14 September 2006 | DICK STEEL
A Nutshell Review: Avatar
It was once remarked by B-movie producer Roger Corman, that Singapore would make a great place for a science fiction movie (Corman had co-produced Saint Jack, the only Hollywood movie to date filmed entirely here). And it's true, as we do have a number of locales that look futuristic enough for on location shoots, and more so if given the special effects treatment to spruce things up. The opening shot of the city skyline is something familiar, yet on the other hand, something rather artificial about it - It's not Singapore, it's a fictional city state called Sintawan.
Avatar probably and unwittingly set itself a high benchmark to meet right from the start, by having that text crawl (cliche) explaining the setting of the world upon which the story is based, talking about Simplants and the police - pitting itself against cult classic Blade Runner. Director Kuo Jian Hong (daughter of the late Kuo Pao Kun, this movie is dedicated in his memory) might have high hopes of Avatar emulating and meeting those standards, or to achieve an indie following, however the fundamentals of having a proper storyline was already flubbed.
It tried too hard to be intelligent, rather than sticking to the "keep it simple stupid" rule, especially if one is thinking of cramping plenty of tech-no-babble into less than two hours. Unlike The Matrix which seamlessly gelled simplified philosophy into its narrative, and more so as an afterthought rather than assaulting your senses while the story is being told. Speaking of The Matrix, there were also some reference to the giant network storage of persons' identities, a Cyberlink (probably an advanced form of the Net), as well as a subplot involving the police up against a group of rebels, amongst others. Avatar suffered from trying to explain too much in too little time, and will make you switch off when listening to "important" mumbo jumbo you don't' care about, regarding some teleportation technology and identity doppelganging using biological science early in the movie, before shifting gears into presenting some huge conspiracy theory about playing God in the Game (oooh).
Briefly, we follow the exploits of the best (Singapore, oops, Sintawan everything also must #1) bounty hunter in the business of Simplant capture - Dash MacKenzie (Genevieve O'Reilly), an ang moh, as locals don't have street cred to be leads in the movie. Actually, most of the local actors, prominent ones I must add, were relegated to playing supporting or cameo roles in this production, folks like Lim Kay Siu, Neo Swee Lin, Kumar, Gerald Chew, Richard Low and Kevin Murphy (from S11, didn't know he was that active in previous local productions, the other one being City Sharks, but bit role as well), The other main lead was an Asian actor Wang Luoyong (huh?) who played cop Victor Huang, in pursuit of Dash, and under circumstances beneficial to both, begin an uneasy partnership which blossomed into some hokey romance.
I think by now any self respecting (I say this in jest) local movie would somehow have a scene set in coffee-shops / hawker centers to get that seal of authenticity that it's made in Singapore. Diners should have no qualms that in Avatar's future, our favorite makan style of choice is still around, with shady covert dealings taking place right underneath hungry bellies. Other locations easily identified included the Expo MRT station (no more EZ-Link cards, your palm is scanned instead), inside MRT trains, Bugis Junction, the area around Empress Place, Little Guilin at Bukit Gombak and even Hotel 81 (yes!) which seemed to retain its perceived sleazy purpose in the movie.
The acting's all very stiff, probably from the cast's lack of belief in what they're actually doing, and the unbelievable lines they have to say. For a production of the time, it's probably still stuck in a mindset that it is better to engage B/C-graded caliber ang-moh actors than to choose jolly good ones from our local scene. Not that I'm against foreign talent, but in my opinion it's quite a pain to see them going through the motions here, spewing lines of dialog which are and sound so artificial, made worse by their accents.
Avatar looked like a million dollars, alas it felt like a cheap telemovie. The effects were decent though, but for scenes with extended CG or CG created backgrounds, it ended up a bit raw and looked unpolished. The costumes looked lush, especially Joan Chen's figure hugging and cleavage enhancing outfits. Some shots were done creatively, obviously so to cover up the lack of a bigger budget to get more gizmos mentioned, implied or are actually used in the film, like vehicles - you never actually see them zoom around the city.
So is Avatar worth watching? Yes, for that lesson on how not to make a science fiction film. One wonders if The Gene Generation will work out successfully, which also casted another Hollywood B-movie specialist Bai Ling in a lead role.