Thursday, December 24, 2009

Powder Blue Powhatans I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

It's tempting as shit to start from many different places, metaphors, historical examples, anecdotes, quotes but the problem is to know where to begin because today we talk about the most talked about movie all year. This movie was such a huge fucking deal that I think I'll just start from the top and save my analysis for the end. Sometime around June or July, I started hearing about a new film that was going to revolutionize the way we thought about movies. It was going to swoop down from valhalla and seize our collective unconscious by the testicles and ascend into a land of unbelievable, unspeakable delight the likes of which would forever alter our perception of reality, good, evil, up and down. That film was James Cameron's Avatar. All I had to go on for a few months was that one word and an image of a blue computer generated face. Then a big clue arrived in the form of an endless trailer just before Quentin Tarantino's similarly endless Inglourious Basterds. I was...not precisely excited. No, I was confused as shit. All of a sudden all the stories I'd heard about the making of the movie, ten years, 230 million dollars, and this was Avatar? It looked like a bunch of unconvincing sub-video game nonsense. And Avatar? What the shit kind of nerdy fucking title was that? I was incredulous and a few months of waiting and reading articles about what a militant asshole my once favorite director had become did nothing to lessen my worries. When finally it came out and Mark Kermode, one of the few mainstream critics I'm usually on board with, gave it a passing grade, I thought maybe I was just being cautious. Friends of mine came back from opening night with positive things to say and so I sought out a two dimensional screening as the 3-D glasses give me migraine headaches, strapped myself in and prepared to have six months of worry turned into 160 minutes of eye-popping cinematic bliss. What actually happened is I started laughing a few minutes in and didn't stop. And don't get upset at me; I wanted to like it. I tried to like it and you know what? I couldn't. Because Avatar happens to be one of the silliest fucking things I've seen in my young life.

by James Cameron
Jake Sully is a grunt who's been paralyzed from the waste down. There aren't many uses for a marine with no legs, even in the distant future where Earth has been destroyed by what we're assured was a man-made environmental crisis. Chances are we burnt through all of our resources and had to move in a hurry. That's why Jake's on his way to Pandora, a small earth-like planet that has to be in another galaxy than the Milky Way. He's finally found his purpose, so to speak, which is taking over for his dead twin brother in a highly important scientific mission. His brother was a big shit PhD about to embark on a mission under the direction of doctors Grace Augustine and Max Patel. I guess it's time we talk about what specifically people are doing on Pandora. Well someone figured out that buried beneath the soil is a mineral, nicknamed "unobtainium", that is both a precious fuel substitute and now a million dollar commodity. The patent absurdity of this situation will be addressed later.

The reason that Sully is needed is because Augustine's pet project is something called the Avatar program wherein they grow bodies in test tubes mixed with human DNA so that they'll grow to resemble the indigenous population. Sully's brother's avatar looks just like Jake because they were identical twins and as the smarter Sully was stabbed during a robbery, Augustine and co. are going to have fill Jake in pretty quickly if they want him to make use of his brother's maturing body. The locals, called the Na'vi, are a species that are essentially humanoid despite being ten feet tall, having tails, four fingers and, inexplicably, blue skin. I say inexplicably because there are environment is just as green as any jungle on earth and furthermore the Na'vi are hunter gatherers with living habits more in common with jungle cats than homosapiens, so their pigmentation makes no sense. They appear to be mammals and possess red blood like people, so why shouldn't they resemble people in other ways? Being blue buys them nothing as predators as it isn't for the sake of camouflage. It looks the planet is populated by the children of Mystique from X-Men. Anyway, Augustine's plan includes hooking up people to the brains of their avatars to control them remotely from pods. How this works is something James Cameron didn't even bother to work out because it's fucking ludicrous.

So, these avatars exist so that they can negotiate with the Na'vi so they can peacefully leave their Home Tree, which is where the big supply of unobtainium is located. Augustine has literally no trouble getting Sully used to his avatar body and soon he's in the jungle helping collect samples. Now most of what I just explained to you is in the first ten or twenty minutes. The next hour is like one boring-as-shit fake nature show like the ones the Discovery Channel used to run after the success of Walking With Dinosaurs, only somehow less fun and more idiotic and patronizing. Jake meets the local Na'vi who live at home tree, becomes ingratiated into their society, makes nice with the chief's daughter, passes his warrior training and then fucks it all up when the military gets antsy for a blue man Jihad and decides Augustine and her avatars can go fuck themselves. So, if you haven't guessed the plot by now or on the off chance you're one of the few people who hasn't seen this movie yet, we have to learn just what Sully and his few friends are going to do to retaliate against the military led by evil Colonel Quaritch. Oh and just wait until the third act when the earth attacks the army (or gets revenge as some might say). That's right! For one glorious minute Avatar becomes the most expensive rip-off of Day of the Animals in history.

It looks good. That's all the complimenting I'm going to do. James Cameron's big revolutionary idea for Avatar was to have all his environment and the Na'vi as a big CGI free-for-all and it was going to make us all forget we were watching computers. I didn't. Not for a second. You forget about it once you've been watching for a while and have to pay attention to diverging plot threads, but by then you don't care because you know it's going to end. It doesn't work though because when you're looking at super big blue man-things, real people start to look like CG effects because they have to be rendered. So...yeah, while the environment is pretty, the people don't look quite like $230,000,000. Oh, and I like the lead actors but they're all pretty terrible though in fairness that's not entirely their fault. James Cameron apparently forgot how to direct actors; it's been 10 years, after all. I like Sam Worthington, but good god the man's American accent is just non-existent. Why not make him an Australian? Why do they all have to be Americans? Because James Cameron can't quite get over how awesome he thinks the US is despite his left-leaning message? I also love Sigourney Weaver but she's given almost nothing worthy of her not inconsiderable talent. And Zoe Saldana? She was very nearly the best thing about the new Star Trek but Cameron decided to take away what was most appealing about her, her sheer presence (physicality, sexiness, independence and eloquence all communicated effortlessly), and turn her into something teenage boys can gawk at. Fucking stupid. Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez I also like but they're just coasting on roles so under-written that they might just be named "solidier girl" and "evil capitalist." Only Dileep Rao didn't make me cringe with stereotype fever. The plot is...well it isn't really a plot so much as a crib sheet from the last fifty years of filmmaking. If you've seen Dances With Wolves, Lord of the Rings, Aliens, A Man Called Horse, The Star Wars Trilogy, Jurassic Park, Fern Gully, The New World, Pocahontas, The Last of the Mohicans, The Man From Deep River (p.s. How fucking sad is it that Umberto Lenzi did a better job with this story than James Cameron?), King Kong, Terror Is A Man or any number of Dr. Moreau adaptations, played the game Halo or seen that episode of Futurama where they have to bargain with martians over stolen land, you know how this movie ends even before you've seen it. It hits all the beats and basically exists as a piece of nice-looking foreshadowing. Before I had seen the movie I knew not only how it ended but the fate of every character. Beyond its sheer predictability, every piece of action or dialogue is a cliche. And because the story is such a cliche and everything accompanying it something you've already seen before there is not an ounce of tension to be found in any of this films bloated-as-a-corpse two hours forty. Which means that for pretty much the entire movie all I was able to do was see what tired old device Cameron had pulled off the shelf and then roll my eyes so loud the people in the back row could hear me (there were only about a half-dozen of us in the theatre three days after it had opened).

Before I continue I should contend with the ever-popular 'just a silly action film' line. I'd buy that if I was able to enjoy any of Avatar. I couldn't and didn't. Maybe because before now James Cameron had dedicated himself to raising the action film to heights beyond what the lowest of Hollywood lows could produce. Knowing what James Cameron is capable of I won't settle for anything less than Aliens, an admittedly flawed film, because it rose above its station and gave action films a good name. So, no, it's not just an action film and that argument has no weight here. So what caused my eyes to scan the roof of their sockets so furiously? Many people will tell you that it's a mathematical certainty that somewhere in the universe there is a planet with life identical to that on Earth. That said I'm going to wager that it's a mathematical impossibility that this planet is within the reach of human beings, no matter how advanced their spaceships have become in the unnamed future that Avatar takes place in. Furthermore that these creatures would not be exactly like human beings but lie just to the left evolutionarily (they reminded me so much of Futurama's martian natives that I seriously wonder if James Cameron isn't a fan and confused homage with stealing. Matt Groening even made the link between aliens and native americans. The episode in question also has the same narrative trajectory, though it's clearly a nod to Dances with Wolves. If I were Kevin Costner, I'd consider a lawsuit. Stephen Spielberg also has the law on his side as Cameron lifted the sound of his velociraptors from Jurassic Park and used them for his alien bird-horses. Same sound, I swear to god). Ten feet tall cat people with blue striped skin who have become as evolved as Native Americans in the life-age of the planet. How is that not slightly improbable (and condescending)? That means that there is no greed, no ambition beyond following orders and no genocidal tendencies in these essentially human creatures. Yeah...Fuckin'.....Right! Also Cameron seems to have reasoned that because his movie has an environmental message, he has carte blanche to be as ignorant as he likes. For example, the Na'vi have a perplexing mixture of Native American and African culture and mannerisms. They do a lot of war whooping and speak in a few different dialects of broken english. It's offensive no matter how you look at it and I'd be curious how the world's former colonized and subjugated are taking this....cause I'm thinkin' it's racist. Cameron's message is one of hope but he does it at the expense of giving his subjects any respect. In fact one of the feats Dr. Augustine, who is one of the unconditionally good guys, did before Sully's landing on Pandora was to set up a school to teach the Na'vi english. That is some left-wing, hypocritical bullshit right there. The only reason they do this is so that the whole movie isn't in their made-up language. And really the only reason that they have to do the avatar thing is so that it isn't weird when Sully and his blue girlfriend have sex. If Augustine knows their language and they know she's not one of them, what does being blue buy them exactly? Nothing. Except an iridescent, PG-13, CG sex scene.

Cameron's vision of right and wrong becomes a laughably juvenile farce in the third act. He makes sure that the military acts in a totally implausible fashion towards the Na'vi so that they then get to commit a staggering amount of murder but...that's not really any kind of solution. Cameron stacks his heroes against villains who are two-dimensionally, comically evil so as to make their wholesale slaughter acceptable when it finally happens. This is the cinematic equivalent of the guy who has the "World Peace" bumper sticker just beside his "Ultimate Fighting" bumper sticker. He loves the idea of promoting liberal ideas and forwarding environmental thought but not enough to not make a film whose existence is predicated on a giant battle between aliens and human beings. I mean if this movie didn't have the giant battle who among the people giving it rave reviews would still laud it so highly? Probably no one; certainly not the teenage fanboy set. Nevermind that the speech Sully delivers to rouse all the troops, a cheap pantomime of those given in any of the Lord of the Rings films, rings hollow, bloodthirsty and obligatory and is exactly the same kind of meaningless bullshit the guys on the other side use to slaughter innocent people...or aliens. My point is that there is almost no difference between the methods of each side so who gives a shit if the one is technically for the environment? Also the marines are a young, attractive crowd of twenty-somethings until it comes time for them to get slaughtered. Suddenly they're a bunch of middle aged pirates and man-pigs. It's lame and thoughtless and lazy and I really can't believe that this took ten years to make - the story can't have been given more than a few second's thought. Also if the Na'vi aren't at war with anyone until the marines show up, how come they have a warrior culture?

What really drove in the final coffin nail was the fact that Avatar is simply an environmentally friendly, teenager-pandering version of Aliens. Sully is Ripley and Hicks in one body, a grunt and a real person in two different environments he doesn't understand, Dr. Augustine's motherly relationship with Jake mirrors that of Ripley and Newt, Michelle Rodriguez is just Vazquez with Ferro's job, privates Fike and Wainfleet are Frost and Crowe and Parker Selfridge is Carter Burke, the wormy evil capitalist, they even have surnames as first names. Quaritch could be said to be an approximation of Sgt. Apone but really he's Lt. Coffey from James Cameron's other family-oriented sci-fi film, The Abyss. Also carried over from Cameron's other movies is his constantly inventing jargon and devices, then coming up with nicknames to go with them, something I wager he enjoys more than writing dialogue. Not since the Star Wars prequels have I encountered someone so in love with his own mundane creativity. I don't really care about the boot-camp regiment for avatars or the super clever names you've given the minerals or fake animals who have pelts that don't make any sense given their environments. I would have preferred if you'd dreamt up a believable and not insultingly over-used story rather than twenty nicknames for tribes that don't get introduced until the last twenty minutes of the movie. What he wanted to do was make a nature show spliced with what I'm sure he considered to be awesome battle scenes. But really his nature stuff doesn't make any sense (how does an island floating in space manage to maintain a running stream of water big enough to keep a water-fall perpetually flowing?) and the battle scenes aren't awesome, they're predictable and based around the acrobatic maneuevers of two or three people instead of say the gigantic army you just raised for the sake of having a climax in the first place. Sully does cartwheels and back-handsprings on ships in mid-air so he can throw grenades down exhaust pipes and other Rube Goldberg-esque devices that end in the destruction of everyone except Quaritch because there needs to be a big showdown (or boss fight as anyone who's played Megaman X calls it. Notice the similarities between Quaritch's robot and those from this or any number of computer games. Key difference: plausibility. How fucking sad is it that game designers from fifteen years ago have a better grip on reality than James Fucking Cameron, who spent the last ten years making expensive documentaries). But really that's a big, stupid let-down too because he's fighting in a giant robot that has that George Lucas complex where it has far greater maneuverability than it ever would considering it's size and looks stupid because it's nakedly a computer generated effect. Also, Quarritch's last line is "how does it feel to betray your race?" to Sully before his robot knifes him (...?). Does he mean white people? Homo sapiens are a species, not a race, so....

Avatar is one of the most ineptly executed movies ever made but it's trapped inside a gorgeous, nonsensical body so it will remain on everyone's pass list for centuries. Soon, like Star Wars, it will be topping the best-of lists of nerds the world over. People will base their lives and spare time around picking it apart and dressing up as characters for midnight showings and all that other truly perplexing shit. But what Avatar actually needs is to be forgotten and fast. I used to love James Cameron before he decided he could do no wrong and became his own best friend and worst enemy. His best film was his first (if we discount Piranha 2...which I have to tell you I'm feeling less inclined to do these days) and he's just gone down hill from there as the outside world has interfered less and less with his plans. All of Sully's lines were Cameron talking out at us, telling us that movie execs tried to fuck with his master plan but they weren't going to stop him this time. They should have because Avatar is the contents of an ego-maniac and his outlet-less mind - a game played with action figures given a budget that could probably support environmental lobbyists for the next 10 years. If James Cameron is ever going to make a good movie again he needs to kill his darlings, stop breaking all the non-existent rules, stop stealing and get creative. The reason The Terminator was such a great film was because he was limited financially and so did his hardest to mask that. Now that he can do whatever he wants (except not really), he doesn't really care about an effective film, he cares about masturbatory special effects trumping everything else. He's clearly looking for his vision to be accepted so he can keep making baggy nature specials with infantile political messages that do nothing but keep people rooted to their computers instead of going outside and actually fucking dealing with the problems he claims to care about. Seeing as I've been waiting for a good James Cameron film since I was about 4, you're going to have to forgive my outrage. I feel supremely let down and alone because I wanted to like it and couldn't and there is nothing quite so disappointing as that; a movie that required so much imagination that somehow has none...a waste.

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