The Great Escape Part Two

In 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, madman film producer/explorer Meriam C. Cooper pulled out all the stops to take viewers to an uncharted isle where the most monstrous of beasts was revealed to be the most tragically human creature of them all.  King Kong was the greatest escape of its day.  In 2009, while the world still tries to recover from the greatest economic downslide since the Great Depression, madman technological wizard/director James Cameron pulls out all the stops to take viewers to an alien world where the most monstrous of humans is revealed to be the most tragically alien creature of them all.  Avatar is yet another in a long line of escapist fantasies bankrolled by Hollywood. 

There have been those heaping rapturous praise on Avatar, likening the experience of watching it to something spiritual and claiming Cameron has crafted a tone poem.  I fear they overestimate the film’s potential, yet one would be a fool to ignore the effect it has had on many.  Those on the flip side claiming the film is sunk because of its cliched story, however, grossly underestimate the film’s power to entertain.  The visuals never reach the transcendent level of a Kubrick or Malick film.  This is no 2001.  But the story-line, which is a clumsily strange mix-up of Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves and The Matrix, as well as the dialogue, aren’t nearly as lame as they could’ve been given Cameron’s track-record in this regard.

What Cameron has done is put Robert Zemeckis and his previous “motion-capture 3D” experiments to shame and crafted the most immersive and impressive 3D tableu yet to be experienced.  The combination of live-action and computer-animation is seamless and allows for a wild, child-like imagination to run free as the viewer explores the insanely detailed and rich topography, fauna and wildlife of Pandora with a type of wanton abandon never before achieved in the movie theater.  Given the time-consuming and money-sucking nature of the technology, I imagine in the future it will not be commonplace and hopefully utilized only for that once-every-few-years epic sci-fic extravaganza that would be only green-lit by a studio with the likes of a Spielberg (though he seems to shy away from this type of spectacle in his older age), a Peter Jackson or maybe a Guillermo Del Toro attached.  The idea of someone like a Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich getting their hands on this technology makes my head want to explode.  What hell hath Cameron potentially wrought we may not know for some time.

I also think those working themselves up into a tizzy over the ham-fisted political/religious/environmental pretexts in the film are wasting their time.  If you’re too worried about what Cameron is saying about current geo-politics instead of focusing on the ten-foot tall, bare-breasted, blue cat-woman ridding a dragon through floating mountains, then you aren’t watching the movie!  I could care less about what Cameron is saying in these regards.  All I care about is how he is using the technology at hand to wow us visually.

Though it becomes somewhat tiresome to watch in the second act, and the third act is a bit anti-climactic given the build-up, Avatar soars on the imagination of those willingly going along for the ride through Pandora.  It’s easily the best overblown, mega-budget special effects film since Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong, but in the amazing year that has been 2009, I’m not even sure it would make my top ten.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did District 9, which was mercifully shorter, funnier, cheaper and more sharply focused, though thanks to the originality of its concept and execution, it easily outranks the shiny-happy-emo reboot of Star Trek.

Bottom-line: See Avatar in 3D for the visual experience, but don’t expect any grand insight into the human condition.  If it teaches us anything, it’s that human beings will go to any lengths and spare no cost when it comes to finding new ways to escape their own reality.  Take it for what it is and enjoy.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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Check out what others have been saying about James Cameron and Avatar from across the blogosphere:

James Cameron tells Pixar, Disney and Robert Zemeckis to ANIMATE THIS!

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10 comments on “The Great Escape Part Two

  1. Nice review, David. I think you hit it on the head, although I have to say that I think “Star Trek” is better.

    “Avatar” is an incredible visual experience, but special effects have become so good that I always gravitate to story over effects and — as entertaining as it is — “Avatar” doesn’t have a lot going on in the story department.

    Happy holidays!

    Forrest, thanks, happy holidays to you as well. This is always the best time of year for film buffs and critics, and I’m happy to see you back at the ‘Spin. I’m a stickler for story, too, and this film was rather shallow in that regard though I didn’t think it was as lacking as some have been claiming. Overall, I think the story worked in the context of the “concept” of the film, though it was very clumsy at times and there were a few gaping plot holes. –DHS

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    Well, I certainly do not agree remotely with Forest Hartman that “AVATAR does not have a lot going in the story department” and neither does so many of our most discerning critics, including Manohla Dargis of the NEW YORK TIMES and the New York On Line Critics Association who two weeks ago named AVATAR as Best Film of the year, a position seconded last week by the even fussier anti-populist London Film Critics.
    And I’m sorry David that you did not “feel the magic” though I did warn you not to be so enraptured with my review, as we do disagree on occasion (but we mostly agree)
    The “story” here was as compelling and imaginitively fascinating as any science-fiction film we’ve ever had, but we’ll leave that judgement to personal taste and perception. There’s no “right” answer. I also stronly disagree with the assertion that “there’s little in the ‘humanity’ department” as that may be the film’s most extraordinary underpinning. But I’ve made my case in my own review, which you’ve graciously acknowledged and issued some most flattering hyperbole for, so I’ll leave it at that. To come here like a bully and attempt to strong arm you with critics is admittedly a very bad tactice, especially since i was on the other side with UP IN THE AIR, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, THE ROAD and numerous others.
    You’ve made your case eloquently, and I’ve made mine. Neither one of us could do any better.

    Apart from this I must make mention David that last night I saw a Romanian film at the IFC called POLICE ADJECTIVE, which was as riveting and mesmerizing a piece of minimalist police procederal that you’ll ever see, with a special final 15 minutes to boot (I’m mum this time, LOL!!!)

    Happy Holidays to you, and the entire Schleicher clan (and to Forest)

    P.S. I did like DISTRICT 9 and STAR TREK quite a bit as you know.

    Sam, I would say I “saw the magic” in the visuals and that alone made AVATAR a most interesting experience for me.

    I saw a preview for POLICE ADJECTIVE in front of BLt:POCNO and based on your recommendation here I will be sure to check it out now! I look forward to your year end top ten list…my annual Davies Awards will have to wait until I get to view THE WHITE RIBBON, UP IN THE AIR, and CRAZY HEART as they appear to hold the most potential of the lot I have yet to see from 2009.

    Happy Holidays! –DHS

  3. jonsquared says:

    Awesome review! I did overlook the underlying themes– it was too cliche for me. But the visual effects were out of this world. Literally.

    Thanks for stoping by. You are spot on in both regards. –DHS

  4. Sam:

    Thanks for the comments. I think my biggest problem with the storytelling in “Avatar” was that most of the characters felt like stereotypes to me. The bad guys were all bad and the good guys (with the exception of our main hero) were all good. I think that’s why some people are knocking it on a “human” level.

    Despite the acclaim from noteworthy critics, there have been equally credible people who gave it a thumbs down. The Associated Press comes to mind.

    But, as you mentioned, these things are subjective, and I found it to be an extremely entertaining film despite what I saw as flaws. Here’s hoping you have an outstanding holiday!

  5. Prakash says:

    I completely agree with your perspective that Avatar is an escapist fantasy. In-fact, I was in splits when I read the title of your review: “The Great Escape Part Two”.

    Also, happened to read a couple of your other posts and am in awe of your writing David. You’ll find me dropping by your site more often now.

    Prakash, thanks for stopping by. I do enjoy a bit of the old wordplay with the titles of my posts. Glad you are enjoying ‘the Spin! I’ll be sure to check back regularly at your Talking Talkies site as well. –DHS

  6. Shall we go there? Anyone else care to rank James Cameron’s films? I’ll kick it off:

    The Terminator – 8.5/10
    Aliens – 8.5/10
    Terminator 2 – 8/10
    Avatar – 7.5/10
    True Lies -6.5/10 (doesn’t hold up too well, but I remember having fun when I first saw it)
    Titanic – 5/10 (the sinking is still fantastic, but the rest of the film is painful to sit through)
    The Abyss – 4/10 (put me to sleep)

    • Hi David:

      I think I’d have to go with something like this … but it’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen “The Abyss.”

      Titanic — 9/10
      Terminator 2 — 8/10
      Aliens — 7.5/10
      Terminator — 7.5/10
      Avatar — 7/10
      The Abyss — 6.5/10
      Tru Lies — 6.5/10

  7. Sam Juliano says:

    Avatar 9.5/10
    Aliens 8/10
    The Terminator 2 7/10
    The Abyss 6.5/10
    Titanic 5/10

    Forest, the reviews for AVATAR have been overwhelmingly positive. Every film releases always has a few negative reviews, but I fully understand what you are saying and always greatest respect your views. That we can both look at the same film and come up with different perceptions just shows you how a work can inspire different judgement. I saw a wealth of humanity and profundity in the story, by and large you and David did not, though we all agree the visuals were astounding.

  8. Sam Juliano says:

    Sorry……..

    The Terminator 7/10
    True Lies 6.5/10

  9. Hi again David and Sam.

    It’s interesting that the two of you didn’t much like “Titanic.” The funny thing is, I remember some of the criticisms of “Titanic” being similar to my problems with “Avatar,” but I thoroughly enjoyed the movie … even if Billy Zane chasing Leo through the sinking ship with a gun was completely over the top.

    I guess this just reinforces what Sam wrote about differing perceptions of the same film. I certainly respect both of your views, so its interesting to see how far apart we are on that one.

    I wish you both a great new year!

    Forrest, quite interesting indeed! And I had all but forgotten about Billy Zane, who was beyond awful in TITANIC. –DHS

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