“I see you …”
I’d made the inevitable mistake of building up my hopes too high for this one and after the disappointment of (the last third, at least, of) A Christmas Carol yesterday, I feared another letdown. I don’t know where to start.
There are literally only two minor failings that this movie has in all its flawless beauty. You’ll have heard things like “Dances with Smurfs” and “Pocahontas in Space” thrown around perhaps … let’s not waste time, they are on the nose descriptions of the story underneath the sleek wrapping here. But don’t take this as a bad thing. Saying the story of Avatar is a bit like the Kevin Costner or Disney movie from 15 years ago is about as relevant as saying Star Wars is a bit like The Wizard of Oz. James Cameron himself has been telling pretty much the same story himself, about man vs machine (yes, Titanic is a machine), if you wanna get nitpicky, for the last 20 years. With Cameron’s movies, it’s more about the storytelling … and oh what means he has at his disposal for us here.
The other thing that’s preventing me (for now, at least) giving the movie top marks is the slight choppiness of the structure. A lot of people have said how the movie doesn’t feel as long as it is at almost 3 hours … I can’t deny that I thought it did in places. A lot like the last Lord of the Rings movie, this feels like it’s ending disappointingly several times before the actual climax … the good news is that this is a movie whose wonder builds, with each “false” ending being better than the last until Cameron finally releases the moment that makes this movie worthy of the accolades that will be bestowed upon it. The “wrapping”, as I called it earlier, the concept of a soldier commandeering an alien body in order to infiltrate an “enemy” culture, finally falls away, and I don’t want to spoil it but to say you’ll know it when it comes, when the lead Na’vi says to hero Jake Sully, “I see you.” I spent much of this movie perfectly absorbed, amazed by how little the technique and technology was the star, so wonderfully is it all deployed in service of the adventure at hand … but I longed for a moment like this that would wrench my heart out. It’s a stunning scene that will pull me back to the movie more than any of its other bells and whistles.
So, how are those bells and whistles? I wrote in my review of A Christmas Carol the other day how I feared we would never see that je-ne-sais-quoi of life breathed into motion/performance-captured eyes. I came out of this movie frankly confused … I’m still unsure … is all the Na’vi stuff really computer generated? Or is there some old school make-up work involved? Is James Cameron, like Jon Stewart suggested this week interviewing Sigourney Weaver, a wizard? LOL. Because I felt none of the FX wall between me and the story here as I have in all of Robert Zemeckis’ efforts in the field. If all the Na’vi stuff is motion/performance-captured and computer generated, then I almost want to knock yet another star off all my reviews of Zemeckis’ Polar Express, Beowulf and even his most recent Christmas Carol. I really can’t wait for the DVD/Blu-ray extras to see exactly how all this was done. I haven’t felt that way about a movie in a long time.
I haven’t mentioned the most human aspect of the thing. It’d all be for nothing if the acting wasn’t up to the standard of the visuals and the purity of the story. I’m relieved to say, I’m actually inclined to say this might be Cameron’s best acted movie yet. Sigourney Weaver leads the pack but I was very surprised by the performances of Sam Worthington and the entirely performance-captured Zoe Saldana in particular (as a matter of fact, unlikely though it may be due to it being technically an “animated” role, I’d love to see Saldana nominated for a Best Actress Oscar). What got under my skin even more, perhaps, were Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang as the movie’s main villains. Most movies go one way or the other with either a physically threatening bad guy or a psychologically meddling one. Here we have both, with Ribisi representing a corporate evil reminiscent of that seen in Cameron’s Aliens and of course in Skynet of the Terminator series; and Lang as an unrelenting warlord the likes of which I’ve never been so repelled by before. In one breathtaking scene, our heroes escape imprisonment to defend Pandora … as they leave in a chopper, Lang kicks down a door and follows, preferring to hold his breath than waste time on grabbing an inhaler as he enters the Pandoran atmosphere to fire upon their departure. Frightening figures, both.
I feel like there’s so much more to say. This was almost going to be one of my “first impression” splurges of a review but I decided I wanted it to be a more considered and at least slightly well-written approach. I’m sure I’ll come back to it and say more. It’s on the smaller screen without the 3D etc that the movie might show its true colours … but for the record I have the feeling after this first watch that it will only in fact improve with subsequent viewings, dimensionality and screen size be damned. We leave this decade with Avatar as we did the Nineties with The Matrix … it really does change everything as much as the hype has claimed. But most important of all, tucked away though it may be, the movie has overwhelming heart. Do see it on the largest screen you can, do see it in 3D, do see it with a large audience (something I was surprised myself to find absent from the second screening at my local multiplex) … but don’t worry … this is not just a spectacle.
Addendum: Just something about the score, I wanted to say something about the music but thought of something else just tonight as to why it bugged me a little. Jonathan Ross in his Film 2009 review had said that James Horner’s score was often too “sentimental and obvious” and my first thought was, “excellent!” lol … I’m a huge fan of a lot of Horner’s scores, my favourites being the sentimental and obvious Deep Impact and Casper. However, I do tire of most of his scores sounding the same lately, and this one certainly has plenty of recognisably Hornerian stings in it. I realised tonight, however, that that wasn’t the problem with the score. The problem is that Horner may have missed an opportunity to create a score just as unique and cutting edge as the movie it accompanies. As Cameron delved into 3D and mo-cap technologies, etc, why didn’t Horner look at the latest music technologies like physical modelling and such … it could have been a score featuring completely new instruments, a Pandoran music just as alien and absorbing as the world Cameron’s production team created … I don’t know, I’m thinking out loud here and for all I know perhaps Horner did try some of this, but the point is I guess that it doesn’t sound like it. It’s not a bad score … it’s just not a great one. I just wanted to say something about that.