18 December 2009

Review: Avatar

Genre: Epic

It is a delicate thing, to create a film - a delicacy impinged upon all the more when the ambition compelling the film is magnitudinous in its scope. Epic, magnitudinous films by their very definitions attempt to conquer many facets of the human psyche and fan them out in clear array before our eyes, like iridescent plumes or playing cards; men are loved and betrayed, culture is ritualized and written, and learning and life in relation to others is lionized, tragedized, and recorded. At their best, therefore, such epic works grow and flourish and manage to thistle out at their extremities tiny niches of humanity that had only faintly, if at all, been touched before; at their worst, such films gurgle and gag up upon themselves consecutive clichés and clumsy metaphors that drag their knuckles over the broken glass of awkwardly executed long-range firings. Avatar - to credit Mr. Cameron - is an epic film thankfully closer in execution to the former extreme.

He (i. e., Cameron), hardly an estranged director from the epic film in general and - no doubt - so aware of its variability, its delicacy, and its necessary concern for each manner and maneuver and choice in effect, lest just one be misplaced and cause, like the slippage of an improperly rooted epiphyte, the fall of the entire tangential structure, knew that temperament in epic direction would be key, temperament for choice and choice in anticipation of result as well as in heed of precedent. Each tier, each layer that an epic film-maker adds, he knows, must extend to bear the weight and the shape of both its successor and its foregoer. Otherwise, the structure can shatter, crumble, and fold like a house of playing cards, instead of diverging - as it ought - like a fan of them. No, epic films, he knows, are not like a laser or a beam, marking its course single-mindedly from its onset and pruning away all else in streamlining idealization, as less ambitious films are and ought be; rather, the epic film ought, as if fancying itself the illuminative appreciator of the spectrum rather than the elucidative categorizer of the wave, be macroscopic and grow organically, heterodoxically, into form and refractive focus.

I discourse on, as I have, on these matters, because it is important to remember them: to remember that, when writing in review of an epic film as when creating such a film, one may not expect from it the same incisive acuity that one may expect from other, non-epic films. Its measure, much more accurately, is closer to the measure of quality for odes, songs, and lyrical sagas than to that of epithets, fables, and fairy tales. Against its appropriate measure, an epic film like Avatar does well.

Agglomerating pensive tips from the likes of Locke, Foucault, and - most clearly - Descartes as well as from computer science, pop culture, and anthropology as it rolls farther and farther into its story, Avatar takes on the organic life that it needs - albeit covets - to survive and to support its magnitudinous structure, emotions, and scenes - which can indeed be breathtaking. Lush, lush life, excerpted in inspiration from the sparkling texts of Wells perhaps and Margaret Mead maybe, are flowers festooning the screenplay - which, though an inventive retelling of the legend of Pocahontas, is sadly a rather dry bed to harvest from. But then Mr. Cameron was never much of a writer. No, his strengths lie much more in his abilities to eke out effective drama from his drying seeds, to turn his trite dialogue and simplistic phrases into quiet and unobstrusive scaffolding for his physical plays, and to show us why he bothered planting his seeds in the first place: well choreographed rushes, battles, and unions that, though lacking the grandeur, the majesty, and the objective finesse of - say - Mr. Jackson's, stir the emotions nevertheless and, for this stirring, are meritorious.

Beyond the physical action, the physical appearance(s) too are lush and meritorious. Though almost steroidally neon at first glance, the world of Avatar is actually meticulously quiet and happily not visually strident. Costumes may be typical, but they are donned by aesthetically interesting bodies, which lithe and labile the make-up complements well. And, though subjective to the hilt, the cinematography makes something notable of itself - though I am not 100% convinced that that something owes its existence entirely to its own merits and not those of the scenes that it depicts.

Acoustically, sound-editing is fine and appropriate; and Mr. Horner's score, like Mr. Cameron's screenplay, predictably raw but supplementarily completely condign with the tone and the object each of its instances. His original song, however, is unavoidably sappy.

Still, overall Avatar is a good, good work; and, I must say of it, though it was not particularly gifted in terms of its actors, it was wonderful to see Sigourney Weaver taking strides in a film of its size, type, and ambition once again.

Grade: A-, a worthy contemporary amalgamation from and to the world of folklore and mythology - I particularly cared for the non-flagrant use of 3-D.

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