Arts and Culture


Thanks to James Cameron, Hollywood special effects march on. Hollywood scripts, not so much.

By Steve Burgess 18 Dec 2009 |

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's three-dimensional film writer, every other Friday.

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Scene from 'Avatar': Survival of the flashiest.

Advertising James Cameron's new cinematic techno-marvel Avatar has got to be a tricky problem for Fox. Those TV commercials remain defiantly flat, and the CGI scenery looks somewhat cartoonish on the little screen. You're really supposed to be wearing the glasses. Once you pay your money and put them on, the experience really does become very three-dimensional. A shame there are no such glasses for screenplays. Hollywood technology marches on, but Hollywood scripts do not.

There's no doubt that Avatar is state-of-the-art. Cameron has said that seeing the Gollum character in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy convinced him that technology had reached the point where Avatar would become possible -- a live-action film starring a race of CGI humanoids.

Avatar takes place on the far-off planet Pandora, where humans are engaged in mining a precious MacGuffin -- sorry, mineral -- with the risible name of unobtaineum. The native people of the planet are the Navi, tall, blue, and big-eyed, with tails. Earth's invading military-industrial complex wants to subdue the planet, strip-mine it, and presumably herd the Navi onto reservations. To help with this they have created avatars, actual Navi bodies grown in tanks and operated remotely by a human "driver."

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic Marine hooked up with an avatar, with orders to infiltrate the Navi society. To do this he lies in a pod while living and seeing the jungle world through his big blue avatar. It's all very Matrix, and once he hooks up with the Navi it's all very, very Dances with Wolves. Zoe Saldana is the lithe and fearless Navi warrior Neytiri, and Sigourney Weaver plays a scientist who wants to study, not destroy. Meanwhile, in a truly meta-development, some of the characters seem to have been transported bodily from another James Cameron movie. Corporate weasel Parker Selfridge, while ostensibly played here by Giovanni Ribisi, might actually be an avatar controlled remotely by Paul Reiser, who played virtually the same character in Aliens. Heavy, dude.

Very first time

My own perspective was enhanced by the remarkable fact that, until Avatar, I was a 3-D virgin. You never forget your first time. I'm told that Avatar's 3-D technology is the best yet. There are moments when the experience was as gimmicky and intrusive as I had always feared, but such moments were surprisingly few. For the most part, watching Avatar in 3-D is a pleasantly "wow" experience. And it certainly helps that the ecosystem of the planet Pandora seems to have evolved according to a cinematic variation on natural selection. On this world, it's survival of the flashiest. The result is that almost every example of flora and fauna glows from within. Perhaps predators are thus blinded. Even the jungle ground lights up sequentially, like the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever.

One difficulty here is the tone. Anyone who watched Aliens knows that Cameron has real love for that Marine military subculture, and once again it is presented with relish. Whereas the new-age spiritualism of the Navi jungle world seems to have been cut-and-pasted from a half-dozen other "noble savage" movies. Cameron the director may want you to side with the Navi, but it's disconcerting that Cameron the screenwriter seems to be more in touch with his inner jarhead.

On the other hand, Avatar hardly plays like a love letter to the American military. Just as the Rambo films re-fought the Vietnam War, Avatar attempts the same for America's pacification of the First Nations. It's fitting that the Navi are blue because this sure ain't no red-state movie. In fact it's an Al Gore wet dream. Corporations and the military intend to rape and destroy the natural world, until a brave resistance stops them. Avatar's most undeniably powerful sequence involves the destruction of a giant forest ecosystem, a scene that may remind some of similar passages in Lord of the Rings.

See it on the big (3-D) screen

Narratively, Avatar will almost always remind you of something. There are plot holes and head-scratchers aplenty, but you aren't supposed to care too much about that. You just resign yourself to the fact that the script will do whatever is necessary to advance the predictable story to its thoroughly implausible conclusion. It doesn't arrive for a full 150 minutes, but you can't really say the movie drags. Epics must be big. And this one is 3-D big.

Like it or not, Avatar makes sense from a studio point of view. In a world of cable and download competition, this is a 3-D theatrical experience. If you do plan to see this, trust me, you don't want to wait until it's on TV.  [Tyee]

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