16 Dec
Madman Mundt’s epic-poem-length review of the most anticipated movie of the year

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Anyone who reads this site with any regularity knows that I’ve been anticipating Avatar with my Geek Phaser set on Mutilate. It’s fair to say that this is the most energized I’ve felt waiting for a film since the first X-Men (Bryan Singer helming my favorite childhood comic) or even Terminator 2 (Cameron’s follow-up to arguably the best sci-fi action flick of all time), and maybe even more so than both combined. All the requisite hype points were there: James Cameron’s triumphant return to film after a 12 year hiatus; 3D technology that boasted to reshape the industry from its core, the way “talkies” did in the 20’s and color film did in the late 30’s; groundbreaking facial recognition that promised to make Gollum look like Beowulf; and what has become nearly standard for any new Cameron project, the label of Most Expensive Film Ever. What’s there not to be excited about?

Of course, I’m no longer an 11-year-old boy reading Alien Legion comic books in my backyard fort, as much as I’d like to pretend that I am. I had some nagging doubts — the native aliens, the Na’vi, looked pretty damn goofy. Also, I was lucky enough to catch that 17-minute trailer in 3D at an IMAX in August, and as impressed as I was by the visuals the quick cuts and trailer edits left me a bit dizzy and nauseous. Is this how I’d feel for the entire 150 minutes? Lastly, I wondered: had Cameron peaked? His best films were 20 years in the past, and although he’d proven to be incredibly consistent, you just never know when an artist will lose his edge.

So it’s with mixed feelings that I sat my ass on that chair before the vast IMAX screen before me — part of me excited like a schoolboy 30 minutes before summer vacation, part of me trying to rein in runaway expectations. Then I put on my giant ridiculous 3D glasses and the adventure began…and I proceeded to spend the next 2 1/2 hours bouncing back and forth with similar mixed feelings of giddy joy and pressing disappointment…

Hit the Jump to continue reading Madman Mundt’s epic-poem-length (yet spoiler free!) review of James Cameron’s Avatar

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The bad:

First, let’s get the bad out of the way right away. First, the creature design is predictable and unimaginative at best, and sub-par at worst. Much ado has been made about the work of Neville Page (the man who designed the ice beast in Star Trek and the Cloverfield monster), but I just don’t see what the hullabaloo here is all about. The creatures are basically all minorly tweaked versions of Earth creatures, either living or extinct…with 6 legs. The banshee? A pterodactyl with a deep-sea fish head. The direhorses all the alien natives ride around on? Skinny horses…with 6 legs. The massive Titanothere you’ve seen stampeding in trailers? Essentially rhinos, or triceratops, with hammerhead shark heads…with 6 legs. That giant black panther with the fleshy mouth, fans on his head and big teeth? A giant black panther fused with a fan lizard…with 6 legs. Catching a motif here? No creature was that imaginative really, just beautifully illustrated animals we’ve already seen with some flashy tweaks we’re all supposed to go ‘Ooooh!’ about. I mean, we’re talking about a completely alien world, with a completely alien atmosphere and alien environment — can’t anyone come up with something more innovative than a cat with 6 legs? The only place the animal design got really interesting is with the smaller creatures — insects, tiny helicopter-like lizards, seeds that float weightlessly like luminescent jellyfish.

It’s no secret Cameron saw this as his opportunity to usurp the film that inspired his entire cinematic career. He wanted to outdo Star Wars in every facet, and create a deeper, ever more detailed world. He hired USC linguistics professor Paul Frommer to create a functioning Na’vi language (Klingon, anyone?), and worked with an ethnomusicologist to give the Na’vi a musical culture. He even published a 350-page Pandorapedia compiling all the flora, fauna and history of the planet. The only problem is, the Star Wars universe was fleshed out over 30 years, with 6 films and hundreds of books and comics filling in the backstories, histories and drama. You can’t just create such a robust universe in one film — even if you’re Jim “King of the World” Cameron with bottomless coffers. But if he were going for broke, and to dethrone the most popular sci-fi franchise in all of history, he could have put more of a premium in creating creatures that defy the imagination — that would blow your mind at first view. Didn’t happen.

The other problem that poked its ugly head repeatedly was the nagging feeling that you’ve seen many of these scenes before. Of course every director has themes or tropes which he returns to, but some of the characters, scenes and plotlines in Avatar were completely lifted from his earlier works — in many cases directly from Aliens: Michelle Rodriguez channeling Vasquez — a lesbian, hard ass, one-liner spitting Latina marine? Check. Sigourney Weaver as the stubborn, go-by-her-own-rules scientist? Check. A climactic battle scene between an alien and a human in a mech battle suit? Check. An evil corporation that values the bottom line over human — and alien — lives? Check.

Where is the innovation, the mythic spark that has always made Cameron a singular director, on par with luminaries like Scorcese, Kurasawa and Kubrick? Whereas the visuals of the film are second to none, and typical in its Cameron-level innovation (the Abyss was the largest underwater set of all time; Titanic and Terminator 2 were both the most expensive movies ever made at their respective releases; Terminator was one of the most successful films of the 80’s on an indie budget, etc), the story is, well…blah. It just lacks those moments of Cameron epicness — those scenes that you’re utterly taken aback and slapped awake, which flip your conceptions of filmmaking — e.g. the drowning scene in Abyss, the police station massacre in Terminator, when the aliens come through the roof in Aliens, the entire last hour of Titanic, etc. Sadly, Avatar is basically bereft of these moments…that is, until the final battle. But more on that later. Yes, there are your requisite battling-fierce-giant-monster sequences early in the film to keep you interested, but they read more like Jurassic Park or even King Kong — sure they have a bit of tension, but you’ve seen it before. Been there done that. Having a guy run from a drooling 6-legged beast with 2-foot fangs will have your heart palpitating a bit, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before ad nauseum.

Another criticism you’re sure to hear plenty of is that it’s a bit heavy handed in its pro-environmental message. It’s basically the Evil Corporation, this time Resources Development Administration [RDA], versus the plight of the honorable indigenous peoples. Now I love this in infinite ways — I don’t think there’s a better way to plant the seeds (no pun intended) in the youth about controversial subjects like sustainability and environmental concerns than by couching the message in an unforgettable science fiction action flick that every kid in the world under the age of 17 will see. That’s not to be shrugged at. But it is how Cameron does it that left me wanting more. It was a bit preachy, and the Na’vi were so humanlike, and had so many “Indian” stereotypes (eg feather headdresses, bows and arrows, war paint, trinkets, etc), that it’s not even subtle enough to be a fable — it’s a straight history lesson (where’s Howard Zinn to polish up the script when you need him?). To put it most succinctly, as we left the screening I heard a guy go, “So it’s Dances With Wolves in space?” and I had to laugh.

We live in a Halliburton/Exxon/Blue Cross Blue Shield world where corporations surreptitiously fund organizations to get their agendas across while masking it as “grassroots” efforts; where billion dollar healthcare companies are convincing the masses that somehow reforming the broken system goes against their consumer interests; where energy giants fund senators to back efforts to drill for puddles of oil in pristine ecological wonderlands strictly for profits. Everyone knows it’s a mess, so it’s great to see a filmmaker of Cameron’s stature tackling such subjects head on. But somehow, I just don’t think he handled it with the elegance that it might take to actually affect a change in mindset. I’m really curious as to how this film will play out in the Red States — will NASCAR fans reject its “treehugger commie” agenda? How will they react when they hear the RDA Marine general say, “Sometimes you gottta fight terror with terror”? In this film, you know exactly which president Cameron is aiming his directorial canons at. Is that a bad thing? Of course not. Could he have done it a bit more subversively? Absolutely.

Some of the beauty that must be witnessed in IMAX wonder...

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The good:

Ok, now for the good. The booming positives of Avatar start and end, quite simply, with the visuals. They are mindboggling, truly — you’ll find yourself scanning the entire surface of the giant screen examining minute details in the elaborately designed landscape. As characters fall and tumble in the gigantic gargantuan living world, you’ll find butterflies flapping in the corner, wisps of vapor from one of the innumerable, endless waterfalls drifting across the screen, distant birds hunting in packs. But it is not just the landscape — the machines, mech suits, altered helicopters and the entire flora of Pandora are rendered and animated in dazzling detail and accuracy. It is a brain scrambling parade of visual stimuli that absolutely, without question must be experienced in IMAX 3D  — no other format will do. I cannot stress this enough: if you’re going to pay for this film, pay the couple extra bucks and see it in IMAX. How’s this for subtle: TO BE FULLY APPRECIATED, THIS MOVIE MUST BE SEEN IN IMAX. Call and find out what kind of 3D your theater has, because there’s an inferior (non-IMAX) version of 3D in theaters called “RealD”, and it is a far inferior version. (Basically RealD is a $20K lens they put on a standard projector, whereas the IMAX version has a completely proprietary $700,000 dual projector system that provides actual 3D — Google it if you care.)

And as mindboggling as the visuals are, they never get mind-numbing. Meaning, the action is crisp and clear and the panning camera work is gorgeous, never shaky or hard to decipher.

Lastly, and most importantly, is what will save Avatar — and that is the climactic battle pitting Man vs. Na’vi. There is simply no more perfect moment in movie history to fully take advantage of this 3D technology than the final battle scene of Avatar. Whereas the first 80% of the movie is fairly pedestrian in its screenwriting and character development, all its value comes to shine in the final half-hour of the film. For that 30 minutes are worth every cent of the $14 entrance fee, and then some. It makes the AT-AT Hoth melee look like the final battle of the bands at Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas. Think the eternal grandeur of the Return of the King final battle, only with the significant addition of the fact that most of the battle happens in the sky, adding a staggering sense of drama to the action. And compounded with the film’s 3D aspect, and the director’s technological ability to swing camera perspectives, makes it truly jaw dropping.

It is what will save Avatar at the box office.

All in all, Avatar is a decent movie from a brilliant director, and if it had been made by nearly anyone else I might be singing its praises (unlikely, but possible). Have I come to expect too much from Cameron? Perhaps, and perhaps expectations were just too high to deliver. Avatar is far from James Cameron’s best film — with the exception of True Lies, it could possibly be his worst. However do not be dissuaded from seeing the film in theaters — there is simply no film more deserving of a IMAX 3D screen than Avatar. I just wish that Mr. Cameron had spent a little less time deep sea diving to the Titanic and Bismark and spent a little more time polishing up his script. Then we might be talking about Titanic as the second highest grossing film of all time.

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