Saturday, April 10, 2010

Avatar (2009)

The movie may have been in 3D, but the characters were definitely 1D, as black, white and grayless as you can get, but its unlayered qualities don't make the movie uncompelling. Quite the contrary. It's better to capture the gut, if not the brain, than to attack the other way around. Of course, in an ideal world a film would win both heart and mind, equally.

Sam Worthington was good in the lead role. He's not familiar to me, but I seem to recognize his voice. Who was he channeling, in my head? I can't put my finger on it, but he had the gravitas of more famous, older actors who have preceded him as film heroes. Even if his Jake Sully had not been a paraplegic, Worthington's demeanor said from the beginning, "My strength is not physical. It's beyond that." So, when insults are hurled at Sully, the audience doesn't flinch because he does. Even if Sully hasn't been pained, your instinctive reaction is that humans shouldn't be cruel to other humans. Sometimes that kind of ugliness is more pronounced when it doesn't hit its specific target, but instead floats in the air, tainting the atmosphere in general, impacting everyone.

The villains are painted in such broad strokes, that you know the path they will take from the opening scene. Sigourney Weaver's scientist Grace is so immediately insulting to Sully, that you know they will soon become fast friends. Muscular Miles Quaritch appears right out of Villain Central Casting. This man is going down. Script providence demands it. Sometimes the bad men win in a movie, but not when they're as comically bad as Quaritch. The guy is about as realistic as Jack Palance was in City Slickers and, like Curly, is easily more amusing than dangerous, though that was not necessarily Cameron's intention.

When I saw the Navi physically bond with animals and nature through the fonds that grew from their ponytails, I was sure that Jake and Neyteri would mate through joining fonds as well, but if that happened it was off camera. Too graphic for the PG-13 rating, perhaps. Jake's paint-by-numbers romance with Neyteri certainly won't supplant Rick and Ilsa (or Bella and Edward) in fluttering hearts. Thankfully, "I see you," is not the new catchphrase.

Yet, the good and bad caricatures and stereotypes don't sap the movie of true humanity. There's something about watching Jake hoist his body in and out of the capsule, manually lifting his immobile legs with his hands that makes the audience susceptible. The plot manipulates, but weakness exists in real life. If David had never prevailed over Goliath, there's still something instinctive in every person that wants him to. Be it with slingshot, arrow, or sheer will power, we need to see evil vanquished whether its threat comes from outside or from within ourselves.

Of course, a curious thing about Jake is that he was never actually evil. We don't see a heartless man converted by love. He wasn't mean, just unaware and unthinking. He didn't know his actions were hurting others until he was told, until he was shown. In that sense, the shrug can be deadlier than the sword.

A friend said after seeing clips from the movie, he suspects it is "too Disney" for him. I happen to know that this friend loves Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and the lessons told in Avatar are no more or no less sappy than the ones you'd find in that tv series, give or take $500,000,000 worth of special effects.

Actually, I think James Cameron must have been a Dr. Quinn fan himself, because on that show Byron Sully stood with the Indians against the settlers who would kill them for their land and Sully was played by an actor, Joe Lando, who portrayed a man named "Jake" in his next most famous role ("Jake Harrison" on One Life to Live). Surely, Avatar's lead "Jake Sully" could not have come by his name by mere coincidence.

Due to its formulaic tendencies, there are no surprises in the movie, but that also means that there are no indigestible surprise twists to stomach. You don't often find yourself saying, "that would never happen" because it always happens in fiction. The only time I found myself raising an eyebrow was when Jake was accepted as a full-fledged Navi after only 3 months of life training. No ethnic or religious conversions I've ever heard of happen that quickly. Heck, you have to train longer than that to become a boy scout!

Secondly, when I watched the Navi marching the aliens (humans) back to their dying world (earth), I wondered what assurance they had that the bad guys wouldn't return. They could easily stock up with new ammunition and come back to destroy again. I guess that's a problem (or reason) for the sequel.

Finally, I wondered why Jake ultimately gave up his human body, for his Avatar one. His human life was not in danger and he risked losing his existence altogether by choosing to transform. Why not stay with the Navi as a human man, united with them in spirit, if not in physical form. Yes, he would have remained a paraplegic, but when the movie is about celebrating the balance in all life, rather than trying to gain a controlling advantage, voluntarily exchanging the body you were born with, for a superior manufactured one seems to undermine the message.

Still, I appreciated the ending. It, at least, came as a surprise. I was expecting a tearful embrace, joyful words of love. Instead, Jake's Navi eyes sprang open with a start. The tribal music launched with urgency. The race has begun.