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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, December 26, 2009

 
Saturday Night At The Movies


Tales from topographic oceans

By Dennis Hartley













It looks way cooler with the glasses…and a bong hit. Trust me.

If I was restricted to writing one-line movie reviews (which undoubtedly would make a lot of readers jubilant) I would summarize James Cameron’s super-hyped, epic fantasy-adventure Avatar as: “A three-dimensional masterpiece with a one-dimensional script.” Then again, Mr. Cameron has never lost any money underestimating the attention span of your typical American filmgoer. Sure, his movies tend to go on longer than the Old Testament, but there’s usually an easy-to-follow 90 minute narrative buried somewhere within those 2 ½ to 3 hour running times (padded out by the protracted action set-pieces).

I will say this-if you are going to go for it, you might as well go all the way (you know-get your $300 million worth). This film is like the Baskin-Robbins of movie events-you may be confronted with 31 different choices of viewing experiences before you even buy your ticket. For example, at the particular multiplex I saw it at, they were showing it in 3 auditoriums and as many formats: 2-D, 3-D and 3-D IMAX. No one warned me that there would be a quiz, so I suffered a few moments of embarrassing vacillation (I visualized the people in line behind me rolling their eyes and miming a garroting to amuse their friends). To save face, I muttered “Imax” and sheepishly pushed my check card under the window. I even suppressed the urge to exclaim “Fifteen fucking fifty? For a matinee?!?!”

OK, I hear you. “There IS a 90-word movie review, buried somewhere within this 2000 word rant about the cost of an IMAX screening, right, Dennis?” I just wanted to clarify from the outset that prior to this, I was a 3-D virgin (always seemed too gimmicky to me; if I’m really itching to experience the sensation that the actors are in the same room with me, I could go see one of those newfangled-oh, what are they called again-“stage plays”?

Cameron’s story is simple enough; thematically it is an inverse re-imagining of his 1986 sci-fi adventure Aliens (with more than a few suspicious similarities to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke). Set sometime in the future, the story centers on a lushly verdant planet called Pandora, which has been targeted for deforestation and mining by an Earth-based corporation. This doesn’t set well with the planet’s inhabitants, a relatively peaceful race of aboriginal forest dwellers called the Na’vi (The Emerald Forest, anyone?). A sizable contingent of Marines has been deployed to help “convince” the locals that it would be in their best interest to cooperate. This doesn’t set well with a small team of research scientists who have been studying and interacting with the Na’vi, via an experimental assimilation method using avatars that take on the actual physiology of the aliens. Deadlines have been set, and tensions mount. However, faster than you can say FernGully: The Last Rainforest, we are presented with The One Human who could save the day, in the person of a brave young wheelchair-bound Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Sully is assigned by the gung-ho Marine commander (a hammy Stephen Lang, getting his Col. Kilgore on) to be the military liaison with the tribe. Sully soon becomes the political football between his C.O., the head researcher (Sigourney Weaver, recycling Dian Fossey) and the corporate weasel from the mining company (Giovanni Ribisi). Yes, I was thinking “Halliburton reference”, too. Oops-can’t forget the rote love story-Sully hooks up with a Na’vi babe (a 10 ft. tall and very blue Zoe Saldana).

This is all academic, really. How many people are flocking to see this for the “plot”? Don’t get me wrong, there were elements of the story that did appeal to me. I liked the idea of a paraplegic hero; the scene where Sully first “finds his legs” in his avatar body is actually quite moving, empowering and well played. Aside from that one brief moment, I didn’t find myself getting emotionally invested in this film or its characters in any significant way. The “save the forest” theme performed its requisite tug at my big ol’ softie lib’rul tree-hugging heart and all, but it’s become such a hoary movie cliché anymore. By the time the final third disappeared into interminable mayhem, they lost me.

However, in pure visual terms, the film does live up to its hype, and then some. There are some real knockout scenes, particularly in the film’s first half (before the novelty starts to wear off a bit and it just becomes shit blowing up). Cameron’s inventiveness and flair for mind-blowing production design is the real star here. Pandora’s otherworldly creatures, topography, and stridently colorful flora and fauna recall Disney’s Fantasia or Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet at times. In the film’s best “through the looking glass” moments, I felt like I had been transported inside the world of a Roger Dean album cover.

When all was said and done, the question I was left pondering was this: At what point does a film cease being a “film” and transmogrify into an “event”-or (if I may turn the cynicism up to “11”) a glorified 2 ½ hour infomercial for a video game? Yes, Cameron has perhaps “changed” the game, regarding the purely technical aspects of filmmaking and movie presentation. But is this ultimately for the good of the art form? When I think of my all-time favorite films, there are two things that they all seem to have in common: heart and soul. And you do not a need a pair of 3-D glasses and IMAX to experience that.

Previous posts with related themes:
Top 10 Eco-flicks


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