Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What They Won't Tell You

It won't matter. Nothing I say will make the slightest bit of difference--but, hell, that's never stopped me before. Avatar is not a good movie. It's a crap re-make of a second-rate Dances With Wolves. It didn't matter that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was a bloated, incoherent, ego-driven piece-of-crap film, and it won't matter with Avatar either. Millions of us will still spend our money on it. Hell, it might even make a buck or two, even with its absurd price tag (something around a quarter billion dollars!). A lot will be written about how good a movie it is, about how it "invents a new kind of film-making," but it will all be crap. Contrary to the hype, Cameron is not an innovative film-maker. He is a film-maker with a real talent for action sequences, and we'd all probably be better off if Hollywood took on the Hong Kong idea of letting one director make the film, with a second director given the action sequences. That way Cameron could play to his strengths, and the rest of us could watch decent films with wow passages. But instead we are suffering under the auteur theory of film-making, and we are often the poorer for it.
Cameron has a talent (or maybe only a knack) for taking existing film-making techniques and pushing it to its limit, while marrying it to a decent story with some kick-ass action sequences. Take a look at his (actually small and limited) canon of film. Terminator, where he takes blue-screen and stop motion and pushes it, smartly using the stop motion to animate a robot, so that any flaws in the technique will be hidden in the character. In Terminator 2: Judgement Day, he takes a new piece of software and uses it as a visual metaphor for the mutability of evil (as opposed to the mechanical implacability nature of it in the first film). But in all his earlier work (Titanic excepted), he is kept in check by producers, money, and limitations of the medium.
Almost none of this applies to Avatar. This is Cameron's return to feature films after the blockbuster success (even in the world of event films) of Titanic. But unlike Titanic, ninety minutes into Avatar, I was offering to leave. Don't get me wrong, the action sequences left me twitching like a brook trout on a fly, and that's what the action sequences were supposed to do. But in terms of story and character, I was bored. Seriously bored. And an hour later I was praying for a planet-killing strike from space that would take out both sides of this over-wrought and pointless tale. "Kill them all and release me from this hell," I whispered, but it was not to be.
3-D has been around since forever, and like having seen Ray Harryhausen's work before seeing Terminator, I've seen a fair bit of it. Up, last summer, was a lovely little film. And the classic Creature From the Black Lagoon is still, I think, a superlative film.

The Creature--still rockin' the house since 1954

Cameron, as is usual, ramps it up, pushing the new 3-D as far as its been pushed in modern film. But that doesn't, in and of itself, make the film any better. In fact, I found that the 3-D actually interfered with my ability to watch the film some of the time, getting in the way of what story there was. The CGI? Well, its the logical next step, the next phase as long as you have the $$$$$$$ to do it. Impressive, but doesn't replace the need for characterization. Or story. Or coherence or complexity. And while the luminous nature of the world on Pandora (the planet Avatar takes place upon) is interesting, it too becomes a distraction. And yes, I got the double meaning of Avatar; both the representation of a person in a virtual world and the embodiment or personification, as of a principle, attitude, or view of life. Or even the incarnation of a deity (after all, the central character was blessed by the tree/deity of the Pandorans not once, but a couple of times). Doesn't make the film the least bit better, though.
So go--you know you're going to--and spend your money and you can even talk about how good it was afterwards (but really, isn't it more like The Dark Crystal? High concept, beautifully realized world, but the script really sucked?). But seriously, you'd be better off with the old cellophane and cardboard glasses and a copy of Creature. 'Cause there's a lot more going on there than in Avatar.

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