Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Avatar": "FernGully", "Aliens", and "Dances With Wolves" had a circle-jerk

The internet is buzzing. The masses have spoken. According to the voting members of IMDB, James Cameron's return to the silver screen after a 12-year hiatus, Avatar (#21), is a better movie than Apocalypse Now (#36), Taxi Driver (#40), It's a Wonderful Life (#30), Sunset Blvd (#32), Lawrence of Arabia (#42), and Citizen Kane (#34).

The internet is filled with moronic addicts whose drug of choice is a bunch of tall slender blue women jumping around, making shit explode. Surprise, surprise: the masses are comprised of fucking idiots.

As I promised in my review of everything I had seen and still wanted to see from 2009, I begrudgingly packed my trusty Moleskine and a few cans of contraband soda into my jacket and braved a truly miserable Chicago afternoon to walk up to a ticket booth and say the phrase, "1 for 'Avatar', please".

I unwittingly timed my afternoon to attend a 3D screening, which even for a 3:20 showtime, cost me $14. Don't ever doubt I love my readers, folks.

As I found a seat in the back of the theater and donned my 3D glasses, adding me to the impromptu Rivers Cuomo lookalike convention, I reflected on everything I knew about "Avatar":

1. 20th Century Fox thought advertising a sci-fi action-adventure flick as "FROM THE DIRECTOR OF TITANIC" made sense.

2. Sam Worthington seems to be the go-to action movie hero of the moment, despite the fact his best acting trait seems to be "brood with strong jaw line".

3. I just paid $14 to watch what would happen if "Halo" and "FernGully" had a crack baby they beat mercilessly.

"Avatar" follows a paraplegic ex-Marine who travels to the planet Pandora to be a part of a private mining company. There's a very special mineral underneath Pandora's toxic atmosphere, "unobtainium", which, due to the protective native species of the Na'vi, is unobtainable. I hope you caught that subtlety, there.

Worthington's ex-Marine had a twin brother that was a pilot in the avatar program, which combines the DNA of a human and Na'vi into a remote-control humanoid. After his brother's untimely death, Worthington steps up to the plate to use the DNA-matched avatar, mainly so he can feel the sensation of running again. His mission is to gather information for the military contractors and try to embed himself with the natives, and see if he can convince them to allow their sacred lands to be mined.

The next two hours are essentially "Dances With Wolves" in space - Worthington falls in love with a tall blue lady (Zoe Saldana), and has a military-versus-science conflict straight out of "The Abyss" with Sigourney Weaver as Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Giovanni Ribisi plays Paul Reiser's role from "Aliens" as a mining exec that doesn't care about overrunning the natives to get his unobtanium, and Stephen Lang plays the hot-headed jarhead from any of Cameron's movies that just wants to kill. Worthington predictably grows to appreciate the native culture and vows to fight for its preservation.

The plot is as thin as the movie is long and the Na'vi are blue. The beats are predictable, and a few cheap screenwriting plants pay off in a way that will fool your average filmgoer into thinking there is a story beyond "boy turns into blue boy, falls for blue girl, fights with blue people against mean greedy white people".

How crass of me to desire an actual story and some characters to go along with my computer-generated wizardry. Call me old-fashioned.

The real star and draw of Avatar, namely, the CGI, is impressive. Using an incredibly detailed system of motion capture, from the actor's bodies to the movements of their facial muscles, Cameron has created the most expressive animated characters ever put on film.

Aside from the details of the facial movements and morphing the actor's facial features into their digital characters (Sigourney Weaver's avatar is the most striking in this regard), the graphics do not seem so ground-breaking. It's a video-game movie, albeit a very-well rendered one, but had I not been bombarded by news stories about the revolutionary graphics at play, I honestly do not think I would have been able to tell the difference. It's not a far cry from what we've seen in the latest "Star Wars" movies, "300", "The Lord of The Rings" trilogy, or any other effects-heavy film we've seen in the past decade, the main difference is that there is just so much of it.

Unintentionally seeing the film in 3D, I must admit, was a treat. Even though the plot was next to non-existent and the graphics mostly looked slightly better than a PS3 title, the gimmick of three dimensions made the viewing experience interesting inasmuch it was different. I didn't notice at first, but I found that throughout the movie I was periodically taking my glasses off momentarily to determine whether the film would be as stimulating without them. Aside from the obvious issue of double-vision, the answer was "no": without the extra "wow" factor from seeing the CGI rendered in 3D, the film would have seemed like just another CGI-heavy picture.

Watching "Avatar" was the cinematic version of eating a can of cake frosting: there's some guilty pleasure to be derived, but no nutritional value.

TOO MUCH: dependence on the graphics; hype; placing the subtitles at weird depths just because they could with 3D

COULD HAVE USED MORE: character development, plot... you know, those things that make movies interesting

FILM SNOB NOTE: I realize I sound as though I'm contradicting myself when I praise the rendered facial expressions of the avatars and Na'vi but pan the overall effect of the graphics. This is because I was always aware I was looking at CGI. One of the best CGI movies of the past few years - "Zodiac". You didn't even know that entire scenes were shot blue screen, for example:

Yes, I get that a period piece police procedural is not the same as a sci-fi popcorn flick, but to paraphrase Peter Griffin on "The Godfather", the CGI in "Avatar" insisted on itself. That pissed me off, because there was basically nothing beyond the imaging. Did you notice how I couldn't really hone in on anything to talk about when reviewing this movie? That's a problem if you can't say anything about something you spent two and a half hours watching.

IHYFM RATING: TWO out of FIVE MEHS. The amount of CGI in the film and the lengths Cameron went to get it is impressive, but there's nothing compelling about the story. All that glitters is not gold.

IF YOU SAID THIS WAS YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE, I'D THINK: Either you're being ironic, or you're just an idiot.


  1. As far as this being the best movie of 2009, as stated by the Montreal Film Journal, all I can say is, "No." I mean, it comes nowhere near the amazingness of "Up", "Inglourious Basterds", or "The Hannah Montana Movie". I too saw it in 3-D, and have recommended it, based on the premise that the CGI and 3-D aspect of it are incredible. However, I too agree that the plot is ridiculous. As far as the movie is concerned, it is nowhere near one of the greatest films of all time, not even in the top 100 in my book. BUT, I do think that the amount of time and money Cameron spent in revolutionizing the 3-D and camera technologies will pay off in the intense action movies of the future, ones that will ultimately be better, such as "Terminator 5", "Armageddon 2: Armageddoner", and whatever movie Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe decide to do after "Robin Hood".

    Things I liked about the movie: A legit return for Michelle Rodriguez (after she went coke-y and then insane), the CGI, the re-re-re-ressurection of Sigourney Weaver, the Bush-isms of Stephen Lang ("The only way to fight terror is with terror"..."This is a pre-emptive strike to save our way of life"..."Who really gives a shit about nature and the environment"...).

    Things I expected to see more of: Either Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard, or Jason Isaacs showing up as the overlord of Lang's character. Speaking of Isaacs, let's play a little 7 degrees of Kevin Bacon. Avatar to Isaacs, Isaacs to Lucius Malfoy, Malfoy to Harry Potter franchise, Harry Potter Franchise to Voldemort, Voldemort to Ralph Fiennes, Ralph Fiennes to 'Hades' in Clash of the Titans. PHHEEEWWWW. So, the purpose for that was to point out that Ralph Fiennes is now playing Greco-Roman God of Hell and the Dead...do you think he's been typecasted?

    I give this movie a decent handshake and a smile. Acid tripping never felt so good...

  2. Mr. Friend, I am glad you are my, er, friend.

    This was a tough one to write - I didn't outright hate it, I was just really non-plussed. The technology IS impressive. I think Scott Tobias of The Onion's AV Club said it best when he stated (paraphrasing here) it's more of a demonstration of technology than a movie.