It takes a special film to transform an audience of movie critics highly-trained skeptics who can dismiss the most painstakingly crafted work with a mere smirk and roll of the eyes into a bunch of glowing giddy teenagers but that’s precisely what happened earlier this week when Avatar James Cameron’s extraordinary new sci-fi epic screened for the first time. Count me among the awestruck rabble; Avatar is a truly astounding piece of filmmaking a leap forward in visual effects artistry that sets a lofty new standard by which future event films will be judged.
Avatar wastes little time before unleashing the spectacle. Perhaps sensing our collective anticipation Cameron serves up the barest of backstories before shoving off for Pandora the staggeringly lush planet upon which the film’s futuristic tale unfolds. Through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a crippled ex-marine who navigates Pandora vicariously through a bio-engineered surrogate (aka an avatar) we’re introduced to the planet’s boundless breathtaking collection of natural and unnatural wonders all created from scratch rendered with uncanny fluidity and presented in the most realistic and immersive 3-D ever witnessed on film.
Occasionally Avatar’s technical triumph is betrayed by its maddeningly derivative storyline which borrows elements wholesale from Dances With Wolves The Last Samurai and countless similar films about oppressors switching sides and going native. Sent to gather intelligence on the Na'vi Pandora’s blue-skinned indigenous population for an Earth-based mining consortium Jake becomes enamored with the proud peace-loving natives and their groovy granola ways. Soon enough he’s joined their tribe taken a smokin’ hot native girl for a wife (Zoe Saldana) and organized an army to help repel the encroachment of the rapacious earthlings.
The Bad Guys (Avatar’s moral perspective is as monochromatic as Pandora is colorful) who initiate the assault on the Na'vi are led by a tag team of grotesque absurdly one-dimensional villains: Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) the khaki-lad bottom line-obsessed corporate administrator of the mine; and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) a bug-eyed musclebound sadist who commands the mine’s vast security force. As Pandora’s Cortez and Pizzaro they form a potent one-two punch of arrogant imperialist caricatures deriding the noble Na'vi with sophomoric slurs like “blue monkeys” and “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” Neither would think twice of eliminating them entirely in order to procure the exceedingly rare obscenely valuable element known as — I sh*t you not — Unobtainium.
Unobtanium? Really? It’s that kind of ham-fisted uninspired pap littered throughout Avatar that makes me want to tear my hair out. If Cameron devoted a fraction of his time and effort toward improving the script as he spent perfecting the bone structure of the viperwolf (one of Pandora’s innumerable animal species) we might have a bona fide classic on our hands. But in Avatar story and character development are treated as obstacles pockets of narrative brush that must be clear-cut to make way for construction of the next extraordinarily elaborate set piece.
And yet despite its flaws Avatar represents one of those exceedingly rare instances in which style triumphs over substance — and by a landslide. I don’t know if Cameron has revolutionized the movie-watching experience (as he famously promised) but he’s surely improved upon it.
Lily (Loren Horsley) is a frumpy little weirdo working at a fast food joint who everyone makes fun of. But she may have met her soul mate in Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) a sarcastic constantly annoyed slacker. At a costume party where she comes as a shark and he as an eagle she wows him with her video game skills. They start dating but Jarrod becomes obsessed with fighting an old high school bully. His crusade tears them apart while Lily is stuck watching Jarrod’s train wreck of a life. The whole movie feels like a bad rip off of Napoleon Dynamite. It’s the idea of seeing weird characters in otherwise banal situations only it really is just weird and banal. These slackers don't say clever things. They just complain. The climactic fight pays off in a somewhat funny way but since the characters are so repulsive it's hard to muster any excitement. On the other hand the actors do their jobs well. It's not their fault they've been asked to play boring annoying losers. Horsley does her best to bring sympathy to Lily. She offers a loyal loving partner who just gets screwed by a loser guy. But she's so good at playing pathetic it overpowers anything else so you really don't care if she hooks up with him or not. Clement goes all out. His random outbursts seem to come from a real place though they are still utterly random. Perhaps with more inventive material these two could really do something. Jarrod’s family is filled with supporting actors who fill in other oddball traits making Jarrod's behavior a definite inherited condition. They're even a little more sympathetic than Jarrod because they at least know Jarrod is messing up his only chance for a good relationship. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by slacker characters who have profound observations about the world. New Zealand writer/director Taika Cohen is trying to emulate the oddball tone of a Napoleon Dynamite combined with the slacker attitudes of a Clerks but none of those films’ endearments or wry social commentary come through in Eagle vs. Shark. On top of it the film looks like a school project. Maybe it’s trendy for indie films to adapt this style but sometimes it draws more attention to the incompetence of the filmmakers. Cohen thinks he's clever and revels in his creation lingering on moments that just don't play. But honestly you won’t want to pay to spend 90 minutes with these people.