Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Flight of the Na'vi-gator

Not sure if the title makes any sense, but I just had to sorry. A couple of little tangential things before I get stuck into Avatar:

(i) If there were any doubts in my mind as to whether this film would take off at the box office, they were destroyed by the crowd that got up before 9am and wandered into IMAX theatre on Queen Street on a SUNDAY MORNING. That's what you call pulling power. That's KEEN. I was one of them - but I got lucky at the last minute finding one decent seat for that screening; the sessions this week were all chock full, and unless you don't mind cranking your head upwards the IMAX screen, you weren't going to get a seat with a reasonable view (and for this film that means everything). But yeah, Avatar is currently performing peachily all over the world.

(ii) SkyCity Cinemas really need to look at their quality control, at least the one on Queen St. These days I'm never surprised if something goes wrong with the projection there. The volume might be too low, the bulb too dim, the wrong lens is on, the framing is off, etc. At this particular Avatar screening there was a 5-minute gap of nothing between the gazillion ads that played and when the film started (we were told the volume needed adjusting; hello let's do it before people arrive...). And the box office didn't open until after 30 minutes before screening, and the kiosks weren't turned on so those who booked tickets via EFT-POS can't pay there and had to queue up, speaking of which, how about clearly delineating where booked tickets can be picked up? There were a bunch of people queuing up on the left, when it turns out you can pick up your booked tickets at the normal ticket counter. Anywho, rant over. Call me a crank, but I just like a consistent standard of service for the $20 ticket I shelled out for. Having said all that - I am very thankful for their new user-friendly website.

Now Avatar. It's hard to not be affected by hype of this scale. It's the most expensive film ever made. It's going to revolutionise cinema. It's James Cameron's first film in 12 years. So for those who say "forget about the hype": I can't. When words are that big, it's impossible not to judge the film based on expectations produced by such grand proclamations. I don't think it's unfair. I'm not saying it's a good or bad thing - I certainly wouldn't expect any less from a guy who declares he's the "King of the World" upon receiving his Oscar for Titanic - but simply: if you talk big, we're going to expect big. Any less, well, we're going to pick at it.

I'll get the good stuff out of the way first. I think James Cameron is a terrific action filmmaker, one of the best in Hollywood. He knows how to make a killer B-movie with A-level materials (Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens). In Avatar's climax, it was refreshing and invigorating to watch complex action choreography involving numerous elements - flying creatures versus battleships, arrows versus machine guns, and an eye-full of background detail - shot and cut in a way that every moment made sense spatially. After ADD headaches like Transformers 2, Avatar restores your faith that more classically conceived action sequences are still possible today, even with the added assistance - and busy-ness - of CGI (which generally tends to make filmmakers lazy). If anything, the muscular fluidity of Cameron's filmmaking remains in the memory more than any of its technological advancements.

I'm a bit torn about the film's visuals. The natural habitat of the Na'vi mostly looks fabulous, pretty, especially the greenery, and those floating mountains. The hardware - the mecha-suits, the giant tractors - are superbly rendered too if you like that kind of stuff. As for the Na'vi themselves, I don't think any amount of photo-realistic CGI is going to get rid of the fact they look a bit goofy. This is a purely subjective thing of course - I know heaps of people buy into these tall, lanky blue beings - but they are a bit too fantasy-fan-art-ish for me, and just, er, at the end of the day, not that cool-lookin' aye. A few Na'vi tribe scenes also brought back memories of that notorious rave scene from Matrix: Reloaded, which is definitely not a good thing. And I can't remember where I read it, but someone described Avatar's look as a Yes album cover come to life, which I have to laugh in agreement.

Much has been made about the film's "immersive quality" due to Cameron's trailblazing 3-D work. Though I can certainly say the film does have that "immersive quality" in spades, I can't say if it would be any less immersive in 2-D having not seen that version to compare. It's bizarre though, 'cos Avatar's 3-D is one of the least 3-D films you'll see. This isn't like seeing Beowulf in 3-D. The subtleties of Avatar's 3-D do contribute to the viewer's immersion into an alien environment, but it's not the only thing that's doing that, or even necessary. Use the fanciest 3-D you want without a competent grasp of basic tools like absorbing characters, story, etc. and no one's going to be immersed in your "world" no matter what. The "flatness" of Avatar's 3-D also begs the question, "why even use it in the first place?" I was immersed in Aliens without 3-D. I was immersed in Jurassic Park without 3-D. What other level of immersion do you need to enjoy a film??

I think it's going to be a while before the masses are going to buy into the so-called "3-D revolution". For starters, it's EXPENSIVE (normal ticket prices are already making us cry). Secondly, until the technology is tweaked and fine-tuned so that it's "friendlier" to our vision, we're going to continue to hear of audiences throwing up or getting headaches or just not wanting anything to do with it to avoid such unpleasant occurrences. Bottom line, I'm still of the mind that it's a gimmick that won't replace 2-D film in the near future. It can be great when used well, but I also hate having to wear an extra set of glasses when I'm going to the movies.

Anywho back to Avatar: it's a thuddingly simplistic and badly, none-too-imaginatively written movie. Cameron desperately needs to unload that duty to someone else with an ear for dialogue and an ability to create characters and plotting beyond stock. I understand there's always been that musty B-level cheese element in Cameron's work, but c'mon dude, you've spent enough on this movie to fund a dozen charities for a lifetime, why not scrub up on the writing? Allegorical references to the Iraq war, Vietnam war, 9/11 and Native American history go down like ton of bricks (did I mention Wes Studi is here too?). It is Dances with Wolves all over again. And every other film where a white outsider enters a native tribe, learns their ways, shacks up with their hottest member before they find out he's working for the other side. There are zero suprises in this film. No twists. Not even a shade of grey. Everything plays out EXACTLY as you think it will.

The performances are serviceable, everyone carries their role with as much dimension as the script allows them, which is too say not that much. Zoe Saldana walks away with the most soulful part as the Na'vi babe Worthington falls for; Lang the most beefy, one-dimensional jarhead villain you can think of (look at that nasty scar on his head - you know you're going to hate this guy's guts from the first instance you see him).

If you think I'm unduly harsh on this film and think that I should just relax and check my brain at the door, well, I think Avatar deserves better than that. I don't think Avatar is your average Bayhem monstrosity that gets rolled out annually. There's SUPREME high-end artistry at work here than cannot be denied. I'm ready to appreciate Avatar as an auteur piece. I can even accept it as some kind of Bizarre, Insanely Expensive Art Object Thing. Cameron's heart and soul is all over this thing. But it's no mind-altering masterpiece. It may be technologically revolutionary, it may be startling to look at occasionally, but in all other respects it's awfully familiar, trapped in age-old cliches which it unfortunately doesn't quite transcend. The game hasn't changed.

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