December 22, 2009

AVATAR: MY THOUGHTS



Now, looking at what James Cameron has done with this movie on a purely professional level, it is a masterpiece... and it isn't. It wouldn't be too wrong to compare Avatar with Star Wars, in the sense that Cameron created a world. He didn't just look for locations and ramp them up, he just went, here's what's inside my head, this is what I think a credible alien world should look like.

And it works. I found myself gasping at things, I found myself looking at Pandora with a gaping mouth, and it isn't because I hadn't seen such things before. I have. I own more books, comic books and European graphic novels than I can count, and there have been extraordinary things of beauty done by people like Regis and Loisel in Auf Der Suche nach dem Vogel der Zeit (I can't be bothered to look up the original French title right now), which had a similarly beautiful execution of an alien world (fantasy world, yes, but still...). But it was on paper. It was static. It wasn't moving.

But the thing about Avatar is... it's alive. It moves. It glows, and it is credible. A lot of people might have issues with the fact that the Na'vi look like giant cat people and not truly "alien", which I assume in today's day and age means giant shrimp (and I hated Blomkamp's District 9, and I dare anybody who calls Cameron heavy-handed and Blomkamp a genius to come over here and get his head bashed in). That is necessary, yes, I call making them humanoid, even down to those giant golden eyes a necessity. Why? Because we as the audience need to feel for them, and what if they were giant jelly fish? Nah. Doesn't work. So he needed to create something that was both alien and human enough for us to connect.

And he did.

Structurally, Cameron's movie works quite well. He sets up things early on in the movie that pay off later, and I'm not going to say what but that works. Sigourney Weaver as xenoprologist works also quite well, with her jealousy and gruffness covering up a sensitivity that culminates in quite a beautiful scene late in the 2nd act.

The Na'vi are something to behold. All of them have a distinct personality, and they are fuelled by real acting, and that is rare. They never quite reach the level of perfect realism, though, with one major exception.

Zoe Saldana. In barely any of the reviews is she mentioned all that much, but if that woman isn't eating up the screen every time she is on it, god, if that wasn't performance capture/motion capture, she would have to be nominated for an Academy Award, and hell, I state it right here and now: nominate her!

She and Sam Worthington show the strengths and weaknesses of the technology Cameron has employed here, for that is what this technology does. It enhances your ability to express emotions through your facial movements. Hitchcock once said that the most powerful SFX he can think of is a close-up of an actor's face.

And in Saldana's case, that is true. Her performance, in all of its subtlety is on the screen. Her way of looking away, her way of an attempted smile, just stopped before it reaches full growth, the constant play between shyness and a brash, arrogant attitude... it's all in her face. Never before in a big budget crowd-pleaser have I seen such subtlety. Look at how her heart breaks when she realises Worthington's character has betrayed her, roughly half into the movie. Her look, the way she cannot stand to look at him, I dare you to find a better performance in 2009. and it is even so much more vital in this movie than it would be in your general biopic or look at the poor people pic like Precious. For if you don't believe her, the movie falls apart. The entire movie rests on Saldana's shoulders, and she is carrying it with grace and unparalleled strength.

Unfortunately, Saldana's strength only shows everything that is lacking in Sam Worthington. Without a suberb actor, the technology falls flat. His Jack Sully is both in human and Na'vi form a disappointment. Wooden and never quite able to connect with the audience on an emotional level. A better actor would have been needed. Having now seen Worthington here and in Terminator: We Are Fucking Done, Professionally, I have no desire to see him in anything else, and I hope that after Clash of the Titans we are no longer forced to see him in anything. He is, dare I say it? The Mark Hamill of today's genre movies, and his ride on Cameron's choice has been long enough.

But Zoe Saldana, who I didn't really like that much in Star Wars, uh, Trek ... god, is she good. She is Kate Winslet good, and one can only hope that her blue skin, uh, black skin doesn't stop people from putting her in many, many more things as has been the case with too many great black actresses (Angela Bassett anyone?)

As for the human side in the movie. They are quite flat and two-dimensional, and if I had been given the script, I would have tried to make them a bit deeper, but they are essentially the aliens of Independence Day, or the hordes of Mordor in Lord of the Rings, and we ain't never complained when it was the aliens who were flat and two-dimensional, eh? So to spear Cameron up for that, I just cannot bring myself to do that.

The story owes a lot to Edgar Rice Burroughs, it is unapologetically pulp fiction. The science ain't sound, and I know why it isn't. I mean, they have battle armor (think smaller Transformers or Robotech suits) with giant big windows in front of them, duh, or they essentially have helicopters with big windows, and we all know how well that worked out since Vietnam. But the thing is, if Cameron had used more logical science (fully covered battletech), you couldn't have seen the actors, their reactions to the things that are happening, and that would have been a catastrophe. So again, I forgive him for that.

But what he has done is exactly what he set out to do. To tell a grand epic story of love and betrayal on a different planet, and not since Star Wars have I come out with the feeling that I was there with him.

It is the future of cinema, but not the way the analysts have predicted or analysed to death in the months prior to release. This isn't about CGI. It isn't about 3D. And a lot of the technology, I believe, may sneak its way into lesser movies, the way Matrix' bullet time sneaked into the movies of lesser directors (I am looking at you, McG) and CGI backgrounds sneaked into lesser movies (I am looking at you, Guy Ritchie), but for the most part, it is only workable here. In this world. Created by Cameron just for us. It's about a guy who took his job seriously to create something you have never seen before, and in such Avatar is almost beautifully old-fashioned. You never get the sense of "this is here so they can sell a toy". You never get the sense of old metal butts clanking and bad pottery being destroyed (I am looking at you, Michael Bay). You never just look at things and ask yourself, how did they do that, which is my reaction far too often these days.

You are there.

On Pandora.

And you want to be there. In the theatre. Not at home. Not on a TV screen. This is too big for that. It gives you a reason to go into a theatre.

Thanks, Jim. Just for that. Thanks.