Monday, December 21, 2009
This is a movie, we suspect, that Ralph Bakshi would enjoy. And why not: interspersed throughout the two and a half hour movie, there are, perhaps, thirty minutes or forty minutes of live-action footage. The rest of the film, for all intents and purposes, is animated. The live-action sequences feel somewhat out of place and tend not to work as well with the 3D technology. The CG, meanwhile, is gorgeous.
We draw such comparisons not to insult Avatar, a movie we greatly enjoyed, but rather to attempt the Herculean feat of describing the indescribable. It isn't that Avatar is unlike anything you've ever seen: on the contrary, it's exactly like many things you've seen. It's just completely different.
Perhaps the best approach is to analyze Avatar in its component parts. In our estimation, Avatar is approximately 45% National Geographic documentary, 25% mindless action, 15% plot, and 15% political commentary.
For those of you counting, that means 70% of Avatar is quite good. The remaining 30% is still worthwhile, but not for the intended reasons.
Let us begin with the Natural Geographic aspect of the film. A surprisingly large portion of the movie is spent exploring the alien world of... Pandora... in slow, methodical detail. It's almost as if the "making of" DVD extra were incorporated into the film, complete with narration courtesy of a bizarre plot device.
Shockingly, all of this is incredibly interesting. While it's hard not to laugh at the absurdity of it all, the world of... ugh... Pandora... is breathtaking, and its inhabitants, plant, and wildlife, are incredible to behold. Most movies would ignore this detail to focus instead on character or plot, but Avatar wisely pushes those elements to the background. Instead, it uses its time to explore the creatures: the dracomoths, raptolisks, and hippo-hammer-head-opotami that live among the dense jungles of fiber-opti-trees (yes, we know that Cameron has given these other names, but we like ours better).
About a quarter of the movie is spent on action: most of this is concentrated in the finale. These scenes, while not quite as inspired as we might have hoped, are still intriguing, brutal, and beautiful.
Tragically, a full 15% of the movie is wasted on plot and characters, the only elements the glasses can't turn three-dimensional. The story is about a group of warmongering space marines who seek to exploit the peaceful blue cat-indians of... Pandora. The dialogue passes beyond bad, traveling into that realm of joyous, unintentional comedy. As major characters die and face the consequences of their actions; as they shed tears and morn their dead, it is nearly impossible to keep from laughing. Don't think us callous: the audience we were with was snickering throughout. The characters are too simplistic and their problems are too blatantly contrived for anything to carry weight.
Likewise, the political message of the movie is less subtle than the director's cut of The Abyss. The exploitation of Native People is wrong: we know. Fighting terrorism with terror is neither a sustainable nor effective strategy: we're aware. Corporate greed is bad: yes, we've heard that already - it was conveyed FAR more effectively in Aliens.
This is a film sewn together with cliche after cliche, and yet... Avatar would have been less effective without them. Somehow, these cliches hold the picture together and keep it interesting. Sure, we're laughing at the movie more than we're laughing with it, but we're still laughing.
If this is a movie, it is surely not a good one. But, despite itself, it is somehow a brilliant one. This can't quite match the absurdist madness of The Chronicles of Riddick, and yet it comes as close as anything we've seen in years. On a scale of one to five, where five is Vin Diesel's epitome of space operatic zaniness, Avatar receives four and a half glowing bio-luminescent stars.
We wish all bad movies were this good.