Tuesday, December 29, 2009

BuboBlog Reviews 'Avatar'

(We saw "Avatar" in 3-D over the holidays. It's a visual feast, as well as a thrilling and moving story — despite the fact that every twist of the plot gets telegraphed well ahead of time. BuboBlog Rating: 3.5 asterisks out of 4. As usual, I have my quibbles.)

1. How does James Cameron make another sci-fi movie featuring Sigourney Weaver and giant mechanized suits, and then NOT let her reprise her best line from the "Alien" movies: "Get away from her, you bitch."

Actually, "Avatar" really could have been a spinoff of the "Alien" franchise. Both feature a ruthless paramilitary corporation that endangers lives with reckless greed. They both have hostile aliens. And again, both have those robot suits. (I'm sure someone else can come up with more similarities.) Of course, the "Alien" films already have spinoffs: the Oscar-caliber "Alien vs. Predator" movies.

2. I guess I have to be the one who says it: The aliens looked fake. I don't mean in the crowd scenes or the action sequences, but when "Avatar" uses CGI for close-ups, it's just not convincing. If you doubt what I'm saying, pay attention to the parts where Cameron switches between scenes with the Na'vi aliens and the humans back on the base. Your mind has to reconcile the fact that the aliens look like a cartoon and the humans look real. He would have been better off using actors with makeup and prosthetics, though this would have been much more expensive. (Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" looked similarly computery and fake — yeah, you heard me.) As amazing as "Avatar's" technological advances are, in 20 years it's going to look as fake as the stop-motion effects in the original "Clash of the Titans."

3. In some ways, the 3-D made all this CGI more palatable. Everything in 3-D has a certain fuzzy, unreal feel to it. So it mitigated the obviously fake computer effects by making the whole movie look a little strange. But this seems more like a cheat, rather than a groundbreaking step in filmmaking.

With that said, I really admire the way "Avatar" uses 3-D. Rather than only relying on gimmicks (having arrows shoot out at the audience), it creates an immersive 3-D environment. When you look through windscreens, you can see the dirt on the glass in 3-D. The effect also spotlights the use of holograms and heads-up displays — technology that we'll all probably be using in the not-too-distant feature.

4. The 3-D also added depth to Pandora's many bioluminescent creatures. Question for a biologist: Would there be a plausible reason for so many land-based organisms to rely on bioluminiscence?

5. The company in the movie is trying to mine a precious element called "unobtainium." Seriously? The writers couldn't think of anything less ridiculous than that?

6. Sam Worthington's accent switched back and forth between American and Australian throughout the movie. Was this just a gaffe, or is Cameron predicting the future? By that I mean the formation in 2104 of the United States of Ameristralia.

7. Would it really make sense to design a giant robotic suit that lets you participate in knife fights?

8. For most of the movie, I expected this bit of exposition: "If your avatar dies, you die in real life." (After all, that's how it worked in similar films — everything from "The Matrix" to "Nightmare on Elm Street.") It turns out that the movie decided not to go this route, in one of its rare deviations from formula. What the film did was something cooler (spoiler alert): Instead of the hero's avatar being threatened, the villain goes after the sleeping body of the real-life man instead. It was a nice twist.

9. It was hard to know what to make of the Native American allegory. Obviously European settlers committed atrocities on the indigenous peoples of this land, and "Avatar" aims to condemn that. But by giving the Na'vi's mysticism a scientific backing — essentially, making the magic real — is Cameron trying to glorify the Native Americans' actual beliefs, or create an alternate universe in which their creed wasn't hokum? Either way, it comes off as a little condescending.

10. There weren't a lot of false notes in the movie, but a few cliches could have been cut. Let's all agree that a character should never say either "We have a situation here" or "I didn't sign on for this" ever again.

UPDATE: I also should mention that the 3-D really helps make the subtitles easier to read. Maybe all foreign films should be in 3-D?

But why did the movie use the cheesy Papyrus font? Only marginally better than Comic Sans.