Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar: Myth-making

Avatar (2009) • View trailer for Avatar
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, sensuality, brief profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.18.09
Buy DVD: Avatar • Buy Blu-Ray: Avatar (Three-Disc Extended Collector's Edition + BD-Live) [Blu-ray]

This is cinematic world-building on an epic, jaw-dropping scale.

Berkeley Breathed, late of Bloom County and Opus, delivered an entertaining rant in the Nov. 19 Los Angeles Times, and complained about the rampant complacence of the modern movie viewer. Computer-enhanced graphics make the fantastic far too ordinary, he argued; movie patrons have seen it all before, and yawn at what should astound them.

I can think back to seminal moments in filmmaking history: the ones that generated a sense of wonder that only a well-crafted science-fiction film can deliver. For example, we've no concept  at this great remove  of how viewers went absolutely nuts over Walt Disney's 1954 adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Movie audiences simply hadn't been taken to the ocean depths before, and folks were utterly knocked out.
Thanks to the data gathered by Jake (Sam Worthington, left) while in his avatar
form, Grace (Sigourney Weaver, foreground) and Norm (Joel David Moore)
learn more about the fascinating symbiosis between this planet's indigenous
people and every plant and animal in their environment. Trudy (Michelle
Rodriguez, background), a tough-talking gunship pilot who has come to respect
this scientific work, waits for instructions about their next mission.

I was around, however, for the similar thrill afforded by the opening of 1977's Star Wars, as Princess Leia's consular ship was pursued by the massive Imperial star destroyer: so huge it seemed to emanate from the space behind us in the theater. The deep-space thrills only got better, building to the vertigo-inducing climax when Luke Skywalker made his strafing run on the Death Star.

Many years passed before another movie delivered a similar eye-popping jolt, when 1993's Jurassic Park had me half-convinced that Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton had found a scientist who really did grow dinosaurs with cloning techniques.

And now, with Avatar, writer/director James Cameron's crew has taken us to another whole planet, with its own extremely complicated eco-system. The breathtaking attention to detail covers everything from topography to the nighttime sky, from the tiniest insect to the most massive lumbering predator, from huge trees to the yielding moss that glows green when trod upon.

Some of this newness and strangeness, due to narrative necessity, is highlighted and commented upon. Most of it, however, is just there: alternately dazzling or simply different things to see and hear, which quietly contribute both to the otherworldliness of this environment, and the notion that we are, indeed, no longer in Kansas.

Enormous care has been taken, while creating an entire interconnected ecosystem.

Very, very impressive.

None of which would amount to anything, of course, absent a story that engages our minds while our eyes busily, hungrily devour all these luscious images. Cameron always has been a simplistic, meat-and-potatoes writer whose scripts are influenced heavily by the state of his real-world affairs: thus the marital wish-fulfillment of 1989's disappointing The Abyss.

Similarly, Avatar is a blatant ecological message movie from an unrepentent tree-hugger: an angry swipe at massive corporations that rape our planet in pursuit of favorable quarterly stockholder reports. As such  and for another big reason that I'll not divulge here, as it's crucial to the plot  militant conservatives are apt to greet this film with indignant scorn.

Cameron isn't shy about taking sides, and Avatar can be viewed as a film Michael Moore might make, were he willing to expand beyond documentaries.

And yet  and this is key  that's the very nature of good science-fiction: transplanting our real-world problems to an alien setting, where demons can be exorcised and solutions can be explored; where our own bad behavior can be held up for contempt in a fictitious setting that heightens the reader/viewer's awareness.

Avatar may take little more than a pop-culture approach to such weighty issues, but it's definitely about something ... which makes this film a lot more significant and well-intentioned than the mindless popcorn emptiness of last summer's Transformers sequel.

The story takes place in 2154, three decades after humans have established a mining colony on Pandora, a moon with an Earth-like environment that orbits the gas-giant planet Polyphemus, in the Alpha Centauri-A star system. Aside from impressively dangerous animal life and an atmosphere that is poisonous to humans, this mining activity has encroached into the territory of the indigenous Na'vi, and escalating tensions between the two species are threatening all-out war.

We experience all this through the eyes of newcomer Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine who uses a wheelchair. Jake has come to Pandora after the unexpected death of his brother, to take his sibling's place in an "avatar program" led by botanist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver).

Thanks to bio-engineered Na'vi bodies, the human "drivers" can place their consciousness inside these huge, blue-skinner "avatars." The goal is to integrate with the Na'vi, win their trust and encourage them to allow the mining for a precious ore rather whimsically dubbed unobtainium, which is key to solving Earth's energy crisis back home.

Grace, who has poured her heart and soul into this program for years, deeply resents Jake's last-minute "intrusion"; aside from being overly cocky and glib, the man isn't trained to any degree. But Jake shares his late brother's DNA, and nobody else could control this particular avatar.

To make matters worse, Jake's arrival is regarded far more favorably by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), head of security for the human base on Pandora. Believing he can count on their shared military background  although this is strictly a for-hire mercenary operation  Quaritch asks Jake to spy on both Grace and the Na'vi.

The trigger-happy Quaritch has no interest in making nice with this indigenous species; he'd just as soon blast them all into blue-skinned bits.

Quaritch's attitude is shared by Parker Silfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the on-site corporate weasel concerned solely with the bottom line. The ruthless, bean-counting Silfridge is a virtual carbon-copy of Paul Reiser's equally loathsome Carter Burke, in Cameron's Aliens, and Ribisi plays the part with the same infuriatingly condescending attitude.

It's a tough call, at times, as to whether we hate Quaritch or Silfridge more.

Joel David Moore plays the bookish Norm Spellman, Jake's much more experienced avatar colleague  Norm even has the complicated Na'vi language down  and Michelle Rodriguez fills the obligatory "Cameron action heroine" role as saucy, sultry Trudy Chacon, pilot of the intriguing tilt-rotor gunships. (Rodriguez is perfect for the part.)

Thanks to a blend of luck, bravado and ecological symbiosis  which will prove quite important, as this story progresses  Jake's avatar form wins the grudging tolerance of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a huntress of a nearby Na'vi clan. As something of the clan's "first daughter," she proves a most beneficial companion, and is charged with educating Jake in the ways of both Pandora and her people.

At which point, Jake's loyalties begin to waver. Although he lacks Grace's scientific appreciation for the amazing harmony with which the Na'vi co-exist with virtually everything on Pandora  from other animal life to the massive tree in which Neytiri's clan resides  our protagonist nonetheless recognizes the respect these people have for each other and everything else.

On top of which, in his incredibly powerful, 10-foot Na'vi body, with its dextrous, three-fingered hands and larger, more observant eyes, Jake can forget the useless legs of his human form, back in the "pod" that puts his consciousness into his avatar self.

In just the same way that we whole-heartedly embrace the Na'vi as living, breathing characters  the distraction of CGI artifice simply not an issue  Jake finds more and more to respect in his new environment.

Besides, Neytiri is a sultry little hottie, with minimal apparel that barely conceals her (to Jake) quite familiar gender characteristics.

The three avatars have facial characteristics that suggest Worthington, Weaver and Moore just enough to allow us to recognize them among all the other Na'vi. It's a clever touch that also makes sense, given the combinatorial DNA tech that "built" the avatars.

One narrative detail proves more bothersome as the film proceeds, however. When in his avatar form, Jake's consciousness exists in real time; he 'returns' to his human form only when his avatar self sleeps for the night. In theory, the "real" Jake then could sleep himself ... but it never seems to work out that way: He's forever making video reports, or meeting with Quaritch, or arguing with Grace, or trading tough talk with Trudy.

So the question becomes more pressing, as time passes: When does Jake sleep? He seems to be conscious 24/7, which, of course, is ridiculous. Cameron needed to work out that issue a bit more carefully.

The film runs long  close to three hours  but the time is justified. Most of the first hour is spent as Jake becomes acquainted with Pandora and the Na'vi; by making this character such an untrained newbie, Cameron has the excuse to introduce this planet to us, as well. And, because everything is conceived with such visual and ecological care, this extended first act isn't the slightest bit boring.

Things become progressively more grim as we move into the second and third acts, and several sections of this film are extremely difficult to watch. Again, that's high tribute to the degree with which we become fully immersed in both this story and its setting.

Watching all this in 3D heightens the experience even more, but it's important to note that Cameron avoids the usual gimmicky, "duck and cover" bits found in lesser 3D films. Mauro Fiore's lush 3D cinematography is simply part of the overall package.

The film's smooth pacing owes much to editors John Refoua and Stephen Rivkin, who crank things into exciting high gear for the climactic final hour. James Horner delivers a rich orchestral score that works equally well to build suspense or amplify tragedy.

Leona Lewis' closing-credit performance of the song "I See You," however, is one cornball touch too many. It's even more overwrought than Celine Dion's handling of "My Heart Will Go On," from Titanic ... and I wouldn't have thought that possible.

Cameron is bound to take some heat for the degree to which his story frequently wears its liberal heart on its sleeve, but that's OK; the only important consideration is whether he delivered on his years-in-the-making promise to dazzle us.

That he does.

No comments:

Post a Comment