Friday, December 10, 2010

Film Review | Avatar

Pandora’s Box

by Thomas Delapa

Since its release one year ago, Avatar has soared to become the biggest box-office hit in the known universe, even leaving writer/director James Cameron’s own Titanic in its wake. Yet audiences following the advice of the DVD tagline (“Return to Pandora...”) may well be amazed by the sci-fi fantasy’s epic lack of depth, made even clearer when bereft of the digitally generated 3D theatrical spectacle.

While it’s notoriously difficult to argue with—or stem the tide of—any Hollywood blockbuster, the few choice discouraging words that greeted Avatar now loom larger now, with or without glasses. Whether you derisively dub it Dances With Smurfs or Bambi Goes to Outer Space, Cameron’s environmentally correct outer-space morality tale uproots just about every cliché in the revisionist book, transplanting them for a story that pits tree-hugging big blue humanoids against an armed invasion of evildoing Earthlings.

In place of Union soldier Kevin Costner going native in the old West, Cameron drafts wooden B-lister Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine who lands on the faraway planet of Pandora. In this Alien-ated, energy-starved universe, the ruthless RDA Corporation is set to mine all of Pandora’s precious “Unobtanium.” Standing in the way are the super-sized Na’vi people, a race of ten-foot-tall, blue-hued natives who are one with nature. While a compassionate scientist (Sigourney Weaver) wants to make nice with the Na’vi, a scarred, sneering colonel (Stephen Lang) is happy to terminate them with shock-and-awesome firepower.

A Y2K Spielberg with his pulse on the anemic poundings of popular culture, Cameron shrewdly mines the burgeoning video-game anti-aesthetic to boot up the plot. To surreptitiously befriend the Na’vi on their own turf, the scientists have developed hybrid humanoid shells called Avatars—much like the fantasy alter-egos beloved by players in the cyber-game universe. These ginned-up genetic disguises allow Jake and company to leave their bodies behind at the lab so they can fraternize with the locals. In his Blue Man guise, Jake instantly strikes up a relationship with the lithe and loinclothed Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Cameron’s Pandoran Pocahontas.

Little matter that neither Cameron nor the audience can figure out how the Avatar process practically works. Throughout his adventure, Jake constantly ping-pongs back and forth between his Edenic life with Neytiri and his time back on base, but it’s never clear how this is possible. This is a guy who never sleeps, and has the magic ability to be in two places at the same time.

On the small screen, Avatar’s eye-popping, computer-generated splendor fades against a plot and characterizations that are, at best, wallpaper. With the zeitgeist of ecological cataclysm during this year (cresting with the BP oil spill), Cameron’s message obviously hit a mother lode with worldwide audiences, grafting environmentalism with pro-Native (American) sentiments. Yet as with most Hollywood big chiefs, the director’s naive, touchy-feely themes are no match against his delight in delivering massive battle scenes designed to bring out the popcorn warrior in us all.

Once the Jake-led Na’vi insurgents go on the warpath, how their arrows manage to smash through the glass of heavily-armed space helicopters is a mystery only Yoda could solve. Yes, Jake goes native in a big and tall way, even taming the king of flying dragons to take the homeland fight back to the colonel’s evil corporate army.

At the 2010 Oscars, while his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow walked off with the Best Director and Best Picture awards for The Hurt Locker, Cameron nevertheless won the box-office war in a rout. He still may be the king of the world, but in today’s diminished Hollywood, that world is very small indeed.



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