Saturday, January 16, 2010

Oh, Avatar

by Stephen Cummings

James Cameron, Avatar, 2009

All right I saw it. The movie everyone's talking about, it's a wonder, gonna revolutionize the industry, yadda yadda yadda. Ok, so I saw it. And? I have to admit it wasn't so bad. You can't beat the action: giant, flying creatures meet giant, flying machines is not a recipe for dullness. Nor is slender, blue-skinned "alien" based on incredibly gorgeous actress a burden to the eyes. And the animation's pretty decent; at certain points even uncannily naturalistic. (Absolutely not always, but at certain points.) Only sometimes is the often cheesy dialogue way oversold. ("The legendary floating mountains of Pandora. Heard of them?") There's even a super-sized version of the Krupp Earth Mover. Sure the message is simplistic — ignorant, hard-hearted, capitalist, militarists = Bad; harmonious, nature-worshiping, noble savages = Good — but the spectacle, the adventure, the 3D! all come together to make it well worth the extra 25% ticket price, right?

The short answer is No. And let's ignore the fact that the 3D makes the picture unsure as to whether it's a window onto a world, or a mold through which the on-screen (in-screen?) elements should be extruded into the viewing space. We'll also let go the unabashed self-aggrandizement of the whole thing. (Even the score at the trailing end of the credits — when the disclaimers come up — crescendos to strains of I am an important movie.) No, the real trouble with Avatar is that I've seen this movie before.

Let's face it, it's been done. And done, and done, and done. This movie is Pocahotas. It's Dances with Wolves. It's The Last Samurai (really a lot). It's School of Rock; it's A Bug's Life; apparently it's Dune. Hell, it's even Galaxy Quest. I have seen this movie so many times, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with a cookie-cutter plot — the preceding films have all made this one work — James Cameron at no point gives any indication that this story will so much as prod the mold in any way. And it doesn't.

Avatar is so packed with clich├ęs it's hard to keep them straight. Gruff marine commander, greedy corporate big-shot, hired-gun doesn't-know-what-he's-getting-himself-into newcomer, wide-eyed science geek, exasperated yet good-hearted researcher, slightly oblivious and xenophobic chieftain, much more understanding wife of said chieftain, beautiful warrior-daughter of chieftain, jealous would-be husband of beautiful warrior-daughter. Need I go on? In fact, there is very little in this film that hasn't been seen. The landscape, the sets, the fauna: not notably dissimilar from any old piece of sci-fi/fantasy illustration. (Roger Dean is getting a lot of attention online, but I'm thinking of everything from Halo to Magic: The Gathering to The Dragonriders of Pern.) Those dual-rotor helicopters: brief appearances in The Incredibles. The machine-man walking suit things: Aliens and The Matrix (the third one). Even the visual passage from human to avatar consciousness: straight out of Sliders. And and! — and I was warned about this beforehand — the subtitles: Papyrus. Papyrus?! The typeface notable for it's constant appearance on bad travel posters and holistic healing products?! As a designer friend noted: guess there wasn't money in that 500 million dollar budget for, you know, a font.

But maybe there's something to be said for bringing all this stuff together and putting it on the big screen for everyone to marvel and applaud. Especially since it comes to us in . . . Expensive 3D!. And hey, James Horner even gets on board, reprising his music from The Wrath of Khan. So, you know, maybe I'm just a curmudgeon.

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