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Bluer Than Blue

January 12th, 2010

The first trailer for Avatar left me convinced that James Cameron’s $300 million comeback film would be a titanic flop. It stunk of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the 2001 Japanese flick which burned bags of money to create a photorealistic, computer generated sci-fi world that absolutely no one cared about.

The next trailer was more promising, yet what it promised was Dances with Wolves. It was the traditional white man’s guilt fantasy: white man meets noble savages (who, inevitably, use every part of the buffalo), goes native, and ultimately leads a revolt against his former people.

Bonus: it also looked to be a heavy-handed eco fable featuring a literal “mother earth.” James Cameron was back, and he would speak for the trees.

I was unimpressed. Pretty to look at, I thought, but this was what he’d spent the last fifteen years developing? I was certain that only the Cameron faithful would show up on opening weekend. The Avatar toys infiltrating big box stores nationwide would be buried alongside those for Dragonball: Evolution and Astro Boy: The Movie.

Okay, so I was wrong about that. (But not about Dances with Gaia.)

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for Avatar, I felt that I really ought to see it. Sure, I was intrigued by the technology. I’m also a sucker for good 3-D. But in the end, I think that what I wanted most was to be able to bitch about it with authority.

Last weekend I drove up to visit my dad (who is conveniently located near an IMAX theater), and plunked down my $12.50.

The verdict? Pretty much I expected. Gorgeous and groundbreaking. Pity about the script.

Briefly, Avatar is the story of a paraplegic soldier transported to the planet Pandora, his mind transferred into an artificially-created copy of the indigenous population. The Na’vi are ten-foot tall, blue humanoids who literally link to their environment via a tendril/hair thingy. These plug-and-play Smurfs (who are 30 apples high) live in a hollow tree sitting on the largest known deposit of unobtanium (no shit, that’s what they call it), an isotope of mcguffinite so valuable it can buy entire cities. (And yet, the local mining company official keeps a chunk of it on his desk. Really?)

Avatar leaves no doubt that there are no longer limits on what can be depicted on screen if one has the money and computing power. While I’m not sure that Cameron’s in-camera animatics (which allowed him to see digital characters in a virtual set while directing the live actors) will change the way that movies are made, it will certainly change how very expensive movies are made.

I was impressed by his advanced technique for capturing facial movements, allowing the performances of Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver to shine through their digital makeovers. Cameron seems to have emerged from the “uncanny valley” that made Robert Zemeckis’ computer-generated Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey so unsettling. However, I wonder how many sins are covered by the blue, cat-like features of the Na’vi. The real test, I think, would be to create a realistic duplicate of the actor’s own face.

Much was made of Cameron’s attempt at world-building, but I didn’t find it so remarkable. Several years ago, the crew of Peter Jackson’s King Kong similarly created an entire ecosystem for Skull Island.

I did, however, appreciate the believably* alien flora and fauna, and wasn’t surprised to see that artist Wayne Douglas Barlowe (whose seminal work Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials sits on my bookshelf) did an early design pass on them. The use of phosphorescence was a clever way of tying together the Pandoran biosphere**.

*Not so sure about the lizard whose defense mechanism was to turn into a tiny helicopter and helplessly rotate six inches from where it had been sitting. Dangling food is still food.

**Curiously, most of the animal life was six-limbed, yet the Na’vi had only two arms and two legs. Did they originate elsewhere?

Unfortunately, Cameron spent far less time on the script that he did on the production design. I might have forgiven the “seen it all before” plot if each of the story beats hadn’t been equally telegraphed. Was there any doubt that Jake would reclaim his standing with the Na’vi by taming that family-sized pterodactyl, or that Mother Nature would listen to his plea* and assemble her horde of uintatheriums and displacer beasts to save the day?

*And just why was Jake so much more Na’vi than the Na’vi anyhow?

Having seen Cameron’s Aliens a great many times, I couldn’t shake a feeling of déjà vu when the evil military commander climbed into a mechanical suit and threatened Jake’s ferocious warrior girlfriend Neytiri. I half-expected Jake to shout, “Get away from that bitch, you bastard!”

Wired magazine’s recent feature article about Avatar explained what inspired James Cameron to become a filmmaker: a fit of jealous pique after seeing the original Star Wars. Star Wars, it said, “was the film he should have made.”

Since that didn’t happen, he settled for producing a space western in which a technological empire is defeated by bow and arrow-wielding primitives, and all life is connected by a mystic energy field. I hear that his next film will be about a globe-trotting anthropologist.

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