Monday, December 21, 2009

Jim Cameron tries to paint the mask of cinema's future. Why should we care?

I apologize for the rambling and unformed nature of this review. I wanted it to be more about getting all my thoughts out than getting polished and concise.


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When last we heard from James Cameron, he stood on a stage and called himself "King of the World" while clutching an Oscar. Twelve years and $300 million dollars later, he's trying to change how movies are made with "Avatar," a massive science-fiction epic that exhibits some of Cameron's best qualities and all of his worst.

If a director wants to spend so much money, take so many years, and then claim his film is a game-changer, does this mean I should automatically bow down and call him King? No. If anything, such a daring proclamation should open an artist and his work open to MORE criticism.

And okay, Jim, I'll play ball. Your visuals are outstanding. The film takes place on Pandora, a moon of an unnamed planet, where US forces run by an unnamed corporation are trying to mine "Unobtanium" (most obvious name ever?) as an energy-saving device for Earth while trying to negotiate - both diplomatically and belligerently - with the native species, the Na'vi. To do so, a bunch of scientists led by Ellen Ripley - sorry, I mean Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), have developed "avatars" of the Na'vi. Avatars are physical bodies inhabited by humans through some kind of neurological link, letting Grace and her scientist colleagues enter the native culture seamlessly.

Enter Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine who gets a second chance as an avatar, infiltrating the culture and reporting to evil Colonel Miles Quaritch. Sam Worthington plays Sully with minimal emotional involvement or range (except when it comes to his ever-shifting accent), and why should he involve emotion when Cameron can make all his thoughts and feelings readily available through a series of video logs that make up the film's narration.

But to get back to what's GOOD about Avatar - Cameron has used all the resources in the world to build an entire planet from the ground up... in computers. He's grappling for a new plateau of filmmaking, and he's done some dazzling things. Plants that light up when you step on them, floating islands, massive animals - it's all there, and it all looks fluid and dynamic. Even the Na'vi, ten foot blue creatures, are given their own culture, language, and forms.

The downside - that culture is eerily close to Native Americans mixed with New Age Green-ology. Though James Cameron has made utopia on film, he's clouded it in an absurd retelling of colonialism. His visuals are three dimensional, but his writing is only in one. None of the characters in this film have any kind of flavor, any kind of spunk. The only thing that matters are if things are pretty-looking or ugly-looking. We know Neyteri, Jake's Na'vi love interest, is beautiful, for her flowing body is always shown doing stunning physical work. We know Col. Quaritch is evil - he's even got scars on his face. He drinks coffee while he blows up a forest! How much more evil can you get?!

Yes, this is a cinema of hyperbole, where Cameron undermines complexity by upping the visual ante. He spends millions of dollars designing a whole people, but those people are impenetrable, impossible to identify with. Why? They're just noble savages, Native Americans, lifted straight from "Dances With Wolves" and Disney's "Pocahontas." And yes, the stereotyping is just as ugly. The massive amounts of post-production effects in this film (60% is created from motion capture performances) means James Cameron has unprecedented control of every frame. So why should we applaud him for creating an atmosphere of astounding beauty? He had all the money in the world - SHOULDN'T this be a jaw dropping movie? And it is - the colors and shades in particular are spectacularly varied, the hues and saturations almost explode off the screen. But he doesn't have to location scout, he doesn't have to build. Weta Digital does the work for him.

Where some have seen this excess as a visceral experience, something to become a part of and enjoy, I fail to see how that's possible. In this film, excess leads to reduction. Take, for example, Jim Cameron's insistence that we see this film in 3-D. While the new technology offers great control over multiple layers of the image, "Avatar" shows us the best and worst of the trend - fast-moving images are blurry and choppy, small things in foreground move unnaturally, and don't even THINK about making something pop out. It's headache inducing. BUT beyond that - "Avatar" is being marketed as a film that will create an immersive cinematic experience unlike any other: can we honestly say that's true when we have to wear a pair of artificial glasses to get that experience? 3-D is best used as camp or in a heavily stylized production (think "Coraline") but in a film that's struggling to make fake technologies look real, doesn't this just draw attention to the artifice? Wouldn't have staying in 2-D made it look more like a world documented on film?

At 162 minutes, Avatar goes on for far too long, as Cameron can't seem to separate himself from his love for this world. As Jake falls more in love with his alternate reality (it's real, but it isn't), so does Cameron fall for Pandora. Long passages of exploration may be stunning to look at, but the story goes nowhere. Cameron has a hard time integrating narrative trajectory and planetary exposition. By the time the story comes back to the fore in the third act, we're just trying to get to the point. Then, it's just about the innocent standing up to the forces of oppression for the sake of the misunderstood natives (as we know, the natives can't do it themselves, they NEED Jake to become a leader. Even if he is in a Na'vi body, isn't this just an embodiment of the gross "white savior" paradigm?).

When Col Quaritch bellows, "We will fight terror with terror!" to a group of his soldiers, the film's already thin veil of politics becomes nauseatingly clear. Can James Cameron pretend for a second that this film is an indictment of the war on terror and pre-emptive strikes? No way. I thought we moved past tired stories of colonialism, of treating indigenous peoples with such condescending applause.

It's about excess, but it's also about opposition: nature vs. technology, machine vs. animal, diplomacy vs. war, reality vs. imagination. Lots of big themes to be sure, but Cameron never strikes me as someone who really wants to explore them. The best he can do is conjure grand images of opposition - like mechanical planes flying out to meet prehistoric-looking birds in an airfight. They exist, but to what end? It's not as if he's demonizing the human-made technology, for the technology allows Jake to go from human to Na'vi. If anything, it seems creepily un-American, gleefully killing US soldiers throughout the third act

James Cameron is a great inventor. He's devised plenty of technological breakthroughs that have helped mainstream cinema create unprecedented visuals. If only he could stop using his own scripts. All the characters are bland stereotypes: the noble savage, the good-natured scientist, the greedy businessman, the violent military man. They don't change, they're not interesting. It's as if Cameron thought he could just create a series of stunning visuals and fill in the blanks. If the story he chose was any indication, he's talking down to us.

I've read multiple reviews comparing this to "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings" on its level of achievement. I'll say this: Lucas distilled Joseph Campbell's mythological structures, old time serials, soap opera, and western. Lord of the Rings brilliantly realized one of the 20th century's most acclaimed books by creating Middle-Earth and integrating CGI into it. All of these films, even in their most flawed moments, create characters worth rooting for and environments that are accessible and grungy. They feel real and inhabited.

Nothing about "Avatar" feels inhabited. It's glossy to the point of alienation. Since Jake is the protagonist, I think Cameron's philosophy goes something like this: Jake's story is about becoming more involved with a "fake body" than his own. That kind of mirrors the film spectator, becoming so immersed in something we want it to be our own lives. But when the world Jake comes from - the military bunker, the science labs - feel as clean and polished as Pandora (even if it's about machine vs. nature), does that not hamper the juxtaposition? In addition, it's ALL artificial. After a while, it's just sensory overload.

Okay, I'll sum up: is Avatar good? Well yes, but only to a very sharp extent. It's good as a visual experience. It's the kind of film I would want to watch without the sound on, or just enjoy passages from. James Cameron has crossed a new plane of artificial filmmaking, but it's not going to change cinema forever. Why? It's not a story about people. I hate to sound like a hokey sentimentalist, but the greatest films of all time have been about the human condition in some degree. Maybe that's because films are made by people? They are about artists creating something, and if we are to believe the auteur theorists, imprints of those artists are within every film. The people in Avatar are just avatars for a non-existent reality. They don't move or breathe like real people, they just meander through the motions of a very tired screenplay.

But then, the best things about James Cameron movies are things that aren't human: the ship in Titanic is much more interesting than the lovers, the Terminator is far cooler than Kyle Reese, the aliens always dwarf the corny Marines. For twelve years, Cameron spent his time creating Pandora and filming documentaries about the Titanic wreckage or using new cameras to film stuff under the ocean.

Why do I bring that up? Well, it seems clear to me now that he's mostly interested in trying to find things that people haven't seen before. While that certainly has merit, it doesn't make him a genius. It just highlights his simplicity. He's a visual filmmaker for sure, but in the worst sense of the phrase.

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