It's taken me a couple of days to be able to sit down and write this reaction in one shot because, well, it has. I don't know if I should be blaming some of the reviews I've read (Devin and Nick, if I should, I blame you), or my sometimes aggravating ability to see both sides of an argument, or straight-up ambivalance, but for whatever reason, I'm writing this, hopefully you're reading it, and maybe we can have a good little discussion about it later.
Avatar. The movie that's taken Jim Cameron god-only-knows-how-long to finish, cost anywhere from $17 to hundreds of millions of dollars, required the development of a new motion-capture system for film, and might just be the movie that saves cinema (financially) as we know it. It's billed as a movie that everyone needs to go and see (preferably on a 3D IMAX screen – if you have access to one and anywhere from $13-$17 to burn, yes, absolutely, go and see it this way) because it will. Change. Your. Perception. Of. Film. FOREVER.
Let's jump to the end and back here really quickly: Is Avatar the best movie I've seen all year? In the last five years? In my life? In reverse order: No, no, and it depends on how you define “best.” Were I inclined to make a list of the five films I liked best that I've seen in 2009, the list would include (in no particular order) Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, Watchmen, Moon, and Observe And Report (I need to see District 9 again to shake out how I really feel about it. The fact that Wikus is basically Michael Scott, and later action-hero Michael Scott, might still be too much for me. Or not. That's why I need to see it again. And I greatly enjoyed Up and Big Fan). I tend to weight writing more significantly than most anything else in the movie (being a “writer” myself), with acting coming in a close second, and everything else kind of getting jammed together after that (unless something really stands out – like the production design in From Hell. One really awesome aspect of a film can make up for some weaker ones, but that's not to say that I actually like From Hell. It's a pretty shitty movie, all things being equal, but that production design is fucking incredible).
There are, of course, those rare “perfect” movies, where everything's working in harmony and the film winds up being more than the sum of its rather impressive parts (perfect movies for me would include John Carpenter's The Thing, Galaxy Quest, Jackie Brown, Bringing Up Baby, Yojimbo, Bowfinger, Batman Returns, and certainly others that I can't recall at the moment). But, I know those when I see them, and that's usually on a repeat viewing. If you were to ask me if I saw any movies that were anything like “perfect” movies this year, I'd say the closest I got were either Observe and Report or Moon. But, ask me in five years, and I'll be able to give you a real answer that's not operating on a Seth Rogen/Sam Rockwell hangover (as much, anyway).
By my rather ill-defined criteria, Avatar was not the best movie I saw in 2009. Now, to be fair, Avatar was probably the best looking movie I've seen this year, and in quite a few years. The movie's design is a tribute to Cameron's single-mindedness, and the team he put together to help him realize his vision. The film's tech cannot be denied – it's frankly kind of scary how good CG can be when it's placed in the hands of people who know how to use it (as my good friend Mister Tim Davids said, it's difficult to believe that the human base camp isn't one gigantic miniature). The facial expressions of the Na'vi blow away anything that motion capture has offered up in the past (a note that our friends at Marvel may want to consider closely as they prepare for the Avengers film); Zoe Saldana's Neytiri (a character who, by the way, dominates every scene she's in. Abams and Cameron have given us the next great lady action star; Hollywood better not fuck this one up) looks and moves the way I'd expect her to look and move as that character, as does Sigourney Weaver's Dr. Grace Augustine's Na'vi avatar (damn, does she ever do a great job as Cameron's Cassandra, once again). Pandora feels, to me, as fully realized as any world in the history of science fiction film.
The story is pretty weak sauce, can we all just admit that? If there's ever been a retread of a story, Avatar's narrative would be just that. White guy from soulless society finds the true meaning of life among the tribal people that his own people are planning to ruthlessly exploit... This is not a groundbreaking sort of story that no one's ever tried to tell before. Admittedly, a movie as tech-focused as Avatar will, probably, push other aspects of itself off to the side in order to maximize that which makes it significant, and there's certainly nothing wrong with telling a story that's been told before, as long as it's done interestingly and well, but Avatar hits all of the expected beats perfectly. My problem with that was that it felt too easy (a point I'll try and touch on later) for a film of this magnitude; if you're going to set out and try to change movies forever, why not try and tackle every aspect of motion picture storytelling? Ambition in one focused area is all well and good, but ambition in all things is enviable and worthy of appreciation, even when it falls flat on its face.
Now, I know that no one has ever gone to see a James Cameron film because of the penetrating social insight, or his deep characterization, or any of the things that mark, say, an Ang Lee film (or a Spike Lee film, for that matter). Cameron's a different kind of filmmaker entirely, and that's not a bad thing. He does what he does very well. Would I love it if he recognized his limitations and got himself a writing partner who could say, “Jim, you've created an amazing world here in this script. Now it's time for you to let me populate it with compelling characters and for the two of us to work together to fashion a story worthy of our imaginations”? Hell fucking yes. But, the fact that he doesn't almost makes him more of an artist. He's committed to his vision, no compromises, no outside influences, no nothing. He's kind of like George Lucas in that way, except that Cameron's had more than two good ideas in his life (at least, he's shared more than two good ideas with the world. Okay, three).
You see what I mean when I say that I'm still not sure what I can say about Avatar?
“Unobtanium” is kind of a stupid word, but it seems like just the sort of shorthand dickhead space capitalists would come up with (and, by the way, Giovanni Ribisi is a great spiritual son to Paul Reiser's Carter Burke. Burke was a better character than Selfridge, but to complain would be the same as splitting hairs, and I'll do that plenty more later). None of the scientists in the film call the mineral that, and there's so much about the world of Avatar that's left unsaid (like the great science fiction films – Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, Alien, and so on – the world is so complete that it doesn't need to spend weeks and months and years explaining itself. It just is) that I can't imagine that real scientists would have been unable to fashion a better name that “unobtanium.”
[ASIDE: The following paragraphs... I still have problems with them. They don't fit anywhere in the flow of my text, and I don't precisely know how qualified I am to write any of it, being a white guy, and all. That being said, the following points kept flashing in my mind during the film, and I'd like to think that, by writing them down, I can figure out what they mean. But, if that's the case, I haven't figured them out yet. Anyway, here we go:
Now, I'm well aware that Cameron's never busied himself with much subtext in his movies. If it's there, I'm pretty sure it's there by accident (“greedy, moralless, monolithic companies are bad” is not subtext here any more than it was in Titanic or Aliens – hell, in Aliens, he was just picking up where the first film left off). And, yes, I imagine that, until now, the most significant performer who isn't white in any of his films would be Jenette Goldstein's Private Vasquez in Aliens was not by design. I doubt that factors into anybody's casting decisions, frankly. That's not why we watch his movies; he doesn't have anything to say about the persistent race issues on our planet, and that's fine, that's who he is.
It's weird to me, though, that, with the exception of Michelle Rodriguez and Dileep Rao, every speaking human on Pandora is white, and the most significant ethnic actors are blue. Zoe Saldana, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso... They're all digital, they're all tribal. They're all great performers, who certainly help the movie soar where lesser actors would've brought it down, but if you have complete casting freedom with the mo-cap, the way Cameron and his people did, it seems... well, lazy to slide into stereotype territory with the Na'vi. It was so glaring that it almost blinded me at times.
I also think something needs to be said about how it's the white man – in the body of a blue man – that unites the natives. I'm not the right person to do it, since I don't have cultural/philosophical baggage that would allow me to make a cogent and passionate point about it, but I think it's there (and that's not to say it hasn't been there before. Cameron certainly didn't invent that), I think it's significant, and I think it's worth recognizing.
And, before I forget, there's this weird rape allegory that comes up when Sully captures his first flying lizard creature – the humans call them Banshees - and again with the gigantic second one, the one that he rides to unite the clans of The People against the human interlopers. It's not explored at all, but to me, it very much smacks of rape. I get that the nerve tendrils are a literalization for how the Na'vi are connected to Pandora – if there's one thing sci-fi is great for, it's making a point with the subtlety of a sledgehammer – but, in this case, it actually made me uncomfortable.]
Seriously, though, there's a lot about Avatar to like, and to say that I wasn't caught up in the moviemaking for most of the film's runtime would be a lie. When Sully climbs out of the ship and emerges in the human base of operations, when the Na'vi clans wage all-out war against the private military forces of the Corporation/Company, the moments when Pandora unfolds itself to Sully and us... Much of the film was a spectacular theatrical experience. Avatar used 3D exceptionally well; it didn't force itself upon the audience so much as it drew us in. Like Coraline, it utilized the depth of the screen as well as popping the images out at us. It was, in short, a filmgoing experience unlike any I'd ever had before.
The good, for me, most definitely outweighed the bad (the good, after all, was deliberate, while I think the bad was not. This isn't me saying that I don't think Cameron and his crew are smart enough to pick up on what was “bad;” far from it. I just think that they chose to focus their time and energy on how the film looked, rather than what it might've said). When I walked out of Inglourious Basterds, I remarked that no one makes a movie as well as Quentin Tarantino. Well, James Cameron makes himself one hell of a movie, too. I'm glad I've been able to see a Cameron sci-fi film in theaters; I would've felt cheated if my opportunities had begun and ended with Titanic. And, a Cameron sci-fi film scored by James Horner? I felt spoiled, in parts.
Despite my litany of misgivings with the film, I would not steer anyone away from seeing this film [while it's in the theaters. I suspect this'll be a King Kong-like situation, where I don't have much interest in seeing the film when it's not on a gigantic screen. Which seems to be what Cameron's going for, filling those seats]. Avatar was, in many ways, an experience unlike any I'd ever had before. I'd like to have it again, if I can scrape together the cash to do so.
[SECOND ASIDE: I read in an interview that Sam Worthington would love the opportunity to test for, and play, the part of Captain America. If he can do a better job consistently reining in his Aussie accent, I don't think I'd have any problems with him playing Steve. He's got the physicality for it, and his speechifying late in the film was very promising. Assuming we can't travel back in time six years and get Nathan Fillion.]