Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Seasoned Ticket 203
Thinking about the upcoming sequel to Avatar, and why not? Here’s my review (originally published in The Herald) of James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster. I sounded a little tentative about the whole thing, and yet I admit I’m looking forward to seeing what JC has cooked up to advance move technology circa 2022.
When you’re the King of the World you can spend twelve years between projects. That was James Cameron’s gestation time for his grand opus Avatar, his first feature since Titanic sailed into movie history as the biggest box-office champ of them all.
For years it’s been rumored Cameron was working on technology that would open up a new age in movie-making. Avatar doesn’t seem quite that revolutionary—there’s new technology involved, but we’ve been edging toward many of its 3D and digital effects over the last few years. What Avatar does, with infectious glee, is combine all this digital dazzle with a simple storyline from the sci-fi playbook. Cameron’s characters are robust “types”—we recognize them the minute we meet them—ably brought to life by good actors.
120 or so years from now, Earthlings have colonized a faraway moon; while the air is not breathable for humans, the planet is otherwise lush and habitable. Humans being humans, the visitors are interested in one thing: exploiting the planet’s natural resources, even if it means the obliteration of the local environment and the primitive natives who live there.
New to the scene is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, from Terminator Salvation), a Marine who became a paraplegic in Earth’s wars. Jake, while lying in a chamber, can act through an organically-grown avatar, a perfect replica of the nine-foot-tall, blue-skinned natives, called the Na’vi. Add some familiar elements: wise natives, attractive-yet-tough female Na’vi (played by Zoe Saldana), skeptical scientist (Sigourney Weaver), muscle-headed general (Stephen Lang) bent on destruction, corporate weasel (Giovanni Ribisi) pulling the strings—and you’ve got a Cameron picture.
You’ve also got the Cameron dialogue, alas, those clunky words that frequently send his loftier visions fluttering down to Earth. He’s a B-movie brain with a giant budget to work with—there are always moments in his movies when you’re embarrassed about enjoying them so much.
More than half of Avatar takes place in a completely unreal world created by special-effects visionaries, the planet of the Na’vi. We never see actress Zoe Saldana, for instance, even though she gives a performance in which her every facial expression and gesture has been photographed and replicated by digital effects that turn her into a very tall blue creature.
Cameron leans on the political allegory pretty hard, but he’s also got another metaphor going: in Jake’s passive-yet-imaginative entry into this fantastical world, he’s the avatar for the moviegoing experience. Cameron’s goal is to get us involved and excited as Jake is.
He succeeds, to a large extent. The 3D, not available at all theaters, is mind-bending, even if the process remains imperfect (I always have to perform eyeball calisthenics to get in the groove). The world of the Na’vi looks like something off the cover of a 1950s sci-fi paperback, or possibly the outtakes from the LSD sequence in Taking Woodstock. Cameron never pulls away from looking silly.
The expectation that the film’s martial finale must top The Lord of the Rings makes the film feel dragged-out, even if Cameron’s skills in arranging mayhem are undeniable. There’s not quite enough buttery flavoring to fill out the film’s 162 popcorn minutes. But Cameron comes close.
December 9, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.