Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi
Director: James Cameron
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In the many early raves for James Cameron’s Avatar, one critic compared the film to the first major talkie, The Jazz Singer.
Not a bad comparison. The 1927 audience for that film was undoubtedly astounded by that first magic sprinkling of sound onto film. Yet 1927 happens to be the greatest year for silent filmmaking. Few would think of The Jazz Singer as being artistically in the same league as Metropolis, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Sunrise, The General, Eisenstein’s October, etc.
It is undeniable that Avatar is a stunning 3-dimensional showcase that may well be ahead of its time.Nor is it mind-numbed – it has something to say. Cameron’s Noble Savage fantasy is too deeply felt a mindset to deny it springs from a personal ideology. Yet Avatar is so miserably written and so far off on its own merry Marxist moonbeam that it becomes a challenge to entirely give your heart to. I left wishing that this staggering technological advance had accompanied a story that didn't need excuses made for it.
Avatar is a sort of Space Age Dances With Wolves, with one eye beautifully open to painterly excess and one ear closed to its atrocious third-grade dialogue. With its three-dimensional CG effects, every inch of the theater seems to be in play with something new and stunning to see. Unfortunately, though, we must hear, too. It’s not that the dialogue is badly written. It’s that it is calculatingly idiotic, betting on exactly how low the international lowest common denominator goes.
The plot can be (and is) diagrammed in the first ten minutes, which it then executes like a battle plan for the next two and a half hours. Wheelchair-bound Marine Jake Sully volunteers for a mission to a far away forest moon Pandora. A human military outpost has been scraped onto the surface. The planet’s natives are the 12-foot blue Na’vi, the sort of eco-friendly inhabitants that only exist in the minds of the Hollywood Hills.
The scientists on the planet want to make peace. Through technology, the humans transport into Na’vi bodies – called avatars – when they sleep. Jake’s avatar comes to be accepted among the Na’vi, learning their ways with horse-like creatures, flying on candy-colored pterodactyls, and falling in love. For a peace-loving society, all of their customs are curiously martial. Who exactly is at home cooking the roast?
Once taken in by the Na’vi, the military branch wants him to spy. Their mission is to clear the Na’vi village to make way or mission of peace is spat upon by the militarists on the moon, who want to drive away the Na’vi and clear the woods so that a corporation can mine a valuable ore.
Avatar’s anti-imperial enviro-friendly storyline, of a purely innocent living in harmony with nature Na’vi and the bulldozing American military, is heavy-handed, and presumably designed for distribution overseas. Really, it’s only missing Richard Gere asking us to send vibrations of good feeling to the Chinese leadership. However, what it reduces the Nav’i to plot points and constructed others without much personality, whose only duty is to create a fantasy opposite for thinly-drawn humans to mistreat.
The motion-capture animation is brilliantly life-like, and there isn’t a hint of feeling like you are in a movie. It is lovely, painterly, and from the minute you arrive on Cameron’s Fantasy Island. the concentration the way that every inch of it is loaded with a small, beautiful detail, is truly astonishing. But is it really worth $400 million dollars to produce a better flying dragon?
Avatar forces its viewers into a huge choice – should we forgive Avatar its trespasses in favor of its claim to film history? Or should we wait until someone uses the same technology to make an indisputably great and complete film. Is it a crime to hold out for a film with the same technology to a more satisfying artistic end? I think I’ll wait.