Monday, January 25, 2010

Movie review: Avatar part 2 -- Why I loved it

In part 1, I explained why I should have hated Avatar. Now I'll explain why I loved it.

I've actually been having a little trouble with this part, because every time I write about something I liked about the movie, I have to write about why I liked it even though that thing was stupid and I end up writing more about the "stupid" than about the "like." I suppose that means that everything I liked about the movie is stupid. I don't care. I liked it anyway. And here's why.

First there's the plot. As I said last time, it's formulaic. But here's the thing with formulas: they can work. Dressed up in a new enough way, they appeal to two powerful feelings, familiarity and novelty. To see how powerful this appeal is, one need only look at the thousand variations on the "Hero's Journey." Star Wars, for example, is a self-conscious by-the-numbers movie version of the Hero's Journey, a story that's been told thousands of times, yet more than 30 years later that film remains fresh and entertaining.

And, for all its flaws and insensitivities, the "White Guy goes native (and becomes the 'primitive' people's messiah)" plot is a serviceable one. Some good movies have been made out of it. It's appealing. Perhaps most of us yearn sometimes for a life that's more authentic, more in tune with nature, less dependent on technology; and we want to be heroes. The White Guy, who comes from our shared culture (shared to a great extent no matter what our own nationality, color, or sex may be), serves as our proxy in this adventure.

So there's a comfortable familiarity about Avatar's plot. We already know this story. Without novelty, that would indeed be a bad thing. But Avatar is packed with novelty. In the case of the plot and characters, as I'll discuss below, that novelty is just enough to get the movie over the metaphorical hump, to keep it entertaining, though not surprising.

But visually, well, visually, Avatar is a constant astonishment. Let's start with the 3D. I've never liked 3D, movies or pictures. In fact, since I have a touch of amblyopia, 3D had never really worked very well for me. I have trouble seeing images in 3D in stereoscopes, and I can never see the images in stereograms. So I haven't even bothered to watch 3D movies during the 21st-century revival. I don't think I'd seen a 3D movie since Captain EO (which didn't really look three-dimensional to me either) in the late '80s at Universal Studios.

Avatar was a completely different experience. The 3D (using the RealD process) worked completely for me, despite my eye problems. And it wasn't gimmicky at all. The way James Cameron used 3D wasn't to make things in the movie "jump out" at the audience, but to pull the audience inside the movie. I'd never seen anything like it. Flying seeds or falling ashes would drift past, looking like they're about to land on the guy two rows in front of you, before suddenly vanishing when they reached the edge of the screen. At the same time, though, this was completely natural and unobtrusive. There was never a sense that Cameron was trying too hard, that he was saying "This is in 3D, so I have to make it look like 3D."

And the planet, Pandora, is beautiful. Mountains float in the sky (something about ultra-strong magnetic fields and superconductors) like paintings of Chinese myths.

Rock is twisted into soaring arches (magnetic fields again). Just about every living thing is bioluminescent. Grass, plants, trees light up when you step on them or touch them at night. Giant leaves contract into tiny pods when touched. Lizards fly by spinning like helicopters. There are the equivalents of giant black panthers, creepy-looking wolf packs, dinosaurs, Pleistocene megafauna, and dragons. And none of this looks fake, none of it looks cartoonish, none of it makes you think "CGI!" or "Fake!" It all looks real.

And that includes the people. As good as Gollum was in The Lord of the Rings, Avatar's aliens (or "natives"), called the "Na'vi," are much better. Much, much better. They're entirely CGI, but they don't look like it. They don't even look like really good CGI, they look like real people. All the time. There's not the slightest trace of the "uncanny valley" effect, and I say that as someone who's been known to experience that effect even with real people.

Of course, in other ways, the Na'vi are absurd. They don't actually fit the rest of the planet very well. Almost every other creature on Pandora has six limbs; the Na'vi have four. Most have four eyes; the Na'vi have two. No other Pandoran creatures have hair on their heads (or anywhere else that I noticed); the Na'vi do. It's unclear if the Na'vi are mammals, or if mammals even exist on Pandora, but the women have boobs. (Not that I'm complaining -- wait, actually I guess I did. I apologize for breaking one of my own rules: "Never complain about boobs.")

This seems very unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. There's nothing wrong with the idea of some megafauna having six limbs and some having four. The four-limbed structure found in all megafauna on Earth doesn't necessarily mean that all large living things anywhere will evolve to have four limbs. But there being only two four-limbed creatures, and those creatures obviously being only distantly related at best, seems like a serious error. One would expect to spot some evolutionary relatives somewhere on the planet.

Of course, the science of all this probably simply wasn't thought out very carefully in advance. The four limbs, two eyes, hair, and boobs are obviously intended to make the Na'vi human enough to be interesting and attractive. Scientific consistency gave way to design, with the design theme in this case being "sexy blue supermodel cat-people." And guess what? It works. The blue supermodel cat-people are pretty darn sexy.

The Na'vi culture is also cheesy, basically a mash-up of most every (positive) pop culture "native" cliché you've ever seen in another movie. But cooler. Instead of just riding horses like badass Sioux warriors, the Na'vi ride six-legged jumbo dino-horses. And dragons! They also ride dragons. Can you think of anything cooler than badass sexy blue supermodel cat-Sioux warriors riding dragons? I'll save you some time: the answer is "No."

And never mind that the whole "bond with your dragon for life" thing is straight out of Anne McCaffrey. And that the White Guy, Jake, doesn't hesitate to dump his own "bonded for life" dragon for one that's bigger and redder as soon as he gets the chance. (Of course, before that he also shifted his allegiance from the scientists to the mercenaries, and then from the mercenaries to the Na'vi. Jake is definitely not one of your more loyal dudes.)

Jake, naturally, is our surrogate in this whole thing. He's not really that interesting of a character, except for one thing: he's a paraplegic. He grabs the audience's sympathy right away, especially the first time he inhabits his Na'vi avatar. We feel his joy not just at suddenly having a 10-foot tall sexy blue supermodel cat-person body (which would pretty joyful in itself), but at being able to walk and run and feel his legs again. One of the best moments in the movie is when avatar-Jake stops running around and just feels the dirt between his toes. It's a really brilliant bit of "show, don't tell," and one of the film's few pieces of character development that is actually subtle. From that moment on, we're all very much on Jake's side (despite his loyalty issues).

All the Na'vi, unfortunately, are stereotypes. There's the Pretty Native Girl who, of course, falls in love with the White Guy. She's even a "princess" of sorts, the daughter of the local tribe's leaders, who are Wise Elders. There's also the Hot-headed Warrior, who wants to kill the White Guy at first, but ends up being his best bud. And that's pretty much it for Na'vi characters. Four speaking parts, basically.

But the one thing that redeems all this to a large extent is Zoe Saldana's performance as Neytiri, the Pretty Native Girl. Of course, Neytiri is a passionate, violent, heart-on-her-sleeve stereotype, but Saldana's performance rings perfectly true. We believe that this character could exist, and we're on her side. Saldana is really wonderful in the part, and her whole performance is captured in the CGI to a degree that's unprecedented.

There are a few other minor characters that deserve mention. Cameron has always had a unique way of writing strong female parts (think Ripley, or Sarah Conner in T2) -- he writes them as male tough guys, and then changes their names and casts women to play them. There are two of those in Avatar, Sigourney Weaver as a crusty old scientist and Michelle Rodriguez as a badass pilot. There's nothing new there, but they're effective.

The other character who deserves special mention is Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the Villain. There's nothing subtle about this character. He's every (negative) military stereotype you've ever seen in another film. He's without internal conflict, more of a force of nature than a human being. But he's also a serious BAMF. The scene where he strides out into the poisonous atmosphere without a gas mask and tries to shoot down a helicopter is awesome. Everyone else is so careful about the atmosphere, but he just doesn't give a frak. And he does stuff like that all the time in the movie. (He's really good at holding his breath, apparently.) Once again, the badassness of the execution is enough to overcome the underlying silliness.

And that, perhaps, sums up why I loved the movie: its execution overcomes everything else. Sure, the plot is trite in its way. But that's part of what myth is all about -- stories that we know already, not stories that surprise us. Does Avatar's plot rise to the level of "myth"? Maybe. I don't know that I'd go that far. But it is a classic story, one that we know well. And in its execution, the visuals are beautifully original. The 3D and CGI are the best I've ever seen. The Na'vi are cool, the planet is fascinating, Jake is sympathetic, Zoe Saldana as Neytiri is wonderful, Col. Quaritch is badass, and the battles are epic. That's more than enough for me in a movie.

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