Friday, December 18, 2009

Cat Fights From Another Planet

There was reason to worry. What on earth was taking James Cameron so long anyway? It's been twelve years since Titanic, weighted down with Oscars and cash, sank into the ocean. For nearly a decade it looked like the reliable blockbuster director might never come back up for air. Was Titanic just too daunting to follow up? But, just as the negative buzz prior to Titanic's release evaporated when people actually saw the great big movie, Avatar dispels any doubts within minutes. The old saying "if you rest, you rust" does not apply to James Cameron. He may have spent years geekily perfecting yet more groundbreaking cinematic technology but thankfully he didn't lose his love of fierce women, action sequences laced with emotion or his storytelling instincts in the process.

Avatar bombards you with backstory in its opening scenes but it's never weighed down by all the fantastical exposition (for a director so fond of lengthy movies -- this one clocks in at 162 rousing minutes -- his movies sure fly). With a series of quick scenes we get the basics: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an ex-marine who has lost the use of his legs, he's been recruited by bossy plant-loving Dr Grace Augustine (Cameron stand-in and Aliens survivor Sigourney Weaver) for an elaborate scientific and diplomatic mission to the planet Pandora. There, he'll be animating an alien body created specifically to be compatible with his own genetic code.

Read the rest of my Avatar review in my weekly column at Towleroad

Click on any label below for more on these topics. I've been a Cameron fan for a long time. I recently reexamined and detailed the greatness of both Terminator and T2: Judgment Day


Jim T said...

As I said in a post of mine yesterday, I was very disappointed. But i think will watch it again (from what I read i am certain the theater was not fully equipped for that kind of movie so I'll go to another theater) and not care about the script but enjoy the visuals.

Please tell me that overall Titanic is better! Or don't :p

O. Andrew D said...

Avatar could be the new way to make movies, but you have to find a director who will spend 14 years making a movie.

Catherine said...


I didn't like it at all. Before buying the ticket this afternoon, I prepped myself mentally. Sci-fi and action movies are definitely not my favourites, but I'd like to think I'm open-minded enough to enjoy really excellent examples of the genre when I see them, and so I went along to Avatar today really hoping to be converted.

To be fair, there were parts of it that I did really like, namely the opening sequence, which was very effective in instantly drawing us so claustrophobically into this world. Throughout, I'll admit there were one or two thrilling moments where I was really captivated and fully 'present' in the story - like when Jake's and Dr. Augustine's avatars suddenly fainted away in the forest when Stephen Lang pressed the buttons back on base camp - but overall, I just could not jibe with it.

None of the mythology felt organic or cohesive and Cameron kept shoving it down our throats. Every three seconds it felt like the Na'Vi were practicing some never-before-seen, supposedly vitally important ancient ritual, or the scientists back on base camp were telling us some integral piece of information that would promptly be forgotten three seconds later. What was all that guff Sigourney Weaver was waffling on about a giant nerve system in the forest, trees "to the power of 12" (?) on which they could upload and download memories? I'm sorry, what? If that info was so precious, why wait til the last minute to share it with everyone? And did it have anything to do with anything else that happened in the film? Nope! Cameron's a talented technologian, but he's no good as a writer or as someone who can create an intellectual or imaginative world to match his visuals. I found the cod-mythology fairly offensive - those bloody panpipes which kept playing over the Na'vi just reminded me of those people who dance on street corners [here in Dublin] wearing feathered headbands, pretending to be Native Americans.

I just flat out do not care about impressive visuals when the story they're supporting is so ridiculous, patched together and potentially offensive. Cameron's attempts at rousing sentiment left me cold. Ugh.

I really don't know what I would've done with Sigourney Weaver, puffing away at her cigarette. Really enjoyed her performance. But everything else, nah. (Maybe I'm being harsh. I am literally just out of the cinema this past hour, so it's all very fresh, and perhaps I'll mellow with time).

Brian Z said...

I was also letdown by the film.

Kambei said...

The trees had everything to do with the story.


a) it turns Pandora into a vast Gaia-type world brain, b) it is the mechanism by which Jake becomes Na'vi, by uploading his brain into the "network" and then into the body, c) it is this interconnectedness which allows the natural armies to defeat the humans at the last minute, after the Na'vi have failed.

Did you really watch the movie?

Catherine said...

@Graeme: all right, you got me. I'll concede that the trees were important, especially regarding your point b. But still, my initial irritant remains: it just seemed like a hodge-podge of all these theories and rituals and events, none of which were fully explained. And maybe it's because I'm avowedly not a sci-fan fan, but it just rankled.

adam k. said...

Wow, people are so harsh with this film... let the backlash begin.

Re: the trees

Yes, they were important for all the reasons discussed, and the reason Sigourney didn't mention them until when she did is that she didn't fully understand how they worked until then. She's a scientist, not the Na'Vi god.

I concede that this film was quite flawed, mostly (to my mind) in how it's not long enough. I thought we did need a little more time to stop and breathe and process all the info toward the beginning. But I could see how 2:40 was as long as they thought it could get away with. I'm looking forward to the Blue-Ray extended edition.

And sure, Cameron's dialogue is still flat, and he hit us over the head with stuff at times, but that was to be expected. All things considered, this film was AWESOME. I am in awe.

Can't wait for the race between Avatar, Hurt Locker and Up in the Air along with Cameron/Bigelow/Reitman. I think the top categories will actually be interesting.

adam k. said...

But I did think Titanic was a bit better overall. It may have just been that I was young and impressionable and that was the first really BIG movie I'd ever seen.

Nothing here tops the scene where Rose jumps back onto the ship and runs to Jack.

And after Titanic, LOTR, etc, event films are nothing new.

Olli Sulopuisto said...

The script was suprisingly weak for Cameron. I mean the 2nd act was pure filler: no beats you couldn't see coming a mile ahead, lots and lots of on the nose dialogue, more exposition than you can shake a bioluminescent stick at. Supporting characters were shallow and one-dimensional. Prime example: Vasq... I mean Michelle Rodriguez's pilot tough girl. All oneliners and nothing else. A shame.

That being said, I still might go and rewatch it. I mean it's very, very flawed, but also very, very good. (Apart from the script, which is a bummer.)

Alice Chuang said...

Michelle Rodriguez's pilot tough girl IS Cameron's Han Solo. Millennium Falcon and last minute change of heart and all....


Alice -- so true. But she's also Alien's marine girl so she's like a composite of too many things.

John Travolta said...

Before Avatar Inglourious Basterds was my favorite film of the year, and I believed it would in the end be my favorite. I'm quite partial to Quentin Tarantino and for me to say I enjoyed Avatar more, it hurts to say but its true. I went in with the right level of expectation, having previous knowledge of cheesy dialogue and story. While watching the film I didn't notice any of it. It blew my mind, and i enjoyed every moment. I wish others would just enjoy the film and not be so critical.


But John, did you love Inglourious most because Quentin directed your best performance?

i feel it's a fair question ;)

* on the 'stop being so critical' front* I never want people to do that since i don't think it's wise to "turn off your brain" BUT part of being critically discerning is understanding when "cheese" and broadly drawn characterizations are part of something's style and not "flaws". and AVATAR isn't damaged by being kind of hokey ;)

I'm seeing it again tomorrow so i'm wondering how it will hold up... i do worry a bit about how it will hold up after the "wow" fades away.