Movie Review – Avatar vs Star Trek (2009)
The following artilce was previously published on moviesmackdown.com, you can follow this link to the original version here. The article here is modified from the original version.
Article by Rodney Twelftree
There’s nothing more exciting than a throwdown between two cinematic juggernauts: in this instance, two of the most critically acclaimed (and financially successful) films of the last year. One, a revisionist look at a franchise thought to be on its last legs; the other, a return to film for mega-director James Cameron, utilising “game changing” effects and technology. Both acclaimed around the world in post-release fervour, both setting records at the box office, and both destined for “classic” status just as soon as enough time passes. But which of the two sci-fi blockbusters of this years cavalcade lays the knockout better? Set your phasers to stun, grab hold of your giant blue pseudo-body, and settle in for the battle between 2009’s cinematic giants: Avatar and Star Trek.
Reinventing a franchise for a modern audience is an exercise fraught with danger. Often, the rose coloured tint we view “classic” films with also blind us to the ability to accommodate a tweak and change in modus operandi when it comes to a more modern take on a film, or film series that we identify with or have some attachment too. George Lucas suffered the indignant wrath of Star Wars fans with his lacklustre efforts in the recent prequel trilogy. Not to mention that whoever green-lit a Chipmunks franchise should be burned at the stake for witchcraft. JJ Abrams, who rewrote the fate of Tom Cruise with his incredibly exciting take on the Mission Impossible franchise, reboots the decades-old Star Trek saga from the ground up, managing to skirt controversy by producing a film that appeased both die-hard fans, and the non-fans alike. The key element of recasting the main roles many had grown up with; Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scotty and the rest, Abrams broke the mould of what could be achieved with these once stagnant (and seemingly untouchable) characters.
Self proclaimed “King of the World” James Cameron, after a 12 year sabbatical from post-Titanic euphoria (man, what a hangover!) returns to the big screen with Avatar, his technically revolutionary epic set to “revolutionise the way movies are made”. Avatar, set on the distant moon of Pandora, tells the story of a paralysed war veteran who is asked to inhabit a cloned alien form to associate and infiltrate the local planetary populace. Filled with stunning imagery, amazing action and a truly magnificent sense of scale, Avatar has again showed us that James Cameron is one of the pre-eminent directors working today. Using the still relatively new technology involving motion capture (or, as Robert Zemeckis calls it, Performance Capture) to insert his actors into the completely alien world, Cameron has successfully achieved what only a few directors before: creating a wholly believable environment that totally sucks you into it. Peter Jackson did it with Lord Of The Rings, and now Cameron has done the same. But is Avatar a better film than Star Trek? Although leagues apart in budget and expectation, can JJ and his revamped Kirk & Co outclass the technical wizardry of a director at the peak of his powers?
Before I begin to summarise these films, can I just mention two salient points at this juncture? First, I am so glad Avatar, which features giant blue-skinned aliens running about, featured no giant blue penises. Unlike Watchmen, the Zack Snyder effects-fest which featured a giant blue-hued individual parading about like a sci-fi porn flick, sans underwear; Avatar features a multitude of near-naked alien beings running about. Thankfully, Cameron has erred on the side of conservatism and covered up their “bits” from flopping about. So no giant blue penii. Second, as has already been mentioned elsewhere on this site, Avatar borrows quite heavily from the storyline of Dances With Wolves. So much so, at one point I had to check my ticket to make sure I was watching the right film. Cameron has all but carbon-copied Costner’s Oscar winning film in his narrative, as well as key plot and character elements. Taking that into account, we can now try and figure out whether that is enough of a negative to push Star Trek into first place.
By now, the entire world has been captured up in a bizarre Avatar frenzy. At the time I write this, the film has jumped to the number 2 earner of all time world wide, second only to Cameron’s previous film, Titanic. Considering Avatar has only been in release for weeks, rather than months (like Titanic) to achieve this goal is quite astounding, and no doubt pundits will be discussing the relative merits of inflation and repeat business for years to come after the dust settles. That said, I’ll come out now and state that I don’t think Avatar is worthy of the glory it’s been associated with, the heralding praise and holy scripture style reviews I’ve read about the film are somewhat overblown. Sure, the effects are pretty much the best we’ve ever seen, the action sequences are exciting and genuinely enthralling, and technically, this film is a world-beater. But the story: ugh. As mentioned a moment ago, the film borrows almost plot point for plot point from Dances With Wolves, a fact that I am blinded by for criticism on this film. I find the fact that Cameron’s been out of the game for so long, and upon returning rehashes a previous Oscar winner in an attempt to gain his own, a little annoying. I feel gypped. Even if it was unplanned, it’s still a terrible oversight. So while everybody is bedazzled with the whirling sights and sounds of Pandora, for me, the film is bogged down by it’s own shortcomings in the story, namely, it’s not Camerons. It’s a fatal flaw for me, as a reviewer, that I am reminded of another film while watching this one.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a war veteran who has lost the use of his legs (and, as the film opens, his identical twin brother), is seconded to the moon of Pandora to assist with the integration of humans and the indigenous population, the Na’vi, a giant blue-skinned race who live in harmony with their environment. Humans, discovering a mineral known as Unobtanium (yet another caveat right there, I have to say… “unobtainium”… really??) that turns out is pretty valuable, and exists in significant quantity on Pandora, have launched a giant mining operation to recover it to generate an income. Problem is, the Na’vi have settled their main colony right on top of the largest deposit of Unobtanium on the moon, which spells trouble ahead. Along with the mining operation, a team of scientists, led by Sigourney Weaver, have accompanied the team to learn more about both the Na’vi and the world they live on. Essentially a Greenpeace-styled environmentalist operation, this science team tries to ensure a mutually happy convergence between the locals and the aliens. The aliens being us. Human/Na’vi cloned bodies have been developed to allow Jake and his fellow humans to live and breathe on Pandora, as well as integrate into the Na’vi. By doing so, they hope to forge a mutual respect that will allow the humans to peacefully strip mine the moon to oblivion. Yep, that’s how simple it is. Jake, controlling his late brothers avatar (hence the title), find himself integrating a lot more than he thought when he becomes separated from the human colony and is rescued from death by a female Na’vi, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who eventually falls in love with him. Problem is, Jake is also working for the human military commander, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Steven Lang), who is more ready to take deadly action against the Na’vi than sit down for a chat. Jake’s conflicted between his human kind and his new-found love for the Na’vi, and it’s this tension that sparks the narrative of the film forward.
I’d like to take a moment, if I may, to point out the staggeringly similar parallels to Dances With Wolves. Jake Sully, analogous with Costner’s central character Dunbar, is a soldier. He travels to a far flung outpost (Dunbar finds himself on a run-down fort in Americas West), where he meets a new race indigenous to the area (Dunbar meets a local Indian tribe). He befriends the locals tribe, learns their ways, and falls for the daughter of the tribal chief. When his own people arrive to discover that he’s “gone native”, he must make a choice; return to his old life, or embrace (and defend) the new one. You’ll notice that this description is interchangeable between the two films. Cue carnage, battle and destruction. Smaller plot twists in Avatar are different, but the overarching framework of the film is such that comparisons are inevitable.
Star Trek, meanwhile, takes a different tack. Instead of rehashing the bulky, limiting Trek lore as we know it, JJ Abrams throws us all for a loop and completely changes history. Using a brilliantly simply story twist, he effectively renders all the previous Trek films obsolete, giving future creators a clean slate to work with within the franchise’s mythos. Abrams gives us a young, pre-Original Series Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Uhura, Bones, Sulu and Checkov, a deviously violent enemy, and several moments of cinema brilliance, to create a Trek film that breathes life into the series once more. Nero, a Romulan starship captain who travels back in time in pursuit of a fleeing Ambassador Spock. In doing so, Nero inadvertently changes history (or, as the case may be, the future) and sets in motion a change for the Trek franchise that allows a freedom hitherto unknown to modern audiences. Regardless of the fact that Trek history is now in the process of being rewritten, Kirk and Spock still come to regard each other as first enemies, and then friends, as they battle to uncover the plans of Nero and his quest for vengeance. We witness the destruction of Vulcan, the battle to save the Federation, and ultimately, the construction of the Enterprise crew we all know and love, albeit in their younger iterations. Leading actor Chris Pine does a solid job as Kirk, leaving many of the mannerisms William Shatner encumbered the character with aside. Pine is an actor very much in the Shatner mould, the glint in his eye as he jabs his finger at authority, whistles dixie in the face of danger, and bludgeons people into doing what he wants; he’s perfectly cast as the iconic space captain. Zachary Quinto, fresh from the TV series Heroes, is pitch perfect as Spock, Kirk’s soon-to-be-friend; his battle with his mixed parentage and overly emotional behaviour is believable and stoically in keeping with Vulcan tradition. Spocks father is Vulcan, his mother Human, and this interspecies breeding has Spock caught in a futuristic racism row. It seems some human problems aren’t always resigned to our own planet, or species. Zoe Saldana does a great job as Uhura, as does Karl Urban as Bones McCoy, the Trek series’ most famous medical technician. Urban channels McCoy in such a way as to remain faithful to the character, without being slavish to DeForrest Kelley’s performance. Throw in Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, and Terminator: Salvation star Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekov (complete with dialect difficulties), and the familiar characters are slowly but surely given new breadth and scope.
JJ Abrams gives us a frenetic, fast paced Trek film, lens flares and dynamic soundscape in abundance. Whether you subscribe to the Paul Greengrass style of filmmaking or not, Abram’s deft handling of both action sequences and subtle dramatic moments is superb, his editing and use of cinematography is excellent.
You may very well ask yourself by what comparison I could make between these two seemingly vastly different films. Good question. James Cameron and JJ Abrams come from very different backgrounds as directors, and both Avatar and Star Trek offer new things to an audience, each in their own special way. But the fundamental essence of each film, indeed, any film, is whether or not the audience is taken on a journey with the film-maker, and what is achieved in the process. Star Trek, while catering to a built-in audience rivalled only by the Bond fans, and perhaps now Harry Potter (or, God forbid, Twilight) allows people unfamiliar with the franchise to watch without being bogged down in it’s own history or legend. Although Abrams tips his hat occasionally to the original versions of these characters, it’s not a slavish devotion to the mythos that he uses. The script is slick, filled with numerous quiet moments of subtle power, while the action sequences pulsate with an energy the series has badly needed since the much lauded (perhaps detrimentally so) Wrath Of Kahn. A well filmed base-jump from orbiting starship to mining platform, accompanied with a hand-to-hand combat sequence, is indicative of the zippy, energetic façade the new Trek has unleashed; not to mention the climactic finale involving the entire crew of the Enterprise.
Cameron, however, ain’t no slouch with an action sequence. Although essentially told in the digital realm, Avatars massive moments of explosiveness are realised at the hands of a master. The man who gave us Aliens and True Lies, among others, has again delivered a roller-coaster ride of action, effects and sound. Avatar has a scope, a breadth of detail to it that is simply staggering. The level of detail within the jungle of Pandora, in particular, is quite possibly one of the most exquisitely realised digital realms ever seen on film: trees, flowers, animals, bugs, vines; from the ground up, Pandora is amazing to see. To see the military machine smashing it’s way through the jungle is both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring, the scenery chewing Steven Lang encapsulating the violent, single-minded nature of mankind as he seeks to wipe the Na’vi off the planet. Worthington, as Jake, seems a little out of his depth, although his personal is probably spot on to what Cameron was aiming for: the Aussie actor has limited emotional range, which inhibits his expected carefree persona as an avatar.
Perhaps the single biggest problem with Avatar is the fact that we’re meant to side with the alien species here, the Na’vi. While I can see the point Cameron is trying to make with his quasi-environmental message, Avatar’s reliance on his audience’s emotional connection with purely digital creations is where it begins to fall apart. Only on the rarest of occasions does a digital character create a strong bond with the audience: the most modern variation on this would be Gollum from The Lord Of The Rings. Too often in this age of computer graphics, characters have felt the scorn and derision of modern audiences; Jar Jar Binks being the most prominent of the lot. Here, the fact that the Na’vi aren’t human, they are only human-like, builds up an invisible emotional wall between us (as viewers) and the characters that is impossible to scale, even for the giant Na’vi. And considering we’re supposed to side with these characters (beyond the obvious fight for survival against an unjust invader storyline), this makes it more difficult.
Scripting also remains one of Avatar’s chief concerns. James Cameron, at least in his last few films, has a bit of a tin ear for dialogue, a facet of his creative drive that even he cannot overcome. Some of his more emotional scripting is badly written, cliché-ridden pap that would be second rate in a romance novel. The same problems associated with Titanic have again rear their heads; that is, Cameron’s inability to generate realistic dialogue when it counts. He can direct action, but he can’t manage emotion. Or, emotion of a serious nature.
Star Trek, by comparison, is as smart a sci-fi script as you’d want. The characters are all well written, the subtle nuances that heighten the dramatic arc, rather than minimise it. The Trek script is grounded in realism, as much as a sci-fi film can be, and the characters come alive more than they ever did in Shatners day.
In conclusion, I’ll go on record as thinking the entire time I was watching Avatar, I kept thinking I was expected to be impressed with how clever it all was. While Star Trek just hammered the action and amped up the tension like no other film this year, Avatar seemed content to blow me away with it’s own self-indulgent impressiveness. Now don’t take this the wrong way: Avatar is a genuinely entertaining film. It’s sci-fi of the highest order, a massive achievement in cinema and storytelling overall (with that one fatal flaw bringing it undone) that will remain unchallenged for years to come. But it seeks absolution for it’s own cleverness from the audience, rather than simply entertaining us. Star Trek simply entertains.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that in the years to come, when the “biggest film in history” hysteria has subsided, Avatar’s Wolf Clone storyline will consign it to history as simply another effects-heavy “event” flick, while Star Trek will remain a genuine classic of the era. James Cameron has outdone himself technically on Avatar, but the lack of an emotional connection within the film will limit it’s re-watchability and pop-culture impact. That, coupled with the blatant similarities with another, Oscar winning film, and I think this will eventually lessen Cameron’s “masterpiece” to merely average. I’ll give Abrams’ Star Trek the win this time, a fresh and invigorating sci-fi opus that, while perhaps not carrying the technical pedigree its opponent brandishes, remains the more entertaining, complete film experience.
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