Friday, March 5, 2010

Oscar Preview Review: Avatar (2009)

What I said about it last fall:
Look, I’m not going to pretend the latest film from self-appointed King of the World James Cameron is as amazing as most critics and the advertising onslaught would have you believe – I mean, it’s basically a cross of Dances with Wolves (1990) and Ferngully (1992). But visually, technologically and – based on record breaking Box Office numbers largely brought about by word of mouth – financially, it’s a gem. With his live-action 3D approach, Cameron set out to change the way we see movies, and he’s most likely succeeded.

Set in a far-off distant land at a far-off distant time, Avatar (2009) is the story of a disabled marine (Sam Worthington) who finds new life in an “avatar” body. As part of an industrial aspiration to mine a foreign planet for its natural resources, Big Business grows physical replicas of the “natives” and implants within them a human consciousness. It’s almost like growing a spy in a Petri dish, and then placing it among the people to learn their ways.
Only once there, marine Jake finds himself more at home than he’s ever been, and thus straddling the line dividing the industrial (aka nature destroying) and native (aka nature loving) forces. The environmental implications and Native American allegories are rampant, as are the romantic and moral clichés. But it isn’t really the story we’re here for.
Aside from the brilliant but gimmicky Terminator concept, Cameron’s never really been an original storyteller. Instead he focuses on the delivery device for the story; the grandness of Titanic (1997), the brute force of Aliens (1986). He continues that trend here.
Sticking to the forefront 3D codes of Pixar, Cameron’s approach is not to hit you with gimmicks like spears flying at your face, but instead simply enhance the overall visual experience. Cameron’s gift is in the details, and he’s at his best here (perhaps ever), building with intricate accuracy a distant reality, a whole world at once similar to and completely different from our own.
With Avatar he’s also built an event, a storytelling extravaganza of evolutionary proportions, akin to The Dark Knight (2008) and Titanic, but not as good. This is a movie to see, an event to be a part of, an advancement to witness, and its success will normalize its kind over time. But it isn’t a movie to love and cherish.

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