Up In The Air
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman
Rated: R for language and some sexual content.
Directed by: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Wes Studi, Giovanni Ribisi
Rated: PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.
It’s Oscar season, and that means it’s time for Oscar-bait movies. Both “Up in the Air” and “Avatar” clearly are, though they are considerably different and if the Academy follows precedent, James Cameron’s stunningly unoriginal but very long and dramatic film will clean up while Jason Reitman’s small tragicomedy will pick up a couple nominations. (It is possible I am still bitter about the Oscars awarded the year “Titanic” came out.)
“Avatar” is yet another “all the noble savages need to save themselves is the leadership of a white man” film. Call it “Dances With Wolves in space.” The story is straightforward: a young marine (Sam Worthington), crippled in combat, takes an assignment on a planet where his primary duty is to interact with the natives and find a way to persuade them to move their village off a rich deposit of a valuable mineral. To do this, he inhabits a body grown from human and alien DNA, an avatar. He learns the aliens’ ways, comes to sympathize with them, and leads them in battle to fight off the Earth forces.
The only truly innovative thing about “Avatar” is the visuals, which are astonishing. Cameron and his team developed new methods of motion capture, and the aliens and their world are beautiful and meticulously detailed. Admittedly, the evolutionary science of the planet where the film takes place is highly improbable, but we don’t go to a film like this looking for realism.
What makes “Avatar” particularly impressive is Cameron’s ability to manipulate his audience to perfection. Even if you know what he’s doing, the entire film is so pitch-perfect that it’s hard not to get swept up in it. Sure the writing is a bit wooden and predictable, and the acting is limited because of how much of the film is entirely CGI — but Cameron knows when to pluck our heartstrings and just how hard he can do it without it getting silly. The end result is a stunningly gorgeous film which will sweep you up into its current even as you sit there identifying the sources of the various familiar tropes he uses.
“Up in the Air,” on the other hand, is utterly character-driven and the sort of film that eases you into its story, makes you care about its hero with some laughs and some sad things that make you nod in recognition, and then carefully and meticulously destroys that hero’s life.
George Clooney is perfectly cast as Ryan Bingham, whose job entails flying around the country and standing in for execs too afraid to lay off their employees in person. He has the self-assured charm Clooney is known for, but that’s just about all he has. In his off hours, he gives lectures about the benefits of a completely connection-, possession-, and attachment-free lifestyle. He lives almost entirely on the road, has no close relationships, and likes it that way.
Things change when he meets two women: fellow frequent flyer Alex (Vera Farmiga) and new coworker Natalie (Anna Kendrick). Alex is the perfect woman for Ryan, and their relationship consists mostly of meeting up in hotels when they have layovers in the same cities. Natalie is a fresh-faced college grad out to innovate the “termination facilitation” field and essentially put guys like Ryan out of a job. Ryan’s boss orders him to take Natalie on the road and show her the ropes of their business, which shows them to the audience as well. Meanwhile, Ryan finds himself possibly wanting more than just a casual relationship with Alex.
Reitman handles his subject matter with a deft touch. It takes a special ability to make a movie about someone who fires people for a living in the current economic climate, but it works here. That’s no real surprise — Reitman’s breakout film was the pitch-perfect, pitch-black comedy “Thank You For Smoking.” “Up In The Air” has too much pathos to be a black comedy, but too many laughs to be a tragedy. It’s a film about one man’s perfectly-arranged life coming unraveled, and what we can learn from him.
I usually avoid the Academy Awards like the plague, but I’m morbidly curious to see how things turn out for “Avatar” and “Up In The Air.” Both are being lauded as Oscar-worthy, and they are — but for utterly different reasons. “Avatar” is tasty grape juice; “Up In The Air” is great wine.