Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
January 2010

Blue moon

Cameron shoots for the stars, but offers less than meets the eye

Avatar (3-D)
20th Century Fox
Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Lang, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Michelle Rodriguez and Wes Studi
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 42 minutes
(out of four)

The buzz surrounding Avatar is that, technologically at least, it's a game-changer. And who is anyone to doubt the technical wizardry of James Cameron? Even before this movie - his pet project of the last decade - he'd done more for effects-laden blockbuster filmmaking than anyone not named Spielberg or Lucas. And all that with a modest six films to his credit. (No, I'm not counting Piranha Part Two.)

We've been told this movie is the cinematic Rushmore of the 21st Century, and people have been praising it as "revolutionary" almost as if it's a preconceived notion. But we seem to be jumping the gun here. As a piece of cinema, all hype aside, how revolutionary is it really? Because all the advancements we see on screen are no more than moderate expansions on the advancements of Peter Jackson, David Fincher, Robert Zemeckis and the like.

The most notable discoveries about the film's technology - to me, at least - had to do with the way Cameron was able to observe his actors and his digital backgrounds simultaneously, allowing a fluidity between actors and the effects surrounding them so often lacking in CGI movies. That kind of breakthrough is arguably the film's most impressive aspect. But most of what we see on screen is just a polished version of what we've been seeing over and over, with increasing frequency, for the last few years.

Perhaps the element Cameron has been touting most is the "state-of-the-art" 3-D technology for which Avatar was designed. But that is the film's least impressive and most distracting element - though I give Cameron credit for using it more subtly than most of his 3-D predecessors. I should take a moment to offer this disclaimer before proceeding with the review - this is based exclusively on a 3-D screening of the film. My reaction may be significantly different when I get around to seeing it in glorious 2-D, and when that time comes, I reserve the right to amend this review or add an entirely separate piece altogether.

As far as the version that I saw is concerned, the 3-D trend/gimmick/sideshow continues to baffle. In fact, "3-D" is a gross misnomer anyway, since the process actually draws more attention to the fact that we're looking at two-dimensional images. There is no illusion of realistic vision whatsoever - only staggered planes of focus that are all, in and of themselves, flat.

Consider the shot early in Avatar after Cpl. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has just awoken from hyper-sleep. He emerges from his chamber in an endless zero-gravity corridor, and all we see are slightly rounded-off cardboard cutouts of human beings - a dull reminder of the artifice of the projection format.

Cameron spent the greatest attention to detail on the visuals - he certainly didn't waste too much effort on the screenplay, that's for sure - and indeed there are some rather exquisitely rendered sequences that we can marvel in for their own sake, if nothing else. The 3-D disrupts the experience, of course, but I suspect that is the one area that would gain the most from 2-D. Without all the false dimensionality getting in the way, we could soak in the richness of the world Cameron spent years envisioning and creating.

Even so, those visuals only get the film so far - and at a certain point, they become monotonous. Avatar takes place about 150 years from now on a moon called Pandora, where humans (namely, the military and government-funded scientists) have colonized in an area inhabited by nine-foot humanoid aliens called the Na'vi.

By day, Pandora looks like King Kong's Skull Island crossed with FernGully, and by night it looks like someone turned on the blacklight in the bedroom of a teenager who bought all his home decor at Spencer Gifts. (All that's missing is a lava lamp or two.) While the blacklight motif gets a bit old, there are moments that are poignant for the beauty of the images themselves.

Unfortunately, the pedestrian narrative arc and often-abysmal writing keep the film from even approaching the scope of its ambitions. It may be easy to just write off Avatar's screenplay weaknesses as just being par for the course in an action drama, but that's not being fair to action dramas - nor true to Cameron's intentions.

It's clear that he has an epic scope in mind; this is meant to be meaningful, substantive, even socially relevant. (The environment, wheeee!) But only in fits and starts does it ever achieve any of those things. More often than not, the actors are finessing their way through stilted dialogue - "I was born to do this!" or "We're not in Kansas anymore!" - while playing out a story that seems as familiar as a black/white buddy comedy or an opposites-attract rom-com. In this case, we get the patented Dances With Wolves/white man's imperialist guilt prototype.

That it manages to feel fresh and alive in certain sequences is a testament to Cameron's gifts as a stylist and commitment to developing a fully imagined, fully realized universe. The film also serves to remind us of his tremendous abilities as an action director. During his heyday from The Terminator in 1984 to True Lies a decade later - with Aliens, The Abyss and Terminator 2 (still his greatest achievement) sprinkled in between - no one did it better. He may not have crafted his greatest action setpieces in Avatar, but it still puts most of the big-budget directors who have tried to carry his torch during his 12-year-absence to shame.

I confess, once again, that a 2-D experience may put some of my qualms to rest. Some, but not all, I suspect. Thinking about the film, I go back to what I wrote in response to 2012 (not that the two films are equivalent) - that is, what Cameron seems to be relying on is the very idea of Spectacle for its own sake. In a small way, at least. A fantastical CGI world! With bright glowing lights! And bright blue people! And explosions! And shiny things! And it's coming at you in 3-D!!

If he had justified that spectacle with a story worth telling and characters that transcended their archetypes (only Neytiri, the love interest played by Zoë Saldana, provides the film with a genuine soul), then I would have no complaint. But instead, he's spent the vast majority of his energy trying to create the image of something epic, rather than an epic itself.

We all remember the last time Cameron set the world on fire in 1997, when Titanic shattered records across the globe. It was immediately touted as a landmark - and without question, its technical achievements were astounding. But looking at it, you don't see many people emulating Titanic now. A dozen years after the fact, it's aged as poorly as any Best Picture winner this side of Driving Miss Daisy. We see it now as a self-parody. I wonder if, when the dust settles, Avatar will suffer something of the same fate. Hackneyed melodrama and embarrassing writing are among the elements the two films have distinctly in common.

On the other hand, the fact that Avatar - which had no brand recognition and little star power in the weeks leading up to its release - has been such a massive financial success is encouraging. In an age where pre-existing properties are everything, it tells us there's an appetite for bold filmmaking and original storytelling. That's a great sign. It's just too bad Cameron couldn't put enough weight behind it to make it stick.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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