I could end right here and be happy with this blog post. I won't, though.
When I first heard AVATAR was coming out--almost a year ago, I think--I must confess my first thought was "Meh". Then I heard it was in 3-D, that was going to usher in a whole new era of 3-D movies and 3-D television and 3-D Internet...and I groaned aloud.
Those who know me know my eyes are pooched. Those who know me well know just how pooched they are. It's not just poor vision, which can be and is largely corrected with glasses; it's poor vision coupled with a lazy left eye coupled with something that has flummoxed opthamologists. I have some kind of weird condition whereby I look at things mostly through one eye or the other depending on their distance from my face. Rarely do I actually see equally through both eyes. You can actually observe the switch if you take, say, a pencil and gradually bring it towards my eyes.
The upshot of this is that anything that forces me to look through both eyes at once--a microscope, a telescope, 3-D glasses--is pretty much useless. Images won't resolve; in the case of the latter, everything not only blurs but takes on a red or green hue. I have thus avoided 3-D movies like the plague, through at least one evolution of 3-D glasses.
As I heard more and more about this movie, my interest was piqued, at first almost in spite of itself. Gradually I took more and more notice of AVATAR-related stuff. A friend of work went to see the movie soon after it was released and came back raving about it. I read a bunch of reviews pro and con, noticed most of the con came from right-wing blowhards, and that was the final tipping point. Anything that pisses off that subset of people is worth seeing, by definition.
Eva and I went to see it today. Part of me is still seeing it now...part of me will still be seeing AVATAR for a while yet, I think. The visual effects--and never mind the 3-D--are nothing short of gobsmacking. I had no trouble whatever with the 3-D glasses provided. Not even a headache, which some people had complained of. Actually, I was beyond impressed with how "gimmicky" the 3-D wasn't. It lent depth to the visuals in a completely appropriate way, never once seeming to escape the screen "just because it could".
I'll deal with the criticisms first by saying yes, this film was directed by James Cameron. This means a few things are, in fact true. One, the acting is pedestrian at best. (Titanic won 11 Oscars, not one of them for acting; none of the leads were even nominated.) Two, the narrative arc is quite predictable. (You knew, going in, that the R.M.S. Titanic was going to sink, right?) And three, there is a political agenda at work here, one Cameron shares with most of Hollywood and the reason the fundycostals detest Hollywood so much: religion is bad, spiritualism is good; Earthlings, standing in here for Americans, are rapacious, greedy, shortsighted and narrowminded, only interested in "power over", not "power with".
As it so happens, I agree wholeheartedly with the prevailing wisdom out of Hollywood (which, by the bye, is ancient, compared with the modern maxim that "greed, for lack of a better word, is good"). I can only hope that with enough repetition, that wisdom might catch on. Is Cameron preachy? Oh, you bet: his expeditionary force commander is a Cheney-esque caricature, completely over the top, only interested in subjugating or murdering. It'd be laughable if there hadn't been such creatures as Cheney and Rumsfeld and Bush, oh my. That unholy triumvirate would look right at home strutting around Pandora.
Minor quibble: the Na'vi are way too humanoid to be credible aliens. I would have been even more impressed with Cameron if he had stopped to think for a second: most of the critters on this planet don't resemble us at all, so why would a sentient alien?
My mind kept trying to yammer up things like this and the sheer power of Pandora's landscapes subdued it utterly. So, eventually, did the narrative, which for all its predictability is undeniably powerful. There are fewer clunkers in the script than in previous Cameron blockbusters (again, Titanic: Jack Dawson, on finding out the ship has struck an iceberg, turns to Rose and says, and I quote, "this is bad".) And the acting performances, while not standing out, are at least believable and compelling within the context of the story.
The environment on Pandora come alive in a way I'd suggest has never been equaled in cinema. Some shots rival anything my head can come up with, and I've got to say I have a powerful imagination. But what makes AVATAR such a treat is that Cameron doesn't just feed you endless scenery: he invents a people living in total harmony with their exotic environment, and gives them a culture, a mythology. Scads of backstory are hinted at between mesmerizing action scenes.
There are very few dead spots in this movie. The 162 minutes go by in an eyeblink, or at least they did for me. I was, in fact, sorely disappointed when the film ended and left me back in my own body.
Two sequels are planned, and I look forward to both. Eagerly.