NPR logo Tripping Toward The Future: 'Avatar' Amazes, Confounds


Tripping Toward The Future: 'Avatar' Amazes, Confounds

Hey, are you tired of the hype around Avatar yet? Me too!

Still, because I wrote about the movie earlier — or more exactly, about the impact of 3D technology — I braved a late starting time and a foot of snow to go see the movie at an IMAX 3D theater this weekend.

And how did it go? Well, first of all, my pals and I somehow wound up wearing our 3D glasses in the men's room; hilarity ensued. Oh, and another thing about those glasses — for a movie that glances toward the 3-hour mark, those things get uncomfortable. And they're kind of heavy. I was left with a red stripe across the bridge of my nose.

Boldly going where no man has gone before: A patron wears his 3D glasses in the hallway of an IMAX theater before viewing Avatar. Bill Chappell/NPR hide caption

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Bill Chappell/NPR

Boldly going where no man has gone before: A patron wears his 3D glasses in the hallway of an IMAX theater before viewing Avatar.

Bill Chappell/NPR

As for the movie, it's beautiful. My reaction, and one I heard over and over, was, "Yep — that looks like it would cost about a quarter of a billion dollars."

That sort of sums it up: It's an expensive, impressive spectacle. The 3D vantage was crazy-good so often that it really did feel like The Future you're seeing up there on the screen. And that made something else jump out at me: how the music and score failed to be similarly modern and forward-thinking.

The score was full of stock action/adventure dreck, with soaring strings and questing horns that could have been lifted from any movie of the past 10 years. Throw in a village-festival scene, whose thumping drums and Irish flutes evoked an Ewok throwdown, and you have a recipe for aural unease.

So, those are the aesthetics: freakish visuals, weakish audio. Now for the more tech-y aspects of the plot itself.

As a fan of science fiction, I was interested to find plot elements that echo the work of current sci fi authors. For instance, both Orson Scott Card and Iain M. Banks are experts at portraying the kind of immersive anthropology that is at Avatar's core. Books like Speaker for the Dead (Card) and Use of Weapons (Banks) explore the perils, rewards and conflicting motivations of both studying and manipulating an alien race with a depth that most films can't really hope to match.

Cameron seems to throw in the towel on that one. Besides the basic Violent Marine vs. Tree Hugger (literally) conflict, the more complicated clash of science and commerce vs. nature and tradition is mainly summed up by periodic shots of evil-businessman Giovanni Ribisi looking progressively pensive as things begin to turn against him.

That's understandable — I don't expect a movie to delve into that sort of more text-friendly wrinkles. But I have to say, Card and Banks would likely blush if they ever padded out a story the way Cameron has done with Avatar.

Don't believe me? Consider this example: If you're an outnumbered force conducting a mid-air ambush with the sole purpose of destroying one particular plane, would you waste 5 or 10 minutes by attacking all the planes — except the one you want to bring down? I guess you might — if you're a director with a bag of stunning visual tricks you've waited 10 years to show off.

I guess that's my gripe with this movie, which I did enjoy: the visuals are, by a mile, the most sophisticated thing about it. Just about every complaint I have about Avatar can be answered with practical (business-related) statements like, "Well, that's to keep it PG-13" or, "The international market is gonna eat that up."

That's well and good for a ground-breaking movie of this scale. After all, if a movie both costs 250 million bucks and looks like 250 million bucks, it had better earn that much and more. Because if it doesn't, it'll be the last of its kind — and that would be a shame.