one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, but it is doubtful that Avatar will be remembered as an icon of movie history. It may long remain a popular movie to mainstream audiences, but in a few years it will step down and make way for another movie to take the crown, just like every other CGI-dependent film before it has done.