Monday, December 5, 2016

(In Defense of) Avatar

Everything is backwards now.  
Like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.

It seems that in the intervening seven years since James Cameron's epic sci-fi Avatar flew onto IMAX 3D screens and became (and still remains) the highest-grossing film of all time, it's not a popular opinion among film fans to think that it's actually "good."  But I've never been one to side with popular opinion. The film made entirely too much money, yes.  It influenced the film industry, with studios focusing more on 3D and CGI than ever before, yielding mixed results at best.  And yes, there's no denying that the film is a classic case of style over substance.  But my god, how can you not just marvel at that style?  The achievement of creating a stunningly-detailed virtual world?  The imagination that went into the designs of the Na'vi, the creatures, the plants, the everything?  Avatar is captivating in ways that most fantasy/sci-fi films only wish they could be, and no matter how boilerplate the screenplay may be at times, I just don't feel that's the same as it being "bad."

Maybe I was sick of doctors telling me what I couldn't do.

Whatever opinion on Cameron's script you have (and I know you have one), it's hard to argue against the fact that objectively, it's functional.  That doesn't sound like high praise, but when you consider pacing and plotting, Avatar absolutely nails the essentials.  How many three hour-long movies fly by this quickly?  Lets not forget that Avatar is almost devoid of Hollywood trends that plague even the best modern blockbusters, i.e. shoehorned-in pop-culture references, snarky self-referencing, and sterile, shaky-cam action.  The story and characters are earnest, which admittedly leads to some corniness.  But have you seen a James Cameron movie?  Corniness goes hand in hand with the outstanding action, and I think it helps give the whole affair some heart.  It's also refreshing to see a film based on an original story (shut up, being derivative is not the same as being based on a comic, a novel, or being a straight remake).  The themes about the evils of imperialism (which are nowhere near outdated) are strong, however on-the-nose they may be.  And although many of the characters are ten-foot tall, blue aliens rendered by a computer, it's easy to care about them and get invested in their culture and plights.

Sky People can not learn, they do not "see."

It helps that the main cast is overall very good, with the clear standout being Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. She carries the film when Sam Worthington (as Jake Sully) is too busy being rather bland.  And although the supporting cast (including Sigorney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, and Joel David Moore) are mostly playing stock characters without much depth, they fully commit to their roles and give the film some personality.  The motion capture tech that gives nuance to the performances of the Na'vi is nothing short of incredible, and I never feel that the actors are being overshadowed by their digital makeup (except for maybe Worthington, but more on that later).  The flattest character, and most one-note performance, comes from Stephen Lang as the villainous Colonel Quaritch, who delivers some pretty awful dialogue and exists purely as a plot device.  I won't deny this though: watching him die at the end is a lot of fun.

Where's my cigarette?

Speaking of things I don't particularly like, that opening narration is just... too much.  Jake tells the audience literally EVERYTHING we need to know about him; his disability, his brother, his military background, most of which is just reiterated through dialogue minutes later!  This robs the film of chances for characters to connect by telling each other a little bit about themselves.  Maybe Jake could have had a conversation with Neytiri about how he can't walk in his "real" body, and how amazing it is to live in his avatar.  Then Neytiri could ask more questions about him and his life on Earth and so on, and strengthened the love story.  The absolute worst aspect of the movie has got to be the name Cameron gives to the precious metal that the military wants to mine for, but can't get to.  Say it with me now: UNOBTANIUM.  That's not on-the-nose, that's inside the nose and nestling with the snot (apologies for the visual).  What the hell was anybody thinking when they let that name get all the way from script to final edit?  Lastly, and I know I've touched on this, but Worthington just doesn't totally work for me as the lead.  He's fitted for the jar head role at first, but he never shows the charisma the character calls for, and I have no doubts that his expressions were modified more so than most in his Na'vi form, because Jake as a character connects far more there than he does as a stone-faced human.  Also, let's not talk about Worthington's Australian accent slippage, which occurs every single time he says "life" and other common words.

Sooner or later, you always have to wake up.

I'm mixed about how I feel about the James Horner score.  In some places it's beautiful, in others it's derivative and obnoxious, and in some cases it's actually too quiet, getting buried beneath sound effects.  I suppose it's above average, and it was never going to compare with his work on Titanic, which remains one of my favorite films scores of all time.  The strongest element in Avatar is its masterful design, which is punctuated by bio-luminescent forests, floating rock islands, and cliff sides filled with dinosaur bird monsters that you can ride.  I mean, it's all just so cool.  And so much gorgeous color!  Someone please let the Marvel Cinematic Universe know that movies are allowed to have color.  I've rarely come out of a theater and desperately needed to visit the place I've just seen, even when those places actually exist.

I was born to do this.

If it didn't make nearly three billion dollars, (or better yet, if it outright bombed), I have no doubt that Avatar would be hailed as an underrated masterpiece; a massive achievement in film making with a cult fan base gaining Firefly levels of devotion.  But that was never going to happen; the Fox marketing team wasn't about the let the next film from the long-absent director of Titanic fall into obscurity.  It was destined to be a hit from birth, though I doubt anyone could have guessed that the highest grossing film of all time would be trumped by the same director's very next movie.  The film has its problems, ranging from a bland lead to a predictable story, but they feel like little islands in a sea of genuine awe and spectacle.  Its CGI may not exactly pass for photo-real live action in every shot, but like the best Disney animation, it makes us forget we're watching cartoons because of the nuance, detail, and (most importantly) believable gravity and motion the animation team delivers.  I still love Avatar, even if the world doesn't - or more than likely, has just forgotten about it.