Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dances With Smurfs: An Irony-Filled Review of James Cameron's "Avatar"

First things first: I didn't come up with the "Dances with Smurfs" joke.  I read it somewhere.  It's just that I can't come up with a more concise way of describing James Cameron's new film, "Avatar."  I sometimes joke that "Gladiator," "Braveheart," and "The Patriot" are all the same film, just set against different historical backdrops and stunt-butts.  "Avatar" is really just a futuristic version of "Dances With Wolves," only with neon blue 10-foot CGI extra-terrestrials.*

For those of you unfamiliar with "Dances With Wolves" or the "Avatar" pre-press, here's a quick summary: Somewhere out in the universe there is this beautiful jungle planet that has generous quantities of some element that humans need to make money.  The planet is inhabited by neon blue skinny 10-foot animated people with big yellow eyes, and in order to convince them that it's OK for us to take that element, we humans infiltrate their culture by piloting skinny neon blue 10-foot clones with our brains.  Kind of like "V," only in reverse, and without the "by the way, we also plan to harvest your people for food" subplot.

Anyway, one of these clone pilots--the guy from "Terminator: Salvation" who thinks he's human but is really a machine (insert irony)--starts getting sympathetic to the native population, partially because his clone body lets him experience walking again--he'd lost his legs in some accident connected to his prior military service--and partially because he thinks this neon blue animated skinny 10-foot native chick is really hot.  Hijinks and CGI explosions ensue.

As you might imagine, the publicity for "Avatar" is not based in its Imperialistic America is Raping Our Planet and Destroying All Native Culture allegory.  Nope, this is a James Cameron movie ("Aliens," "Titanic," "Piranha Part Two: The Spawning"), thus the hoopla is all about the special effects.  "Avatar" is billed as a game-changing leap in CGI and motion-capture technology that is supposed to reinvent the way movies will be made forever. (This is also ironic, because Cameron uses high-end technology and over-the-top dramatic action violence to send an anti-war, anti-technological message.  Kind of what George Lucas did with the Ewoks.)

I agree and disagree.  The CGI is really incredible, especially when you focus in on the jaw and mouth areas of the animated characters.  They interact pretty seamlessly with the real people, too.  The trouble is, in spite of all the advances, it doesn't look real-real, it just looks like really good animation.  Maybe it's just because the CGI characters are a really obnoxious blue color instead of something a little more "Earthy," but in terms of real-world depth and realism, even though I'm enjoying the movie, I'm still thinking that I'm watching a really advanced cartoon.  Luckily, I'm the kind of gullible twerp who can get sucked into animated and live-action films equally.  It's just that when I'm watching a "Shrek" movie, I know it isn't "real," and when I watch a romantic comedy with Drew Barrymore, I know it is.

(That last bit was a joke, incidentally.)

To me, the most effective integration of CGI and live-action is still the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which is--wait for it--also ironic, because the same people who did "LoTR" also did "Avatar."  In the Tolkein movies, the CGI was subordinate to the live action sets, both in the visual and the narrative, and I think it worked better for that reason.  In "Avatar," (and the "Star Wars" prequels, incidentally) the live-action is subordinate to the CGI, hence the final product leans more towards the animated end of the spectrum.  Both results are entertaining, but only the former feels gritty and "real."

What I actually enjoyed most about "Avatar" was noting all the visual cues and themes from Cameron's past movies: the lumbering machinery and buzz-cut roughneck military characters, the scenes when people sit around peacefully and gaze in wonder at something shiny that floats in the air, the bit where the clone pilot sketches the 10-foot blue chick naked.


Really, I don't mean to bash on the film.  I enjoyed "Avatar."  I just think that CGI still looks like CGI.  Still, it's nice to get a hopeful message about human brotherhood and cultural identity without having to look at Kevin Costner's butt.


*I say "extra-terrestrials" instead of "aliens," because since "Avatar" takes place on another planet--a planet us angry humans are invading--we would technically be the aliens.