Thursday, January 21, 2010

An embarrassment of riches #3: Trick or treat?

Avatar: Szyslak or sizzlots?
The last Big Thing on this New Year holiday was an outing with Mark to see James Cameron's much anticipated, heavily hyped and ultimately hugely successful new blockbuster- Avatar, in glorious IMAX 3D. The hype hadn't completely passed me by, but only when I started reading the box-offices @ICv2 did I begin to feel the allure of the sheer scale of the success of a movie I knew to be a big-screen must-see, whether I liked it or not. :-\

The mixed feelings there implied ran deep:
  • Heavily hyped Hollywood blockbusters have a very patchy track record in recent years.
  • James Cameron is responsible for some most-loved movies- eg. The Terminator and Aliens; so a turkey on the gargantuan scale of Avatar was a prospect heartbreaking to imagine.
  • The movie was completely CGI, echoing features which had put me off 2007's Beowulf on sight.
  • I was going to see it in 3D, a technology I'd never used, in which I had no faith.
  • And I'd picked up really bad word of mouth from typically reliable quarters.
A film I could easily have loved to hate then. =-O

Full on 'Gosh! Wow!'
Not at all hateful, Avatar impressed me as one of the better Hollywood blockbusters I've seen in recent times; I enjoyed it as much as, eg. The Dark Knight. Though imperfect as Hollywood blockbusters inevitably must be, the movie's strengths overcame limitations which might otherwise've left me feeling less than satisfied. In short: I was thrilled.

First and foremost among these strengths? The stunning visual SFX, naturally enough. Avatar is a cinematic landmark after the fashion of:
  • Star Wars: that 'Star Destroyer moment', and the all-round verisimilitude of the SFX creating worlds that felt truly inhabited by their denizens.
  • Blade Runner: the sheer richness of the cityscapes whose details gave life to the towering immensity of Deckard's 21st century LA.
  • Jurassic Park: you could believe that dinosaurs walked the earth again after that first shot of their herds in the park.
Sheer splendour
There is little point in trotting off a list of ever more extravagant superlatives in an effort to convey the awesome sense of wonder conjured by the dazzling beauty of Pandora. Let's just say that the world was rendered with a depth sufficient immediately to engender in me the wish actually to visit a world I already inhabited in my imagination; that this depth was developed as the story went on; and that this exploratory visual dynamic contributed powerfully to establishing the willing suspension needed to carry me through the highs and lows of a near 3-hour movie.

And that was just the world. The characters too are executed so that you can't see the joins. Even when the incongruous appearance of the blue-skinned Na'vi was right in my face, they never became mere ciphers of the pixel painters' art; their personalities were able to shine through in the performances in other words. Like I said: impressive; and vital if your story pivots on a credible xeno romance.

Readers might already've noticed that I've said nothing about the much vaunted 'IMAX 3D experience'. This isn't because IMAX 3D sucks; not at all- the 3D technology was superb: I simply couldn't believe my eyes! It's just that the 3D content of Avatar was mosty quite trivial; and was just cute where it wasn't. It brought little to the narrative; which- as I have already explained, simply wasn't true of the CGI SFX in general. There were more exciting 3D effects in the adverts in fact.

All sound and fury?
So: brazenly demanding that bigscreen outing; some trademark elements more a triumph of style over substance; Avatar delivered then that oh so familiar hateful Hollywood formula sugared to the max for guiltless consumption. Easy to hate, as I said.

And I was irked- as I always am, by the mystical mumbo-jumbo we had to endure: authentically aboriginal at least, this unfortunately just had to work to give the Na'vi a snowball's chance in hell against the hi-tech killpower of Avatar's Evil Empire, another 'faceless' Corporation. And as for those gaian overtones - when the planet joined in? - well let's just leave Lovelock's pseudoscientific genocidal fantasies aside, eh? And those were the good guys!

Irked several times over I may've been but there lurks- behind the facade of surely the most advanced use ever of ICT in the service of art and entertainment, there lurks a science-fantasy twist on Romeo and Juliet; a tale which took a willing suspension already easily won and gave me a rip-roaring ride of romance and heroism. If I'd been a teenage kid watching Avatar, it'd've been that 'Star Destroyer moment' for sure.

As overblown SFX extravaganzas go then, James Cameron's Avatar whistles up a perfect storm; plunging audiences- eager or otherwise, headlong into a maelstrom of all that blockbustering budgets are capable of delivering. The power of this is undeniable and irresistable, as I have tried to convey.

But what made the film really stand out; what makes me anticipate the sequel with already active interest; well, it was the story. Romeo and Juliet done as Dances With Wolves meets Aliens meets Apocalypse Now, with a dash of Soldier Blue thrown in for good measure? What's not to like?

Yes, it's cheese. Yes, it wears its heart on its sleeve. Yes, the deus ex machina are overdone- I'm reminded here of Joe Haldeman's classic antiwar novel The Forever War, an unabashed cri de coeur responsible for one of the truly heartwarming great cheesy DEMs in SF&F. Frakk me, but it's been a long time since Hollywood actioners had me giving so much as a tuppenny ha'penny damn. I loved it. And I'll be back. ;)

An embarrassment of riches:
- #1: Boxes of tricks
- #2: Hidden depths unplumbed?


P.D.S. said...

This must be the only review of 'Avatar' I've read that doesn't mention that the plot was a rip-off of 'Ferngully' and/or 'Pochahontas'.

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

Well, I do strive for originality PD! :0)

Yeah, I'm sure I remember you saying something to that effect PD. I've seen neither Ferngully nor Pochahontas, so I could hardly spot those references now, could I?

Anyhoo, I found Avatar to be hugely enjoyable, and am myself quite surprised to be so eagerly looking forward to the next movie in this new franchise. That's FTW in Cameron's book, doncha think? ;)

P.D.S. said...

I haven't seen 'Pochahontas' myself, and I saw 'Ferngully' so many years ago now that I honestly don't remember it at all. The accusations of plagiarism on Cameron's part weren't mine; but they have cropped up in every other review of the movie I've read, so I suppose there must be something to them.

Personally, I thought 'Avatar' was such a visually beautiful piece of cinema that I barely noticed the plot.