Month: January 2010

Avatar

Avatar is the quintessential Hollywood blockbuster. It operates on Big Effects, Big Action, Big Emotions, and Big Themes. By keeping things Big and borrowing on universal notions of myth-making, writer-director James Cameron has created an archetypal action-adventure with broad appeal. That might be understating it as, at this writing, Avatar has cracked the billion-dollar box office ceiling and continues to soar beyond The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man flicks and on towards heights reached only by Cameron’s previous epic Titanic.

The film draws on very elemental emotions — one’s love and loyalty for heritage and personal history, one’s love of family and instinctual bond with children, family, and nature and, conversely, our mistrust of technology and any motive founded on industrial and imperialist ambition. Hence, identifying with its themes is a knee-jerk reflex, and you can’t help but feel used because of it; being a work designed to appeal to the largest possible audience, Avatar’s moral universe is rigorously black and white.

The story here is a variation on the Dances with Wolves template (or Pocahontas template, depending on your cinematic recall): A soldier from an encroaching civilization spends time with the members of the enemy, i.e. the people indigenous to the land, and, through the course of his interaction, gains not only respect and sympathy for them, but falls in love with one of their women (Avatar digresses from the Wolves example in that the woman in question is an actual, true-blood native). Meanwhile, the advancing forces to which our soldier belongs invade, and the soldier fights alongside his adopted brethren as they face the annihilation of their race. Visually, the film also bears more than a few echoes of Lord of the Rings, but, to Cameron’s credit, it also contains a wealth of texture and detail, both natural and technological, that Avatar can claim entirely for itself.

Avatar replaces Wolves’ Old West frontier for a futuristic milieu set on the lush and fantastical landscapes of Pandora — a moon on which humans have discovered a rare and much-prized mineral (Unobtainium, a MacGuffin if there ever was one). The deposits are detected directly below the settlement of the Na’vi — a race of highly intelligent, super-tall, blue-skinned beings that co-exist harmoniously with all living things on their world. Into this utopia arrives Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine back in service to infiltrate the Na’vi culture and gain their trust so that the humans can negotiate their re-settlement before blasting apart their land to get at the Unobtainium. But the more Jake spends time among the Na’vi, particularly with the headstrong and beautiful Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the more he knows he cannot take up arms against them.

To be clear, it’s not Jake’s physical self that interacts with the Na’vi but his Avatar, a synthesized Na’vi-like extension of himself that he controls via a system of neural link-ups. Capable of manipulating his Avatar is exhilarating to Jake, not least because it gives him the sensation of having working legs again, and he revels in his Avatar’s superhuman movement, flight, and agility. Together with a scientific team led by the no-nonsense Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) — the leading expert on Pandora and its inhabitants — Jake becomes immersed into the Na’vi culture and customs, and, thanks to Neytiri’s conditioning, he becomes quickly adapted to the Na’vi’s spry lifestyle of scaling treetops and cliffs effortlessly, and taming dragon-like creatures which serve as the Na’vi’s aerial consorts.

When the humans do launch their inevitable invasion, Jake, Neytiri, and their comrades take to the skies or attack on their steeds, showering bows and arrows against all manner of fire-blazing military hardware. And this being an environmental sci-fi/fantasy, Pandora itself becomes a character, a living organism with a capacity for vengeance that cannot be ruled out. All of the above provide ample opportunities for Cameron and his production team to give us a feast of eye-popping panoramas, action scenarios, and bravura conceptual imaginings.

In broad strokes, Cameron paints an allegory of American expansionism — think 19th-century Manifest Destiny applied to an alien planet 150 years from now — with daubs of anti-corporate indignation thrown in. Avatar’s themes and sentiments are impossible to deny however thickly Cameron spreads it around because, in watching the plight of the Na’vi, we link what we see directly to atrocities in our own past and in our own world right now. What keeps us rooting for the movie — and what was also the case with Titanic — is the chemistry between its two disparate but fierce-hearted souls who genuinely fall in love with each other. Worthington and Saldana provide enough wattage to keep the film’s human center alive and beating, while Cameron wraps their story in an armature of generally impressive 3D attractions as well as a righteousness that’s touching yet all too simplistic.

Grade: B

Directed by: James Cameron
Written by: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Dileep Rao, Laz Alonso

The Hurt Locker

My guess is that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker will be henceforth taught in cinema courses as a masterly illustration of how one stages and pieces together an effective action sequence on film. There are several of them to choose from throughout this riveting Iraq War drama, each one demonstrating Bigelow’s shrewd command over the manipulation of space, time, and rhythm. Her battle scenes reap the maximum of suspense and terror in this story about a bomb disposal unit serving amidst the firestorm of the Iraq War in 2004.

One of Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s riskiest gambles is that they essentially have a protagonist — the unit’s leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) — who undergoes little to no change in the course of their story. In fact, James resists any change to his manner and attitude towards war. His men see him as a reckless thrill-seeker, a man obsessed with cheating death if there’s an adrenaline rush to be had. The two in James’s charge, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) spend a great deal of the film clashing with James, questioning his sanity, but, in the end, performing courageously — though resentfully — alongside him. James is really a ball of manic, destructive energy roiling beneath an assured facade. On the other hand, James has a conscience: Bigelow shows us as much when he has a nervous breakdown following the death of a young Iraqi boy whom he’d befriended. Just as quickly, though, James is back on the job, eager for another set of ticking bombs that must be defused, another firefight in which he could narrowly skirt death.

Renner plays James unflinchingly, only rarely giving us a glimpse of the damaged soul lurking beneath the soldier’s bastion of toughness and professionalism. At the risk of alienating his audience, Renner stays true to James’s cool exterior, delivering an unforgettable depiction of how war can warp and distort a man’s spirit. Matching him scene for scene is Anthony Mackie as Sanborn, James’s moral opposite. Baffled, even horrified, by his commanding officer’s matter-of-fact attitude to a high-risk assignment, and his readiness to expose himself and his men to danger, Mackie calls out James time and again; he, along with Geraghty’s Eldridge (another excellent performance), stand in as our moral counterbalance in a crumbling state where life has lost its value.

In an otherwise apolitical film, Bigelow provides a poignant sociopolitical critique with one single cut. Late in the film, we see a traveling shot of Iraqi children, seen through the window of a Humvee, running along the roadside. A cut retains the camera movement but now, instead of children, we’re looking through the glass doors of a supermarket freezer section, staring at an endless row of pizzas of all varieties. We’ve cut from Iraq to America, a place of deprivation to one of plenty. But, more than that, in cutting from children to meaningless products, Bigelow juxtaposes a gross disparity in values: In a single cut, we’ve shunted from a place whose future hangs in the balance, from faces of children who may not live to see it, to one with arguably no future at all, or whose values can be summarized by a vision of a supermarket freezer section.

The Hurt Locker is a top-notch suspense picture in the old-school mold, fashioned after the B-movie masterpieces of Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller. Boal’s script can feel episodic to a fault — it’s essentially a series of battle scenes with time-outs for conversation and for providing the grim details of the soldiers’ off-duty lives in the barracks. But what saves his and Bigelow’s film, ultimately, are the deeply etched characterizations, the sense of evolving relationships between soldiers and between Americans and Iraqis, that make each successive battle not just an action scene but a crucible in which these relationships are tested. Perhaps most startling of all the film’s accomplishments is how it approximates the soldiers’ feeling of utter anxiety as they fight a war on foreign soil: This isn’t Iraq so much as a completely different planet, hostile and hateful of their presence, in which everything and everyone is a potential enemy, and even the ground before you can explode and swallow you whole.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo