If you ever wondered what the gross national product of some small countries looks like projected on the big screen, then you have no choice but to see Avatar in IMAX 3-D. It's that simple.
As much a movie as a wonder of the modern age, Avatar is just what its title suggests: An opportunity to see James Cameron's imaginative, long-under-construction world through his eyes. Exactly the way he wants you to see it.
Avatar hits the ground running. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paralyzed former Colonial Marine who is offered a chance to replace his deceased twin brother in a scientific project on Pandora, an alien planet chock full of Unobtanium, the precious mineral coveted by the greedy Resources Development Administration.
Pandora is a lush, beautiful but deadly world. The air is poisonous to humans, and it teems with vicious flora and fauna, not the least of which being the Na'vi, a 10-foot tall, blue-skinned warrior race with whom the humans have a contentious relationship. While the scientific envoys have attempted to make benign cultural overtures by teaching them English, the corporate interests involved, augmented by a military force led by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) have had their share of bloody skirmishes with the natives.
In an attempt to bridge the divide, the science team led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has bio-engineered physical manifestations (or avatars) of the Na'vi that can be inhabited by the consciousness of humans so that they might interact more easily with one distrustful clan, the Omaticaya.
Ostensibly, they want to learn more about their culture, but also to convince them to allow the RDA to mine their planet for its precious Unobtanium. Augustine is none too happy to find the unknown, untrained Sully has become a part of her team, but avatars are expensive and only Sully is a close enough genetic match to his dead brother for the empty vessel to work.
Sully, meanwhile, has secretly struck a deal with Col. Quaritch to relay strategic information about the Na'vi in exchange for a new set of legs.
Once Sully makes the transfer to his avatar, he's euphoric. In his new body, he can run and jump faster than he ever could as a man. On his first trip in the country, with Augustine and her assistant Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore), Sully's giddiness turns to recklessness, and he's separated from the team and left to fend for himself in the enchanting but deadly forest.
On the verge of becoming dinner for a pack of weird alien wolves, Sully is rescued by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a female Na'vi who brings Sully back to her clan's "home tree," which, conveniently enough, sits over the very load of Unobtanium so coveted by his corporate/military masters.
Sully quickly ingratiates himself among the tribe, and Neytiri begins to teach him their ways and beliefs. The Na'vi lives in harmony with Pandora, which itself seems sentient with every tree, plant and beast inhabited by the spirit of their god, Eyra. Sully becomes enamored of this natural life--as well as with Neytiri--and while he still reports back to Quaritch like a good soldier, he secretly begins to question his allegiance.
If you're beginning to think this sounds vaguely familiar, you'd be right. I'll probably be the millionth writer to point out that Avatar and Dances with Wolves bear more than a passing resemblance to each other. So be it.
The script by Cameron is certainly loaded with his thematic touchstones, at least. Capable female ass-kickers? Present.
Evil corporate entity hell-bent on exploiting an alien resource, no matter the cost of lives? Ah, there you are. A world-weary but good-hearted protagonist who is pushed through the looking glass onto a hero's journey? Have a seat right here.
Cameron tosses in a couple of jabs at colonialism and the shitty treatment of wounded veterans, but story wise there's nothing particularly original going on here, even for Cameron.
The fact is these are just building blocks that prop up Cameron's greatest strengths as a technological pioneer, who strives to advance the ways we watch movies. He also happens to be one of the greatest action directors in the game. And, boy, does Avatar deliver in those regards.
Breath taking, awe-inspiring, and jaw-dropping (perhaps vomit inducing?) are all words that aptly describe the dense visual cacophony, and visceral thrills woven throughout Avatar's nearly three-hour run time. Cameron spent a decade and roughly half-a-billion dollars developing the technologies that bring Avatar to the screen, and every penny is up there.
Impossibly detailed landscapes and flat out beautiful art design pack the frame as Sully runs through the black-lit jungles or takes flight on bizarre winged beasts, cruising between Miyazakian floating mountains. It seems Cameron, like some cinematic deity, took care to design every last insect and blade of grass to ridiculous detail. There's literally no way you could drink it all in on one viewing (a fact, I'm sure, he is counting on for the repeat business this epic will need to just break even).
The climactic battle is the film equivalent of sheer G-forces pinning you to your seat, lips flapping like a test pilot in a wind tunnel. The camera dive-bombs and careens amongst the action guided by the practiced hand of an old master, and you never lose sense of where you are and what is going on. In other words, it's not a Michael Bay movie.
A more thrilling and crowd-pleasing climax than any in the last decade? Maybe. I've never seen anything like it, at least. Cameron simply delivers.
The acting is good for the most part with Zoe Saldana standing out, even though her performance has been transposed completely into the digital realm. Oddly, this transposition seemed to help Sam Worthington, who has a bit of trouble registering in human form. Becoming a Na'vi actually gave him a personality. How much of it was added in post-production, we'll never know. The script's dialogue doesn't give them much to work with anyway--apparently people still say "Boo-yah" in distant future--but again, these things are the foundation for a much bigger construction, and the script is just barely strong enough to support it.
But none of them are really the stars of this. If anything, the stars are Cameron and the technology. He's raising the bar on entertaining spectacle and people recognize a P.T. Barnum when they see one. Avatar certainly fits the bill of a carnival attraction. It's just disconcerting that in a film about seeing the world through different eyes, a film hyped as a game-hanger, that Cameron created has something so rigidly familiar.
A Long Walk
Cormac McCarthy's The Road was an amazing book. A simple tale of the strength of familial bonds in a deadly post-apocalyptic world, dressed in the prose of a master novelist. The Road is mostly just two people walking and trying not to die.
Besides the father and son duo, there are only a couple of other characters in it and briefly at that. The magic of the book was in its lyrical beauty, and the life affirming (and I'm not a life affirming guy) power of its two protagonists insistence on loving each other, staying alive, sticking together and promising to always be "the good guys".
I couldn't put the book down until it was done, and when I did--knowing this adaptation was already in the pipeline--my first thought was to wonder how they were going to turn this into a movie that wouldn't inspire tedium. How could a filmed adaptation of The Road capture McCarthy's addictive prose and still avoid being an unremitting bummer of a movie?
Well, it doesn't.
Following an unnamed disaster that wipes out a large portion of humanity, The Road finds us trailing Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they trek southwards through a dead, ashen landscape. They endeavor to reach the ocean, though the overall purpose of getting there is unclear.
Staying alive almost seems more effort than it's worth. There is no sun, actual food is rare and what few humans are left are dangerous, particularly the roving packs of cannibals who would have no compunction whatsoever about barbequing Man and Boy one piece at a time. The only thing that keeps them going is each other, bolstered by an occasional stroke of good luck--though the pendulum always seems to swing back to horrific reality.
And that's mostly it. The Road stays true to the spirit of the novel and attempts to capture the decrepit beauty of McCarthy's prose, but there's really no way it could succeed at that. The mediums mostly are incompatible on that level.
The novel's panacea is the relationship between Man and Boy, and there the film does excel thanks largely to Mortensen's committed performance. But what it couldn't capture was the novel's greatest strength, McCarthy's actual words, which paint a world in the readers imagination that is not bound by what can be imprisoned on celluloid, or rendered by whatever FX house is responsible for the dystopian burned out cityscapes that litter Purgatory on Earth. On that count, The Road is only an exercise in tone, with no subtext, regurgitating only the most obvious comments on human nature contained in the novel.
It does alter things a bit to lighten up that tone, and to be fair, writer Joe Penhall didn't have much of a choice. To that end, the role of Woman (played by Charlize Theron) is expanded a bit. When Man sleeps, he dreams of her and that creates a mournful back-story that gives the film an opportunity to have some splashes of color, though Theron isn't really given much to do.
It's not an emotionless exercise though, and The Road has its share of suspenseful scenes and well-acted characters, including a turn from a nearly unrecognizable Robert Duvall. Director John Hillcoat definitely has an eye for the material and has the wisdom to let the persistently grim tone occupy the periphery, rarely letting it overwhelm the straight forward plot or the warm center of its lead characters. Another director might have amped up some of the more horrific elements to a cartoonish level, but Hillcoat, if anything, goes the opposite route which lends the film a more realistic quality.
The Road is not a bad flick--it's too well crafted for that. It's just a one-note pantomime that is weighed down with ambitions it could never have fulfilled in the first place.
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