Avatar - Been there, haven't see that!

20th Century Fox
Duration: 161min
Category: Sci Fi
Available: On DVD
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Man, people are loving them some Avatar. After finally having seen the movie, it’s easy to see why, but not easy to explain. Rather than write a review in a traditional sense, I’m going to choose instead to ramble on about my personal response to it. It’s easier that way.

Enough people have reviewed Avatar on its merits and how it wowed them in various ways, but as I sat in a 3D IMAX theatre in Seoul – sold out – more than a month after the film’s release, I couldn’t help but think back to the last movie that James Cameron wowed me with. I hold a perverse sense of pride for never having seen Top Gun or Dirty Dancing in their entirety – they being two of the more popular films of my generation. I did however get sucked right into Titanic. I’m not ashamed of it either.

I am one of those people who contributed a rather obscene amount of repeat business to the ’97 Oscar and box-office champion. I even went so far as to wheel my 85 year-old grandmother into the theatre on a matinee so that she could see a movie in a theatre for the first time in decades. She ate it up – crying when the elderly couple let the water rush in around their bed, and clicking her tongue scornfully at Cal Hockley as he mistreated his bride to be. There was something in Titanic for everyone.

With Avatar, James Cameron reaffirms himself as a populist director of spectacle. Everyone is seeing this movie – again and again… and again. I plan on taking my entire family the first opportunity I get. It is a marvelous piece of entertainment. But…
And there is a “but”. Forgive me my indulgence as I nit-pick what is essentially the most fun I’ve had at the theatre since, well… only since Up, I suppose, but as this film is being declared as the beginning of the next generation of movie-making, it is with due scrutiny that I comment on my experience watching it.

Firstly, let’s get the story stuff out of the way. Nearly every second review I’ve read of Avatar has described it, quite accurately, as “Pocahontas in Space”. Yup. We know where this story is going, and we know, for the most part, how it’s going to get there. Whenever a chase begins – literal or figurative – we are presented with its end destination, and the obstacles are described on repeat ad-nauseum, and/or with all of the subtlety of a frying pan in the face swung by Billy Zane.

Still, miraculously, I was thoroughly entertained through the whole damn thing. Avatar is a classic case of might over right – “might” being the fact that this movie looks damn good, the lamented lost “right” being a sense of loss that the screenplay couldn’t quite live-up to the progress made my Cameron’s revolutionary and much-ballyhooed film-making techniques. It’s funny, I spent an inordinate amount of time defending Titanic for its screenplay – full of obvious broadness and admitted cheese, but then again, that was 12 years ago. Let’s say I’ve matured.

Still, there’s something to that. Titanic feels like a grand spectacle from the get-go – well, at least after the “Old Rose” introduction. The sepia tones and wide-brimmed hats suggest a film for another time. Titanic was in many ways, the Gone with the Wind of our generation. I forgive the dialogue and plot structure there because I could see Jack as a bit of a Rhett Butler in the making, and Caledon as an Ashley Wilkes with a spine. It felt old fashioned, and that seemed right for the time. Titanic was also filled with tragedy on all levels of the spectrum: Sentimental - children dying in their beds while they are lulled to a drowning sleep by a Celtic fairy-tale reading mother, and not sentimental at all: Not a hint of a musical score as a first officer shoots himself in the head as the ship angles further into the water. Cameron is able to do this, as well as have Schwarzenegger shoot-up an entire police headquarters.

In Avatar, Cameron all-but abandons the cold frankness displayed in his first Terminator and fills his world of Pandora with more sentiment than one might expect from a 3D aliens-at-war epic. Here, each moment of potential emotion is scored for maximum heart-pumping thrill, or maximum tears. It’s like Cameron doesn’t trust his individual film elements to pull their own weight. For the most part, it’s fine, though I could have done with less arm-linked swaying around the Tree of Souls. I could have also done with less obvious sassy banter from the “cool” characters:

“Oops…” - Sigourney Weaver interrupting a rival’s putting game by kicking away his coffee cup.

“You’re not the only one with a gun, bitch!” / “I didn’t sign-up for this!”– Michelle Rodriguez dashing hopes that her recycled butch character will have anything interesting to say in the year 2154.

Cameron even resorts to plagiarizing himself, taking perhaps Titanic’s purist exchange and turning it into a cheese-eating catch-phrase:

From Titanic:
Rose: (looking through Jack’s sketches) You have a gift, Jack. You do. You see people…
Jack: I see you.

From Avatar:
Jake Sully: (holding Neytiri close and looking deeply into her eyes) I see you.
Neytiri: I see you.
Jake: You complete me.
(Okay, I made that last part up, but in Avatar, it wouldn’t have seemed out of place.)

Yes, Avatar’s screenplay, as far as what the actors convey to each other through dialogue goes, leaves a lot to be desired. It’s never comfortable to sit in a theatre and hear unintended snickers from the audience during a scene intended as tense. It’s also a tad embarrassing at times how Cameron chooses to handle his exposition. I get that this is an alien world and the technology on screen requires some level of explanation, but there are better ways to handle it than the old “explain all of the obvious shit to the rookie” routine. As an audience member, I feel pandered to.

Yet still, I think this is a movie to be seen the right way – in IMAX 3D. Watching humans and aliens interact in the CG environment of Pandora is a damn sight more impressive than anything Lucas achieved in any of the Star Wars prequels. There, the sleek environments seemed fresh out of a computer. Here, it all seems tangible. I felt like I was watching actual filmed footage of real blue aliens climbing real floating mountains to tame real flying dragons. That’s pretty impressive stuff.

While it’s not a movie containing as many “firsts” as so many people have claimed, the CGI characters are truly incredible. Pixar breathes real story life into its stylized characters, but in 3D – the best compliment I can give to Avatar is that the movie experience was – well, disorienting – not in the sense of feeling dizzy or nauseous, but kind of like waking up from a dream – albeit one that was littered with the sub-par moments mentioned above. It’s tough to stay in an R.E.M. state when someone is whispering shabby one-liners in your ear, or putting your hand in a luke-warm puddle of familiar plot lines, but for the time that you do stay in its trance, Avatar is something to behold.

That’s nearly all I wanted to say. Avatar is full of stuff you feel like you’ve seen a thousand times, as well as things that you’ve never seen before – a sexy as hell blue-skinned alien princess being one of them. Sitting in an IMAX theatre looking bug-eyed at the screen, you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your money, but as another reviewer said before me, I can’t see this one getting a great deal of repeat business on home video. When this kind of technology becomes commonplace, I don’t see a lot of people hailing Avatar as the greatest epic film of all time. Elements of mediocrity hidden in IMAX can look really big on a 27” TV. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Titanic since it left the theatre either. What does that tell you?

3D home theatre or not, Avatar is a movie spectacle, and is best enjoyed as such. Take your family, take your friends (though this will likely be their fifth time), and enjoy the movie that everyone is talking about. Avatar might not be as original as it wants to be, but, tired as it seems at times, it does have something worth saying, and it will pull your eyes out of your head for three hours. Despite its flaws, this movie experience is worth every penny.

Review By: Dave Gagnier

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