Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Movie Review: Avatar

Directed By: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver

I eventually caved and decided to give Cameron's much-hyped film a chance. My reluctance to see this film was due in large part to overhype and the fact that it was supposed to be the greatest CGI film ever (which is not exactly something that gets me all fired up about movies). I prefer my sci-fi and action with a great script and characters, thank you very much. FIlms along the lines of Alien, Aliens, Minority Report, T2: Judgement Day or even last years Star Trek update. Regardless, I gave in to the hype and went to see it (in 3D, naturally).

The script borrows from numerous other sources, especially Dances with Wolves and Fern Gully. Its themes of colonization, the destruction of Mother Earth and governmental power have all been done before. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, much better here than he was in 2009's worst film, Terminator: Salvation) is a former Marine (?) who is now bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He is set to replace his deceased brother on a government mission to befriend and, ultimately, betray the Na'vi on the planet of Pandora. Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) wants complete access to a valuable type of rock which is important for something (don't ask me to remember, but it's the equivalent of America wanting Iraqi oil). Jake is given an Na'vi body which he controls with his mind while sleeping. He and Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) slowly learn about the Na'vi way of life as they become integrated into the social network of these nature-loving blue aliens. And, because it wouldn't be a James Cameron film without a love story threatened to fail due to catastrophic events, Jake falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who is chosen by her people to teach Jake the ways of life on Pandora.

James Cameron deserves credit only where it's due and that belongs to his direction. Arguably, there isn't another director working today so dedicated to his own personal craft. Avatar was a labour of love for ten years and Cameron's dedication to the film is undeniable. Without question this would be a challenging film to helm, with a three hour running time full of CGI and motion capture censors, elaborate sets and some relentless action scenes.

The script, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. Cameron has clearly borrowed from so many other sources that it hardly seems like it would have been a challenge to write the script in the first place. The dialogue is typical Cameron mumbo-jumbo and lame one-liners, however, some of the cast manage to make it work, mainly the always reliable Sigourney Weaver. It's no small wonder that Cameron wasn't nominated for Best Original Screenplay this year.

The cast is decent. Sigourney Weaver is definitely the standout in terms of performance and talent. I cared about Dr. Grace Augustine more than most of the other characters. Sci-fi is where she's at her best and she suits the film perfectly. Sam Worthington, as Jake Sully, is alright but I couldn't help thinking that, in the hands of a better actor, Jake could have been so much more. However, it's undeniable that Worthington had chemistry with Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. Saldana, who impressed everyone in her role as Uhura in Star Trek, is only mediocre here, prone to overacting on more than one occasion. Maybe she thought she had to try harder to emote in order to be recognized under that CGI mask? Cameron recently commented that motion capture acting will "empower" future actors. How so? Who knows what he means. I don't see what's so empowering about having your face hidden and all those subtle, emotional nuances of your performance wiped clean away with a CGI brush.

As for the CGI and other various special effects, I might be a bit of a curmudgeon but I don't get what all the fuss is about. Yes, some of the visuals are spectacular (I like how the spirit of Pandora is viewed only as little white jellyfish things that land on you), however, it's nothing I haven't already seen in other films with a strong emphasis on CGI. For example, The Lord of the Rings' Gollum is just as great, if not better, than Neytiri. Plus, Andy Serkis is a much more talented actor. When we first get to see Jake in his Avatar form he looked pretty lame and was nothing exceptional. It's only when he was in Pandora and surrounded by other CGI effects that it looked good. This isn't the future of CGI. It's very much the just the present state of CGI.

Despite the overhype and the mediocre script and performances, the film itself was still had some enjoyable moments. While the running time makes the story drag in the middle, it's pure adrenaline and entertainment, which is what a blockbuster film should be. Watching the film in 3D definitely added to the experience and, if nothing else, Cameron's love for his project is evident in every frame. Just take it for what it is: a blockbuster.