Friday, December 18, 2009

Just Seen: Avatar

Hey, I'm back.

I was actually motivated to go see James Cameron's new film at it's midnight opening screening. This is where insomnia can be something of a benefit.

Hell of a good film. It's a must-see, because you've never seen anything like this before. Pandora, the world Cameron has created in this film, is a wonder to behold. There is visual invention in practically every scene, amazingly vivid landscapes, animals and plants, rendered in astounding detail. The 3-D is extraordinary, quite natural-looking and understated. It drew me into the world of the film so convincingly that when a speck of dust or falling leaf fell “close,” I flinched.

There are only a few scenes that betray the film's fully digital origins, some suspect surface mapping or impossible physics: Still, Avatar is as fully realized visually as Peter Jackson's Middle Earth. (and why not: he used WETA, the Kiwi effects house that did the Rings trilogy.) It's a big, epic movie, and you should definitely see it on a big, big screen.

Having said all that, I left the theatre (at 3 a.m.) feeling a bit hollow, mostly because the story was kinda flat. James Cameron is obviously betting that, like Titanic, expensive visuals and familiar, crowd-pleasing story will carry the film to success. He's going to win that bet-- but I can't help but feel a bit disappointed.

I'm not going to claim to be a “writing snob” because of the Austin thing: It's just that you can feel Avatar drag it's story along like so much dead weight. For instance, the first 25 minutes or so is pure exposition: Characters verbally setting the plot into motion. Sometimes you really need expo, but trusting the audience and using some shorthand would have carved 20 minutes out of it.

And I called the ending about an hour or so ahead of time. Man, that bugs me. Sigourney Weaver's character utters one line at about the two-thirds mark (I won't spoil it) and from there I know exactly how the last act was going to play out. It's a shame, because I know James Cameron is a director capable of creating amazing surprises in his storytelling: Terminator, T2, and Aliens all had nifty plot twists. Alright, we all knew how Titanic ended before we saw it, right?

The more I think about it, the more I realize the plot is a thematic mash-up of all of his previous films: A fascination with military stuff, tough women soldiers and Vietnam-era hardware; bioluminescence; doomed romance; Corporate bad guys; skinny aliens.

All that being said, it's still a must-see. Because even considering the predictability of the plot, it's not a sequel, a “reboot” or a comic book. Taken at that level, it's as original a story as there is.

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