Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Twelve-ish years ago I saw the movie Titanic about four times at the cinema. In my defence, I was only about fifteen and it was big, blockbustery, sappy and had a bit of nudity, and I’d promised a couple of different friends I’d seen it with them. Titanic has long been a source of anger between me and Chris, as he detests the movie and I think it’s okay. (These are the things we fight about. “It sucks!” “No, it’s passable.” “No, it’s terrible!” “Not that terrible.” etc etc.)

Last night I saw Avatar. Will I see it four times? I don’t think so. But then, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it all, as I thought the ads made it look quite boring. Still, when someone invited us to see it, I wasn’t opposed enough to say no, despite the ridiculous prices. Do you know how many theatres charge an extra dollar for the 3D glasses? I think it’s a bit early in the scene to presume the audience has a pair just lying around. Though, uh, we do now.

Part of me wishes I’d written a review as soon as I came home, though as it was a three-hour movie that we saw in the city at nine fifteen we didn’t actually get home until after midnight and I was not in the mood for making any kind of grammatical sense. My initial feelings towards Avatar were quite glowing, much more so than I expected. The ads cannot in any way convey just how beautiful this movie is; it’s embarrassing to admit, but there were times when the phosphorescent land lit up in front of me and I actually became quite emotional. The effects are flawless and the world James Cameron has created is absolutely stunning, realistic where it needs to be and fantastical in parts. I’m a big fan of fairy lights, and this movie was like a gigantic festival of them. It’s gorgeous. There’s no doubt about it: Avatar is the prettiest movie made this year, if not this decade, and the 3D is amazing. That was the impression I had when I left the theatre, basically, where I wanted to spin around the dark, empty streets and flap my arms in a giddy way.

Then of course I slept on it. When I woke the initial adoration had worn off, creatures weren’t flying just in front of my nose and the lights were no longer clear in my mind. I started to think harder about the movie, which I should never do.

Our Sam Worthington plays an emotionally void Marine called Jake Sully who joins the crew of a ship flying to the planet Pandora. Jake’s brother was a scientist who had a lot invested in the trip, but was inconveniently killed, leaving Jake the one to fill his shoes. For his brother had an avatar created; a version of himself made with the DNA of Pandora’s natives, the Smurf-coloured Na’vi. Sharing the same genomes as his brother, he can take over the avatar without any hassle. So far so flimsy, but it’s a blockbuster so you just kind of go with it.

The Na’vi are an uncomfortably beautiful master race; they’re all tall, ripped, skinny brunettes with adorably expressive kitty ears that go flat when they are having a Big Emotion, which is of course a lot. Jake expects to go in, help out his two fellow scientists, and get out. Shockingly, things don’t go as planned, and he finds himself involved more in the life of the locals than he ever expected. (You’re aghast that I ruined that twist, aren’t you?) What follows is an extended montage of him adapting to the Na’vi life, becoming entranced with hottie-slash-clan-leader’s-daughter Neytiri, played by scifi sexpot Zoe Saldana, recently seen as Uhura and smooching human Scrabble high-score Zachary Quinto as Spock in the super great Star Trek. Jake realises how close to the planet the Na’vi really are, which is upsetting as the people he’s there with have some less Kyoto Protocol-type ideas for the mineral rich planet. Will he side with the clichéd and cranky military man, or with the beautiful blue hippies?

Avatar feels a little like Aliens; bad-ass Marines, Sigourney Weaver waking up out of a stasis pod, mech suits that are used for battle, and, you know, actual aliens (though there’s less chest-bursting in Avatar.) As they share the same director, it’s hardly plagiarism, but amusing nonetheless. Mostly, however, Avatar suffers from having characters with no back story. Jake’s initial motivations are never really made clear, apart from that he wants to walk again, so when he goes from browfurrowed Marine to Gaia-worshipping Na’vi you don’t know if it was much of a leap at all. None of the humans are fleshed out at all, apart from excellent R Lee Emery impersonator Stephen Lang, playing the enjoyably hammy Colonel Miles Quaritch and basically personifying all that is evil about soldiers. Giovanni Ribisi plays against type to be an unethical corporate villain, in charge of mining the planet, playing golf in the office and joining the emotionally void. The Na’vi fare better, in that they are all new-age literal tree-huggers with obvious motivation, i.e. “Can you not destroy our home, please? Cheers.” Still, they remain mostly clichéd characters within that group. Also, at the beginning of the movie, you are shown about a dozen other Na’vi avatars that oddly never appear again, despite the big expensive fuss made of them. It’s a shame that the entire movie’s plotline is a bit stupid, with a heroic white man coming to save the natives in an unrealistic manner, and, alas, the unpleasant idea that a lot of people are heartless enough to kill the native population for the minerals they are on top of, the laughably named “unobtanium”. There’s a distinct lack of blood, despite the vast amount of violence, and an unscandalous sex scene (not least because they are pretty much nude all the time) that made me wonder if Jake had tried anything with Neytiri and had her say, “Whoa, what the hell are you doing with that thing? We hold hands to mate here, freako.”

Surprisingly, the movie’s length wasn’t an issue; I never felt bored, and it could have used another ten minutes of character development. All in all, it’s a blockbuster: big, silly, fun. It gains points for how amazing it looks, loses them for being pretty ridiculous, and rounds out as a pretty passable way to spend twenty bucks.

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