Master of the Universe

12/18/2009 4:00 AM |

Directed by James Cameron

After the lights go down, but before any of Avatar‘s much-touted ain’t-it-cool 3-D images fill the screen, you’re going to hear the familiar sound of a lone woodwind scored by Titanic‘s Oscar-winning composer James Horner. Then, when the movie is over, nearly three hours later, stay for the end credits and you’ll be treated to Leona Lewis mimicking, pretty impressively, “her idol,” Celine Dion. From start to finish, Avatar, James Cameron’s first full-length feature since declaring himself “king of the world“, picks up right where Titanic left off.

But you probably knew that. That would be because of Avatar‘s blitzkrieg of advanced publicity and the press coverage from which it has sometimes been difficult to distinguish. Collectively, these voices have repeated a single salient mantra: James Cameron has directed the Most Expensive Movie Ever. Again.

Like his SF and fantasy forbear, George Lucas, in the search for increasingly pricey special effects, Cameron is destined to be remembered in film history as a pusher nonpareil of Hollywood’s budgetary envelope. This is certainly some kind of achievement. But it ought to go without saying that advancing the art of computer-generated imagery—which Cameron has done again with Avatar—is not the same thing as advancing the art of filmmaking.

In Avatar, a Blackwaterish corporation recruits ex-Marine and paraplegic Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) for a mission to extract a rare mineral from the planet Pandora. Thing is, Pandora’s native people, known as the Na’vi, sleep in a giant Home Tree right on top of this coveted natural resource. This CGI race of nine-foot-tall blue elves (they’re based on motion-captures of live actors) will remind some of Jar-Jar Binks or the Blue Man Group, and others of “cats with human boobs.”

It’s Sully’s job to act as a mole. Wirelessly connected to his avatar—a cloned human-Na’vi hybrid—Sully infiltrates the indigenous tribe, pretending to learn its warrior customs while conducting recon. A conflict arises, however, when our protagonist falls for the Na’vi way of life, which has of course given him back his legs. He also falls for one of the boobed cats, played by Star Trek‘s Zoë Saldana, who inconsistently speaks in a bad West Indian accent. If you’ve seen Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, or even Lawrence of Arabia, another famously expensive epic production, you might be able to guess what Sully will do next. Storytelling has never been Cameron’s strong suit.

And so what then about the director’s specialty, the effects? The critic Glenn Kenny has made the case that Cameron’s aesthetic is primarily derived from the comic book artist Jack Kirby, and as an O.G. Marvel fan myself I can see what he’s getting at. Still, as the title implies, Avatar is a movie that looks like a video game, by design.

No doubt many fanboys, their eyes schooled in WoW, will find the world of Pandora immersive. And admittedly, the fictional planet’s neon flora and fauna are quite striking, modeled on the deep-sea creatures that have long been one of Cameron’s personal as well as artistic obsessions. (The director spent much of the twelve years between Titanic and Avatar shooting documentary footage underwater in and then editing it for 3-D theatrical release in 2003 as Ghosts of the Abyss.)

But Avatar‘s highly publicized 3-D effect, which Cameron and Tinseltown overlord Jeffrey Katzenberg keep insisting will change the face of cinema, is totally unnecessary, and even a distraction. Fifty-five years after Dial M for Murder, no filmmaker has yet been able to improve on Alfred Hitchcock’s expressive, atmospheric use of 3-D, probably because it was a silly gimmick to begin with. Movies, by definition, must create the illusion of a space that’s three-dimensional, and plenty of filmmakers over the years have been able to accomplish this without 3-D’s aid.

Cameron, working with Peter Jackson’s New Zealand-based WETA Digital, uses 3-D to expand the space on the screen so that you feel as if you are inside of it. But this technique has the unwanted effect of seeming also to enclose the space around you. I sometimes felt as if I were watching Avatar from within a giant Macy’s Christmas snow globe. Frankly, this summer’s Up deployed 3-D technology with more sophistication.

Don’t listen to me, though—I thought Titanic was a shitty film, too. Whether or not you’ll dig Avatar is ultimately a question of personal taste. It’s worth noting, though, that 2009 has seen not one but two outstanding animated films—Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Henry Selick’s Coraline—both of which were made with stop motion, a technology that’s supposedly obsolete, at least as compared to what Cameron is doing. These two films—Fantastic Mr. Fox, in particular—have natural, fully immersive settings, material worlds that appear as if they were handmade in actual three-dimensional space (and not on a computer) for the reason that they were.

Cameron obviously intends Avatar to be a critique, however broad and simplistic, of American money and militarism—after all, his hero is an embittered veteran insurgent. But it’s hard to entertain seriously the proposition that the Most Expensive Movie Ever is on the side of the underdogs, let alone the angels. When judged against scrappier pictures like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coraline, and their respective modest budgets, Avatar more closely resembles the unsavory, disproportionate strategies of Michael Bloomberg, our billionaire mayor who recently bought his own re-election, another king of the world.

Opens December 18

6 Comment

  • I’ve not seen it yet, and intend to enjoy it (even if unobtainium is the dumbest damn thing I’ve ever heard of). Still, the rare negative reviews of Avatar are far more interesting to read than all of the raves.

  • That said, many of those dollars presumably went into New Zealand’s economy, so yay!

  • I think it’s a excellent post-modern homage to Western Culture. Our mortal voices will live on forever through the glowing interconnected tree of digital media, or something, provided we can keep the capitalist militia from fucking it over in blind pursuit of profit. And maybe, if we clap hard enough, we can upload our heroes in such a way that they can live on forever with us in mutual respect and freedom.

    The sad thing is, of course, that this celebratory path around Western Culture is so thoroughly trodden that it only looks new if you throw 3D laser-cut CGI sets and costumes at it. Like a crowd-pleasing opera. This is not Cameron’s fault; stories this fundamental need telling and retelling every generation.

    Avatar is about as good a vehicle for the “culture will set you free” story as any action movie will ever be, and I think we’ll look back on it as Cameron’s masterwork. He’s no Hitchcock, but he knows how to reach his audience. That he finally gets them to root for the aliens/indians/hippie-tree-huggers instead of the cowboys makes it worth every penny.

  • raya: It will go into New Zeleand’s economy at whatever rate Mr. Jackson is paying his taxes.

    chsnyder: You’re right that stories this fundamental need retelling. But I think Mr. Fox

  • Shit, I just misspelled New Zealand. What an idiot.

  • Ben you are funny as hell, as always. I agree that JC was a douche with Titanic. I couldn’t watch the whole thing, but did hear enough of that awful Celine Dion at the Oscars that year and elsewhere ad infinitum, and yeah I noticed too that at the end of Avatar we hear her doppelg