March 6, 2010

Reel Review: Avatar, or Matrixes with Ferngully Wolves

The Terminator. Aliens. The Abyss. Terminator 2: Judgment Day. True Lies


James Cameron, I doubted you. After Titanic, I unofficially swore off any contact with you aside from your pre-existing work. For those of you who don't know, I worked at a movie theater for 2 ½ years during high school. While it was a great job, it did have some downsides: listening to "Wild Wild West" on a seemingly endless repeat, Phil Collin's "You'll Be in My Heart" playing while watching never-ending promos for Tarzan, and most of all, the disaster that was Titanic (JAAAAAAAAAAACCCCCKKKK!!!!!). From the day the movie was released, December 19th, 1997, that movie tormented me for 6 months. No other movie during my tenure at the Carmike Cinemas 8 in Clarksville, Tennessee managed to revive itself from the smallest theaters to the main theaters with stops in the mid-size theaters as many times as the Leo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet slobberfest did. Countless weekends of cleaning inordinate amounts of discarded tear tissues passed while I wanted to jam a molten-hot enema in each of my ears as Celine Dion's " My Heart Will Go On" droned on and on (by the way, I managed to hear about 5 seconds of that clip before I puked). The movie left mere days before my 17th birthday, which still ranks as the greatest gift the universe has bestowed upon me.

What does this have to do with Avatar? Unfortunately for Cameron's passion project, Titanic served as one of two reasons why I actively chose not to watch Sam Worthington-led project. What was the second reason, you may ask? My unyielding desire to detach myself from any public drool-fest, which means, yes, I am a self-aggrandizing ego-maniac whose 3 blog followers means I'm sitting on a gold mine. But I digress. On a rare night when I had to entertain myself while my wife had a birthday girls' night, I decided, mostly due to the film's start time, that I'd give in and judge the phenomenon for myself. And I'm glad to say that I was wrong about the film's reception. As is well-known, the film's visual element is absolutely stunning. I caught a 3D showing of the movie, and aside from small effects that flittered seemingly in front of your face, the added depth of the 3D effects helped to completely immerse yours truly in the movie, after the necessary adjustment period at the outset. But where most complaints I've heard have dealt with the plot, I found the story compelling and much deeper than expected.

Yes, the heavy-handed treatment of the military was over-the-top. However, aside from the (necessary) use of English as the primary language and the primarily Caucasian cast of soldiers, there is very little to identify the guerilla-Marines as critiques of US forces. Cameron expertly wove together a story of colonialism, xenophobia, classism, racism, greed, and exploitation. Can the story be seen as critical of American/Middle East relations (or better, tensions) over fossil fuels? Absolutely. At one point, Giovanni Ribisi's character notes that to create an excuse to take a prized resource, all leaders or politicians need to do is frame the native population as a threat, and invasion or occupation is an easy, or even needed, precaution…preemptive strikes, anyone? Further, the movie's central conflict lies in man's seemingly innate desire to conquer nature, believing that "traditional" knowledge is innately inferior to scientific learning and progress. Easy research into Seasonal Affective Disorder shows that humans are invariably sensitive to the natural environment, and while SAD in no way can truly compare to the communion the Na'vi share with their homeworld of Pandora, it begins to illuminate the disconnect that we as a species has promulgated on ourselves as we've strove to build more and more technology to "improve" our lives. The incredible sense of community that Cameron wrote into the indigenous peoples of his fictional world shouldn't serve as a laughing point, but rather a goal in the sense that while we may never achieve a "human hive mind" of sorts, we can look to become more aware of our impact on each other as individuals and as larger collectives.

As an urban planner/community developer, this may seem at odds with my chosen profession and its built-in need for expansion, but it should serve as a reminder to continuously look to the effects our built environments have on the minds, mental states, and physical well-being of our fellow citizens. As I've waxed on faux-etically about my love for a movie I've only left an hour and a half ago, I'll wrap this up.

But just remember, Mr. James Cameron, you still owe me for the emotional trauma of Titanic. Big-time. I can't forgive you just yet. I need more time. But at least Avatar put us on speaking terms again.



Special Effects: A++++++++++++ (you've seen the clips, dogg)

Story: A- (see above)

Acting: B+ (The colonel(?) in the movie, though completely over-the-top, is absolutely believable. And Sigourney Weaver pulling an Ellen Ripley homage was wonderful.)

Pacing/Plot: A (for a 2 ½ hour movie, I didn't have a single urge to whiz)

Overall: A (And a very strong contender for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Picture)

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