When the filmmaker behind the highest-grossing film of all-time takes twelve years off to develop his next film, the bar is set pretty high. Titanic’s Jim Cameron set out to revolutionize movies with immersive 3-D technology which promised to be unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Since its release, Avatar has drawn enormous crowds; word-of-mouth and repeat viewings have lead, within a mere twenty days, to its claiming the title of 2nd-highest grossing film of all time worldwide.Some conservative groups have blasted what they believe is the film’s environmental extremism, with the Vatican’s film critic saying that it worships creation instead of the Creator. Others have blasted it for perceived racism, with the “white savior” recuing indigenous peoples. Some have said that the film anti-military. Most claim, however, that it is simply great entertainment. In my opinion, the truth of all these claims is somewhere in the middle.
Regular readers may notice that I almost never divulge any plot information in my reviews (my Dark Knight article was an analysis, so that doesn’t count). I don’t like to read reviews that give away large chunks of narrative; I’ve never felt it was the critic’s job to tell me the story, and I’ll pay you the same courtesy. I will say, first and foremost, that the film is neither the political lightning rod some have made it out to be, nor is it worthy of the hype and box-office its receiving (I can think of many movies that deserve a wider audience). It is, however, constantly entertaining and artistically stunning.
Everything you’ve heard about the visuals is true. This is not CGI (computer-generated images) for just for the sake of it, nor is the 3D merely a gimmick. Cameron has succeeded in created a completely immersive new world. These are not special effects; this is art. The 3D serves to truly make viewers feel as if they were on a glorious other planet, with its own ecosystem and amazing wildlife.
Likewise, Cameron knows how to stage action, and the adventure/combat sequences are truly thrilling. The narrative is fine, but not as impressive. The story borrows heavily from Dances With Wolves, Disney’s Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, and even Return of the Jedi.
Though the heroes are interesting enough, the villains are mostly one-dimensional. Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver do fine work, as do several others, but the only truly exceptional acting is by Zoe Saldana (Star Trek) who plays the princess of an alien tribe. Her work, via motion capture, conveys rich, tender, and savage emotion. So skillfully does she portray both the humanity and the strangeness of an imaginary race that the audience connects with her more than any of the human characters. She, and the rest of the alien tribe, are utterly convincing.
As for the controversy, the film does take a strong stance about protecting and conserving the environment. The claim by the Vatican’s movie critic, that the film worships creation instead of the Creator, could be valid if it weren’t so obviously fantasy; its theology works in its imagined universe the same as The Force does in Star Wars. Accepted as fiction, it poses no threat to real faith. As I drank in the rich details of the fantasy world on the screen canvas, I felt to ponder on the beauties of Creation on this world. Besides, Latter-Day Saints who scoff at the film’s spiritual approach to nature may want to reexamine our doctrine (start with Moses 3:5, and Moses 7:39).
Though I don’t desire to spend too much time on a soapbox, I think it’s a shame that the issue of conservation has become so politicized that people take sides against each other. One the one hand, some environmentalists exercise no social responsibility when they successfully take down corporations and leave many without jobs to support their families. The scriptures state that the Earth is here for our use and that humanity has been given dominion over it (D&C 49:19, Moses 1:28, D&C 104:17). I’m all for putting our natural resources to good use. On the other hand, dominion becomes unrighteous dominion, and use becomes misuse, when we treat the Lord’s handiwork with greed and disregard. He himself has condemned wasteful and irresponsible use of the resources given us (D&C 89:11-12, D&C: 49:21). The stewardship we have over the Earth is not to be taken lightly. On a small scale, I have had far too many pleasant hikes tarnished by litter and graffiti. On a larger scale, our effect on the Lord’s creations can be extremely damaging if we don’t exercise responsibility.
I take a more moderate stance than the film does on conservation, as it paints those who mine natural resources as greedy at best and evil at worst. On a different level, the story can be enjoyed by those who see it as a tale of a group nobly defending their homes, wives, children, and faith from those who seek only to conquer and take (Alma 43:45-57). The claims of racism are, I think, unfounded. Like The Last Samurai, Pocahontas, and Dances With Wolves, Avatar takes a narrow-minded white man, immerses him in a foreign environment, and allows him a change of heart as he comes to appreciate the culture and way of life of his enemy. Unoriginal maybe, but hardly racist. Because the story and characters are only moderately engaging, Avatar fails to live up to the hype. However, as an action film and a soulful artistic achievement, it is a terrific work that ought not to be missed.
THE BLIND SIDE
Quite the opposite of Avatar, my expectations were low for The Blind Side, a film whose trailer rubbed me the wrong way. I’m all for inspirational films, but this one looked like an overcooked, manipulative tearjerker with Sandra Bullock stepping way outside of her comfort zone to play a Good Samaritan Southern Belle who helps a struggling black teen with a painful past. I was afraid the film would exploit or gloss over the true pains of African-Americans struggling to escape the projects. I was afraid Sandra Bullock, whose forte is romantic comedies, would annoy with an attempt at a Southern accent. I was afraid that the power of this true story would be lost in hackneyed and trite filmmaking.
My fears were unfounded, and one cannot, it appears, judge a film by its trailer. This is one of the best mainstream films about Christians I’ve ever seen, possessing charm, integrity, and honesty in spades. Bullock’s stab at a Southern accent, while dubious in a two-minute trailer, is actually quite convincing when viewed in the complete film. She truly loses herself in the role, and much to my surprise, I’d like to see her win an Oscar for her tough-love portrayal of a woman whose cannot help but help others. Country-music superstar Tim McGraw, as her husband, proves himself a capable actor, Granted, he doesn’t have to do any heavy emotional lifting in the film, but his ability to deliver lines of dry humor was an unexpected delight. Newcomer Quinton Aaron, as the young man helped by Bullock’s family, conveys a great deal of pain, sorrow, and joy with his eyes.
The film is less about sports than about charity, and thus avoids plenty of potential clichés. The fact that the film has a great deal of sassy humor, a sound portrayal of a loving marriage and family, and positive depictions of people of faith cements its status as a crowd-pleaser.
The true story of an upper-class family using their means for good reminded me of Jacob’s counsel to the people of Nephi: “Before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good- to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted” (Jacob 2: 18-19). While most audiences will never have the financial means of those in this family, it is nevertheless a stirring tale that inspires viewers to look for the potential in others and lift them up to meet it.