“Avatar” : This Is What $400 Million Gets You?

Posted: January 24, 2010 in movies
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"Avatar" Movie Poster

So, yeah, “Avatar.”

I guess I would be remiss in my duties as an amateur wannabe-film critic if I didn’t at least address the topic, given that it’s probably going to be the all-time box office champion any day now. It’s still picking up another $30-$40 million per week without much sign of slowing down. It’s set to pass “The Dark Knight” for number two on the all-time list domestically within the next week or two, and after that, all it’s got to beat is director James Cameron’s last movie, “Titanic,” (which I still have never seen), and it’s the all-time champ. Most box office observers expect this to happen within the next moth or so.

One thing’s for certain, Cameron has established himself firmly as the uber-Spielberg, as Spielberg on steroids. Everything he touches turns into pure box office gold. He took a long time completing his follow-up to “Titanic,” but so what? He made the biggest-grossing film of all time, then followed it up with the new biggest-grossing film of all time. Cynical as I am, I gotta admit that’s pretty impressive. But is “Avatar” itself?

My answer is — not really. Or maybe it is and it isn’t would be a better way of putting things. Sure, it’s cool to look at and all, and the 3-D is solid (I didn’t catch it in Imax 3-D, just standard 3-D, but from what I hear there’s not a whole ton of difference), but given that the film’s costs were somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 million for production, and another estimated $150 million for worldwide marketing, all I could think was “this is all $400 million gets you?” There aren’t a bunch of make-you-jump-out-of-your-seat-type moments.  The effects are all CG (hell, the whole movie is essentially CG). There aren’t any highly-paid actors in it. So where the hell did all the money go? I’m sorry, but if I’m 20th Century Fox, at this point I’m asking to see the receipts, even if the finished product has already made over a billion dollars worldwide.

None of which is to say that “Avatar” sucks. It’s okay. It’s got a decent little story (though there’s probably no point whatsoever to me giving a detailed — or even brief, for that matter — plot recap here, since all the details of the story are fairly well known at this point). I appreciate the fact that it’s pro-environment, anti-colonialist message is pissing off the right wing to no end (they’ve taken the film’s anti-colonialism to mean anti-Americanism, as if we invented that risible practice. Ever heard of Britain or France, to name just two former colonial powers? Oh, wait, this is the right wing we’re talking about — only the US and its history is of any relevance to them). And the CG effects are just fine — but not anything you can’t get from a Pixar or DreamWorks Animation 3-D flick, which probably don’t generally cost any more than $40 or $50 million, at most, to produce.

And that’s the rub. Evidently Cameron had his cast “act” out a lot of the movie (for instance, actress Zoe Saldana, who plays the main female alien lead in the movie, never appears “in the flesh,” per se, but is still credited as a member of the “cast”) then used sophisticated motion-capture technology to “transfer” their natural, human movements into CGI, if you will. My question is — why? For the most part, “Avatar” might as well be a purely CG animation film. It would’ve cost a lot less and looked just as good. Capturing the “natural” human movements of the actors and actresses makes no difference to the finished product whatsoever, in my view. No one would care if all the CG was just that — high-quality, standard, animated CG. That’s all the impressive sets and backgrounds and what have you are, after all. Why go to the trouble of “casting”actors to portray computerized aliens at all?

To be sure, the integration of the human stars with the computer-generated sets is seamless, but then, it is in almost every movie these days. The “Star Wars” prequels, and anything by Peter Jackson, feature tons of real-life actors doing their jobs in front of blue- and green-screen backgrounds, with the CG added later. It’s nothing new, nothing trailblazing. It’s all done in slightly greater abundance in “Avatar,” sure, but that’s about it. Again, I have to ask — $400 million for this?

I have no intention here, really, of bashing this movie. It’s fine. The story’s fine, the acting is fine, the 3-D is fine. But it doesn’t knock your socks off. And given that’s really the whole goal of “Avatar,” I have to say it falls short of meeting the standards it sets for itself.

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