Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar's best moment (hint - it has nothing to do with 3D special effects)

As expected, as James Cameron's Avatar continues to hammer the box office, blockbuster backlash has settled in almost before the ink on those rave reviews has dried. While blockbuster backlash is a common thing (quick... find anyone who still admits to loving Independence Day or even Return of the King), the speed in which the 'oh, it's just about effects' talk has become mainstreamed is a little surprising. The standard line is now 'oh, the story is bland and the character development is non-existent'. But, as we all know, the mega hits, the ones like Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight, or Spider-Man, made their money on the strength of everything but the effects. With the arguable exception of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (a $400 million-grossing anomaly that no one particularly liked), you can't generally make it to mega-hit status without connecting to audiences on some kind of emotional level. Jurassic Park wowed audiences with the dinosaur effects, but it kept people around because it was a viscerally thrilling little horror film. Lord of the Rings promised awe-inspiring mass-battle scenes, but also delivered rich performances and an emotionally powerful narrative. Spider-Man got audiences in the door with gee-wiz webslinging adventure, but they stuck around because the film took the time to develop all of its characters, from the multifaceted Norman Osborne to the genuinely guilt-ridden Peter Parker. Did anyone even talk about the technical aspects of The Dark Knight? The movies that do more than flame out after their opening weekends are the ones that do more than show us the biggest and best in special effects technology.

Which brings us to Avatar (spoilers obviously follow). While I'll be the first to admit that the story is not terribly complex, I do take issue with the criticisms of the characters. Zoe Saldana brings a fierce empathy and raw emotional connection as the would-be princess of the Na'vi tribe, and she's surely be up for Oscar talk if the majority didn't think that her performance was computer-generated. In fact, my favorite moment in the picture has nothing to do with 3D imagery, fantastical landscapes, or epic battle scenes. It's a genuinely surprising character beat for a character that could have easily become a stock cliche. About two-thirds of the way into the picture, Stephen Lang's gung-ho general has decided to finally wage unprovoked war on the Na'vi people. As the mercenary army prepares to commit genocide, Sam Worthington' Jake Sulley and Sigourney Weaver desperately plead with the seemingly heartless corporate head, Parker Selfridge, played by Giovanni Ribisi. Up until this point, Ribisi has been basically playing the Paul Reiser character from Aliens, ruthlessly plotting the destruction or relocation of the Na'vi for the sake of mining a precious material that they have below their homes. But as Weaver and Worthington explain that his orders will bring about the slaughter of countless men, women, and children (with the unspoken implication that Jake Sully has partaken in such massacres in his army days), Selfridge realizes what his cold-hearted, quarterly profit-driven cynicism has truly brought about. It's the classic case of 'being evil' vs. 'doing evil'. In a shocking story-turn, he changes his mind, allowing Sully to return to his avatar form and warn the Na'vi of the coming carnage. But his temporary change of heart is for naught, as their home is devastated anyway and scores of indigenous natives are slaughtered. Rather than permanently change sides, Selfridge overcompensates in the other direction, imprisoning the 'traitorous' humans and continuing on the path to utter annihilation. Maybe he does that because he's angry that his temporary change of heart was useless. Maybe he realizes that he's crossed the point of no return, knowing full well what he's brought about but also knowing that he's powerless to stop it. But his are surely not the actions of a stock two-dimensional character. And its just one of the reasons that Avatar is more than just an empty special-effects exercise.

Scott Mendelson

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Sam Worthington' Jake Sulley and Sigourney Weaver desperately pleads"
Compound subject, so you need a plural verb: "plead."

You probably don't care about the split infinitive earlier in the sentence. No one in 2154 will.

RP said...

I agree with your analysis here...the characters really were genuinely compelling in this really wonderful movie.

I enjoy your analysis a lot.

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