Monday, December 21, 2009
By Elise Nakhnikian
“The legendary floating mountains of Pandora – heard of them?” a jealous colleague needles Jake (Sam Worthington) in Avatar. Matter of fact, I have, and if you’re at all interested in movies, I’m sure you have too. Thanks to Avatar’s $150 million marketing budget, we’d heard a lot about Pandora’s floating mountains – and its exotic flora, ferocious fauna, and New Age-y blue-skinned giants – long before the movie opened last weekend.
So does it live up to the hype? Yes and no.
Writer-director James Cameron’s movies always aim for maximum impact. First they immerse you in an extreme, often imaginary environment that feels as real as the floor beneath your feet, whether it’s postapocalyptic Earth (the Terminator movies), a deadly space station (Aliens), the depths of the ocean (Titanic) or outer space and the sea combined (The Abyss.) Then they pile on the shock and awe, with the help of state-of-the-art special effects.
In Avatar, most of our time is spent inside the world of the Na’vi, the nine-foot-tall blue humanoids who people the fictional planet Pandora. Thanks to Cameron’s immersive use of 3D and the elaborately realistic look of the computer-generated landscape and creatures, you truly feel like you’re inside that world, and it’s an enthralling place to be for a while, with plants that snap shut and collapse when they’re touched and huge, pterodactyl-like birds that let the Na’vi ride on their backs.
The thrill of immersion in a wide-screen virtual reality experience is all the reason I need to see Cameron’s movies. Sometimes it’s all I get, too. The Abyss got bogged down in ditsy pseudo-spiritualism and a tedious subplot about a troubled marriage, and Titanic was nearly swamped by cardboard characters, laughable dialogue, and poor pacing that made it feel way too long.
Avatar is close to three hours long, but except during a couple of fight scenes, the special effects were special enough to keep me afloat. And, though Cameron hasn’t gotten any better at dialogue, that didn’t bother me much here. After all, the characters were often speaking a foreign language they weren’t fluent in, as English-speaking humans spoke the Na’vi’s language or vice versa.
The humans, who have made Earth uninhabitable, have come to Pandora in search of unobtainium, a potent source of energy. Jake, who is there to help a small group of scientists who are studying the planet, explores the planet through his avatar, a beautiful body as tall and blue as any Na’vi’s.
A paraplegic in real life, Jake experiences his avatar body as a release from the prison of his actual one. Exploring the beautiful, deep-hued planet in his powerful new body is a thrill – for us as well as for him – especially since the Na’vi chief’s beautiful daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), is showing him the ropes. One of the tough-girl characters Cameron loves to create, Neytiri looks something like a cross between Angelina Jolie in Beowulf and Rebecca Romijn in X-Men, and she’s so fierce she hisses when she first encounters Jake. Not that there’s never any doubt that she’ll wind up succumbing to his alpha-male charms.
The predictability of Cameron’s plot didn’t bother me much this time – at least, not until the end. The whole thing plays like a fairy tale, so you expect happy endings you can see coming a light year away. But some of his archetypes felt played-out and tiresome, and the characters were all mighty thin.
Cameron tries to play it both ways here, preaching nonviolence and ecological balance while lingering lovingly on gigantic choppers and guns and people clanking around in those metal exosuits combining armor with weaponry that Cameron introduced back in 1986 in Aliens. And in the end -- yawn -- the only way our Na’vi heroes can banish the human intruders is by beating them in a bloody battle.
To create the avatars and the Na’vi, Cameron covered his cast with motion sensors that converted their movements and expressions to digital form as they acted out the parts. Then a team of computer animators converted those streams of data into wasp-waisted, elegantly near-naked bipeds with tails, long braids, and cerulean skin. The process, which was used to create Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, creates characters that don’t exist yet look completely alive, their body language and expressions borrowed from the actors who played them.
Sam Worthington, who radiates an old-fashioned combination of modesty and machismo, makes Jake believable as a grunt with hidden resources who can rise to almost any occasion when challenged. And it’s nice to see Sigourney Weaver (as Jake’s no-nonsense scientist boss) and Michelle Rodriguez (as a soldier with a conscience) nailing two more of Cameron’s tough-chick roles.
But much as I enjoyed watching the avatars and the Na’vi, with their huge, expressive eyes and lithe bodies, I can’t say I really cared about any of them. Just as Star Wars and Tron were eye-popping in their day despite pretty minimal plots, Avatar is significant only for the way it bumps computer-generated imagery up to a whole new level.
What will really be cool is when someone uses that technology to create a story that feels as engaging as it looks.