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dir: James “It’s my world, but you can live on it” Cameron
[img_assist|nid=1160|title=The blue worlds in James Cameron's head|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=315]
For a flick that cost over 300 million Earth dollars to make, I’m not sure that the investment is always visible on the big screen, be it 3D, IMAX or otherwise. Sure, this flick is already the second most successful (in unadjusted dollars) flick of all time just behind some other obscure flick James Cameron made fifteen years ago. But I can’t really see whether it was worth all the fuss.

For three hundred million dollars, or closer to five, if you believe the sceptics who were hoping Cameron’s hubris would be repaid with failure (who now console themselves by screaming “it’s shit!” instead of “it’s going to bomb!”), you’d think there’d be scenes of Scarlett Johannson, Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz passionately getting it on in the altogether on the top of a diamond encrusted, plutonium powered aircraft carrier from which Cristal-sipping live killer whales covered in mink coats and platinum bling are catapulted into the sun.

You’d, or perhaps I’d, expect scenes where Johnny Depp dressed up like Imelda Marcos gets to punch Tony Blair in the face hard enough to knock teeth out, and shotgun-armed blows off the heads of the recently reanimated corpses of Charles De Gaulle, Ronald Reagan and Baroness Margaret Thatcher. I know that Maggie, as of this date (12/1/10), ain’t dead yet, but it’s hard to tell sometimes. At the very least, she hopefully doesn’t have long to go.

Sure, so none of that really could be expected to occur for real in a film costing nearly half a billion dollars to make and market. The thing is, though, for all that money, this flick provides scant justification for its decadent budgetary excesses.

All that money went to feed the Mexican prostitutes, maids and nannies of the CGI programmers who animate probably the least live action – live action flick to have that designation thus far. The humans are pretty much the only real stuff on display, with CGI being used in virtually every single one of this 2 and a half hours plus flick. And, sure, it’s in stereoscopic ultra dynamic Technicolor 3D at selected cinemas near you.

And yes, most of the time it looks impressive. Thing is, though, these kinds of flicks look impressive until the next all-CGI extravaganza comes out. Then they look clunky, no matter how many billions were spent. Within a few years they seem as forced and as stiff as a 90-year-old guy with a Viagra-induced erection.

No, I’m not saying it’s an affront to God Itself or at least to human decency. And, yes, this point requires a spot more discursion on my part to explain what I’m talking about.

Whenever new Pixar flicks come out, they look phenomenal. Three, four years after the fact, they’re still beloved flicks, even if they looked state of the art upon debut. What keeps them solidly beloved by all/many are the stories and the characters. Monsters Inc and The Incredibles looked most excellent in the day, but now the textures and rendering techniques used to create them look positively quaint.

State-of-the-art in movies becomes passé so quickly. Avatar is definitely state-of-the-art, with the latest cinematic technologies which will shape what happens in Hollywood for the next decade or so.

The story, though, and most of the humans bar one, are so hokey and conventional that you wonder why Cameron bothered having any dialogue at all, or any actual people. Why not just have scene after scene of 3D shit fucking other 3D shit up for four hours? Surely he would have ended up with the same box office result?

I say that because I can’t imagine anyone ran home after seeing this and bellowed to their friends / families / pets / pimps / drug dealers / girl they keep chained up in the basement: “It’s the single greatest film ever made! And the greatest story ever told, with awesome characters and a plot I couldn’t predict from the first second of screen time. Once it puts the lotion on its skin, I’ll let you run down to the theatre to see it a million times!”

No. Except perhaps for a few ten year olds, and some lonely, middle-aged strange people, no-one ran home, sent a text message or posted on the tubes of the internets anything beyond “It looked pretty amazing.”

That is incontrovertible. It does, for most of its length, look pretty amazing. I’m not going to dispute it. By the same token, I’m not going to rail against it either, because even if its Noble Savage / Pocahontas / Dances with Fluorescent Wolves shtick is hackneyed bullshit of the highest order, it still didn’t make watching this a painful experience.

Utterly predictable, yes, and painfully familiar at almost every point, I still enjoyed it. As much as I think James Cameron and the screenwriters, if there were screenwriters, and it wasn’t just a script spat out by Cameron’s Cliche-O-Matic machine that he somehow got from a future ruled by Skynet, need to be punched in their ovaries for making the Na’vi so close an analogue for Native Americans – American Indians – whatever the fuck you want to call them in these post political correctness times.

It’s embarrassing to see, at first, as to just how excruciatingly simplistic the alien species is depicted as being. It’s a mishmash melange of 70s Gaia – the planet is one living organism - bullshit, blended with the Lion King, mixed with tearful Iron Eyes Cody looking back over horrendous environmental destruction with a tear running down his cheek, with other even more painfully shallow aspects. As a method of gaining sympathy / reparations for what happened in the Americas, it’s got all the nuance and empathy of one of those tobacco store wooden Indians.

Honest Injun, paleface. And even when it was less embarrassing, it was still pretty embarrassing, because for all that it cost the annual GDP of a South American country to make, the rendering of these noble savages, who literally connect to the sentient and conscious planet through a USB port in their tails, much of the time they all look like they’ve been airbrush / spray-painted onto the side of a very large van.

This van is so large that it’s a planet. The planet is called Pandora. Stuff floats on Pandora because of this stuff called unobtainium, at least, the humans who want to Manifest Destiny their way into the planet call it that. The company that wants to strip mine the planet has an enforcement arm which is either the US military or mercenaries on loan from the military. But they also, probably for PR purposes, have some noble scientists as well, who want to make friends with the 10-foot-tall blue, reptilian locals. Being scientists, and not military types, they want to give the infidel Na’vi schools and education and build them roads and such, and then convince them to voluntarily walk away from the places the company wants to mine.

To this end, the research arm of the company designs these remote operator Na’vi bodies in order to infiltrate the locals, teach them English, get them addicted to sugary sweets and alcohol and then presumably kill them off with AIDS-infected blankets. The wily natives, though, have no need of blankets, since they’re reptiles, and it’s a jungle-type planet.

By necessity, a grunt (Australia’s Own Sam Worthington), is dragooned / volunteers to become an operator / infiltrator for one of these Na’vi bodies, hence the avatar aspect of the title. Lying in something that looks like a tanning bed, his consciousness gets to be projected into this specially grown body.

But here comes the first conflict: though the scientist types, led by Sigourney Weaver begrudgingly accept him, Jake Sully has another master, being the top military chap onsite. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is the single greatest military stereotype in a film since Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore from Apocalypse Now and R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket had hot gay sex together and made this guy as their baby. The good colonel expects Jake to supply him with the intel necessary to destroy the blue meanies, regardless of what touchy-feely bullshit the scientist types expect.

It is not, for me, an understatement to say that his presence in this flick was very welcome and very enjoyable. Compared to the lacklustre human portrayals throughout the length and breadth of the rest of the flick, he was a breath of fresh, scalding, vicious air, and I loved him for it. He’s an actor that’s been around for a very long time, who is probably the only person I’m happy for in terms of Avatar’s great success. That he is now getting a serious payday and appreciation / acknowledgement after a lifetime of paying dues on the stage and screen is some kind of justice. I remember him as far back as the gay union leader in Last Exit to Brooklyn, and he was great there as well, and he was probably the most memorable character as one of the guys who got Dillinger in the recent biopic Public Enemies.

On Pandora, he’s happy to give Pattonesque hoo-rah speeches intended to motivate his mercs in their desire to eradicate the local population, but he’s also happy to strap on a mobile suit of armour himself in order to fuck shit up the old fashioned way. Some of the film’s more darkly sardonic moments come from his actions, such as the casual, coffee-sipping way he oversees catastrophic destruction, or the determination with which he tries to kill people he doesn’t like even when his access to oxygen has been cut off.

Pandora, you see, doesn’t have an atmosphere breathable by humans, which is another reason for the remote control bodies. And another reason why our hero Jake has to get into a native body in order to go native. And, goddamn, does he go native, in a long line of stories stretching back centuries, from Local Hero to Man Called Horse.

When he gets separated from his scientist keepers, he meets the chief’s daughter, and then the rest of the tribe. Only time will tell, as he learns their ways, whether they will accept him, whether the chief’s daughter will fall in love with him, whether the military types will brand the Na’vi as terrorists and try to wipe them out with a sustained campaign of Shock and Awe (TM), whether he’ll fall in love with their natural / spiritual ways, whether he’ll give a rousing speech commanding them to rise up against their colonial masters, and on whose side he will fight in the final battle. I mean, I couldn’t possibly have been able to predict every single goddamn thing that was going to happen, because I couldn’t possibly be as smart or imaginative as James Cameron, could I?

Yes, it looks amazing, and yes the action sequences, as these blue Indians go hunting the native wildlife and apologise to their prey as they kill them, and these blue Indians ride horse-like creatures and shoot arrows from their bows, looks like a million bucks. Several million bucks, in fact. Pandora looks like a real, believable place, at least during the day when it’s not all glowy like one of those cheesy and very kitsch fibre optic ornaments that you used to plug in that changed colours and all. The action is solid, the explosions are very explosive and it’s all lovingly rendered in 3D.

This is, after all, a film that was conceived of and constructed entirely with 3D photography and 3D projection in mind. Not the kind where small sections of the flick seem like stuff is flying out of the screen in order to smack you in the face, which is the cheesy kind we all remember with zero fondness from the 1980s and beyond. This is the film for which rinky-dink cinemas around the world, even the pretentious artsy-fartsy arthouse near my place, installed costly 3D projectors in order to be able to screen this flick in all its glory. In other words, to see it properly, you have to wear those plastic glasses for over two hours and twenty minutes.

Two hours and twenty minutes… that’s a long, goddamn time to have those heavy things perched on the bridge of your nose. I can’t imagine what it would be like for people already wearing glasses; I can guess it might be irritating. Mighty irritating.

I also can’t imagine whether other people will like it, which is why I only ever say to people who ask about whether it’s worth seeing: “Uh, it looks great, the story’s pretty stupid, though.” Maybe I’m being too hard on the flick, maybe I didn’t think that Worthington was that good a fit for the character, or that perhaps Cameron chose him specifically because he wanted a non-name in the lead in order not to outshine all those shiny visuals. So he settled on a virtual unknown with a fairly flat delivery style in order to never risk being upstaged by actors again. After all, it’s all about Cameron being the King of the World.

His mistake, from that perspective, is that Stephen Lang, even as the villain, breathes real menace and humanity into the proceedings, in direct contravention of Cameron’s intentions.

Sure, the Gaia / Eywa stuff perhaps isn’t too egregious, and sure, Sam and Zoe Saldana do decent voice work and motion capture work as the central couple in order to bring their Na’vi characters to life. The Na’vi do look like real beings, as real as their flying dragons and neon tribal / hip primitive ways allow them to look, and than in itself is an accomplishment. It’s easy deriding the noble savage bullshit, but that doesn’t invalidate the central aspect of the plot that looks at a science fiction setting for another application of the appalling legacy concept the United States gave the world in the form of Manifest Destiny. Sure, plenty of nations and civilisations were despoiling peoples and raping indigenous cultures well before the Mayflower docked at Plymouth, but the concept of being justified by God and necessity was never as chillingly and succinctly summarised by a two word phrase.

It’s a concept that deserves elaboration, exploration, repudiation and violent deconstruction. I just don’t know whether you can treat the concept with any worthwhile seriousness even with hundreds of millions of dollars at your disposal, when you’re James Cameron putting out a 3D flick through 20th Century Fox.

I just wish Cameron had some ideas for dialogue or dramatic complexity that couldn’t effectively be encapsulated in a single text message. Visual stylist he might be, one of the most successful directors of all time in terms of box office he certainly is, but the man who made a Terminator cyborg sinking into a pool of molten metal give the audience a thumbs up at the end of Terminator 2 is still a juvenile hack of the highest order. Remember that as you queue up to see the latest shiny thing in a long, unending line of shiny things.

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“Outcast. Betrayer. Alien. I was in the place the eye does not see. I needed their help. And they needed mine. But to ever face them again, I was going to have to take it to a whole new level.” – this terrible bit of writing / narration brought to you by the genius (?) James Cameron through terribly superfluous narration delivered in a wooden style by Sam Worthington in – Avatar.

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