Skip to main content

Sky People cannot learn, you do not see.


Avatar
(2009)

James Cameron has never been the subtlest of filmmakers, but it seems, the longer the gaps between projects, the more deafeningly bombastic he becomes. This takes on an added dimension with Avatar, which he drenches with a new-found torrent of bruising faux-spirituality. Let’s just say the director seems engaged in an ongoing struggle between the love and peace he knows is best for the world and the militaristic belligerence that has always been his more natural predilection. There is, of course, no contest; guns and hardware always win. He even appropriates Gaia as a force likely to declare war, if the right white guy can persuade Her with sufficient conviction.



Not for Cameron the Gandhi approach of peaceful protest. If he’s going to make a film about oppressed natives, they’re going to be kick-ass oppressed natives, dammit! With a kick-ass god(dess) who can rain down the fauna of the planet on its oppressors when provoked to (benign) wrath.



The sad thing is, Cameron has set out store out before. One of his best films, the under-seen and underrated The Abyss (at least, in its extended form) also pits love against war. And, despite some over-the-top moments that are all-too de rigueur in his work, it emerges as a much more mature piece than the one he would deliver nearly 20 years later.



Much was said on the Avatar’s release about its appropriation of any number of tales where “white (American) man adopts the ways of the natives then leads them to victory”. Better known examples include The Last of the Mohicans, Dances With Wolves and The Last SamuraiAvatar goes one step further by embracing the “chosen one” trope seen in Star Wars and which has seen significant over-use since gaining cachet again following The Matrix. Cameron appears content to wear his influences on his sleeve, and he’s undoubtedly an ingrained adherent to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey for narrative inspiration. There’s little doubt that this, combined with his undiminished technical skills, makes the film eminently watchable in spite of its litany of problems. But the pervading feeling is that the only new thing here is the CGI (and 3D) emperor's new clothes.



He gives us a hero to root for (Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully), who struggles against set backs (his disability) and gains acceptance (by the Na’vi tribe, by Sigourney Weaver’s resistant scientist Grace), who then experiences further setbacks (that he is accused of betraying the tribe) as a prelude to his final rise to leadership (of the tribe). There’s no nuance here, but that’s how Cameron likes it. He’s proved himself critic-proof by sticking to certain tried-and-tested rules of storytelling, no matter how corny or clichéd the whole package proves to be in terms of plotting, characterisation and dialogue. It’s surely no coincidence that the flaws in his approach have become all-the-more glaring as he has attempted to stretch himself in terms of theme, be it love story (Titanic) or spiritual journey (here).



The villains are the military-industrial complex; the corporation that is strip-mining Pandora (for unobtanium, no less!) and the private (ex-military) security force that protects it. Cameron is saying something about what we’re doing (and have done) to our own planet, and our own indigenous peoples. No, really. He’s doing it in a hugely expensive movie that eats up enormous resources, while developing new technologies (the latest 3D) that require further resources. You can find the spiritual within, if only you attack it with enough hardware. Ironically, given the obvious paradoxes between what his film claims to be about and what he’s doing both in the story and in terms of making it, his villains are absurdly one-note.



Stephen Lang’s a great actor (who can forget him as Freddie Lounds in Michael Mann’s Manhunter), but there’s nothing he can do but chew the scenery with his uni-dimensional, hate-spewing Colonel Quaritch. Presumably it would take too much time for Cameron to add a touch of humanity; better to make him a flesh-and-blood Terminator (of the first film variety). Quaritch takes such groan-worthy relish in all that he does, you’re never in any danger of believing he’s real. So too Giovanni Ribisi’s corporate stooge, a strange part for an actor normally bent on behaving as peculiarly as he possibly can on screen. He’s very much sub-Paul Reiser in Aliens, making his decisions based on the bottom line, with all the amorality that comes with that.



Worthington’s fine; it’s a part where you can’t go that far wrong, and certainly the best work he’s done since he moved to Hollywood. He’s proved as difficult to cast well as his fellow countryman Eric Bana, so he’s no doubt looking forward to beginning work on the sequels. Weaver brings the film much-needed gravitas, and whenever she appears she instantly makes it seem like a more thoughtful, resonant piece of work than it is (something also true of Aliens).



In respect of the Na’vi, the best I can say is that the effects work is, by-and-large, engrossing (I well recall being distinctly unimpressed by their realisation when the first trailers arrived, and admittedly I haven't seen the film in all-consuming 3D). Zoe Saldana makes for a very sexy alien cat woman (you just know that Cameron micro-managed every pore of her blue feline form), and makes you care in spite of Neytiri being entirely rote (likewise, we meet the betrothed warrior who must tustle for leadership with Jake,  the wise leaders willing to give Jake the benefit of the doubt; this is cookie-cutter characterisation, but dressed in 10-foot tall blue cat suits).



The worst I can say, in effects terms, is that this is the first Cameron film where you are conscious of an overwhelming “George Lucas factor”, where the preponderance of green screen effects work draws attention to itself and pulls you out of the experience. Cameron’s a far superior craftsman to Lucas, but that can’t prevent a sense of fatigue setting in during an extended climax. Which amounts to CGI battling CGI, much as we saw in the Star Wars prequels or The Matrix Revolutions.



A few moments made me think of The Matrix sequels, not least the whole avatar premise. That part is very well executed, and Cameron completely nails the sense of freedom Sully finds now he has legs again.  But the ceremony beneath the magic tree, all writhing Na’vi, put me in mind of the Wachowskis’ “erotic” rave in The Matrix Reloaded. Add to that, a truly insipid score from James Horner, which draws on every tribal cliché in the book (and still manages to throw in his Wrath of Khan horns), and you have something that manages to patronise its audience despite (in theory) being a divorced science fiction world. Because it’s all so on-the-nose. You end up feeling like you’re watching a gung-ho action movie with the cloying sentiments of a ‘90s Disney animation. With added rhythmic transcendentalism.



The most successful film ever made? Not adjusted for inflation at any rate (for which there are no solid figures worldwide, but that also seems unlikely). It’s sad that the surer Cameron’s Midas touch becomes (lest we forget, both this and Titanic were roundly dismissed as turkeys before they set the world on fire), the more hackneyed are his movies. Free rein, unchecked by your peers, can never be a good thing; again, one need only look at the previous “king of the world”, George Lucas, to see what hubris can do. Is anyone screaming out for a sequel? Maybe they are, I’ve not noticed. One thing is certain; however much it costs and however unpersuaded the critics are, you can’t count against it becoming the new most successful film ever made.



Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I think it’s wonderful the way things are changing.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) (SPOILERS) The meticulous slightness of Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the reason it proved so lauded, and also why it presented a prime Best Picture pick: a feel-good, social-conscience-led flick for audiences who might not normally spare your standard Hollywood dross a glance. One for those who appreciate the typical Judi Dench feature, basically. While I’m hesitant to get behind anything Spike Lee, as Hollywood’s self-appointed race-relations arbiter, spouts, this was a year when he actually did deliver the goods, a genuinely decent movie – definitely a rarity for Lee – addressing the issues head-on that Driving Miss Daisy approaches in softly-softly fashion, reversing gingerly towards with the brake lights on. That doesn’t necessarily mean Do the Right Thing ought to have won Best Picture (or even that it should have been nominated for the same), but it does go to emphasise the Oscars’ tendency towards the self-congratulatory rather than the provocat

You’re the pattern and the prototype for a whole new age of biological exploration.

The Fly II (1989) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg was not, it seems, a fan of the sequel to his hit 1986 remake, and while it’s quite possible he was just being snobby about a movie that put genre staples above theme or innovation, he wasn’t alone. Fox had realised, post- Aliens , that SF properties were ripe for hasty follow ups, and indiscriminately mined a number of popular pictures to immediately diminishing returns during the period ( Cocoon , Predator ). Neither critics nor audiences were impressed. In the case of The Fly II , though, it would be unfair to label the movie as outright bad. It simply lacks that *idea* that would justify the cash-in.