Sunday, January 10, 2010

brainy & beautiful

"Brainy & beautiful" could refer either to James Cameron's sublime "Avatar" or to its equally exquisite star, Zoë Saldaña.

Actually, it applies to both.

I came to Cameron's achievement belatedly and, frankly, with few expectations. And it is an achievement - a love story, a war flick and a message film, a plea on behalf of the environment, all wrapped in a green-hued, extraordinarily handsome package. Eye Candy for grown-ups.

Cameron's gentle tirade is about Pandora - a stand-in for the Garden of Eden or maybe Oz (take your pick) - and the ravaging of its resources by a private military company, a la Blackwater, that charges in and, with a sense of entitlement, brutally pushes aside the inconvenient indigenous population. (Cameron wittily names its chief resource Unobtainium.)

Pandora's natives, the amazonian, blue-skinned Na’vi, are beautifully embodied by Saldaña in a bracing, impassioned performance that handily brusts through Cameron's tricky "motion capture" technique.

"Avatar" is topical, political and empathetic. Technically, it is intimidating - particuarly in Imax 3-D - but, narratively, it is genuinely humbling.

19 comments:

Adam said...

A thing of absolute beauty, perhaps perfection.

Jeremy Hillary said...

If only for its visual grace, "Avatar" is a great movie, but it's more than a great-looking movie. Cameron is never credited with how much attention he pays to plot, but this film and "The Abyss" and "Titanic" reveals a physical filmmaker who is also a thinking director.

David Lamb said...

I disagree! Cameron always makes me feel like I’m watching a series of classroom exercises strung together, each scene played at the highest pitch possible, with very little regard for what comes before or after. Your analysis is sharp, but you left out the most important step in Cameron’s narrative paradigm: the scene in which the protagonist gets to chew up the scenery while bellowing in impotent, self-righteous rage at a designated authority figure.

Gary said...

I think "Avatar" is a conspicuous exception to this rule in Cameron's case. He works in this film with a certain sense of timing and modulation that his other films don't possess.

John H. Kaiser ( formerly avid filmgoer ) said...

I went to the comic book ( where oddly enough they were talking about Jay and Conan ) and asked,"If Avatar was made back in 1977 with the same script and the conventional special effects of the time, would it still be as good." My question was met with a resounding, "No." Add to this that IMAX is charging 16 dollars for tickets and the local Century Theater is charging more to see it in Digital 3D than in 2D.
I'm skipping this one and waiting for Tarantino's next movie.

John H. Kaiser ( formerly avid filmgoer ) said...

The only truly great movie that Cameron made that his ego didn't cheapen was "Aliens". The sequels did the job for him.

joe baltake said...

Whoa, John! Wait a minute - "The Abyss" is a damn good movie, totally solid. Intelligent and exciting. And the only things wrong with "Titanic" is that it (1) made a lot of money and (2) won a ton of awards. Cameron is no Michael Bay, John (I know how much you dislike Bay), so don't confuse the two. I think in this case you are too quick to pre-judge. SEE THE MOVIE ALREADY! But I do agree with you totally on the merits of Quentin.

joe baltake said...

P.S. to John: Despite to proclamations to the contrary, you are still very much an avid moviegoer.

John H. Kaiser ( Conservative Liberal ) ) said...

My problems with Avatar...

a) I did a little checking, in IMAX the movie is 16.00, in RealD ( or digital 3D ) it is 13.50, and in standard it is 10.00. With such differing in prices I think it's high time box office records are measured in tickets sold.

2) My problem with Cameron is that he's a misogynist disguising himself as a liberal feminist on film (with the exception of "True Lies" where he showed his true colors). Take a look at his marriage track record and notice how the wives almost overlap each other. That's the true test of how a man really feels about women. Yet everyone lauds him for the tough, independent women in his movies.

4) It's almost three hours long, yet the whole story can be told in the trailer. So all your paying for really is the FX. I've seen enough movies that I can save my money and play it out in my head.

d) I can't, I can't, I can't stand over-hype on a movie where all anyone can talk about is the visual effects. At least when "The Matrix" was hyped, it actually had a good story and characters that people talked about later.

To paraphrase Scrooge, "Av-a-tar. Humbug, bah."

John H. Kaiser ( Scourge of Users of Cell Phones During a Movie ) said...

Yes, I know put A,2,4,D. It's an homage to my favorite line from "Home Alone". When I saw the movie, I was scared for humanity, because I was the only one that laughed at it.

"No, for three reasons: A, I'm not that lucky. Two, we use smoke detectors and D, we live on the most boring street in the whole United States of America, where nothing even remotely dangerous will ever happen. Period." - Buzz McCallister

Tina said...

Great review!

Cameron is a master of visual storytelling, and he just had great fun with Avatar. There's actually more depths that you wouldn't even believe in Titanic. No pun intended. But, yes, Cameron did a freakin great job with Avatar. Possibly the greatest film of the 2000s.

Nicky said...

Can anyone on this stupid planet compare Avatar to 2001 Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Studio Ghibli movies or Matrix and realize that this crappy looking Xbox platform-game demo reel with generic scenery and 3D models downloaded for free from internet is actually NOTHING SPECIAL and it's sole purpose is to sell 3D television sets? The script is from a Sega Mega Drive platform game and the graphics are from an Xbox platform game. This film is a generic pile of default designs, speech lines, textures, ideas and events intended for generic critics and generic public that will consume it because they are told to consume it and will be convinced to spend more money on more generic 3D animations that will soon follow because the only thing generic people can digest is generic food served as a spectacle. If you plan to have children that can actually use their brains please go and get copies of for example Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke movies.

joe baltake said...

Hey, I agree - at least re "Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke."

Julio Pieczarka said...

I just love avatar. I saw it in Imax-3D in a teather and then a got the blu-ray. The movie is technically perfect, you can just see the landscape and computer effects for hours without getting tired. And as a biologist, I must say that Cameron made a whole planet, with plant and animals that are perfectly acceptable for the standing evolutionary theories. If you think how many stupid things you see in american movies (like typical South American monkeys in Africa, for instance) you understand that this is relevant. Details like the 5 fingers in the avatars while 4 in Navis, the fact that the navis are taller than humans in a planet with smaller size and weaker gravity, and so many other things! They even made a new language for the movie, something you found just in the Lord of the Ring books. Avatar is inteligent, funny, entertainment at its best as only Hollywood can give you. Of course, the right wing will hate it and say the only thing the can: the story is "recicled". Abssolutelly ridicoulous!

Sherwin said...

Can't believe people were actually complaining about its predictability. In a movie like this, I'd say that's merely nitpicking. Avatar takes you to another world, and in that world, there is no such thing as predictability - just wonder and escapism. Isn't that what movies are for? Avatar happens to be the Holy Grail not just of 3D, but pure film-making as a whole.

a.n. said...

To Julio Pieczarka:
I agree with you in that Avatar is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. Cameron's attention to detail was gorgeous to see. However, I do not like, nor understand, your assertion that the "right-wing"'s only flimsy argument is that it is recycled. As a "left-wing", I don't think it's wrong to want a little originality in my movies. I went in to Avatar expecting to recognize themes from other movies- as everyone knows, that's unavoidable in entertainment. What I did not expect was an almost exact retelling of at least four of my favorite movies:

Dances With Wolves
Pocahontas
The Last Samurai
Fern Gulley

As you can see, I like the themes in Avatar, but what disappointed me wasn't that it took a tired theme, but that it did nothing with it (And the kiss of death, for me at least, was the substandard dialogue). Also, I can watch Pocahontas in half the time as Avatar, and still receive the same societal and environmental themes.
And if I'm craving some beautiful shots of rainforest, I can always watch a National Geographic documentary in the time left over.

gregg r. said...


I don't understand all the hate directed at your review. I mean, everybody seems to miss the fact that this simple entertainment is obviously made for the masses and that you are obviously - representing it. Which is totally ok.

An Asshole said...

This movie blows. Movies aren't made to display visuals, that's what painting is for. Movies are made to tell stories and the story of avatar sucks ass

vic said...

Avatar was a visual experience to be remembered for a while, but the film also has many underlying qualities, themes, and motives that will make this a must see movie for future generations. It also doesnt hurt thats its also the top grossing movie of all time