Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Avatar (Again)

Here we go again on Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I watch one of the movies I own and blog about it.  Easy as that.  This time out, I decided to take a second go-around at Avatar.  This is in my notes at May 12, 2019.

There seems to be a lot of articles these days about how impressive Avatar isn't.  The general thesis tends to come down to, "For the #1 movie of all time, it's barely made any impression on the pop culture landscape."  And, for the most part, it's true.  As we approach the film's 10th anniversary, you don't see anyone quoting catchphrases from the film, or no impressive cosplay at cons.  About the only impression it's made is there's now an Avatar-land at Disney World down in Florida, and everyone agrees it's friggin' sweet.  The argument came roaring back this week when Disney announced their release schedule for the next decade, and with their recent buyout of Fox (the makers of Avatar), Avatar is a big part of it.

James Cameron, the creator of Avatar, and also the man responsible for such beloved films as Titanic, The Abyss, Aliens, and the first two (i.e. the good) Terminator films, has been hard at work for the past decade mapping out an Avatar franchise.  He's plotting not one, not two, but four return trips to the world of Pandora.  Avatar 2 will finally hit theaters in December of 2021, with an Avatar film coming out every two years.  Leading the world to once again ask, "Do we really need an Avatar 2, let alone a 3 thru 5?" 

So I decided to toss Avatar back in the Blu-ray player tonight and give it another go.  Of course I own it on Blu-ray...the three disc super-special edition.  As I remember blogging back in the day, yeah, I agree it's got a bit of a bland plot and weak characters, but you've got to respect it's technical achievements.  One of the earliest "Do we really need more Avatar films?" articles I read likened Cameron to the Thomas Edison of film.  Yeah, the plot was "meh," but the digital cameras and performance capture tech he developed to make Avatar are being used by films to this very day. 

When I watched Avatar for this blog of mine back in the day, I forgot to note to which version I watched.  For those who don't know, there's actually three different version of Avatar.  The first is the original theatrical cut, which came out in December of 2009.  The film was then re-released to theaters in the summer of 2010 as a "special edition," with an extra eight minutes of footage.  And then for the film's Blu-Ray release, Cameron put together an "extended edition," adding another sixteen minutes...bringing the film's run time to almost three hours.  I watched the original theatrical cut tonight.  Although, I did seriously consider taking advantage of another bonus feature on the Blu-Ray for a little more fun...the "family friendly" audio track.  It's got all the swears edited out. 

Another reason why people consider Avatar passe is because it sticks to the "white saviour" formula.  Our troubled protagonist (usually a white guy, hence the name of the formula) is taken in by another culture.  While learning their ways and customs, he finally finds the inner peace which has long eluded him.  But, when elements of his old life start encroaching on his new, adopted, homeland, he has to rally his new friends to save his new, adopted way of life.  The two most cited examples when talking about Avatar are Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves and Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai

Sam Worthington is our hero, Jake Sully, a former Marine who lost the use of his legs.  The recent death of his scientist twin brother presents him with a unique opportunity.  He's accepts a job and is sent to the planet Pandora.  Tensions are high between the Earth colonists who are mining the land and the native Na'vi -- ten foot tall blue cat people.  Jake's brother was to be an avatar pilot.  Avatars are genetic hybrids of humans and Na'vi, and they resemble the Na'vi.  Controlling these bodies, humans can survive in the Pandoran atmosphere, and try to develop a rapport with the Na'vi.  Since Jake and his twin brother have virtually identical DNA, Jake can pilot has brother's avatar. 

And thus our story begins.  Jake arrives on Pandora, and in his avatar, begins endearing himself to the Omaticaya, the nearby Na'vi tribe.  He starts learning their ways, falling in love with the chief's daughter, and when the humans roll up to their village to start mining, Jake rallies Na'vi to fight off the humans and save the planet. 

And that's pretty much the whole plot.  Yeah, the plot is formulaic to the max.  Yeah, the characters are pretty bland.  Heck, our main villain -- Col. Quarritch, the leader of the human's military forces -- only defining character trait seems to be "racist." 

But the one thing that really caught me was the visuals.  Dear God, I forgot how visually stunning this film is.  The flora and fauna that Cameron developed for Pandora is unlike anything that's ever been seen on the screen.  And so much of it is luminescent...I'm surprised this film hasn't inspired a ton of black light posters. 

I mean, there is some great world-building here, not just in the Pandoran wildlife and the Na'vi culture, but in the human tech.  Go back and watch Cameron's director's cut of Aliens.  It shows a lot of what life was like in the colony before the aliens overran it.  Compare that to what we see in Avatar, and you see that it's pretty much Aliens with today's special effects technology.

Someone recently unearthed Roger Ebert's glowing review of The Phantom Menace.  When talking about the film's infamous convoluted plot and stilted acting, Ebert defended it by saying, "Yeah, but people don't go to these films for that.  They go for the spectacle."  And Avatar has spectacle in spades. 

When Disney outlined their plans for the next decade, the plan is to alternate Avatar with Star Wars, and the two franchises to have a few similarities.  Star Wars was thought to be dead by around 1985, and only in the late-1990s did start re-surging...a resurgence that lasts to this very day.  Will the coming of Avatar 2 in 2021 end ten years in the wilderness for that franchise, sparking a never-ending Avatar resurgence? 

One thing that does give me hope.  Avatar's success in 2009 led to a surge of 3D films in the early 2010s...and a lot of 3D conversions were done quickly and cheaply, and wound up being not very good.  When asked why Avatar's 3D was so good, the response was, "Because James Cameron spent 12 years and $300 million to get it right."  James Cameron will have spent 12 years on the Avatar sequels when the first on hits in 2021.  That's one thing to admire about the Cameron...he takes the time to do things right.

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