Sunday, November 6, 2011
AVATAR - Canknuckle-Headed Canuck Cameron might feel like he's on top of the world, but watching his films can make you feel like a bottom feeder
AVATAR (2009) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Jake Sully, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Wes Studi and Giovanni Ribisi
RATING (out of ****) **
By Greg Klymkiw
Given how little use I've had for the Kapuskasing, Ontario-born James Cameron since his great film The Terminator, I was prepared to hate Avatar.
I was, however, rather indifferent about it. On the plus side, it has terrific special effects, a serviceable science fiction premise and it's never boring. On the down side, it has terrific special effects, a serviceable science fiction premise and it's never boring. In other words, the picture is neither a win or a loss, but a draw. In my books, a draw is definitely nothing to be proud of. In fact, there are times when a spectacular loss can be endowed with considerable merit in its folly alone. Alas, this is not such a movie. It's a winner - sort of.
Of course, some might wonder why I have no use for Cameron, especially considering my penchant for genre pictures. Well, there are a lot of reasons, but the big three are as follows:
1. Cameron somehow managed to lose the sense of humour he displayed in The Terminator. Humourless action movies are a dime a dozen and he's been strangely unable to crack a dark sardonic smile since Schwarzenegger uttered the famous words, "I'll be back."
2. Cameron utilizes (save for The Terminator) lots of noise and bluster to generate suspense and excitement - pounding your pulse rate with wild cymbal-smashes and brute-force baseball bat blows instead of finely wrought and generated thrills that stick in the craw, slide slowly down the throat, burrow into the innards until they shockingly charge back up through the upper torso and uncontrollably spew globs of nasty undigested bits of viscous-enveloped matter into the audience's collective faces.
3. Cameron is earnest. Being earnest is bad enough when it belongs to dour National Film Board of Canada documentaries about children with learning disabilities who find teachers they can really relate to, but when it hangs like a constipated turd from the anus of an action director, it's virtually intolerable.
Avatar suffers from all three, but what made it SLIGHTLY watchable for me is that the bluster is finally more controlled, and therefore, ALMOST effective while the earnestness factor manages, at the very least, to generate some surprisingly interesting ideas regarding other life forms in the universe as well as some noodlings on the themes of American colonization, genocidal acts on behalf of corporate superpowers and the exploitation of natural resources
At the end of the day, though, the movie leaves me cold. I admire some of the craft, but I never have the feeling I'm experiencing a picture that truly engages.
One of the primary reasons it doesn't fully engage is that it's impossible to latch wholeheartedly onto any of the characters. If the movie had been endowed with at least a villain on a par with Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator instalment (which gave that film something to negate the dour humourlessness of the stalwart Kyle Reese, the hero played by Michael Biehn), then structurally and otherwise, Avatar might have gone the sort of distance it needed to go to achieve the same kind of relentless energy. Instead, we're forced to follow the slender tale of a paraplegic soldier whose mind melds with an avatar of an alien on a distant planet so he can join a scientific team to gather data that will allow an American corporate superpower to exploit the natural resources of the planet. While amongst the planet's blue-coloured indigenous populace, the soldier comes to understand the simple, spiritual and wholly environmental ways of these New-Agey warriors and joins them in battling the nasty, would-be conquerors.
The characters are finally little more than caricatures and ultimately, since most of them are jolly blue computer generated giants that are oddly not very pleasing to the eye, it's no wonder we're not too wrapped up in their struggle. This is not to say that caricatures in an action picture are always a bad thing, but there has to be some zip and oomph in the writing to give them the resonance that makes you bounce up and down in your seat with the same kind of giddiness that Schwarzenegger inspired in The Terminator. All Avatar has going for it is a humourless hero and heroine and a couple of villains who offer little more than mild amusement value.
Another disappointing element of the picture is the IMAX 3-D theatrical format itself and the fact that the true joys of 3-D are never exploited to their fullest because Cameron is so humourless and earnest that he doesn't actually let himself loose and wholeheartedly embrace the real reason anyone might want to see a 3-D picture. In the 50s, when 3-D burst on the screen, filmmakers went out of their way to throw things at the camera lens (or audience) so that it actually felt like a tomahawk or spear or some other projectile was hurtling right towards you. During the brief revival of 3-D in the 70s and 80s, it was more of the same - most notably in Paul Morrissey's film of the Andy Warhol production of Frankenstein (AKA Flesh For Frankenstein) where gooey, blood splattered guts dangled disgustingly before you. In recent years, 3-D has become so boring, so non-exploitative that most of the 3-D films are better off being viewed in flat 2-D. The exceptions to this are few and far between - the otherwise unwatchable Polar Express and the unjustly maligned Journey to the Centre of the Earth at least delivered on the roller coaster ride pleasures to be had in 3-D. Avatar is far too humourless and earnest to engage wholeheartedly in the deliciously exploitative pursuit of throwing stuff in our faces and/or taking us on harrowing amusement park rides. Cameron's more interested in using the 3-D technology to paint a portrait of a "real" fantasy world. This doesn't really cut the mustard since it's not a real world anyway - it all looks and feels computer generated.
This is not to say I have a problem with special effects LOOKING like special effects. The great stop-motion animation of Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen look like effects - in fact, they ALWAYS looked like effects, even when I was a kid I knew they weren't "real". That, of course, never mattered as there was also a huge effort to create a world that existed ONLY on the silver screen while making us care and believe in ALL the characters such as those in King Kong or Jason and the Argonauts. When we watched those movies, we truly felt immersed in a cinematic land of spectacle, but the pictures worked because the stories themselves seemed infused with a heart, a core of human emotion and where the special effects were there to truly serve the STORY and CHARACTER.
With Avatar, it's the opposite of that. Cameron, always the technophile knot-head, cares more about the effects and visual razzle-dazzle than anything else. This should have come as no surprise since it doesn't take much to remind me of the fact that in the appalling Titanic, so much time and attention was lavished on making the great ship sets as technically and historically accurate as possible, yet no time or effort was placed upon making the characters SOUND, MOVE or even LOOK (beyond the costumery) like they lived in the Edwardian period (save for Billy Zane's mincingly delicious bit of nastiness and Kathy Bates impersonation of Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure).
Sam Raimi is the perfect example of a truly great filmmaker since many of his pictures are laden with makeup, optical and/or digital effects, but they're all there in service of the movies themselves, as well as being infused with a delicious, nasty, funny pulp sensibility. Or how about the wonderfully insane Paul Verhoeven who dazzles us with his dark wit and delicious comic-book stylings? These filmmakers are certainly in direct contrast to Cameron who is, finally, a cold, calculating man of craft - a proletarian George Lucas, if you will. And on top of it all (and not the top of the world, by any means), Cameron is just one big square.
One thing in Cameron's screenplay for Avatar that I responded to positively was the world of the aliens and how a blend of the spiritual with physical allowed the blue goodies to live as one within their natural world - tethering soul and physiology so that all living creatures are tied together and not just with each other, but with the dimension of the afterlife and the ghosts of the past and the spirits of the planet's ancestors. This is such a lovely and intriguing element that it's sad to note that it leads us to one of the big flaws/holes in Cameron's screenplay. When the scientist, played by Sigourney Weaver, pleads with the corporate boss to not unbalance the delicate balance of the aliens' world, it's simply all too predictable how the New World Order-styled nasty-pants played by Giovanni Ribisi rejects this. What didn't jell with me on this front was the fact that Weaver's character could and should have used her expertise in dealing with corporate lackeys to fund her research by trying to argue that the minerals the Americans are trying to exploit are, in fact, less lucrative than trying to get to the bottom of how the aliens live. This latter secret seems even more ripe for corporate exploitation and that this is NEVER even brought up is an idiotic omission.
As the story, such as it is, is crafted, this logical pitch on the scientist's part is all but ignored (and probably not even considered) by Cameron's script. One can only surmise that if it HAD been bandied about at the writing stage, the possibility of Weaver pitching the Aliens' ecology as being far more valuable than the mineral deposits might have completely decimated the need for Cameron to blow things up real good. It might have turned into one of those great sci-fi films from the 60s and 70s where the movies really were about something.
There would, ultimately, be no bluster, no noise. And that, finally, is all Cameron is really all about. As a filmmaker, he's the equivalent to a New Year's Eve noisemaking party favour.
Avatar is cold, lifeless, humourless and only marginally better than Cameron's previous work in this genre (save for the original Terminator). Like most of his films, it's aimed at all the fanboy (and fangirl) bone-brains who get off on attending screenings dressed as their favourite characters. No doubt, the Avatar fans will be arriving en masse to the theatres with blue paint smeared all over their faces and making all the Star Trek, Star Wars and Rocky Horror deadheads look like Rhodes Scholars.
Happily, the picture's adjusted for inflation gross will still never begin to approach that of a REAL hit like Gone With The Wind. However, Avatar, no matter how you slice it - is going to be one hell of a monumental hit by contemporary standards.
It could, however, have been so much more.
"Avatar" is available on fully-loaded and impressively produced Blurays and DVDs. This review originally appeared in a slightly different form at Daily Film Dose.