Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Rob and Jordan are pretty much on the same page about "Avatar"

But they decided to do a collaborative piece anyway. It's pretty short, so you could probably read it in between doing more important things.

RK: After more than a decade in his head and four years in the studio, James Cameron’s Avatar is here. Typical of Cameron’s efforts, Avatar is oversized in scale and ambition. It is also very, very good, if only because it does what too many recent films have failed to do: fill us with wonder and awe.

Avatar is the story of Pandora, a lush moon in the Alpha Centauri system. Humans have colonized Pandora to mine Unobtanium, an ultra-valuable rock that can provide power like nothing on Earth. And by humans, Cameron means Americans, a handful of swaggering corporate-types backed up by a private security force, up to their eyes in rockets and assault rifles.

But they aren’t alone on Pandora. The Na’vi, a race of 10-foot tall, blue-hued bipeds with leonine faces and bioluminescent skin, own the jungle. Miles Quartich, the scarred warhorse commanding Pandora’s mercs (Stephen Lang, overcoming his cartoonish lines with vile gusto), says it best: “They are very hard to kill."

Opposite Quartich is Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, as gratifying as you would hope). A chain-smoking xenopologist (is that a word?), Augustine’s job is to study the planet the suits want to desecrate. Instead of stumbling Pandora wearing a breather, Augustine synchs her brain with a human/Na’vi splice – an avatar. The more she and her team learns about Pandora, the more they cross purposes with Quartich, who would as soon nuke the Na’vi as he would teach them English.

When one of Augustine’s drivers dies, the sponsor company recruits his twin brother to take his place. Jake Sully isn’t your typical avatar driver – an crippled ex-Marine, he has more in common with the mercs than the scientists – but his DNA makes him a natural replacement. Augustine takes him in reluctantly, suspecting him to be a Quartich plant. Which he is, of course: Quartich wants Sully to scout the Na’vi’s home tree, a mammoth sequoia that grows atop Pandora’s richest vein of Unobtanium. If he does his job right, he gets his legs back.

The plot is a throroughly competent, if not predicatble, story of love and colonialism a la Dances With Wolves or Pocahontas. Environmental overtones make the Fern Gully comparisons all too apt. But we’ll get to that soon enough; first, let’s talk about what Cameron has given us in Pandora.

In short: floating mountains, complete with waterfalls that disappear into nothing; giant flowers that yank themselves into chutes when distressed; bugs that helicopter away with a gentle purring noise; giant herbivores with hammerheads, rhino bodies and a very mean territorial instinct; pack-hunting hyenas with an extra set of legs; dragon-birds with heads like battleaxes; and finally, the Na’vi, which move through the trees without pause or effort, like wind.

The palate reads like an homage to the miracle of vision; after watching Avatar, you’ll be exceptionally glad to have working retinas. Blues, greens and reds don’t have the artificial, slathered-on look that plagues Computer Generated Images (for a good example, just watch the Star Wars prequels).

Jordan: am I seeing things, or does Avatar really look this good?

JP: Am I the only person who loved the shit out of those cheesy movie rides they had when we were kids? My enthusiasm for them might have had less to do with their inherent awesomeness than with the fact that I was a huge pussy who didn't ride a rollercoaster until I was in seventh grade. But nevertheless, I remember fondly the slight jump my stomach took when the DeLorean blasted off in Back to the Future: The Ride.

So I was understandably elated when the bottom dropped out of my stomach midway through James Cameron's new CGI skullfuck, Avatar. That first ride on the pterodactyl/bird from Up thing (I think it's actually called a "Mountain Banshee")? My insides did a wonderful forward flip.

It won't surprise you, then, when I offer a series of overwrought adjectives to describe the film's visuals: awe-inspiring, wondrous, magnificent, immersive, bonertastic. This thing feels more like a glass-bottom boat tour than a movie. I felt like I could smell Pandora, like the grandeur of the images practically rolled off the screen. Without looking particularly realistic, it felt so real. Pandora's fauna look like their were designed more to look interesting than to look practical (is Pandora's evolutionary cycle programmed by sneaker freaks?), but their implausibility didn't really bother me: I was just happy to bask in the sumptuous glory of the images.

Avatar, then, is the most wonderful tech demo ever created. It's like a feature-length version of that THX noise at the beginning of Lucasfilm movies (VEEEEEEEEEEEEOOOOOOOWWWWWWWW *ding*). But I've never praised the THX noise for its unparalleled narrative structure or subtly-drawn characters, and I'll similarly withhold praise from Avatar.

The bevy of stock characters is particularly distressing: the fish-out-of-water hero, the asshole corporate-type, the passionate and curmudgeonly scientist. But unlike in Aliens, where Cameron used stock characters to build tension and make the inevitable eviscerations all the more satisfying ("That it's man, game over man. Game over!"), their use here just seems lazy. Or at least hackneyed, like the Beatles' solo stuff ("That kinda sounds like "Eleanor Rigby!"); the bits that work the best merely rehash everyone's favorite parts from Cameron's previous triumphs.

It didn't pass my five-day test; if I'm not still thinking about things I saw or felt five days after seeing a movie, I have a hard time calling the thing "great." But it certainly had me on the edge of my seat, and I certainly wept like a bitch at several key moments. So as far as world-class popcorn, Avatar delivers wonderfully.

RK: Man, Jordan, you cried? Aww. I'd love to see you watch The Lion King.

I think your description of Avatar as "world-class popcorn" is dead-on. The story is nothing spectacular, but it is competent: the dialogue is crisp and down-to-business; brisk plotting and pacing mean the movie's 2 hours and 53 minutes never feel long; and most importantly, at no point did I slap my head in abject disappointment (this happened several times in Revenge of the Sith, a movie I still purport to enjoy).

And Sam Worthington, after stealing the show from Christian Bale in Terminator: Salvation, once again proves himself a nuanced reader of boring roles. He may be a bit fish-out-of-water, but there's a difference between acting lost and appearing lost as an actor. Worthington plays a great everyman.

I suppose it's no great compliment to hail the narrative as competent, inoffensive and distracting. Look: Cameron makes movies to create spectacles, and Avatar sneaks under the wire as the cinematic spectacle of the decade, especially in 3D. As soon as Sully crawls out of his cryotube and floats through his ship's sleeping bay, technicians zipping in the near- and middle-distance, you're engrossed in another world. And it isn't just the computers; this is the part where I call James Cameron visionary. I know, I know. But the fact is, he made me believe in CGI.

George Lucas stripped me of the faith that computers could ever produce anything near credible, but Cameron's Na'vi move with precision, agility, and most importantly, feeling. For the first time, I feel computer-animated expression has emerged from the other side of the uncanny valley. Just watch the Na'vi hiss, laugh and cry. You grow attached to them, as you grow attached to Pandora, that great silent character.

Will Avatar change the way sci-fi epics are made? Not for the short-term, I'd wager. Cameron's production assets are decades beyond most studios. But as pioneers like find ways to make the process more affordable, I hope the accomplishment of Avatar will show filmmakers how to do CGI right - with imagination and humanity, and nothing less.

JP: I'd actually argue that Avatar will change sci-fi epics more in the short term than in the long term. Avatar has set off yet another wave of 3-D mania, but I can't imagine it's going to have much impact in the long run. The 3-D thing comes and goes every twenty years or so (Dial M for Murder was actually a 3-D movie), and I don't think this time is going to be any different. An opponent of the 3-D movement once compared watching a movie to staring through a window; you admire the scenery, but you don't touch it. The emphasis in the critical community on the subtlety of Cameron's use of the technology seems to imply that 3-D is still little more than window-dressing (to extend the metaphor); it doesn't fundamentally alter the viewing experience.

But there's something about the sheer populism of movies like Avatar (and James Cameron's other blockbusters, particularly Titanic) that strikes a chord with me. I've written before about Cameron's commitment to crafting the most purely enjoyable movie he can (and his coordinate abuse of his cast and crew to accomplish that goal). He's strikingly unselfish in this respect; I can't tell whether he's more concerned with communicating his "vision" or with satisfying moviegoers, but I'll bet it's the latter. Cameron makes the opposite of difficult movies. He doesn't mess with conflicted characterization or moral ambiguity: he likes his good guys good and his bad guys representative of corporate America. We don't feel for Paul Reiser's sniveling bureaucrat in Aliens; we just want his onscreen death to be as horrific as possible (that it isn't is pretty much my only complaint with Aliens). His movies are like great pop songs: they don't make us think about much more than how much fun they are to listen to (or watch, in this case).

And like great pop songs, a James Cameron movie is an event. Everybody's either seen Avatar or has a good reason why they haven't. And even though I spend a distressing amount of time trying to find the most obscure music/film I can ("I only listen to dubstep music from this one town in southern Chiapas"), I appreciate when a piece of art becomes something that I can share with other people rather than lord over them. But if Aliens is Cameron's "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (that is a comparison I don't think anyone has ever made before), Avatar may only be his "Umbrella." We'll have a great time experiencing it for a while, but it won't define a generation.

Ah well, it was hella (ella, ella) fun while it lasted.