Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar

Being director James Cameron’s first non-documentary feature since his monster epic Titanic which was over twelve years ago, I was honestly expecting a great deal more, especially considering that this is a movie that he wrote, directed and produced. However, he does have a track record for technically advanced films that often fall short on plot and structure. And Avatar is no exception to this trend. This is probably the most overly hyped film of the year. Aside from the radiant special effects and masterful editing, there was nothing too impressive about this movie. Cameron had originally written an eighty-page scriptment some fifteen years ago and filming was supposed to commence immediately after Titanic. But he held off on pursuing its development and production because the visual effects capabilities were limited at the time. Cameron had a vision of what the film would look like and did not want to cheapen his foresight of this imagined world on screen. This kind of integrity for a filmmaker is indeed admirable, and I am not saying that this is a bad movie nor am I saying that Cameron’s work isn’t without merit. What I am saying is that Avatar simply isn’t as great as people have been making it out to be.

The self-proclaimed “King of the World” has created an entirely fictional universe centered around this lush Earth-like moon called Pandora. When a new deployment of soldiers from Earth arrive on Pandora, one of the commanding officers proclaims, “You’re not in Kansas in anymore,” which is a reference to Cameron’s favorite film The Wizard of Oz. As a satellite of the planet Polyphemus, it harbors enormous deposits of an extremely rare and valuable mineral called Unobtainium. Over 150 years into the future, humans have exhausted their resources on their own planet and have begun the relentless pursuit of this substance that is vital to the very survival of the human race. This aspect presents one of many gaps in the storyline; the backdrop as to what exactly happened on Earth is never explained and why humans are forced to travel light years away to recover this precious mineral Unobtainium. All this is unveiled early on in the film as the audience quickly realizes that the humans are the predators invading another species’ realm of existence. Sound at all familiar? Well, if you ever saw Hector Babenco’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord about an indigenous tribe that is being threatened by gold miners in the jungles of Brazil, then you can probably identify with Avatar. And this isn’t even the most compelling film comparison.

Now in all fairness, the conjoined art direction and special effects employed to create this alien planet is nothing short of spectacular. The two worlds of live action and computer-generated segments gracefully combine together on screen and in no way appear false or layered. Much of which is a direct result of the technological advancements made in the computer-generated images (CGI) filming process on this film. The use of digital images on screen began in1993 when Steven Spielberg integrated live action scenes with computer-generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. The visual effects team at Weta Digital of New Zealand has taken this process to a whole new level. For Avatar, Cameron made use of an augmented reality system called a "virtual camera" to view the computer-generated outcome of the motion capture process in real time, much in the same way video games manipulate images from various angles. This new virtual camera system fosters a brand new method of motion-caption filmmaking. All previous methods limited the extent of the virtual output profusely. Cameron proclaimed this development as a “form of pure creation where if you want to move a tree or a mountain or the sky or change the time of day, you have complete control over the elements.”

They also created a new system of digitally lighting massive areas so as to realistically create the atmosphere and nuances of the jungles on Pandora. But probably the most significant achievement was the design of a specialized camera that captured the intricate facial expressions of the actors themselves. This allowed the filmmakers to transfer 100% of the actors' physical performances to their digital counterparts. So the filmmakers don’t just create a computer-animated image in response to prerecorded dialog. The real emotions and reactions of each actor’s face are actually used to create the image of the generated character. Therefore, the depictions of the alien beings on screen are just as much performances as the actual humans are. Weta Digital’s procedure could possibly eliminate any future issues of considering CGI performances for acting awards. This was so controversial in 2002 when Andy Serkis was in contention for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his voice role as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers which until now has been the most plausible character created in this manner.

The aliens on Pandora are the Na’vi, a ten-foot-tall blue-skinned species of sapient humanoids. They intricately co-exist with the nature on their planet/moon, and worship a Mother Nature-type being known as Eywa. Much of who they are revolves around the animals and plants, to the point where they can feel can the very livelihood of their surrounding environment. Dr. Paul Frommer, a linguist professor at USC, created the fictional language spoken by the Na’vi in the movie. Their tongue's phonemes include ejective consonants such as the "kx" in "skxawng" that are found in the Amharic language of Ethiopia, and the initial "ng" that Cameron may have taken from New Zealand Maori. While Unobtainium draws strong comparisons to society’s addiction to oil, the Na'vi draw obvious parallels with Native Americans. This faction presents obvious similarities with such films as Terrence Malick’s The New World which retells the story of Captain John Smith and British settlers invading the Powhatan Tribe in what is now Virginia, and Disney’s version of the same story Pocahontas.

The anticipated resistance of the Na’vi against the human invasion of Pandora entices alternate methods to infiltrate their world in a more diplomatic fashion. A group of scientists develop the Avatar Program, which telepathically implants the mind of a given human into a genetically engineered biological body of a Na’vi alien. These Avatars are genetically created from the DNA of its designated human occupant, creating a kind of sixth sense connection. Sigourney Weaver plays Dr. Grace Augustine, an exobiologist in charge of the Avatar Program. She brings a cursory sense to the role while still maintaining a presence of authority. From her Alien roles, we already know that Weaver is very capable of portraying such a strong intelligent female character.

Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic US Marine who is recruited for the mission on Pandora after his twin brother is killed in action before he can partake in the Avatar Program himself. Because his DNA is of the same make-up as his sibling, Jake essential takes over where he left off. After waking up from a six-year cryogenic sleep, Jake finds himself on Pandora amidst the Avatar Program and all that embodies it. Once in his Avatar form, Jake fully inhabits his new part-alien, part-human body from its head to its prehensile tail. Revealing in his new found abilities to run, jump, and have complete use and feeling of his legs again. Worthington is tough, gruff and assertive all at once as the genetic pioneer turned insurrectionist. He fosters his character both as a human and an Avatar quite well. We believe that his remorse for his dead brother is genuine, but can empathize with his desire to be able to walk again.

Although physically emancipated, Jake is consciously bound to the corporation that put him in his Avatar. He is tasked to infiltrate the Na’vi culture and persuade them to cooperate with the mining operation. Jake soon meets a Na’vi female by the name of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who saves his life and brings him back to her clan. As Jake spends more and more time with her, a profound trust ensues and inevitably a romance blossoms between them. This angle is very cliché and becomes the obvious contradicting motive behind Jake’s do or don’t dilemma. Even though Saldana never appears on screen as anything but an alien, the melodramatic level to which she takes her character to is a huge saving point for the film. Saldana embraces the technology and allows her performance to transcend her character's unfamiliar appearance. You can almost feel the emotion in her eyes and hear the compassion and conviction in her dialogue, making you forget that you’re even watching a CGI hybrid of human performances. I could see Saldana being nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, which would make her the first to do so as a fully computer generated character.

Another performance that renders well is Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch. Lang creates a comic book-like character of masculinity as this marine turned warrior who seemingly can endure anything. He is consumed by his will and sees this as a do or die mission for the sake of all mankind; this is a common character type for Cameron. The scars on his face only reinforce that he is just as tough as he lets on. Lang reaches out and fiercely dominates this role, much in the way that he did earlier this year in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Colonel Quaritch becomes the bad guy you love to hate. The other token villain of the movie is Parker Selfridge, played by Giovanni Ribisi. He is the nasty corporate executive who will stop at nothing to overthrow the Na’vi and ultimately harvest their Unobtainium supply. Parker is the most ignorant of all and represents a cliché sense of Capitalism that is overly exhausted throughout the film.

Putting all the technical achievements and filming developments aside, the overall story of the film is not anything revolutionary. Too many people are consumed by the layers of special effects and forget that at there is a story at the root of it all. Cameron’s script is rooted in this contemporary eco-green mindset, nurturing messages and sympathies that are entirely predictable and unchallenging. When Jake infiltrates the Na’vi and falls in love with Neytiri, he begins to question his own values and the morals behind the Avatar Program. He is torn between two bodies and his two loyalties. This story has been told before, and before it, and before it again. Avatar too closely parallels other major films, namely Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse and Kevin Costner’s Academy Award winning Dances With Wolves, right down to the conflict of interest that evolves from the romance with a native woman and reverenced denouement for the tribe. Cameron’s characterizations and dialogue are often crude and simplistic, although the hackneyed dialogue does seem appropriate for the genre. However, it is notable that Cameron does attempt to use a classic three-act structure here, which is unlike most sci-fi and action films that have an aggressive opening scene to draw viewers in. When a film is regarded as highly as Avatar has been, it is only fair to expect a marvelously intricate and original storyline. Avatar fails at this and thrives only on its visual effects for mass appeal. This alone is not enough to constitute a great film.

James Cameron is a great overall filmmaker, even if his prose is shoddy and mediocre. Thematically, Avatar plays too simplistically into stereotypical nefarious white-man versus virtuous-native clichés. It is undeniable that he does have a knack for orchestrating movies that effectively forge a variety of aspects on screen. And he has gone to great lengths to create a movie that seeps with profound detail and has visually stimulating scenes. On a purely experiential level, the technical advances made will certainly be employed in future films to come and has raised the standards for all features of its kind. His relentless effort to bring credibility to science fiction cinema is an archetype of achievement. While Avatar may indeed be the most expensive and technically ambitious film ever made, it falls short on overall illustriousness for an epic.

Rating: ★ ★ 1/2
Bottom Line: Although a visually stunning spectacle, it is an overly hyped epic that is essentially just Dances With Wolves in Sci-Fi.


Leona Lewis: "I See You"

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