Sunday, January 24, 2010

Review of Avatar

I vividly remember when Jurassic Park was in theaters. My father had read the book by Michael Crichton and, whenever possible, I would sneak into the small library of my parents' basement so that I could leaf through the early chapters of the softcover tome, all the while feeling as if I was venturing into an adult world from which I was normally forbidden. As the movie's theatrical run approached, the hype surrounding it reached a fever pitch - the revolutionary special effects were praised with quasi-reverential awe, friends who had seen the film before me would dangle tantalizing hints of the awesome sights it beheld (There's a new type of bad-ass dinosaur in the movie called velociraptors! There's this one dinosaur that looks like a giant lizard with a frill around its neck, and it spits black gunk at people! A lawyer gets eaten by a T-rex while sitting on the toilet!), and books and TV specials about dinosaurs provided a veritable bounty of information for those who had possessed paleontological proclivities before the movie's release (such as myself). Of course, being a wee nine-year-old when I actually saw the film in theaters, I was thoroughly blown away by the experience - overjoyed at the spectacle I had just witnessed, and riddled with nightmares of dinosaurs ripping me apart for weeks to come.

Years later, I discovered that one man who had been less than thrilled with the motion picture was esteemed movie critic Roger Ebert. Decrying Jurassic Park for its two-dimensional characters and formulaic monster movie story, Ebert ultimately gave the film three stars (the bare minimum of what was required to count as a recommendation) for the sole reason that it "delivers on the bottom line". As he said with more than a hint of ruefulness, "You want great dinosaurs, you got great dinosaurs."

This is very similar to how I feel about Avatar, a movie that is well on its way to following other blockbusters like Star Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park, and Titanic in breaking box office records. While some audiences and critics are wagging their tongues incessantly about "controversial" political and social themes in the story, I was more stunned by how poorly it compared to those from other cinematic epics from this decade:
- The dialogue, though occasionally spruced up with mild witticisms, was so flat that it fell just a hairbreadth away from being embarassing.
- Every character was a painfully generic archetype. Among the protagonists you had the the reckless Average Joe soldier with a heart of gold, the grizzled world weary scientist with the heart of gold, the awkward nerdy comic sidekick with heart of gold, the innocent tribal princess in touch with mother nature whose initial hostility to humans belies the fact that she has a heart of... well, you get the idea. The villains aren't much better, from the weasly fast-talking corporate executive who only cares about the bottom line to the hard-ass general whose air of military professionalism is a poor disguise for bloodthirsty savagery (all this character lacked to complete the ensemble was a cigar on which to gleefully chomp as he plotted his genocidal rampage).
- Even the fantasy world concocted as an elaborate backdrop for the story's ongoings left something to be desired. Couldn't Cameron have thought of a more convincing name for the MacGuffin than "unobtanium"? If he wished to use mythological allusions, couldn't he have chosen a more appropriate name for his planet than Pandora? If there was a parallel between the setting in this movie and the Greek box that unleashed suffering upon the world, I failed to recognize it.

And what of the plot itself? Like Jurassic Park, it is pure formula, a fusion of the space opera template pioneered by George Lucas with his original Star Wars (the 1977 film) and PC-passion play.

Perhaps I should pause here and elaborate on that last term. "Passion play", in its most common usage, refers to theatrical re-enactments of the death of Jesus Christ intended to help religious audiences experience collective catharsis by expiating their sense of communal guilt for Christ's having died for their sins. While the story of Christ is used to achieve this result among those religious Christians who choose to watch passion plays, the same effect is often obtained among politically-correct liberals by exposing themselves to stories which - either directly or through obvious analogy - address aspects of their collective identity for which they have a sense of communal guilt, and which they receive cathartic gratification from confronting. From the exploration of American racism via soap opera in 2004 Oscar-baiting Crash to this year's action/sci-fi flick cum apartheid allegory District 9, the PC-passion play has found wide accolade among critics and audiences alike. While it is tempting to mistake PC-passion plays with legitimate social commentary, there is a key difference between the two genres that must not be overlooked: While real social commentary takes risks by making observations about the world with which large and respected segments of the population will disagree, PC-passion plays - though often adopting the air of topical relevance - invariably focus on issues where the consensus on right-and-wrong in the given issue are undisputed. That is why movies like Crash and District 9, in condemning the use of racial epithets and the apartheid system (neither of which have respected open advocates in our own society), are PC-passion plays, whereas films like Brokeback Mountain and Munich (which take bold stands on gay rights and the moral complexity of fighting terrorism that were disliked by large, respected segments of society) are more deserving of the term "social commentary".

Now back to Avatar. As mentioned before, its story is a boilerplate fusion of space opera - brash young hero goes to a distant world, undergoes epic journey, discovers himself and ultimately saves the day - with a poorly-disguised allegory for Western imperialist ventures, specifically those perpetrated against Native Americans and, to a lesser extent, the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Middle East. If the story were better developed, it might be worthwhile to spend more time concurring with or dissenting from its views. As it is barely fleshed out beyond the level of a standard B-movie, though, it deserves little more than a rueful passing glance. When its plot is compared to the textured narratives of the past decade's finest epics - be they in cinema (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Dark Knight, Watchmen, even Pirates of the Caribbean, to some degree) or literature (the Harry Potter franchise) - Avatar is downright hollow. It's hard to believe that the man who crafted the storytelling masterpiece Terminator 2 could have chosen to use his revolutionary technology to tell such a mediocre tale.

Make no mistake about it, though... the technology in Avatar IS revolutionary. Even though I may be surprised at the extent to which critics have been mesmerized by the chimera that is Avatar's story (Ebert himself gave it four stars, his highest rating), I can't deny that the special effects deliver on exactly what was promised; I felt transported to a whole other world. The sensory experience of seeing Avatar in theaters is so spectacular that it is indeed worth the full ticket price, no matter how ridiculously high it may seem in this economic climate. To paraphrase the big macher himself:

"You wanted a whole new way of seeing movies, you've got a whole new way of seeing movies."

PS: I still count "Jurassic Park" among my all-time favorite movies. It is hard to weaken a sentimental attachment that has such strong links to one's fondest childhood memories.

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