Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar (2009)

Considering the overwhelming negativity directed at James Cameron's Avatar before its theatrical release, I was really hoping that a whole lot of internet nerds would be eating their internet words; and that the movie would be a resounding success, straight in their faces. While the film has drawn considerable positive reviews (by an ever increasing armada of untrustworthy commercial critics who laud over its various cliches when they have condemned other films for the same), I have to admit that I was very disappointed by the movie itself. $500 million dollars and 14 years later, and this is the BEST story you can come up with? Did a meteor cross our sky in the past decade that showered stupid dust on all humanity? Avatar chokes out nearly every annoying genre cliche as it squanders its impressive budget on all manner of eye candy. But there is simply no substance...and it pains me greatly, because I was really hoping it would be a shining gem in a year that produced a lot of overrated garbage and very few films of lasting quality.


To begin, Avatar is basically just your typical science fiction/fantasy retelling of the Conquistadors invading Latin America, or the Colonials invading North America, or any one of a million exploits caused by the Great Evil White Man as he conquered and created the civilized world (and ironically, all the progress that brought films like Avatar into existence in the first place). The villains here are the humans who come from the dead Earth which they stripped and raped of all its resources, and yet have managed to create vast interstellar corporations which can hire massive private armies as much (if not more) power than the real ones. Giovanni Ribisi plays the corporate shill with only an inkling of conscience, and Stephen Lang plays the dangerous and ruthless Colonel Miles Quaritch. While I enjoy Lang in any role, and he does his best with this badass, driven good ol' boy soldier, we are unfortunately not given any reliable motivation for why this corporation is willing to commit genocide over Unobtanium. Yes, that is the name of the precious mineral the humans are trying to mine from Pandora (OLOL), the world on which the action is set. The natives here, the Na'vi, are a tall and graceful (and blue) race of tree-huggers who have a spiritual and biological connection to the world/goddess around them. If this all sounds familiar, you may have read Don Debrandt's obscure sci-fi Paul Bunyan parable novel Timberjak some years ago.

Our protagonist is a paraplegic marine (Sam Worthington) who is taking the place of his late genetic twin in a program where he is placed in a genetic Na'vi body to help a team of scientists, including Sigourney Weaver (who is trying hard not to play Ripley) communicate with them, and learn about their world. In addition, Colonel Quaritch wants Jake Sully to find out strategic information so that the Na'vi tribe can be relocated and the world's largest supply of Unobtanium filched from the ground, which surprise surprise, happens to be right beneath their giant tree house! The sounds you hear right now are your fellow moviegoers trying to hold in their vomit. Now, consider that the Na'vi seem to have a good grasp of English, at least a few of them. Would it not have been possible to actually communicate with them, make a fair deal? If it was clear the Na'vi were 100% against this idea in the first place, why spend so many resources on these proxy clones? And why in the name of FUCK would so many private mercs with nary a gas mask and bulletproof vest risk their lives and limbs in such a dangerous environment, willfully battling a guerilla army in a magical zone where they know their electronic automatic sighting and communications will be hampered?

You already know everything that is going to happen in this movie. You knew it before I wrote a single word in this review. Yes, it turns out Jake Sully will be THE CHOSEN ONE who frees the NA'VI from the oppression of the Evil Imperial Post-European Army! Darth Vader may have had a Tie Fighter, but Quaritch and his goons get Battletech-like armored suits and fighter craft lifted from a wealth of sci fi inspirations (you may find them similar to vehicles in FPS games like Halo or Unreal Tournament). In a grand and ridiculous final battle which made the Ewok revolt or the Flash Gordon hawkman battle look sensible by comparison, we are served all the geek-porn in creation so that our minds can be distracted from the truth: Avatar's story sucks a fat one.

It's a tragedy, truly, because the world of Pandora is beautiful. It's highly detailed, with lush fluorescent vegetation, gaggles of unique flora and fauna both lovely and horrifying, and a real sense for biological economy delivered through the civilization of the Na'vi. The special effects are astouding and much, much work (years I hear) went into their creation. The Na'vi are fluid and believable as an alien race, quite catlike in their graces and speaking a mesh of what sounds like Russian meets Spanish. About the only downside is that they're just an idealized version of American Indian cultures. They're powerful, but not immortal, and they don't need to be...since their planet/goddess can suddenly coordinate all wildlife to take down them evil Europeans!

Yes, the last 1/4 of this 3:00 hour film is devoted to utter stupidity and a textbook happy ending. We discover that THE CHOSEN ONE could be hurled to the earth by tons of metal mech and barely scratch a rib. We discover that a military force with vastly superior firepower suddenly abandons all advantage and common sense to pursue a ground campaign where one would obviously not be needed with a few more sweeps of missiles and incendiaries. Most importantly, that bald headed dick soldier monkey is TOTALLY gonna die, right? Avatar begins to fail as soon as it becomes Braveheart, and the story is simply too one sided to have any resonance with me. It's not playing this for laughs. Most of the actors do a decent job with what they have, and the setting is believable. But it's time, Hollywood, that you hired real writers for your movies. A few tweaks, a little more depth, perhaps a little motivation for MegaWickedCorp #67264 besides just the ching of cash...and Avatar could have been a real contender.

Tied in with the corniest pseudo-African/Indian choir-driven score I've heard since The Lion King, I seriously had to fight back the tears at this movie, even if it was better than Titanic. There are some truly terrible scenes here, most of which dominate the latter quarter of the film. But I stopped caring about the characters long before that. It appears that 2009 will not produce a masterwork the likes of The Dark Knight or the Wrestler. Avatar is not nearly as bad as, say, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Bile, or 2012, or Transformers 2: Revenge at the Box Office, but it's weak. It becomes quickly apparent where all that money was spent. I'm awarding it 5 points for the special effects alone, and I do believe it's something you should watch, if only for that. But once again, I find myself underwhelmed and left hollow by a hype machine. No wonder foreign films are kicking our know, the ones with good stories?

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10] (YE'LL NEVER HAVE ARRR FREEDUMMB)


(the checks are in the mail)


is this your life? said...

Ha, my mate was trying to convince me to see this today, saying it was the Star Wars of our times and that I would be astounded by it. I generally have similar tastes to him, but I've had a bad feeling about this. I might try and sneak in if I go see another movie so I can catch the visuals.

Kiel said...

An interesting activity is to copy and paste reviews of "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" onto a forum.

Sans plot details people assume you're talking about Avatar.


World War I part 2 incoming