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
Check out what others have been saying about James Cameron and Avatar from across the blogosphere:
- Be sure to read Sam Juliano’s infectiously enthusiastic review at Wonders in the Dark.
- Have you been wondering, “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?”
- For a different perspective, check out this Bollywood inspired spin on Cameron’s accomplishment over at the Talking Talkies site.