Avatar

Sam Worthington in "Avatar"

First thing’s first: you have to see Avatar. Yes, you. Because you (the collective) have never seen anything like it. Really and truly.

“Seen” being the operative word. There are images throughout (especially in the first 20 minutes) that will leave you dumbstruck. I saw colors that I thought only existed in my imagination bursting into iridescent life before my eyes. I found myself on the verge of tears just from the sheer beauty of the world that Avatar has created and so generously put on display for us.

But then there’s the script. The story is about as derivative as you’d expect from James Cameron. It’s a narrative that is largely archetypal in nature, but never quite finds the way to elevate those archetypes to the level they need to be to buy in wholly to this epic adventure.

However, the world of the future as Avatar imagines it is a stunningly realized one. Part of this is due to the exquisite attention to detail. But all that attention wouldn’t mean a hell of a lot if it didn’t have the technology to back it up and truly make it a real, living, breathing world. The achievement cannot be understated–simply put, Avatar is the single greatest achievement in visual effects and CGI that has yet been put to film. “Yet” being the operative word. In many ways, because of Cameron’s story, his message is really his medium. The story is very on-the-nose, Liberalism for Dummies territory (nature = good, the man = bad, thinking Green = good, war = bad). But Cameron uses a rather threadbare plot to challenge other filmmakers to do it better. It’s like he’s saying to his colleagues, “I’ve shown you what we’re capable of as craftsmen. Now it’s time for you to show us how we can use it as unique storytellers.”

As I was driving back to the apartment from the theatre, something occurred to me. I couldn’t wait to see what Guillermo del Toro will do with the technology made possible by Avatar. In fact, the last time I remember being so knocked out by a fully realized imaginary landscape and environment was by del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army (yes, that, not Pan’s Labyrinth, although it is a stunning achievement in his own right). Cameron made the technology possible, and del Toro, I predict, is the one who will find an original story with a unique perspective (and, one can only hope, his trademark humor, something Avatar could have used desperately) to let it really take flight.

Which isn’t to say the technology doesn’t have a long way to go. There were moments in the film that were truly photorealistic. And one of the great technical achievements of the film is that the Na’vi never truly look like animated characters. There is some hint of divine spark that makes them look truly real, even if your head can intellectually process that they obviously aren’t (on a similar note, the film’s use of 3-D is, again, easily the best use of the technology to date). Eyes, lips, teeth, tongues–they’ve never looked so true to life as they do in Avatar.

However, there are far too many moments where a fully photorealistic shot that takes your breath away is immediately followed by a shot that is so glossy and (frankly) framed in such a run-of-the-mill way that you are completely pulled out of it. There are also a couple of moments of intimacy that fall flat because it just still looks–weird, frankly. And kind of funny. There are two things that will probably make you laugh in this film: two Na’vi about to mate, and the name of the mineral that the humans are trying to mine from Pandora–Unobtanium. I wish I was making that up. Luckily, they only say the word “Unobtanium” twice in the film, but it’s funny both times. This is where Cameron shows that the technology (and the script) is far from perfect, but it is far and away the best we have at our disposal for now.

More than anything, it’s the story that gets in the way of some truly unbelievably beautiful images. Cameron paints his characters in predictable, black-and-white fashions, when the very nature of the text calls for ambiguity. In a way, the structure borrows heavily from Brigadoon, and the decision that Jake Sully must ultimately make in Avatar is no different–does he give up everything he has ever known and shun everyone he has ever cared about in order to stay in this enchanted world and preserve it or does he abandon these new people he’s come to love and destroy another way of life to preserve his own? The difference, however, lies in how they approach it. In Brigadoon, Tommy ultimately leaves Brigadoon, returning to New York, only to eventually go back to Scotland to search for it again. It’s by pure bubblegum bullshit magic that Brigadoon just happens to materialize when he gets there, a good 100 years ahead of schedule, but the point is that Tommy hesitated and had to weigh his options. Jake never really goes through such a crisis of identity in Avatar (and when a 1940s musical comedy deals with emotion more ambiguously than a 21st century science fiction film, you know there’s a problem). He is all too ready to convert completely into Na’vi, and even go so far as to kill hundreds of his former comrades in the process of saving his newfound home. It never deals with the complicated nature of his decision the way that (again, going back to del Toro) Hellboy II dealt with the ambiguity of Hellboy destroying the forest god. Cameron’s willingness to gloss over these moral dilemmas keep elements of it from being truly thrilling, and none of the action sequences really come close to matching the giddy, boundary-pushing excitement of, say, the still epic Three T-Rex fight in Peter Jackson’s King Kong (Jackson being another visionary that will push the technology further in support of narrative, more than technology for technology’s sake).

It is a deeply flawed film, but it might just be the most fascinating failure of the year.

And no matter what I say, it simply must be seen to be believed. When Cameron wows you, he really wows you. And that sort of rush is more than worth the price of admission, even if it only comes in fleeting glimpses.

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