Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (2009)

11. Avatar

History repeats itself. Even before finishing “Titanic,” James Cameron was talking up “Avatar.” A science-fiction epic heavily influenced by turn-of-the-century pulp writing, the director promised that the film would revolutionize special effects and blow everyone’s minds. That was back in 1996. The project was shelved, as Cameron waiting for the technology to catch up with his imagination. Production on the film began again in 2005, Cameron working for years with artists and language designers. By the time “Avatar” starting rolling in front of cameras, the budget had reportedly risen to over 300 million dollars.

Once again, the naysayers rolled their eyes. How could any movie, much less a risky project based on an original idea, ever become successful? Once again, they were wrong. “Avatar” broke the box office records set by Cameron’s “Titanic,” making over 2 billion dollars worldwide, and becoming the highest grossing film of all time. The movie was a hit with audiences, as they returned to see it again and again, keeping it atop the box office for weeks. Some where so taken in by the world of Pandora, that they expressed depression about it not being real. Internet subcultures were spawned. The movie had all the hallmarks of being a lasting pop culture phenomenon. It hasn’t been. The movie has receded from people’s mind so much that now we’re wondering if those three sequels and that Disneyland theme park are such sure things.

Why was “Avatar” such an enormous hit in 2009? Does James Cameron really have his finger on the pop culture zeitgeist’s main vein? Or was it just the right movie at the right time? Cameron had been championing 3-D technology for some time, having filmed his last two documentaries in the style. “Avatar” hit theaters just as the revival of 3-D was reaching its peak. I’ve never seen “Avatar” in 3-D. I saw it in a flea-bitten second-run theater with a girl I was hopelessly in love with. Even then, it’s obvious “Avatar” made fantastic use of the technology. Cameron’s camera is dynamic, sweeping through a beautifully created fantasy world. As the movie was hitting home video, Blu-Ray was just starting to be widely accepted. 4K televisions would soon become available. The movie’s success is so tied in with the rise of Blu-Ray that I used to joke that the players should’ve come packaged with the film. How does “Avatar” hold up as a story? Is it more then just a movie designed to sell 3-D glasses and HD TVs?

I should probably mention the movie’s plot. One hundred and fifty years into the future, man has started to explore other planets. One such place is Pandora, a lush jungle world inhabited by a primitive humanoid species called the Na’vi. Man does not come in piece. Instead, humans are there to take the planet’s resources. Jake Sully, a wheelchair bound former marine, is summoned by the military after his twin brother’s death. Sully, due to his genetic similarities to his brother, will transfer his mind into an avatar, a lab created Na’vi body, and infiltrate the local population. Jake, however, has second thoughts, after falling in love with Na’vi culture and seeing the cruelty of the corporation. He is soon leading a rebellion against his own species.

Upon release, “Avatar” was praised for its visuals. It was also criticized for its derivative story. The movie was derisively called “Dances with Wolves… In Space!” “South Park” did a whole episode about it. “Avatar’s” “going native” storyline belongs to a very old tradition. It’s at least as old as James Fenimore Cooper. The archetype has woven its way through hundreds of westerns, “Lawrence of Arabia,” Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom books, “The Last Samurai,” and countless other stories. Jake Sully is rejected by the alien culture at first. In time, he learns to respects them and falls in love with a Na’vi woman. Soon, he begins to feel more at home in his avatar then his human skin. The movie doesn’t even patch over the uncomfortable racial subtext. A white man/Earthling does a better job at being an Indian/Na’vi then the actual Na’vi do. Perhaps “Avatar” owes part of its success to its archetypal storyline. After all, “Dances with Wolves” made a lot of money too.

“Avatar” also resembles movies James Cameron has made in the past. Jake and Neytiri fall in love, despite being from different worlds (literally), just like Jack and Rose in “Titanic.” The themes of dangerous exploration, ecology, and morally superior aliens recalls “The Abyss.” Mostly, “Avatar” reminds me of “Aliens.” Both movies heavily feature space marines. (For an example of Cameron’s shifting politics: In “Aliens,” the marines are the heroes, albeit humbled ones. In “Avatar,” the marines are straight-up villains with little ambiguity.) The Power Lifter has been traded out for AMPS, powered exo-suits. As in “Aliens,” the robot armor was probably taken from Robert E. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers,” an influence on both movies. Both films also feature an evil corporation, attempting to exploit the extraterrestrial characters. Giovanni Ribisi’s Selfridge is practically the same character as Paul Raiser’s Burke. The movies are so similar that some fans theorize they both take place in the same universe. The biggest difference is the obvious one. “Aliens” was an action/horror film. “Avatar” is a epic fantasy/adventure. Though the goals are clearly different, Cameron is obviously mining and referencing his past success.

For all the criticism “Avatar” received for its obviously derivative story, one thing is for certain: Pandora sure is purty. It’s more then just the special effects. Pandora is a fully realized world. It’s ecosystem is complex and plausible. The jungles are lush with life, full of shimmering planets and voracious animals. Mysterious mountains float above the lands. Giant psychic trees connect clans all over the planet. The world resembles are own but is bigger and bolder. When glowing seeds from one of the planet’s giant trees land all over Jake’s avatar, the audience’s eyes just about pop out of their heads. “Avatar” is perhaps the closest cinema has ever come to realizing the far-out visions of hundreds of sci-fi authors. The story may be nothing new but “Avatar” does something special anyway: It creates a fantasy world we’ve never seen before.

Another example of the way the movie combines familiar ideas with mind-blowing details is in the planet’s animal life. The Na’vi are essentially twelve-feet tall blue cat-people, which led to many jokes about Thundercats and the furry community. Pandora’s wildlife is seemingly composed solely of chimeras. Tigers are combined with insects, rhinos with hammerhead sharks, and wolves with panthers. Some times, the movie doesn’t even go that far. The Na’vi ride on creatures that are basically horses. The skies are full of pterodactyl/dragon style critters, some of them as big as the human drop ships. My favorite are the little lizards that spin through the air with glowing, biological helicopters that grow from their backs. None of this is especially clever. Yet it all looks amazing, thanks to the ludicrously detailed CGI effects that still look amazing five years after the movie’s release.

More over, Cameron is able to captured fully formed performances through motion capture technology. Hollywood had been trying to make mo-cap a thing for a long time. “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” showed that the public wasn’t ready for the technology back in 2001. Robert Zemeckis filled three movies full of plastic-y, dead-eyed dolls that off-put and disturb viewers the world over. “Avatar” uses the same technology but has none of these problems. The CGI character’s have vivid, life-like faces. Their movements are never stiff. Instead, they are perfectly natural. By populating its CGI cast with inhuman aliens, Cameron skip his stone right over the Uncanny Valley.

Since the movie plays its “westerners among the natives” narrative so straight, it maintains many of the story type’s unfortunate implications. The Na’vi obviously recall American Indians. They are led by chiefs and live in clans. Their spiritual beliefs are deeply tied in with nature and the natural world. The obvious connection is confirmed when the movie cast Wes Studi, Hollywood’s favorite Indian, as the Na’vi chief. The movie also throws some African aspects into the mix too. The Na’vi language is patterned after African languages. Their bead-covered and burgundy clothing recalls African culture as well. The religious frenzy the aliens enter during their shamanistic sermons are similar to Gospel gatherings. This blend of stereotypes includes some touchy feel-y new age religion, with talks of energy and Earth spirits. The Na’vi’s spiritual life-style is shown as obviously superior to the vulgar, greedy humans. The combination leads to a slightly offensive, reductive message: Natives are superior not because of any higher moral standing but because their culture is just better.

The movie’s overly simplistic politics is evident in other ways too. Some times it is obviously that “Avatar” was written back in the nineties. The jungles of Pandora are obviously patterned after the rain forest of South America. The exploitation of the rain forest was a hot button topic back in the day, leading to hundreds of “Save the Rain Forest!” stickers and “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.” Trees are good in this movie. The corporation tear them down, so they’re the bad guys. The anti-corporation theme is ham-fisted and obvious. The bad guys are cartoonishly evil, joyfully gunning down the heroes and making lame jokes about. The military doesn’t make it out unscathed either. They don’t just take orders, they seem to actively enjoy destroying another world’s culture. The movie’s “back-to-nature types good, corporations bad” politics are so obvious, a child could understand it.

There’s another reason why the “Avatar” backlash hit so hard. This is the movie that foisted Sam Worthington onto the world. Based on his casting in this soon-to-be mega-buster, Worthington got cast in other would-be franchises, like “Terminator Salvation” and the “Clash of the Titans” remake. Until Jai Courtney came along, Worthington was the poster child for ready-made movie stars: Generic buff dudes with shaved heads and Australian accents. He came out of nowhere, the studios determined to make him a star. But despite starring in the biggest movie of all time, Worthington didn’t become a movie star. Worthington is given multiple monologues over “Avatar’s” two hour and forty minute run time. Not a single one sounds convincing in his mouth. Worthington’s delivery is bored and uninteresting. Even being replaced throughout most of the movie by a CGI creation, Worthington can’t generate any charisma or charm.

Worthington’s lack of charm makes another aspect of the plot problematic. “Avatar” is supposed to be a love story. Like in a thousand buddy cop movies, Jake Sully and Neytiri hate each other at first. She calls him an idiot and seems to despise everything he does. As she trains him, and Sully learns more about the culture, the two fall in love, consummating their relationship beneath the giant spirit tree. The bulk of the two’s love affair happens during a montage. There’s no investment in their relationship. None of this is the fault of Zoe Saldana. Saldana has way more talent then the wooden Worthington. She naturally inhabits the part of Neytiri, making her an emotional, compelling character. There’s simply not enough meat in the script for her to chew on.

Cameron continues to fill his supporting cast with colorful names. Sigourney Weaver, collaborating with her “Aliens” director for the first time in twenty years, plays Dr. Grace. Weaver chain smokes, swears, and belittles everyone around her without loosing sight of her character’s heart. Michelle Rodriguez plays a very Michelle Rodriguez-style part as Trudy, a tough female pilot. The character is reminiscent of “Aliens’” Vasquez, though Rodriguez brings more humor and humanity to the part. Stephen Lang, despite playing the cartoonish Colonel Quaritch, chews up the scenery, seeming to have a blast. Joel David Moore and CCH Pounder round out the cast as science-informin’ sidekick and Neytiri’s spiritualist mom.

“Avatar” was sold to the public firstly as a mind-blowing visual experience and secondly as an action movie. This is odd as “Avatar” is low on action for its first two hours. Its only in the last third, when the forces of Pandora and the Earth military face off, that the action truly becomes explosive. It’s impressive too. Jake, flying on his friggin’ dragon, swings drop ships around like toys. Decked out like Rambo, he tosses grenades into vents, leads into cargo bays, and fires a machine gun into the air. Giant arrows blast through the glass of helicopters. The robot suits face off with legions of giant blue cat people along with fleet of hammerhead rhinos. The action climaxes with an absurd duel between Jake and Quaritch, the alien swinging one of the giant’s rifle around like a spear. It’s silly but cool. The action is beautifully choreographed and filmed, making a clear impression on the audience.

The fact that “Avatar” faded so quickly from the public’s consciousness shouldn’t be surprising. The movie is an amazing visual experience that initially impresses. The world is beautifully created and detailed enough to be rewatched multiple times. However, the cliched, simplistic story lacks depth. The world may resonate but the characters and plot do not. But it’s not so bad. “Avatar” is fine as a popcorn flick, entertaining in a light and fluffy manner. It’s incredible effects and visuals carried it to box office supremacy. Who’s to say if anyone will much care in another five years? Cameron’s strengths may have softened over the years but he still knows how to make a crowd-pleaser, even if its pleasures are destined to be ephemeral. [Grade: B]

James Cameron has been attached to a number of future projects over the years. An adaption of the novel "The Informationist" is being prepped for him. He's expressed interest in the life story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the man who survived the bombing Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And he still talks about making "Battle Angel" every once in a while. For the time being though, Cameron's attention is focused on a trilogy of "Avatar" sequels. I'm not especially excited for Cameron's return to Pandora. I don't hate the first one but I don't see the strongest foundation for a sequel there, much less three. It is disappointing that he's focusing so much time on his blue cat people movies. Some people have given up hope that James Cameron will ever make anything really cool again. I hold out hope that "Battle Angel" will be awesome, should it ever be made. As the cliche goes, only time will tell. At least we still have "Aliens" and "The Terminator."

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