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

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 embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

I think my mother put a curse on us.

Hereditary (2018)
(SPOILERS) Well, the Hereditary trailer's a very fine trailer, there's no doubt about that. The movie as a whole? Ari Aster's debut follows in the line of a number of recent lauded-to-the-heavens (or hells) horror movies that haven't quite lived up to their hype (The Babadook, for example). In Hereditary's case, there’s no doubting Ari Aster's talent as a director. Instead, I'd question his aptitude for horror.

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

Reindeer-goat cheese pizza?

Hudson Hawk (1991)
A movie star vanity project going down in flames is usually met with open delight from press and critics alike. Even fans of the star can nurse secret disappointment that they were failed on this occasion. But, never mind, soon they will return to something safe and certain. Sometimes the vehicle is the result of a major star attaching themselves to a project where they are handed too much creative control, where costs spiral and everyone ends up wet (Waterworld, The Postman, Ishtar). In other cases, they bring to screen a passion project that is met with derision (Battlefield Earth). Hudson Hawk was a character created by Bruce Willis, about whom Willis suddenly had the post-Die Hard clout to make a feature.

I love the combination of Gummi Bears and meat.

Despicable Me 3 (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Illumination formula is at least reliable, consistently and comfortably crowd-pleasing where DreamWorks often seems faintly desperate (because they are – who's their distributor this week?) Despicable Me 3 ploughs the same cosy, affirmative furrow as its wholly safe predecessor. When I saw Despicable Me 2, I mentioned that it reminded me of Shrek 2 in its attempt to continue a story that was complete in itself. Despicable Me 3 is similarly redundant, suggesting the most airless of brainstorming sessions – Gru has the kids, the wife, the job, how about now he gets a sibling? – although this time I was put in mind of the Lethal Weapon sequels and their ability to continue churning out/expanding on the family vibe long after Riggs had become a (relatively) well-adjusted member of society.

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway)
Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders Carry On, Jeeves but this time blends it with a tale from The Inimitable Jeeves for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.