"I Was a Marine in the Na'vi Reserve"
Dances with Smurfs
Avatar is this Holiday season's elephant in the room. It is too big a target to not take pot-shots at, and will probably be too successful to avoid the temptation. Not that one needs motivation; there's plenty to be critical of. Like that proverbial elephant, take away the visuals and it will be seen as bits and pieces of other films: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Something old, nothing new, something borrowed, and mostly something blue. Yes, it's derivative* (all James Cameron's films are). Yes, it's 3-D effects are spotty (Cameron can't resist getting too close to the "lens" frequently, so that the tip of things lose their coherence, and close-up ferns tend to become transparent, and there are early sequences that just move too fast for clear 3-D optics). The right-wing pundits will blast it for being "anti-military" (Can't argue with that—an occupying Army force that is the muscle for a rapacious corporation is the villain**—we've seen that in The Abyss and Aliens—on the other hand, Cameron gives them the coolest toys). Yes, it's too expensive. Yes, it's big and obvious and dumb. I'll grant you all of that. Sure.
But, damn, if it isn't fun. And thrilling. And at times stunningly beautiful, even breath-taking. There are moments (when Cameron actually feels the need to slow things down so you can appreciate it) when the imagery evokes such awe that you forget that you've seen it before in other films, and sometimes done better.
There were legitimate titters in the audience at that one. It is indicative of Cameron's grab-bag approach to Avatar that he seriously uses a scientific in-joke, as well as exposing how little care he was taking with the story. "Unobtainium" is just lazy writing, like a detective looking for an actual "McGuffin," or a tech explaining that those scanners run using the latest "Vaporware." He couldn't come up with a more clever name like "dilithium," or "adamantium," or "Upsidaisium," or "Wedonthavenuffovum?"****
Apparently not. Because what we have in Avatar is a case of James Cameron becoming George Lucas. The two have been at odds over the years with competing films and competing SFX companies (although Lucasfilm's ILM—not Cameron's acquisition Digital Domain—worked on the FX of Avatar, the majority of which were done by New Zealand's WETA) that now the Tiger-hunter has become the Tiger. Avatar is the equivalent of the sumptuous "Star Wars" prequels, with more care given to how ships look when they land than to how people sound when they talk. We have more of the 22nd century humans using contemporary 20th century idioms and lame wise-cracks. No one's advanced—Earth is infected with a military-industrial simplex whose short-term strategies have decimated the planet (the corporate weasel is played by Giovanni Ribisi, rather than Paul Reiser this time, and the off-his-rocker military honcho is Stephen Lang, rather than Michael Biehn--Michelle Rodriguez plays the Latina soldier in the wife-beater, and Sigourney Weaver...is still Ripley, believe it or not.) Your afterward discussion meal will be peppered with discussions of "Well, if they could do THAT, why couldn't they do THAT?" and so on.
|Get out those 3-D glasses, kids (No, the tinted ones)
And, as you know it would, it all climaxes with an all-out battle between the Na'vi and the military, which Cameron knows how to direct so it's quite a bit more effective than a "Transformers" battle. It's mighty violent with lots of explosions and death and some nasty punctures by big Na'vi arrows. Parents should be warned—I saw a bunch of kids go into hyper-activity during the battle scenes. You're going to wish you had one of Cameron's heavy-lifting "AMP suits" to get 'em back into the car.
But, as a sci-fi re-telling of the "Native" tropes written by European writers, it's fun. Just don't be disappointed once the fancy wrappings are taken away, you find it's the same present you got last year.
* Aw, why drag it out? The sources are Run of the Arrow, the "Pocahontas" story, Poul Anderson's "Call Me Joe"(which is about humans using brain-linked native avatars on Jupiter), Dances with Wolves, "Dune," FernGully, heavy doses of Edgar Rice Borroughs' "Tarzan" and "John Carter of Mars," the "Dragonriders of Pern" series, the original storyline of Star Wars (in which a primitive tribe defeats a technologically advanced one—a Lucas favorite theme), allusions to the decimation of the American Indians, the VietNam War and the War in Iraq. And if it's a "'civilized' man learns from indigenous tribe that they are more civilized than him" story, it's in Avatar.
** There wasn't. I'd forgotten—The company releasing Avatar was 20thCentury Fox, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. There were no conservatives grumbling until after the movie had cleared $1 billion dollars in receipts.
*** "Unobtainium" was also used in The Core—it is the metal coating plating the ships to make them resistant to molten temperatures and pressures.
**** "Dilithium cystals" power the U.S.S. Enterprise (rather than what Dr. McCoy prescribes Kirk for...his...ADD), "adamantium" is the metal that coats Wolverine's bones, "upsidaisium" was an anti-grav metal in "Rocky and Bullwinkle," and "Wedonthavenuffovum" I made up.