Monday, December 21, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Avatar (2009): There's not much more I can add to the conversation surrounding James Cameron's Avatar. But I'll try.

Yes, the visuals are a marvel to behold, exceeding my expectations. Yes, the plot is quite conventional and formulaic. Yes, the film's message is heavy-handed and political. It's all quite over-the-top, just like James Cameron seems to like it. This is the guy, after all, who did Aliens, Terminator 2, and Titanic. This film reportedly cost somewhere around $300 million to create.

Cameron's motto must be, go big or go home. Or, I'm the king of the world. Something like that.

In a way, the film is filled with surprises. I was surprised at the lush beauty of Pandora, the planet inhabited by the Na'vi people. Every scene on Pandora is incredibly detailed to the point of awe. From floating mountains to the glowing foliage to the dangerous creatures, it really felt like I had been transported to a different world. When viewed in 3D--which I did--it takes a conscience reminder that "this isn't actually real." You can quickly get caught up in the fantastic world that Cameron has created.

Yet in terms of plot and characters, the film has zero surprises. You've seen this movie before. It's called Dances With Wolves. Or Pocahontas. Or The Mission. Or Dune. Or The New World. Or any number of other "outsider protagonist falls in love with a hostile native culture." Paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, quickly on his way to becoming a movie star) signs up for an avatar program on Pandora where his mind will be directly connected to a Na'vi body genetically created for his dead scientist twin brother. A company with military force wants an expensive mineral located under the Na'vi home. They need Jake to run reconnaissance as the Na'vi avatar, earning their trust so that he can convinced them to get off the land. As he enters their world, Jake eventually learns to love the Na'vi--especially Neytiri, the Na'vi princess--and joins them in defending their land from a hostile military takeover.

Every character is essentially a caricature and one-dimensional. Jake is the strong-yet-conflicted hero. Neytiri is the independent-yet-feminine princess. Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is the smart scientist with her bumbling scientist sidekicks. Giovanni Ribisi's character is the greedy corporate head honcho. The colonel (Stephen Lang) channels George C. Scott's General Patton, the military maniac. I honestly couldn't tell you what the antagonists' names were. It's quite obvious who the good guys and bad guys are from the start. I suppose names aren't really necessary. We're not meant to truly empathize with these characters, just to understand them enough to keep our eyes focused on the screen.

Cameron may have had Avatar in mind 14+ years ago, but the plot is pulled straight out of a decade of headlines. Phrases like "preemptive strike" and "fighting terror" pepper the minimal dialogue. An enormous skyscraper-like tree is attacked and toppled by the military folks, drawing the memories of 9/11 quickly to mind. The plot centers around invading a resource-rich country on a false premise (read: Iraq war) and the dangerous impact of destroying a planet's ecosystem (read: climate change). The political messages are very heavy-handed. Cameron is evangelizing using the bullhorn method: scream the message so loudly that we can't fail to ignore it.

Ultimately, Avatar is about escape. Much like Jake wants to escape his crippled reality into the world of the Na'vi, we as the audience escape our painful personal realities for 162 minutes of pure fantasy bliss. Much like the avatars we present in the online world, this raises the metaphysical questions about which identity is truly real. Which is the real Jake, the Na'vi or the human? Which is the real Joel Mayward, the one on Facebook and blogs or the husband/father/pastor? Is pursuit of a fantasy world ever a healthy endeavor?

Yet in a world where our troubles mount as overwhelming as economic crisis and as intimate as failed relationships, finding brief respite in a movie theater can be exhilarating. And why not? As long as our escape is intentional and our motives pure, perhaps we can find rest--dare I call it, sabbath--in a darkened room, hearing the whirring of the projector behind us, staring awestruck at the extraordinary world unfolding on the screen.

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