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.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Who would want to be stuck in a dream for ten years?

Top 10 Films 2010-19
Now, you may glance down the following and blanche at its apparent Yankophile and populist tendencies. I wouldn’t seek to claim, however, that my tastes are particularly prone to treading on the coat tails of the highbrow. And there’s always the cahiers du cinema list if you want an appreciation of that ilk. As such, near misses for the decade, a decade that didn’t feature all that many features I’d rank as unqualified classics, included Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Tron: Legacy, The Tree of Life, The Guard and Edge of Tomorrow.

Don’t make me… hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m… hungry.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
(SPOILERS) It’s fortunate the bookends of Marvel’s Phase One are so sturdy, as the intervening four movies simply aren’t that special. Mediocre might be too strong a word (although at least one qualifies for that status), but they amountto a series of at-best-serviceable vehicles for characters rendered on screen with varying degrees of nervousness and second guessing. They also underline that, through the choices of directors, no one was bigger than the franchise, and no one had more authority than supremo Kevin Feige. Which meant there was integrity of overall vision, but sometimes a paucity of it in cinematic terms. The Incredible Hulk arrived off the back of what many considered a creative failure and commercial disappointment from Ang Lee five years earlier yet managed on just about every level to prove itself Hulk’s inferior. A movie characterised by playing it safe, it’s now very much the unloved orphan of the MCU, with a lead actor recast and a main c…

The only things I care about in this goddamn life are me and my drums... and you.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
(SPOILERS) The final entry in John Hughes’ teen cycle – after this he’d be away with the adults and moppets, and making an untold fortune from criminal slapstick – is also his most patently ridiculous, and I’m not forgetting Weird Science. Not because of its unconvincing class commentary, although that doesn’t help, but because only one of its teenage leads was under 25 when the movie came out, and none of them were Michael J Fox, 30-passing-for-15 types. That all counts towards its abundant charm, though; it’s almost as if Some Kind of Wonderful is intentionally coded towards the broader pool Hughes would subsequently plunge into (She’s Having a Baby was released the same year). Plus, its indie soundtrack is every bit as appealing as previous glories The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

Mention of the latter highlights Some Kind of Wonderful’s greatest boast; it’s a gender swapped Pretty in Pink, only this time Hughes (and his directing surrogate Howard…