AVATAR review

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
AVATAR review
Before "Titanic", there was "Avatar". At least, in the entertainment press, that was the case. I remember reading about this movie in the mid-1990s, along with other auteur-mounted, wild-sounding flights of fancy, such as Kubrick's "A.I.". Well, the technology has finally gotten to the point where James Cameron is comfortable unleashing his long-gestating otherworldly epic. And although Cameron himself seems eager to lower expectations at this point, the notion of "Avatar" as a cinema game-changer persists. With some going into the film with expectations so high, a "Phantom Menace" re-action is all but assured. But all that aside, does "Avatar" succeed as a film? Again, going back to "Star Wars" for a moment, it does - from a certain point of view.

If you're expecting James Cameron to deliver another effects-driven blockbuster on the level of "Terminator 2" or "Aliens", forget it.  "Avatar", as grandiose as it is, never truly comes to life, and never comes close to achieving that kind magnetism and energy.  Like his prior action crowd-pleasers, this is a survival story of rugged underdogs who must overcome a much stronger and well-organized opposition.  Only this time, instead of having to go up against a race of brutal aliens on their home turf, or the faceless machine overlord Skynet, the enemy is us. 


On one hand, "Avatar" is an indictment of any culture that has ever mobilized to overpower and exploit another culture for it's own empirical gain.  But, through use of various familiar real-life catch phrases and strategies, "Avatar" roots itself firmly enough in Bush-era colloquialisms to carry an air of politically charged discomfort.  (If the phrase "winning the hearts and minds of the Na'vi people" doesn't sound antiquated in the year 2154, then I guess I shouIdn't be surprised that they're still quoting "The Wizard of Oz".  That's right, Cameron actually recycles the most over-quoted line of all time, "we're not in Kansas anymore" in this movie!) For a supposedly escapist sci-fi action movie, there certainly is a lot of "Dances With Wolves" white/western-guilt going on here.  Will this story of the vaguely Muslin blue alien race, struggling to hold their sacred ground against the tyranny of the earthly military machine ring true as positive escapism, or is it just too much of a guilt trip, even with the sci-fi cover?  (Perhaps this is a good time to point out that conservatives in America will HATE this movie.)  For my money, the metaphor remains too transparent to be interesting as an allegory.  Worse, the whole film is hurt badly by the flat performances of the key talent (Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana).  And while I doubt "Avatar" will suffer the same level of rejection the run-of-the-mill Iraq war-themed film routinely suffers, "T2" and "Aliens" this is not.


Speaking of "Aliens", Cameron fans will be quick to recognize much of his prior Sigourney Weaver (yup, she's here in a supporting role) space outing here.  The afore-mentioned plot similarity is one thing, but also present are a group of gung-ho "space marines", greatly resembling Lt. Ripley's unit, complete with tough-girl Latina Michelle Rodriquez in the Vasquez role.  Not only does Cameron bring back the power loader suits as well, but also the flying hunter/killer ships of "T2".  All of this is no surprise, based on the knowledge that this is supposedly an idea that Cameron has been meddling with since he was a young boy.  I suspect that in his mind, those space marines, power loaders, and hunter/killer ships were merely cherry-picked from the "Avatar" idea, and incorporated into those other projects.


So will "Avatar" revolutionize cinema?  Before answering that, I should point out that it does have the most striking visual effects of the year.  The lifelike eyes of the blue people are a proud testament to that.  (Somewhere, Robert Zemeckis is drooling up a river.)  They might as well box up all the visual effects Oscars and ship them to Cameron right now.  But revolutionary?  No.  "Avatar" is not the "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "Star Wars" of today.  Despite Cameron's impressive big-budget tinkering, our minds generally just aren't blown by computer effects, no matter the coolness level.  The 3-D helps, and yes, it may be the best 3-D execution I've yet experienced.  But I am not convinced that the general public is clamoring for more 3-D spectacles.  I know I'm not.  Here's the bottom line on this ultimately pointless issue:  If any 2009 movie is to be remembered as a game-changer, odds are much higher of it being the ultra low-budget, handmade "Paranormal Activity" (The anti-"Avatar").  "Avatar" is the kind of film that is so big, and so expensive, ONLY someone with the world-stopping clot of Cameron could make it happen.  And that's okay.


The political connections of "Avatar" are not a deal-breaker for me, but they are a big distraction that will date this movie just as much the visual effects, if not more.  What says the most to me about "Avatar" is my reaction to it - I don't care if I see it again.  This is vastly different from my experiences with all of his other films, with the exceptions of "The Abyss", which I admire but don't hold dear, and "Piranha II", which I'll let slide since it was his first film, and a Corman production.  "Aliens", "T2", "True Lies", et al still hold up wonderfully.  This one simply lacks that vitality.  That said, it is a visually sumptuous film, and boast several solid action sequences.  From that point of view, "Avatar" works.  But ONLY from that point of view.  For everyone else in need of a good James Cameron fix, I suggest doing what he did, and revisiting his early work.


- Jim Tudor



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