Posted on Saturday, December 19th, 2009 by Hunter Stephenson
No man is an island, so James Cameron humbly ventured off several years into the future to create one for his own damn self called Pandora. And now he’s inviting the unwashed masses to explore it for a small fee, with permission to return, preferably in the company of an unsuspecting elder skin, if one so chooses. In my mind, the phrase “movie gods” as it applies to mainstream blockbusters had nearly become obsolete. Agree? The exciting, previously unimaginable computer generated wow-factor that Cameron and Steven Spielberg defined with Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park was followed by challengers to the SFX throne that, even at their best, never quite felt as revolutionary and transportive.
Of course there were numerous bold and admirable attempts made, notably by a pre-King Kong Peter Jackson, Zack Snyder’s 300, and the Wachowskis‘ The Matrix, a classic genre film belied slightly by cash-grab sequels. And before Avatar, I had already placed my chips on Neill Blompkamp to deliver a genre film as immersive and eventful as the second coming. Blompkamp’s District 9 from this year wasn’t a 3D film, but his frugal brilliance in realizing and anthropomorphizing alien insectoids was entirely convincing. Nevertheless, the tech-marvel actioner remained in a rut as blockbusters’ dependence on empty SFX grew increasingly depressing.
This year alone, moviegoers were subjected to further glaze-eyed CGI genre piss with 2012, T4, Transformers 2, and yet another Robert Zemeckis motion-capture “almost.” And before those, of course, George Lucas attempted to remake the end-all hat trick of spectacle islands only to end up constructing a deranged, labyrinth-like fanboy prison (allegedly part of his deal with Satan). Forever, Soul Crusher #1.
Avatar as a Cinematic Experience Without Comparison
Here we are after untold years of “game changer” hype—and it’s all or nothing—with Avatar. An almost mythical project, I had the nerve a few weeks ago to compare its inevitable disappointment to Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy. The comparison was made during an interview in which Chuck Klosterman also offered, “You know, Avatar, it just doesn’t look that good, but maybe it’ll be great.” Turns out, we had nothing to worry about. It is great. Paul Thomas Anderson couldn’t make it, nor could Pixar (though Andrew Stanton’s similar John Carter of Mars looms). Avatar is a global reminder, a welcome reassurance, that a master-director is still out there showing and proving in the belief that he is the mainstream blockbuster god. And perhaps he really is. Stick your tendril-tail into Cameron’s $300 million fantasy epic to find out for yourself.
For the first time this year, I watched a film by a director that broke through all of our accelerating online chatter and made The Moment his alone. Barack Obama, Michael Jackson, and Tiger Woods all had The Moment this year, but the immediacy of James Cameron’s Moment is collectively being experienced through art as I type this. He has transcended stagnant notions of what cinema is and created a work that everyone should watch experience. From now on Cameron’s genius permits him to, I dunno, rock a computer-rendered Amadeus powdered wig. Similar to Lady Gaga’s outfits (or Cameron’s bizarre preference of Papyrus for the subtitle font), no one can inquire of his reasoning. It would be impolite.
As I headed for the exit during Avatar‘s end credits (thanks Leona Lewis) I began to wish that I hadn’t screened Avatar in a traditional theater (IMAX included). In an ideal world it would be screened instead inside a 3D planetarium for post-human mass entertainment, possibly following presentations of Dark Sides of the Moons. Or maybe it should be screened in a next-level church designed like a day-glo laser tag arena. The latter might be more fitting because Cameron basically creates and adheres in the film to a new religion consisting of New Age elements, future-hippie idealism, and Native American Buddhist/Hinduism to be consumed American-style by enlightened eyeballs.
To be honest, this is the film I imagine a Scientology-like cult would have to make in order to get me to sign up, because why not? Instead of consistently failing to ignore oil wars that were started in the name of other religions, I could exclusively zone out to beautiful cinematic contributions to pacifist propaganda and enjoy the possibility of a blue nip slip. Afterward, my religion would encourage me to Tweet about the awesomeness of an evil AMP suit. “Now that’s a knife.” I also thought about Scientology when a hundred or so Cnidarian-like fauna landed on Sam Worthington‘s Na’vi, vicariously ushering in the sensation of a natural E-meter reading.
On countless occasions, Avatar aspires and achieves technological deliverance, flawlessly running the gamut of an all-is-one themed euphoria, as practiced by the film’s smooth, blue, alien protagonists. The irony of the film’s overarching theme—a notion of universal and planetary interconnectedness—is that it is expressed to us by one man (at the end of December and whose initials happen to be J.C., no less). Furthermore, though the deity of the film’s Na’vi alien race is female—in the Green-ish form of Mother Nature—Cameron’s film is the product of a man’s world, even as he violently and deftly defeats that very world on screen.
In Cameron’s future, up until the occupation of Pandora in 2154 A.D., man has continued to reign supreme through his capacity for greed and violence, just as he continues to do on Earth circa 2009. But we also find out that man, similarly, is now desperate. Countless miles away from a privatized hunt for resources on Pandora by a Blackwater-like organization exists a pillaged, war strewn Earth. After all, Avatar‘s future is notably only 49 years after the one depicted in WALL·E. And in Pandora mankind meets its match. Continuing to mistake gung-ho vanity for God of War omnipotence, mankind gets bitch-slapped by neon dragons.
What Some Viewers Talk About When They Express Disappointment in Avatar
I think it’s understandable that several reviewers are quibbling with Avatar using the standard criteria to examine traditional films, including those for 3D films before this one. Given, I’m not sure after one viewing, the viewing, how Cameron’s achievement will weather time, not to mention 2D screenings and home entertainment. To be honest, I don’t really care. I’ll forever have the memory when my brain tried to scan the Na’vi for an Uncanny Valley. I could feel my brain’s sulci shrug and finally give up.
All doubt evaporated like wind off a Na’vi’s back when I began racing down the cliff of an M.C. Escher mountain hovering in the sky. When my brain remembers such scenes, a tiny bit of memory actually convinces it that I really did this IRL. The visceral power of Avatar far surpasses that of a video game. And because it’s so new and unpredictable, it at times offers a greater rush than a theme-park ride or drugs.
Does Avatar‘s story drag and is it derivative of other films?
Yes, to a degree. What I can’t get over, though, is how the plot’s genre-trodden beats never interfered with the genuine empathy I had for Zoe Saldaña‘s Na’vi, Neytiri. To me, the fact that Avatar recalls so many other properties, from Dune to Dances with Wolves to Doc Hollywood, and yet envelops us in an entirely fictional and new world of species and characters as it pulses with psychedelic photorealism is its most unlikely success. Avatar is derivative of previous films like Pandora is derivative of Earth’s rain forests and oceans, like the Na’vi are derivative of our own bi-pedal species. All of this familiarity is a jump-off point for limitless potential. I understand some of the hate, but it’s like being mad at an insane, interstellar orgasm because the alien looked like Megan Fox.
Still, none of this is justification for Cameron failing to punch up his script. One of the problems I have with most sci-fi films today, including District 9 and Moon, is that their schizo-futuro notions of identity are less profound and less nuttier than the stuff Philip K. Dick envisioned decades ago. But there is commercial sense and precedent for Cameron paying homage to so much cinematic history, including his contributions with Aliens and The Abyss, as he surges past the medium’s old technological barriers. In choosing between the experience I had and watching a film with a more original storyline that consisted of less successful imagery, I choose the former, easily.
Can much of the acting in Avatar be described as poor, specifically scenes set in the SecFor base camp?
The quality of much of the acting and dialogue certainly bothered me more than the storyline. Giovanni Ribisi‘s supervisor character in particular was a self-aware depiction of one-note villainy and reminded me of the detached acting in a video game. The scientists played by Joel David Moore and Sigourney Weaver were also unbelievably oblivious to SecFor’s aggressive tactics and end goals. But is the blind complicity of these characters dissimilar to the scientists and engineers in real life who continue to aid in the invention and progression of advanced warfare after Hiroshima? Not really. Compared to Stephen Lang‘s proto-alpha badass, Moore and Weaver give winking performances, especially at film’s start. They both seem more than okay to simply embody the human dressing in a sui generis work.
In another film, the human-actor performances here and the space-yoga dialogue would be detrimental. However, in Avatar I’d argue that the actors in the SecFor scenes are purposely not one hundred percent in character; these actors are also witnesses. After an hour or so, I began to view these scenes in a highly metaphorical context. On a surface level, Cameron’s frequent and flawless switch-outs in the film between the life of Sam Worthington’s crippled Marine (Jake Sully) and the life of his Na’vi hybrid via sleep serve to strengthen Sully’s inner species-addled dissonance. And yeah, these switch-outs are also a metaphor for, say, having an amazingly lucid dream only to wake up to reality complete with police sirens or a baby screaming.
But after a while I also interpreted the switch-outs as an obvious and quite fun metaphor for James Cameron’s creative process during his development and making of Avatar. I have to imagine that in creating such a lush world, a strange surreality and divide probably caused him to jarringly switch back and forth between Pandora and regular day life as well. And in this light, the performances of Ribisi, Moore, and Weaver begin to deliberately reflect the actors’ knowing participation on a set of green screens, where monitors showed them in real time how their film was advancing. ”This is Cameron’s creation, we’re letting him do what he wants. We are just as excited to watch it as you are.”
The switches back to Sully at the SecFor base camp also serve as a breather for the character and for the audience; these scenes give everyone a few minutes to contemplate what they are collectively seeing before Cameron really pushes his tech into overdrive. In a year that saw several directors release movies that deliberately wore the creative process on screen—Inglourious Basterds and Observe & Report come to mind—not to mention a year when method acting was said to be dead, the switch-outs and self-aware acting arguably make Avatar feel of the zeitgeist.
Or is this reaction merely illustrative of increasing plebe shallowness? Perhaps ardent fans of Avatar favor eye candy titillation over the importance of a complex message about the human condition? That might very well be the case if Cameron didn’t make a giant fucker of a mainstream war film that blatantly decries the Iraq occupation and America’s previous involvement in the VietNam War. I would argue that praising The Hurt Locker—directed by Cameron’s talented ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow—and awarding it a Best Picture nom/award for being the definitive war movie of the aughts is, from a critical standpoint, much more shallow. Unlike The Hurt Locker, Avatar doesn’t bypass the unforgivable hypocrisy and historic damage of said occupation with borderline cowardice (that was too often confused this year in critics’ circles for “refreshing accessibility” and soldier-minded reservation).
Moreover, the ballisness of Avatar as a thinly veiled analogy for the Iraq occupation’s true purpose is doubly-commendable because, unlike The Hurt Locker, it’s essentially a film for all ages. If Avatar‘s message that “man’s justification for war and mass death in mining valuable resources is wrong” is overly simplistic, it still works. It’s difficult not to remember that it was a simple lie that got us into a real Pandora-like mess.
Is Cameron’s fetishistic and obsessive tendency to revel in the very violence, warfare and destruction he condemns here contradictory?
Unlike Michael Bay’s explosions, Cameron’s are just as cool but given a political, societal and almost misanthropic context. In interviews, he’s brought up ’60s-era activism, so arguments about contradictory motives and the exploitation of life are fair game. They are also silly.
Looking past its rain forest-fairy messages about love and nature therein, Avatar in itself exists foremost as an artistic statement. Disgusted with corporate interest fueling the new manifest destiny just as religion(s) did before it, James Cameron has fully tapped the resources of his imagination to magnify and lay waste to an entire modern day military industrial complex. Aided by the SFX wizards at Industrial Light & Magic and Weta Digital, Cameron hilariously accomplishes this on screen with more gusto and flourish than his endlessly funded targets could ever dream of.
Armed to the teeth with tech, Avatar is the work of a filmmaker who knows that if he pushes the limits of what is possible, he has earned the freedom to call bullshit on whoever and whatever he desires. The film concludes on a note that is as drunk on love for cinema-as-escapism as a real desire for social evolution. Weeks away from the start of a new decade, I love that millions of people around the world will bask in the relentless on screen defeat of the very kind of greedy war criminals that made the aughts a living hell. This Christmas celebrate their glorious undoing with the rebirth of James Cameron. Thankfully Michelle Rodriguez is not flying around inside this review to add, “Bitches.”
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila/gmail and on Twitter.