Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar: Same Same But Different

I saw Avatar yesterday in 3D at Reading Cinemas in Wellington (we have now entered the era where we must state the location and number of dimensions; all films are no longer created equal).

The movie: it was everything it should have been. There was action, a love story, fantasy, a message. It flirted with becoming a big hokey mash-up, but didn't fall down that precipice. The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas - there are repeated echoes of them all, and Jim Cameron's oeuvre gets a going over, too. Riley, I mean Sigourney, is back, as a botantist-cum-socio-linguist-cum-aid-worker-cum-badass-head-of-the-avatar-programme… (I guess it's easy to know more about a planet than anyone else if that planet doesn't exist.) I haven't seen Titanic, -- which rates as one of the top ten achievements of my life -- but I still got that Jack and Rose vibe from some of the interactions between Sully and Neytiri, and the song that rolled over the final credits ('I See You' by Leona Lewis) had a very Celine feel (it swiftly emptied the cinema). And, while machines haven't taken over Earth a la the future in the Terminator films, it's not a stretch to imagine this happening while Sully & Co. are on Pandora.

Unlike Chad Taylor, who has a great write-up on his blog, I didn't think the voice-over was the worst ever. It was bad, there's no doubting that. I was on the verge of cringing until it was explained that voice over was actually excerpts from Sully's video diary, which was semi-plausible. From that point on, I was okay with it. The film would be almost without humour if it were not for the scenes where we see Sully struggling to make his entries.

If you were looking for things to hate, I'm sure you could find plenty. (I agree with Chad about the unobtainium… but mostly can't stomach the name). But the film's heart was in the right place. I wonder how many blockbusters end with you rooting for the aliens to kick some human butt? The message (sometimes it felt like it was Message with a capital M, but oh well) speaks back to the past crimes of colonisation (and injustices which are still being perpetrated), while also speaking to the future. We, as humans, may well be going boldly forth into other worlds in the next 150 years, and it's perfectly possible we may behave like ignorant, greedy, bellicose children. But perhaps, if we keep being told stories where Western Imperialists/Corporations turn out to be the baddies and kids grow up with at least a passing interest in nature… well, who knows what the future holds?

The visuals: Wow. I don't think 3D added a whole lot to the action sequences, but it really shone in the depiction of Pandora and the life of the indigenous Na'vi. (We have come a long way from Jar-Jar Binx, haven't we?)

The visuals certainly helped Avatar avoid becoming a pastiche of other films and maintain the interest factor for what was nearly three hours.

It sounds like every second film this year will be 3D (though how many cinemas in town will offer this third dimension, I don't know), so filmmakers are in for diminishing marginal returns on that front. Even now, when it's still a novelty, story is the most important factor.

Avatar, it seems, is a landmark. And as far as landmarks go, it's worth the visit.

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