Beneath the glossy sheen of Zac Efron there exists the makings of quite a fine actor glimpses of which were seen in both the blockbuster comedy 17 Again and the indie drama Me and Orson Welles. His transition out of the Disney-fied teen-dream world and into more adult-oriented projects is a gradual uneasy one as is evidenced by his latest film the metaphysical drama Charlie St. Cloud which finds him perched squarely in between the two camps. Efron it appears is in that awkward stage.
In Charlie St. Cloud Efron plays the title character a carefree college-bound sailing star whose bright future is torpedoed when an awful auto wreck takes the life of his beloved kid brother Sam (Charlie Tahan). Charlie at the wheel of the car at the time of the crash briefly dies himself only to be wrested from a flatline by a particularly stubborn and spiritual EMT (Ray Liotta).
Years later Charlie’s body has made a full recovery but his mind remains plagued by some nasty after-effects of the tragedy. He’s given up sailing ditched his college plans gotten a job at a cemetery and taken up the habit of holding regular conversations with dead people — specifically his brother Sam with whom he meets daily in a forest clearing to play catch. Usually such mental deterioration coincides fairly closely with physical deterioration which is why you don’t encounter a lot of well-groomed paranoid schizophrenics on skid row. But Charlie has kept up with his workout and grooming regimens earning a reputation among the residents of his sleepy Pacific Northwest town as a sort of beautiful nutcase.
Unable to escape his all-consuming grief Charlie seems doomed to retreat further into isolation and despair until salvation arrives wrapped in a cardigan: Tess (Amanda Crew) a feisty pro sailor and no stranger to tragedy herself can see beyond Charlie’s unhinged persona to the sensitive troubled and irresistibly hot man that lies beneath. As their relationship deepens Charlie is increasingly torn between his imaginary friends and his real-life love.
It’s a noble aim giving tweens questions deeper than just “Edward or Jacob?” to contemplate and Charlie St. Cloud’s principal message “life is for living ” is a worthwhile one. But director Burr Steers having learned from the success of 17 Again clearly knows where his bread is buttered and so he takes care to sate the demands of Efron’s screeching fanbase by stocking the film with ample glowing shots of his star lovingly lit and clad invariably in a light blue solid color shirt and emoting against a picturesque coastal landscape. (Lest you think I'm exaggerating check out this studio-supplied promo clip featuring an interview with a shirtless Efron.) The awkward mix of existential drama and Abercrombie & Fitch commercial combined with a healthy dose of loopy Sixth Sense-esque supernatural shenanigans tossed in toward the end makes for an experience only the most fawning of Efron’s fans could enjoy.
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.