Thursday, December 24, 2009

Avatar/ **** (PG-13)

Jake Sully: Sam Worthington
Neytiri: Zoë Saldana
Dr. Grace Augustine: Sigourney Weaver
Colonel Miles Quartich: Stephen Lang
Trudy Chacon: Michelle Rodriguez
Parker Selfridge: Giovanni Ribisi
Norm Spellman: Joel David Moore
Moat: CCH Pounder
Eytukan: Wes Studi
Tsu’tey: Laz Alonso

20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by James Cameron. Running time: 162 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking).

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.”
-Pulp Fiction (1994)

In the film “Pulp Fiction”, the character of Jules Winnfield sites Ezekiel 25:17 as the source of his speech that begins with the line above. While much of his speech can be found in Ezekiel 25, there is nothing resembling these words there. I’m not sure where writer Quentin Tarantino pulled the opening line of this speech, but James Cameron’s latest film “Avatar” seems to be cut from the same cloth as that hitman’s attempt at rectitude.

In this case the selfish and evil are the human race and the righteous are the Na’vi, an indigenous alien race of a planet called Pandora. An Earth corporation has targeted Pandora for mining, at all costs, of a precious metal. In a lame attempt to make things look better the corporation has hired a group of scientists to “educate” the Na’vi so they can negotiate a relocation process for the native sentient beings of the planet.

At the start of the film we learn one of the scientists has died in an accident, so the corporation has recruited his crippled twin brother, Jake, to replace him in their specialized Avatar program. The scientific team, lead by Dr. Grace Augustine, is not happy to have a “grunt” on their team as their program involves a great knowledge of the Na’vi culture. The Avatars are organic bodies of the ten foot blue Na’vi race, which the scientists can operate through individual remote consciousness access ports. This allows the scientists to better relate to the Na’vi, who are naturally fearful of the humans, in a one on one direct contact basis.

The scientists are soon surprised by Jake’s more instinctive nature, however, when a leader in the Na’vi community, Neytiri, decides there is something about Jake’s nature that allows him to fit in well with the Na’vi’s warrior culture. Meanwhile, it seems the scientists fears aren’t totally unfounded as the corporation’s face on Pandora, Parker Selfridge, and the military leader on Pandora, Colonel Miles Quartich, recruit the wheel chair-bound Marine as a spy with the promise to return the use of his legs. Which side will Jake fall on once he is ensconced in the Navi culture, the benevolence of science and understanding, or the aggressive corporate and military mindset he has been trained for?

So that’s the plot of “Avatar”, most likely the least of what any of you have heard about this highly anticipated film. While the plot it is the least impressive aspect of the movie, it is well handled here by the filmmakers. In fact, it’s one of the strongest stories James Cameron has produced throughout a career that has often seen the humane elements of his science fiction plots handled in cardboard fashion. The film dives deep into the dichotomy of our human nature—our desire to both understand the worlds we inhabit and our insatiable need to destroy in the name of progress.

Despite the scientists’ impression of Jake as stupid and uneducated, the Na’vi correctly see him as “an empty vessel” with room for filling and with a childlike ability to see their world with unbiased eyes. This also works for Jake’s military mindset of following orders without question. Sam Worthington—who also did a good job in “Terminator Salvation” of not signaling his character’s true nature—does a good job balancing his two missions, scientific and military, in a way that the audience can understand his motivations for wanting to complete both of them.

The supporting cast also does a commendable job of reaching beyond their character archetypes. Sigourney Weaver’s work here as the hardened yet empathetic Dr. Grace is reminiscent of her Academy Award nominated work as Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist”. Giovanni Ribisi (“Public Enemies”) allows the audience to believe that his company man, Selfridge, might actually consider the wrongs he is committing, if only in the back of his mind. Although Col. Quartich is a typical military representation, devoid of humanity, Stephen Lang proves with his performance here and this year’s other movies, “Public Enemies” and “The Men Who Stare at Goats”, that he is the character actor of the year. And, Zoë Saldana (“Star Trek”) emotes beauty and compassion even though she never appears on screen in any form other than the CGI created ten foot tall blue Na’vi.

None of this is what makes this film so amazing. It is a good sci-fi story and might make pretty good popcorn entertainment with typical studio attention, but this one has the attention of the ultra-technically oriented Cameron at the helm. His last film, “Titanic”, was the most expensive movie ever made more than ten years ago and became the biggest grossing movie ever, a title that has not been taken from it in the intervening decade. Cameron was responsible for developing the CGI technology that has become a staple of Hollywood blockbusters for his far less financially successful undersea sci-fi flick “The Abyss”. He continues to stretch the bounds of the film going experience with this movie.

The CGI work in “Avatar” is more stunning as anything you’ll see in “Transformers” or “The Twilight Saga”,. The bright alien world of Pandora is filled with the colors and translucence of plants and creatures great and small and often frightening. The human technology of this story’s future is impressive in its magnitude. Cameron never hides his lines in darkness or editing. The trickeries used by most directors to conceal the illusion of their special effects work are a coward’s game for this director. Most of the film is effects work and most of it takes place in full sunlight without benefit of shadowy atmosphere or quick cut editing.

I’ve seen clips on television, and although those scenes do look good, it might make one wonder just why the special effects are being praised as so revolutionary. While it is important that this film works outside of the 3D format that has been pushed so heavily in its anticipation, the 3D format is really the only way to truly experience the power of this picture. Cameron has proven with this picture that not only is 3D a viable format for serious live action filmmakers, but it will be a format which many, many more filmmakers will be choosing to exhibit their work in the future.

For all the beauty that can be found on Pandora in two dimensions, its beauty is multiplied tenfold when seen in three dimensions. Cameron, through years of working with the 3D format in undersea documentaries, is already a master of utilizing 3D for ultimate effect. The film opens in a zero gravity environment, and the somewhat disorienting 3D effect adds to the viability of this environment for the audience. But, the audience can adjust to this 3D experience at the very same rate the film’s hero must adjust to his new environment. We see the power of the format as Jake witnesses the massive industrial equipment of the human base and the radical beauty of Pandora. By the time we reach the end of the movie, the 3D format has become second nature as much to the audience as Jake’s avatar Na’vi body has become to him.

When Tarantino released “Pulp Fiction” in 1994, it was an obvious sea change shift in filmmaking style. With the release of “Avatar”, we are witnessing yet another monumental shift in the type of entertainment we seek out to enjoy. In many ways, Cameron’s work here is even more important than Tarantino’s. “Avatar” is not merely a stylistic shift, but a visual one—one that not only affects the way we interpret movies, but one that physically changes the way we watch them. I can see a day when almost all movies are presented in three dimensions, a closer step to that virtual reality we all seem to seek from our entertainment. With the message that Cameron infuses into his story here, his work could be interpreted as righteous indeed.

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