Avatar (aka Cyber Wars, 2004) Movie Review

Despite better than expected special effects, there’s one thing the Singapore sci-fi flick “Avatar” can’t quite overcome — well, okay, there’s a lot of things, including stilted acting, awful dialogue, and most of all, a story that seems cobbled together from what seems like every American sci-fi film from the past 10 years. The film’s heroine is the improbably named Dash MacKenzie (Genevieve O’Reilly), a bounty hunter who spends her time hunting down sim thieves or loaders or whatever it is the film’s fictional sci-fi universe calls them. To be honest, the movie throws so many made-up cyberpunk babble at you that it’s nearly impossible to keep up, and after a while you start not to care.

In any case, back to our protracted mish mash of a story. Dash is soon contracted by mega corporate bigwig Joseph Lau (a one-note David Warner, playing villainous to within an inch of its life) to hunt down an ex-employee who has something of great value to him. Apparently Dash’s reputation as a bounty hunter is so impressive that bigwigs like Lau must have her services, or he mind as well give up. At least that’s the impression one gets from the script by Christopher Hatton, who in a bit of trivia, is married to director Jian Hong Kuo.

And so Dash goes around town talking to her VR buddy Julius while meeting with eccentric characters like Joan Chen, playing a woman obsessed with staying young. Then there’s Dash’s ex-boyfriend cop Victor Huang (Luoyong Wang, “Dragon”), with whom she has no chemistry whatsoever. Then again, there’s not a whole lot of chemistry in “Avatar” at all. When Dash first meets Chen’s Madame Ong, the two engage in what is supposed to be witty back-and-forth. I say “supposed” because the scene, like most of the film’s attempts at personal interaction, fails so miserably you can’t help but feel embarrassed for the actors, especially the veteran Chen.

As for Dash, I’m sure the character was supposed to have an abundance of charm and affability, and I bet the words “devil may care” and “incorrigible” were used to describe her in the script. Unfortunately the Dash that shows up onscreen is shockingly bland, and one gets the feeling that Dash is cashing in on charm credits she never had. O’Reilly seems to have bought into the character and performs accordingly, so it’s open to debate rather the character’s flatness is the result of poor acting or lackluster direction by Jian Hong Kuo. Or maybe the script by Hatton just wasn’t good enough to reinforce the character’s supposed winning personality.

The film certainly doesn’t get off on the right foot. As any novice screenwriter can tell you, if your main character is a badass and everyone knows it and will constantly refer to it (as is the case here), then you better establish her badassness from frame one. What we get instead is Dash chasing an Asian guy down a street, and then tackling him before putting him into custody. The rest of the film, alas, is similarly muted and, as my nephew would say, lame. You never quite understand why Dash is supposed to be such a badass headhunter (as her chosen profession is called in the film), since all she seems to do is walk around asking questions, something you’d think anyone with legs and a mouth could do. Needless to say, I am unconvinced of Dash’s credentials as a badass.

“Avatar’s” use of a racially mixed cast is interesting, if ultimately regrettable. The problem is that the two groups of actors — Westerners and Asians — seem to be approaching the script from two completely different styles, and as a result there is no seamlessness in the character interactions. The film also borrows heavily from “The Matrix” in look, story, and theme, and although this charge has been thrown around quite a bit, it very much fits here. By the time the film’s conspiracy angle is revealed, you’ll swear you were watching “The Matrix” all over again, complete with random digital “codes” racing about incoherently in the background.

There might have been a good story here once upon a time, but the resulting movie can only be called an unmitigated disaster. The film’s clunky first hour consists of almost nothing but prodigious exposition, something “Avatar” tries to hide with non-stop CGI and whiz-bang sci-fi, but after a while you start noticing that the script has still not yet explained its world an hour into things, and all that whiz bang sci-fi stuff doesn’t seem quite as whizbangy anymore. Actually, the film’s social engineering plot is actually more reminiscent of Alex Proyas’ brilliant “Dark City”. The filmmakers even throw in a little “Johnny Mneumonic” and “Circuitry Man”, if you can believe it.

“Avatar” isn’t really as bad as I might have made it out to be, which isn’t to say it’s really any good, either. The direction by Jian Hong Kuo is unimpressive, and as mentioned, the acting is average at best. But in the realm of small favors, at least “Avatar’s” fictional cityscape isn’t derivative of “Blade Runner”, which is always a good thing in this day and age of copycat cinema. It’s too bad the film never takes full advantage of its futuristic landscape, and even once The Matrix — er, I mean, the corporate conspiracy — is revealed, the film continues to plod along aimlessly, seemingly determined to keep things as dull, uninteresting, and as uninvolving as possible.

Jian Hong Kuo (director) / Pete Goldfinger, Christopher Hatton, Josh Stolberg (screenplay)
CAST: Genevieve O’Reilly …. Dash MacKenzie
Luoyong Wang …. Victor Huang
Kay Siu Lim …. Julius
David Warner …. Joseph Lau
Joan Chen …. Madame Ong

Buy Cyber Wars on DVD