You know the hype: After a 12 year absence James Cameron returns to the directing chair with a movie so innovative it will forever change the way movies are made. If there was one director that I would believe that hype about it would be James Cameron. In “The Abyss” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” he demonstrated he that he was able to use cutting edge special effects without getting distracted by them. And in “The Terminator,” “Aliens,” and “Titanic” he proved that he could use more conventional special effects better than almost any other director. In all of those movies he proved that no matter what special effects he uses he can craft intense action sequences, usually connected with a pretty good story.
So how is Cameron’s proprietary live action 3D technology? Unlike almost everyone else I’m going to reserve judgment. I saw Avatar on a RealD 3D projection system with DLP digital projection. That system is supposed to be less impressive than the IMAX 3-D projection system. (Even though the film was originally rendered in RealD… I don’t know, don’t ask me.)
The reason I’m going to reserve judgment is that while in “Avatar” it worked well to seamlessly immerse the viewer into the world of Pandora, the problem was it is an alien world. Almost all life on Pandora is pointlessly bioluminescent. There is lots of quick movements through alien tree tops, floating mountains, and in general a bunch of stuff that is fantastic. The only time we see human dominated environment is inside buildings where the 3D isn’t very conspicuous or in a space ship at the very start of the movie, which seemed off to me. Of course that could have been because my eyes weren’t adjusted to the RealD projection yet.
On the other hand the movie is just plain beautiful and the 3D only makes it more beautiful. I just hope Cameron’s system works well in the future. What I want to see is James Cameron use the same system in an Earth-bound action movie and see how it looks. Jim, Arnold is done being governor in a year, have your people call his people. (I’m thinking more “Terminator 5″, less “True Lies 2.”)
What about what all of those 3D special effects were supporting? Cameron’s movies have always had a serviceable story, often a great story. That is until now. I guess the problem was he was damn sure going to get a message in there, but he couldn’t really decide which one, so he jammed as many as he could come up with in. That is kind of strange for a man who used his first four movies (not counting Piranha 2) to deliver essentially the same message: “Nuclear weapons are bad.”
The movie meanders around from “Dances with Wolves” in space, to criticism of the Iraq and Afghanistan War, to a Gaia hypothesis story, to a criticism of the military-industrial complex (in a movie financed in part by News Corp.) and back again. You may think that lefty politics in movies bug me. It really doesn’t, especially when it is in allegory. And especially if it is done well. For me it’s easy to laugh off a message with “those crazy lefties” and enjoy the movie.
But it wasn’t done well here. Cameron famously worked on this movie since 1994. The problem that created is that I don’t think he ever locked the screenplay. The clumsiness of certain parts of the screenplay create a vision of him watching the events of the Iraq war and hurrying back to his word processor to add in some things before the animation had to be locked. Sometimes the result was merely distracting – when one character mutters something about “shock and awe” the fourth wall breaks down and I am ripped out of the world that Cameron created; I’m not sure why he’d want to do that when he spent $300 million to get me in – sometimes it just makes the screenplay sloppy.
If it is a retelling of the myth of the American Indian why do the Na’vi win? (I don’t think I’m giving anything away here. We all know what is going to happen.) If it is about Iraq it is so superficial as to be laughable. (Where are the Sunni and Shia Na’vi? Where was the evil Na’vi dictator who used his unobtainium (!) wealth to invade and slaughter his neighbors?) And why don’t the humans just regroup and come back with more guys and weapons in a few years?
Strip away and ignore “The Message” and it’s a serviceable story, but one we’ve seen in a thousand movies. It seems strange for Cameron to waste ground breaking special effects on a well-trodden storyline, and it is too bad that he did. There are some heart pounding action scenes to be sure, but in the end I guess I didn’t care about the outcome of those scenes enough. I think Cameron missed a good opportunity to develop the rules of avatars the way he did with time travel in the “Terminator” movies. Some originality might have helped me overlook some of the more mundane aspects of the story.
I will say that 2009 has made me say I’d like to see more Sam Worthington. He was pitch perfect in both “Terminator: Salvation” and “Avatar” this year. (Maybe his projects have to have some connection with Cameron.) Like his “Terminator: Salvation” co-star Christian Bale, he can act, but doesn’t seem to either look down on action roles or use them as a chance to ham it up.
Oh, and more Michelle Rodriguez in loose tank-tops in anything.
Avatar: In 3D: B+; In 2D: B-.
UPDATE: Coincidentally, right after I wrote this review I popped in “District 9,” which provided a great example of how a story about the interaction of humans with extraterrestrials which is really an allegory about human politics can still feel original. I’d give “District 9″ a solid A-.