Sunday, May 16, 2010

Neytiri Calls Me Skxawng

Yeah, so, I watched Avatar. Or as I like to call it: The John Walker Lindh Story. Ah, see, because at its heart James Cameron's insanely successful science-fiction epic is an allegory about the Iraq War, with US Marine Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) finding his sympathies shifting from US/Earth interests to those of the Na'vi, the humanoid inhabitants of Pandora. And Pandora is the planet the US/Earth Marine/mercenaries are set to plunder for natural resources, and they're willing to bomb the shit out of everything to get it, and the phrase "shock and awe" is used in relation to the military tactics used by the Earth forces. Also, this time around the US blows up the World Trade Center. It's all very confusing.
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This latter detail highlights why I won't be getting into the politics of Avatar -- or indeed any aspect of Avatar -- very deeply. The basic reason is this: while the politics are there in Cameron's film, and while I detest them, they are also completely moronic, barely thought out, and utterly toothless. They're also kind of an afterthought. Cameron has been kicking around the idea for this film for a very long time, or so I understand, and I doubt the Iraq War and Sept. 11 material was always on his mind. When he got around to actually making the film, he just threw everything in, getting so mixed up in the process that he credited his Sept. 11th allegory to those who were, in reality, the victims of it (the crumbling WTC, incidentally, is evoked in a scene where US forces launch a missile strike against the Na'vi's very best tree), but he never really cared about it that much. I mean, he meant it, but he didn't care about it, because James Cameron is essentially a gearhead, or a tech-geek; what matters to him is creating big worlds with big effects, the likes of which haven't been seen before (well, on movie screens, at least -- book, magazine, and album covers are another thing, because those can't move). Ultimately, and broadly, I'm ready and willing to give the political aspect of the film a pass, or ignore it, because it's clear so little effort was put into it. The only thing I really object to is being forced to notice the analogy, and then asked to not follow that analogy through to its logical conclusion, which should be self-explanatory to anyone who watches Avatar and makes note of the rooting interest Cameron wants us to take up.
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But anyway! So with the politics dispensed with (in a more involved fashion than I'd planned, but oh well), what's left? Top of the line special effects, occasionally stunning imagery, all to the service of a nearly three hour film, most of which time is taken up with learning how all our brains are connected to trees' brains. Avatar is a thuddingly dull film for great stretches, with no new ideas, but some pretty great technology at its disposal. The whole film is a rehash, sometimes of classic science fiction, sometimes of Cameron's own films. Giovanni Ribisi's Parker, for instance -- the casually evil corporate goon who's behind all this -- is just a less-well imagined, boiled down version of Paul Reiser's Burke from Aliens (by the way, I've heard some people criticize Ribisi's performance, but I think he does a pretty good job of playing the character as written; it's the character as written that's the problem), and Michelle Rodriquez's tough-girl pilot, and the whole space marine thing, are from Aliens, too (and, erm, from Heinlein's Starship Troopers).
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But let's not get bogged down with where Cameron's ideas came from. If he'd done anything with them, nobody would care, but there's a shocking absence of drama in all this. When things really start to heat up, a major character is killed off in one of the lamest death scenes I've ever witnessed in a film like this. It's as though Cameron took it as a given that we'd be moved, so he needn't bother. The fact that the character dies, and is then taken by our heroes to the Na'vi who are asked to save this person using their native magic, the final prognosis being, in essence, "Nope, sorry, she's too dead", signalled to me that things were edging away from the dull into the unintentionally hilarious.
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In the credit where credit is due department, I should say that Zoe Saldana's performance as Neytiri, our window into the Na'vi's world and Scully's love interest, is quite good. I don't know if this is because she threw herself into the job of motion-capture performance with an unusual amount of gusto, or if the computer whizzes who worked on her character were particularly on their game -- I don't know how this stuff works, but it's probably a bit of both. In any case, Saldana provides the story with far more life than any other element in the film. Not a hard distinction to achieve, however, since more than any other Cameron film -- and I'm generally not a fan -- Avatar feels like a jumble of technology that needed some sort of basic and self-consciously earnest story as an excuse be used.
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The Collection Project Film of the Day:
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Contrast all this with Cameron's Aliens. This is by no means a perfect film -- for one thing, God is that fucker long, and, related to that, it doesn't know when to quit -- but there's a tension to it that never lags. A good hour of the film goes by before we encounter any alien mayhem (said mayhem, by the way, when the Marines get ambushed after they've been made to give up their ammunition, is actually much thinner than I remembered it; the shit hits the fan, there's an explosion, then a bunch of fuzzy monitors and yelling), but Cameron never lets the audience's attention wander. When the film first came out, part of this effect was, no doubt, attributable to the anticipation created by Ridley Scott's original film (and the idea that Cameron's sequel is somehow better than Scott's is an objectively provable untruth that needs to die), but the fact that I still felt that tension yesterday says something. The fact that, after two hours, I was also saying "Shit, Bishop still hasn't been ripped in half?? How much longer does this thing go on!?" says something, too.
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There's also the, or some, performances in Aliens. Avatar has Saldana and, sort of, Ribisi (I'm not sold on the opinion that Stephen Lang's villainous Quaritch was anything special), and that's it. Aliens has a rock solid central performance from Sigourney Weaver, typically easy and strong work from Michael Biehn, and Paul Reiser, who, against all logic, is really good as the odious Carter Burke. The facts of his awfulness are pretty over-the-top, but Reiser really sells it well, especially when he's been found out, and is being interrogated by Weaver, Biehn and Bill Paxton. Reiser plays Burke as a skilled liar who is unsure if this talent can save him, but it's all he's got left.
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And what about those special effects? Obviously, the film was made before the CGI era, and there's a moment in Aliens when, after the shit has hit the fan, our surviving heroes are hustling to meet their command ship, which they hope will whisk them to safety. That ship has been infiltrated by aliens, and the ship crashes right in front of our heroes. I don't believe that a spaceship has ever actually crashed only a few hundred feet away from Sigourney Weaver, but you'd never know it to watch that footage. It's seamless. Meanwhile, in Avatar, even at its absolute, considerable best, you think "Man! That is only barely a cartoon!"
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I'm not anti-CGI, and defend it often. But when a film completely lives on those effects (as well as the 3D Imax presentation, which I didn't experience, so I don't now spend my nights wishing I could live in the movie), as Avatar absolutely does, it's hard not to wonder what the big deal is, and why so many people care so much. What would have been great is if, with Avatar, Cameron had created those same effects, and had attached them to a story that was engaging right off the bat, before a second of film had been shot.

23 comments:

Greg said...

The basic reason is this: while the politics are there in Cameron's film, and while I detest them, they are also completely moronic, barely thought out, and utterly toothless.

Hey, remember my review? Same thing. I was all about telling everyone not to worry about the politics because they were so, well, half-assed. And they are!

Now, I know it's going to sound like I'm just teaming up with a fellow Avatar disliker but... Why in the hell did so many people like this film?! Now that you've seen it you can wonder too. I mean, I held back to a degree in my review, I always do to present a more balanced review I guess, but really, this movie was just plain boring most of the time.

And the story. I don't get it. It's inane. It's third grade story development. I don't understand why so many critics like A.O. Scott or Roger Ebert liked it soooo much. Glen Kenny stops by here sometimes, and I know he liked it so maybe he will show up and take the other side of the argument, which I'd appreciate, honestly, because I just don't see it.

"Nope, sorry, she's too dead"

Ha, my thoughts exactly. They should have had a n'avi coroner come out and explain that "she's not only merely dead, she's really quite sincerely dead!"

Greg said...

Also, not to alarm you, but for some reason my Norton software notified me that your site was unsafe. Why, I don't know.

bill r. said...

Greg - I do remember your review. My ire got up about the politics writing this review, reflecting back, than it did while I actually watched the film. One detail that I'd heard about second hand, before the film even came out (from Glenn Kenny's review, in fact) I completely missed. But it really is obnoxious in that regard, and underlines many of problems with Cameron overall, which is that he fancies himself a deep thinker, but absolutely is not.

And Glenn did like the movie, but I've gotten the idea that he didn't like it all THAT much. I don't want to speak for him, but I'm pretty sure he was most taken with the formal aspects of it.

I don't know about the "unsafe" thing. I have Norton, and I haven't encountered that today. I hope no one else does, because I don't know what to do about it, or why my site might be unsafe.

Greg said...

I understand how annoying it is when people engage in backlash against a popular movie and I swear I'm not doing that but I just want to express actual true bewilderment at the critical reception of this quite average movie.

Also, my first trip here earlier was via Facebook. Maybe it was something on Facebook that caused the Norton thingy. It did occur right when I got here so it could have been something up with Facebook.

WalkerP said...

Nah. You're trying too hard to pretend that you are objective, but your damning with faint praise condemnation of Aliens tells me you are simply biased (no mention of Lance Henriksen as Bishop?! Come on). Avatar is not a great movie by any means, but you went in not wanting to like it and your review suffers because of that. I've come to expect better of you, but I guess even you got caught up in the anti-Cameron Avatar wake.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Walker!

I'm sorry that you don't believe that I genuinely disliked the movie, and that I genuinely, overall, dislike Cameron. There's nothing I can do about that, I'm afraid.

Your "nah" really sold me, though.

bill r. said...

Also, what "damning with faint praise" of ALIENS? I said almost nothing but good things about that movie, to contrast what I disliked about AVATAR. If anything, I praised with faint damnation, if that's actually a thing, which I don't think it is.

And yes, I neglected to mention Henriksen. He's excellent in the film, and I thought about mentioning him, but my point was to cite that ALIENS features much stronger acting than AVATAR overall, not to simply list every performance I liked, and I wanted to talk about Reiser more.

Furthermore, if I was going to damn ALIENS with faint praise, I would have mentioned that Bill Paxton is terrible.

Kelly said...

I agree that Avatar, story-wise, is pretty average, and somewhat plagarious (is that a word? It should be.) I have to say that seeing it in 3D was pretty spectacular though. And I agree that it doesn't hold a candle to Aliens, and that Aliens is not as good as Alien, but then sequels so rarely are. I would say though that Aliens kind of breaks that mold, in that at least it didn't just suck hard from the get-go.

bill r. said...

I don't think ALIENS ever sucks hard, Kelly, but I don't think Cameron is a good writer. That's what lets him down, on occasion, in ALIENS -- a lot of the Marines' "tough guy" dialogue is close to unbearable -- and what lets him down almost all the time in almost all his other movies. But ALIENS has a terrific central idea, especially for a sequel, and he worked out his story in that film pretty dang well. It's his best film in the sense that it's the most successful, top to bottom.

Best Cameron Dialogue goes to THE ABYSS, in a walk, as does the Best Acting in a Cameron Film. That would be his most successful if his ending wasn't simply to remind us that THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL existed. Even so, that one's probably my favorite.

Greg said...

The ending of The Abyss is so disappointingly cliched. It didn't have the Cold War paranoia working for it about the atomic bomb that The Day the Earth Stood Still had. No, it had water elves complaining about how awful we all were and gosh darn it, if we don't stop they'll send tidal waves at us, or something. God, Cameron can really, REALLY get hokey! And you just know he thinks he's doing well!

Anyway, that said, The Abyss is my favorite of his too. Just take out the preachy ending (Why couldn't they just meet ala Close Encounters? Why'd there have to be judgment attached?) and it's pretty good.

bill r. said...

The hurrican/sinking crane bit in THE ABYSS is one of the most imaginative and gripping set pieces I've ever seen in an SF-action film.

Kelly said...

Bill, I didn't mean to suggest that Aliens ever sucked hard either, only that most sequels do. I actually think as sequels go, you don't get much better than Aliens.

otherbill said...

Totally agree on the politics. As I noted over at Glenn's blog, I think Cameron has certain types of conflicts that he thinks push audience buttons- little guy vs corporation, military bureaucracy vs man in the field, environment vs exploiters- that he just inserts into each film in various configurations. He then convinces himself that the mix amounts to some sort of profound statement because he's a wealthy and successful guy and he spent the gdp of Luxembourg making the thing so it must say SOMETHING profound. Then he starts trading verbal barbs with Glenn Beck and I punch myself in the face til I'm dead.

Paxton does kinda suck in ALIENS, but it's worth it for the line reading on "Game over, man!".

But really all of the above was an excuse to thank you for the laugh I got out of "the Na'vi's very best tree".

Josh said...

I didn't like the film either. Here I was, all ready to agree with its politics, and they don't make sense! But then, little in the film did. As a latte-sipping etc, if I wanted to examine its politics, I would ask why humans make the best Navis.

Anyway, well-stated, Bill. I join you in your lack of regard for Cameron, though I think, along with Aliens, the first Terminator is pretty awesome, too. And The Abyss has Chris Elliott in it.

I like that phrase - "praising with faint damnation."

I edited out a dumb joke about Greg's butthole.

bill r. said...

otherbill -

As I noted over at Glenn's blog, I think Cameron has certain types of conflicts that he thinks push audience buttons- little guy vs corporation, military bureaucracy vs man in the field, environment vs exploiters- that he just inserts into each film in various configurations. He then convinces himself that the mix amounts to some sort of profound statement...

Yes, that's exactly it. I look forward to a Cameron film that features the little military vs. environmental beauracracy. He's going to get there eventually.

and I punch myself in the face til I'm dead.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!

Paxton sells "game over!" and "you want some of this motherfuck?? Oh, you want some too??" That's why everyone loves Hudson. But watch him in virtually any other scene, and you almost wince in embarrassment.

Also, thank you for the compliment.

Josh -

As a latte-sipping etc, if I wanted to examine its politics, I would ask why humans make the best Navis

Ha! Excellent point! Were you to ask Cameron, you'd probably be told that the Na'vi had turned him into a better person, and so forth. But they didn't even question why he collapsed into a heap all of a sudden every night. Not too bright, those Na'vi.

Chris Elliott is in THE ABYSS, and I don't take this lightly. And THE TERMINATOR is a good flick, that I'm frankly tired of watching.

I edited out a dumb joke about Greg's butthole.

Thank you for that.

Greg said...

I think "Nope, she's too dead" should be the title of a blog or something.

bill r. said...

Well, once I become famous, which should be just about any day now, someone will probably use it as a blog title as a way of paying homage to me.

Dr. J said...

Don't give much of a damn about Avatar, here, but Aliens IS a damn near perfect movie in my book, and much as I love the first Alien, Aliens stomps all over it for me. From the completely necessary extensive, detailed and involving opening section, to the cast of well-realized characters, to the way it segues so fluidly from one amazing technically impressive and flawlessly executed set-piece to the next, the only reasonable complaint I can see levelled against this movie is that it's all a little long and exhausting (and, okay, maybe Newt's performance isn't all it could've been), but that was never really a problem back when we all had patience for movies that took the time to develop into something complex and memorable like a symphony rather than the half-baked 3-chord rock movies aspire towards today.

bill r. said...

Dr. J, I have problem with the part of the film that takes patience -- in fact, I specifically praised that. What I became slightly bored with was the endless payoff.

I absolutely do not believe that ALIENS is better than ALIEN, but I have no huge beef with it, either. It's a good movie.

Kelly said...

They are apples and oranges in some respects. The dread factor in Alien was just so huge. The scene where Tom Skerrit is in the shaft and he knows they're coming, wants to get out so bad, and then BOOM! there it is. Man, remember the first time you saw that? Made me jump out of my skin. Aliens is more of a action picture, not as scary. I think it's one of the greatest sequels because it doesn't just try to remake the original.

bill r. said...

That's true, Kelly, they really are different films, and I do appreciate that Cameron didn't simply remake Scott's film (the fact that his approach -- same creatures, but a bunch more this time -- has been copied and abused repeatedly since then can't be held against them). But you can view the goals both films had in mind, and how well those goals were met, and I think Scott was pretty much dead on target the whole way, while Cameron's aim was a bit more scattered.

Kelly said...

Agreed. And really, no matter how good the cast of Aliens, the cast of Alien was all top shelf. Ian Holm is awesome, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto... Hard to beat. It's unfortunate that the Ash's fake head scene suffers so much from the special effects of the time... I know! Ridley Scott should update it, just like George Lucas! (Thems the, I say thems the jokes son...)

WalkerP said...

The problem with Alien (and Blade Runner suffers from this as well) is the dark and boring tunnel penultimate climax where you can't see anything. The first half, though, is sheer brilliance and space terror.

Back to Avatar, your critique is the first time I ever heard or thought of that tree being blown up as analagous to the WTC getting destroyed. Whether it is or isn't, I don't really see how that weakens what is the basic (and admittedly simplistic) premise that it is bad to hurt native people and destroy their land for resources. See, for me, it was all quite obvious and heavy-handed, but I am very much in line with the sentiment and was therefore caught up in the narrative. I was bummed when their tree fell and wanted payback and the bad militarists stopped. I was immersed, which signals a success by the filmmaker.

Where it did lose me was that the boring white hero, who couldn't decide whether he was or was not going to have an Australian accent, got to be the one to lead the tribes to the promised land and ride the big red dragon. That was lame.

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