9 First Impressions of Avatar
So Avatar finally premiered Thursday in London, followed by screenings in Los Angeles and in New York, where a stiff, cold wind in Times Square blew over a few hundred critics lightheaded with awe. And there was plenty of awe, mitigated by a few groans and all the random WTF-ery that comes with spending 163 minutes in James Cameron's staggering new world. A few first impressions of that world follow the jump, and many more to come Friday as Movieline attempts to get its collective head around the most expensive, ambitious film in cinema history. (Spoilerphobes be warned.)
1. So Cameron is not very big into foreplay. We've got five years of cryosleep... a dazzling, deep-focus, zero-gravity wake-up call... a dead scientist... and his contemplative, paraplegic Marine brother Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) wheeling his way across the Pandora tarmac -- 10-story bulldozers and all -- in the first five minutes. I'm overwhelmed, for sure. But I feel like I should be more impressed?
2. OK, forget it. There is no story. There is only metaphor: Ugly American vs. peaceful, nature-loving alien. And in Giovanni Ribisi, Cameron has found his ultimate ugly American. Aliens' company man Burke may have been a bastard, but this guy Carter... Oy. The GOP is going to hate this movie.
3. For once, Sam Worthington works for me. I can't place his accent, though. Maybe Brooklyn by way of Sydney? A little tenser Mel Gibson or something? But I buy it. He's got just the right sense of wonder, world-weariness, vulnerability and machismo -- very Cameronesque. His narration is spot-on, even as the dialogue is stilted. His video-camera confessionals are sincere, all rubbed eyes and halting speech, like probably anyone would be after five years of sleep.
4. The 3-D looks fine, but why must the glasses dim the image by 10 or 15 percent? It so obviously betrays Cameron and Co.'s labor; I can't understand why he'd ignore it or assent to it.
5. Also Cameronesque: Sigourney Weaver as the tough-broad scientist Grace Augustine, who rolls out of her avatar rig asking, "Who's got my cigarette?" Michelle Rodriguez is basically just Aliens' Vasquez without the bandanna. And Zoe Saldana is by far the most dynamic exemplar of the tough, tender, sexy-blue spectrum of Na'vi expression. At least if Cameron's gotta steal, he steals from himself, and mostly the good stuff. I'm very happy to learn there is no Tom Arnold-ish Na'vi sidekick in Avatar.
6. But there is an even worse bad guy than Carter or maybe any Cameron villain since T-1000: Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). An anagram for "ethical squirm," and why not, all scars, gristle, military entitlement and alien abatement. "That is one huge goddamn tree," he says of the cloud-scraping Na'vi habitat -- right before blowing the holy hell out of it in an extended sequence that would make Michael Bay cry. Quaritch is Col. Kilgore, Jack D. Ripper and Hans Landa in one tank-topped, spray-tanned bundle. More bad dialogue ("Venezuela? Heh. That's some hard bush") but so fierce, so irresistible that Lang could stampede his way right into a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Seriously.
7. Listen, there's really no other way to put this: Avatar is the most extraordinary visual accomplishment I've ever seen in a movie theater. At the same time, it's the most forgettable visual accomplishment I've ever seen in a movie theater. To the degree Cameron has revolutionized motion-capture, art direction and camera movement here -- literally creating Pandora from scratch in his computer -- the achievement is simply too much to process. He (and the studio, of course) will naturally tell you to watch it again, and if you have the time and inclination to spend three more hours going through it, be my guest. I don't. It will influence technicians for generations -- and viewers for about a weekend. Which may be enough.
7.5. Either way, this movie sure as hell doesn't need a love theme.
8. The best visual effect, by the way? Sam Worthington's atrophied legs. Cameron could have built two Pandoras, wiped out 10 home-trees and lined up a million Na'vi warriors on flying banshees -- mind-blowing sequences all -- but an extended shot of Sully wheeling himself down a shadowy corridor in shorts with those withered limbs in front of him was probably the only time I really caught myself asking, "How did he do that?"
9. Did I not see the makers of Delgo thanked in the closing credits? Huh. They really should fix that by opening day.