Darwin's restaurant was packed, so we went next door the day after Christmas for the next form of evolution: James Cameron's Avatar, albeit in 2-D, the standard stuff that fills screens to bursting and the stadium seating to capacity. Instead of plush, lush 3-D, we ended up in one of the end-of-civilization screens the Bow-Tie Cinemas keep alive at the frontier outpost of El Jebel, Colorado.
All in all, in other words, the worst possible set-up for a movie set up to break the glass ceiling of film with three-dimensional computer-generated movie-making. Even so, with the deck stacked against it, Avatar was much better than good: Cameron -- he of Terminator, Aliens, and Titanic fame -- has now set the bar so high that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas will spend the rest of their careers trying to reach the planet Pandora, home to foxy and fierce nine-foot, blue-skinned babes with tails who know how to mate, bro.
With the movie stripped down to old-school basics, in the 2-D version the muscle behind this production was stripped down to three older-school elements that matter more than any computer ever will: story, story, story -- and it was here that "Avatar" became a tad bit gooey for my political tastes.
First the good news, Mortimer: the story of a Marine who lost the use of his legs but gets to run like a blue deer is pure genius, a magnificent trope for a soul trying to find what is lost but perhaps not gone for good. The idea of the avatars in the movie blipping in and out of consciousness is equally brilliant, and the way human and native come together in the final frame is an ending for the ages that goes down literally in the blink of an eye.
Amidst all these things going right, what goes awry in Avatar is the bad guys, an unnamed corporation dominated by ex-military types who are so stereotypically determined to rape the innocent people of Pandora that it takes steam out of the entire operation. There's gold in them thar hills and the Clampitts are dumb as a rock, but it would have helped Cameron to give the corporate enemy imagination in lieu of soul. Fat chance: as you know, this is how Cameron works his magic, with monolithic unfeeling evil in the form of an iceberg, an Alien, and/or a Terminator or two.
In a movie this big, EVIL in all caps ends up making the movie smaller.
Then there is the kumbaya natives of Pandora to consider, a people so in touch with their own souls and the souls of their ancestors that the entire planet is a throbbing Internet gone viral, vital, and all-natural. Almost the entire second half of the movie is the story of how these poor innocents, who know how to use a machine gun, are stunned into near-submission not unlike the metaphorical subjugation of Native Americans and the Napalming of North Vietnam and Cambodia. I'm as willing as anyone to concede the United States lost some of its soul in these campaigns, but it would not have hurt Avatar one bit to at least hint that a good back story for bad guys makes for a mo' better movie.
Despite these reservations -- and without the 3-D -- it is nonetheless important to say that Cameron has done it again, and that Avatar winningly succeeds at the First Commandment: to capture and transform the audience. That's something neither alien nor avatar would ever understand.
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