Thursday, December 24, 2009

Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)


Saw James Cameron's Avatar some days back and--well, it's definitely big; huge, even. Two hundred million dollar production budget; digital effects and filmmaking equipment developed exclusively for the picture; some fifteen years (think about it, an adolescent's lifespan) in the making; epic (and with Cameron, I mean epic) action sequences; an entire world conjured up and realized to the smallest detail (many of which have been fact-checked by a reputed scientist, no less); huge boxoffice business; the love of almost every film critic this side of the Pacific Ocean.

Big fat hairy deal.

What I see in this movie is what I've been seeing from Cameron ever since Aliens (1986)--a lust for bigger, louder, more expensive spectacle, balanced with a perfunctory attempt at 'story'--mostly boy meets girl type, though one attempt at something different slipstreamed into misogyny (True Lies, 1994), another had the input of science fiction writer Orson Scott Card (The Abyss, 1989), yet another (Aliens, 1986) took off from an earlier script by Dan O' Bannon (incorporating ideas inspired from the work of A.E. Van Vogt). The Terminator (1984), arguably Cameron's best work to date, takes its premise from two Philip K. Dick short stories: "Second Variety" (killer machines cast in human form for infiltration purposes) and "Jon's World" (traveling back in time to retrokill a menace) Seems to me it take a Dick to twist Cameron's narratives into interesting shapes; otherwise, the man thinks in a strictly linear fashion.

Case in point: Cameron's Pandora is chock full of flora and fauna, some interestingly designed, some startlingly reflexed, nearly all painted in Day-Glo colors (the mystery astrophysicist in the article I linked to above thinks this makes sense, since the planet spends days in the shadow of a gas giant, but hoo boy--calling attention to oneself much? What's the survival value of tree branches that light up like Christmas lights when you step on them?).

And what kind of creature design are we talking about? Blue skin, multiple eyes, nostrils at the clavicle, so on and so forth. All I see are physical details, physical exoticism. Don't creatures other than the Na'vi (the native sentient humanoids) have any kind of social organization, and don't these organizations interact? I'm thinking of what Hayao Miyazaki achieved with his Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997)--different species representing different factions with differing (sometimes conflicting) interests, sometimes working with each other, sometimes against each other, sometimes forming alliances of convenience, sometimes even betraying one another in a fit of perverse pique (a far cry from the usual 'humans-vs-the world' conflict Cameron cooks up).

Perhaps the Pandorians' most interesting ability is to connect with one another through a kind of biological World Wide Web, using a cilia'ed tentacle to plug in (something David Cronenberg worked into his 1999 film Existenz, and that Miyazaki gave his Ohmus in Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, 1984)); this is echoed by the humans, who climb into hi-tech coffins that project their consciousness into half-human, half-Na'vi bodies. When Cronenberg used his virtual reality device, though, it was to dive in and out of various levels of reality, all the while questioning our grasp of the same; the Pandorians use it for far simpler tasks, as a stress reliever, conference caller, all-around distress signal to Eywa, the planet's global consciousness: "Humans too powerful. Send help!"

A similar appeal is made in Mononoke Hime, only the response of the Shihigami (Miyazaki's equivalent of the Eywa) is more complex--the Shishigami stays silent, not because it's planning some kind of cunningly timed counterstrike or because it doesn't care but because taking sides is literally against its nature. "He takes life as well as gives life?" someone exclaims when the Shishigami lovingly kills a creature. Miyazaki gives you the full implications of how life processes work, the sacrificial as well as symbiotic relationships, the tragedy, reality, grandeur.

The filmmaker, one might add, puts forth a fully formed point of view in his films; a decidedly eco-centric one, but no less complex or nuanced than that of any other great artist. Like Cameron he has developed his own alien worlds; in the case of, say, Nausicaa you can see a consistent, rigorously thought-out rationale for the way that world looks or works (Basically a reversal of scale, where tiny creatures like flies, grubs and centipedes take on monstrous size (almost as if in response to our relentless abuse), and the world is so polluted that the cleansing of poisons takes precedence over humanity's survival), and in fact the secret behind the way Miyazaki's world works is key to the film's plot. Cameron's eco-stance as evidenced in Avatar pretty much boils down to: "You military, you bad man"--plenty of feeling, I'm sure, but not a lot of thought or science, much less philosophy.

Maybe my biggest gripe about Cameron's chuckleheaded naturefest is the nature of the antagonists fighting on the opposing side. Judging from his previous films, Cameron is no stranger to the military; he knows how they talk, how they think, how most of all they fight--why are the military characters he's created for this particular picture so mentally retarded? His humans profess to be trying to 'win the hearts and minds of the natives' yet bulldoze trees behind the natives' backs; they attack the natives with righteous fury, but just what is the source of their righteousness? Cameron attempts to draw parallels between his movie and the Iraq War, but one must remember that no matter how wrongheaded or misinformed the military's leaders were in starting that war, they did have a perfectly understandable (if not perhaps absolutely justifiable) cause: the World Trade Center attack.

What's this movie's 9/11--a wrecked tank camera? I sat there watching the military's assault with an appalled expression on my face, just like everyone else's, but I was probably appalled for a different reason--not that the military would go to war on such piss-poor grounds, but that Cameron was too lazy to think of a more convincing excuse (even George Bush Jr. had to dream up--sorry, drum up--Weapons of Mass Destruction). The military mind has its flaws, but it's not outrageously stupid; I'm no fan, but even I wouldn't grant my worst enemy that kind of sloppy, unthinking contempt.

As for the digital effects--yeah, they look okay. No, I haven't seen anything quite like them before. Yes, Cameron has pushed the edge of the envelope, techonologywise. Every time I hear talk of cutting edge effects in movies, I can't help but think of The Jazz Singer (1929), which ushered in the age of synchronized sound. No one can possibly understate the significance of that development; no other technological advance can compare to that film's impact--not color, not widescreen, not 3-D, not even Cameron's much-ballyhooed digital revolution. Synchronized sound changed the nature of cinema, introduced the aural effect as complementary if not equal companion to the moving image.

Thing is, The Jazz Singer isn't a very good film--melodramatic and not a little racist. Tech innovations do not guarantee a good film (much less a great one); often it's the third or fourth film along that is the narrative as well as visual stunner. Don't know why this happens--I'm guessing the director is often too focused on his inventions to bother with story and acting (y'know, the human element, what Cameron and director George Lucas among others seem to keep trying to weed out of their pictures). Hence: Willis O'Brien's King Kong (1933) wasn't his first but actually seventh or eighth film using stop-motion animation; Disney's Flowers and Trees (1932) was the first Technicolored short and a big hit, but color and colored sequences had been around since at least 1916. What Cameron basically developed is the quarter of a billion dollar equivalent of a brand-new paintbrush; all we need to do is sit and wait for a real artist to come along and use it.

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33 comments:

HarryTuttle said...

Very pertinent analysis of this sensationalist event. Great article. Especially the comparison to Miyazaki who has more creativity and depth. The floating mountains come from him too.

Although I think the war allegory has less to do with Iraq than with the colonial occupations of Africa and South America (for ore exploitation), where the natives had to be "converted" or exterminated; or maybe closer to the American culture : the Far West indians (bows and arrows, tribes, war paints, animism...) and the gold rush.

Dominic K. Laeno said...
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Noel Vera said...

Yeah, NPR gave an account of that facial capture thing. Didn't know they used it on Fincher's flick too.

Thing is, there already is facial capture technology--has been for years, too. It's called stop-motion animation, especially when done by Jan Svankmajer.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks, Harry.

I'm thinking Cameron (who hardly qualifies as a sophisticated, much less profound political thinker) was aiming for a grab-bag of imperalist abuses, from Native American (he's admitted as much on interviews) to Iraq ("win the hearts and minds of the natives"). If it jelled, it might have actually meant something and the film might actually acquire some kind of gravitas. As is, it's cartoon aping, somewhere in the line of Inglourious (at least with Inglourious--not that I'm much of a fan--Tarantino is aware of his aping).

Dominic K. Laeno said...
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Noel Vera said...

No Cameron's system is totally different. From what I understand, he has a helmet or head attachment that continually records the actors' expressions, a kind of head camera pointed straight at the face.

Dominic K. Laeno said...
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Behaviour Brad said...

Apart from the obvious debt to Miyazaki that everyone noticed (Mononoke, Nausicaa and Laputa), I wonder whether he lifted themes from Frank Herbert - most of his Ship series (the Jesus Incident, the Lazarus Effect) in particular takes place on a planet called Pandora, which has these crazy monsters and a telepathic kelp named Avata that links all the living creatures (except the destructive humans) into a psychic web.

Noel Vera said...

I don't think I ever read The Jesus Incident or The Lazarus Effect; I did manage to read his very first novel Dragon in the Sea--it was okay. You might have a point, but then remember--Herbert was also a huge inspiration to Miyazaki, so the influence may have come that way.

Noel Vera said...

Dom, the fight scenes were okay, but you really want to see something by Liu Chia Liang or Tsui Hark or even John Woo for a truly coherent fight sequence.

As for aerial dogfights, Nausicaa's was impressive, but my touchstone would be Porco Rosso, where not only do you see a coherently choreographed battle, even the tactics and particular maneuvers are made crystal clear.

Cameron's a dilettante when it comes to action. There are far better filmmakers (Oshii in Sky Cralwers also comes to mind).

I agree Lino Brocka's so much more superior to Cameron it isn't even funny, but Brocka's films are also simplistic; what gives them their power is the sense of urgency, the verite feel, and if you're familiar with Filipino history at the time, how neatly the film summarizes all the various events and threads into a single dramatic story.

For a truly great Brocka film, though, check out his triptych: Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, and above all, Insiang.

Dominic K. Laeno said...

What I like about Cameron is that he's at least COHERENT (the final sequences in Avatar, among being fun, actually made sense... at least insofar as what everyone was doing was concerned: I was quite fond of the knife battle and could actually follow the choreography in great detail [which is something that I can't quite say with Christopher Nolan or whatever])...

But, you know... Cameron has a sensibility that hasn't left the 80s (pretty sure he pushed the "80s action flick" movement forward)... still, yeah, I pretty much get what I expect when viewing his movies, so in that regard, it actually isn't disappointing (cheese cheese chesse... but cheese is still cheese at the end of the day; HEY... I like Yoshiaki Kawajiri [Ninja Scroll, Highlander: The Search For Vengeance], so why not?).

ALSO, I've seen HARDBOILED and that was a cool movie (even if the entire hospital shootout didn't make sense as far as the plot was concerned... but at that point, I was just wowed by all the amazing gun-fu acrobatics); there's even a neat sequence where Woo holds a take for like 2 minutes...

Though, like, as everyone knows, Cuaron killed pretty much everyone with his "Children of Men" movie; it was like: JESUS... that's a lot of choreography (though, the best part about that movie was that it wasn't really an "action movie").

Noel Vera said...

I'd beg to differ about Cameron; his fight sequences in The Abyss were wretchedly edited. In Avatar they're okay, but I think the examples I cited are much better.

Hard Boiled, sure; check out A Better Tomorrow or Bullet in the Head for possibly his best work to date. I'm actually a fan of Windtalkers--not historically accurate (to put it mildly), but the filmmaking!

I think Cuaron's is cheating--once you get digital in everything feels like cheating (I include the corridor sequence in Oldboy). That said, I do like Cuaron's film.

Dominic K. Laeno said...

Still, even with digital intervention (and, at a lot of points, it's actually getting very hard to tell now: David Fincher's movies, for example... he digitally painted out so much stuff in ZODIAC [a satellite dish in the background... which would've cost $30,000 to disassemble as opposed to the much cheaper alternative: digitally painting it out] and, interestingly enough, Fincher has sworn off using "squibs" for gunshots since he doesn't like having to go through a million duplicates of wardrobe (with blood, without blood, a double for a costume that will have blood spilled on it, etc.); I was surprised to learn that all of the gunshot wounds and whatever in his last two movies were all done digitally), Cuaron actually still does arrange all of that stuff and spent a lot of time planning the shots (like the scenes inside the car with Owen and Moore: Cuaron talked about how they built some kind of special camera device to fit the camera into the car and get the shots he wanted... if he and his team didn't come across the solution the way they did, Cuaron was actually going to do that scene with blue-screen)...

Also, I've not seen The Abyss, actually, but I'll take your word for it...

I'm mostly thinking about T2 (as that is the freshest in my memory); I was just surprised that everything made sense (I was even fond of that part where the Governator stunt-double was climbing around the sliding truck; that was really cool... though, probably not as cool as cops in Sidney Lumet's The Anderson Tapes hopping from one roof of a building to another; now THAT was stuntwork, I felt, mainly because it seemed like Lumet got some actual dudes from the police force to show the viewer how it would possibly be done in real life... yes, topic derailed, but what am I gonna do?).

Noel Vera said...

I really really don't think much of Terminator 2. That helicopter chase sequence--check out Darkman which came out roughly the same time--how do the two chases compare?

Digital effects opened up a Pandora's box--you don't know just how dangerous it is, or if it's all just safety lines and padding. How dangerous were the fight scenes in Avatar, if you know they basically shot everything in a warehouse?

Now Jackie Chan--THAT'S stuntwork. Project A, Police Story, the great Drunken Master 2. And from the outtakes you KNOW it's painful. He didn't cheat much.

Dominic K. Laeno said...

Yeah, I see what you mean:

There's a certain "edge" there when the actors aren't cheating and actually have to do the work themselves (and the Jackie Chan outtake reels are always great).

I remember that Paul Greengrass article you posted a long while back and it was really interesting to see the mindset behind the "Hong Kong" style of set construction and action staging.

Noel Vera said...

You mean David Bordwell's site? He's good on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, analysis and such.

Dominic K. Laeno said...

Yeah, that one.

Incredible read.

But, yeah, totally see what you mean with the HK movie examples; the article talked about how action stunts are also part of the "acting" and that, if you actually choreograph coherently, you cannot "cheat" the actions and it requires good acting and making unwasted movements.

I should dip more into HK cinema; I actually watched Johnnie To's TRIAD movies on your recommendation from a long while back and they were really really good.

That said, man...

Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movie was pretty boring; not that I'm a big Holmes buff... but it was a boring movie; sleuthing wasn't all that interesting.

Noel Vera said...

Only Richie I ever liked was Swept Away, the remake of Lina Wertmuller's film. Don't get me wrong, Wertmuller is twice the filmmaker Richie is and more of a man than he can ever hope to be, but at least you get to see Madonna being slapped around.

the lone gunman said...

Dude, great article as usual. You pointed out every nuance of the film, again to a fault. Don’t get me wrong, I basically agreed with everything you wrote about but the bottom line is I still think Avatar is an entertaining enough movie. I mean, I actually enjoyed it; it has all the oohs and ahhs that one expects from a gazillion-jillion dollar effects-juggernaut without plumbing the depths of Transformers 2; and enough adequately made action sequences for the more jaded viewer like yourself (I agree the action sequences of HK cinema makes mince meat out of most America can offer but I didn’t think the action in the Abyss was sloppy). That said, I believe the 2 hour 45 minute running time of Avatar was way too short; the story is never fleshed out and is….shallow at best. I don’t think Cameron was going for parallels of the Iraq war per se, to my mind (at least while I was watching the movie), he was going for a Pocahontas, er I mean, a Dances with Wolves, er sorry, Native American type of Imperialist abuse. He even got Wes Studi to voice Eytukan, the Na’vi Chieftain, for cripes sakes.
The whole love story, “chick-flik” angle that Cameron made a big deal about was horribly under developed as well. The love story and the gazillion-jillion dollar boat was what made Titanic the hit it was. But the love story there is basically inconsequential and had nothing to do with the sinking of the boat. This cannot be said about Avatar, I mean, a whole planet’s future is literally riding on it. At least, Costner had enough sense to know that slapping pelvises with Mary McDonnell wouldn’t have resulted in the great U.S. of A not becoming a nation; Cameron here, seems to forget it.
What isn’t in the article and what I was hoping you’d talk about, is how HOT Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri is! She’s the only reason I’ll watch the movie again; not the 3D, not the wooden Sam Worthington, not even the day-glo foliage of Pandora, just her. I can’t believe you of all people didn’t pick up on that, or is it just me?

Noel Vera said...

"he story is never fleshed out and is….shallow at best"

We're not so far apart then, stancewise; it's our reactions that differ.

As for Saldana--yes, she's hot (she was hot in Star Trek). I guess the prospect of taking down this movie and pissing on its remains got the better of me...

ChrisJ said...

Great review... of course. I referenced you on a couple of my latest postings about the movie.

Bravo.

Chris J.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks, Chris! I'll try look them up. And hope you had a good holiday weekend...

Dominic K. Laeno said...

Since we were talking about it earlier, Noel, can you chime in on your thought about this?

http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2010-01-04/funimation-add-shaw-brothers-live-action-films

Don't know a lot about Shaw Brothers, but the trailer looked awesome.

Noel Vera said...

That's great news--not to mention some of these are lesser-known titles, not just the works of Chang Cheh, Liu Chia Liang or King Hu.

Dominic K. Laeno said...

Cool, so where do I start?

I'll let you lead the way.

Dominic K. Laeno said...
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Dan Harper said...

I haven't seen 'Avatar' and, thing is, I don't even need to. Every time a movie comes up with an alien they always make the same mistake - they make them bi-laterally proportionate.

Noel Vera said...

That's a good point--who's to say aliens should have two hands and legs? Or even bodies? Solaris, 2001 showed some alternative forms...

Anonymous said...

---About 85% of these posts
sound like they came straight out
of the studio promotional department.

---Sad if true.

---Even sadder if it isn't.

DON'T be a circle-jerk worshipper.

Noel Vera said...

Okay, before I leave my foot in my mouth, let me clarify: does this refer to 85% of my blog posts, or 85$ of the comments on this blog post?

smartskxawng said...

The story is just fine. It's not shallow or weak at all.

smartskxawng said...

So what if the Na'vi resemble humans? Look at Star Trek. The Vulcans strongly resemble humans, and so do the Klingons. Also look at Star Wars. There are weird aliens in that movie, but there are also humans, and it takes place in a distant galaxy.

Noel Vera said...

Star Wars isn't science fiction. If you want a more convincing view of interstellar relations among aliens, check out, oh, Larry Niven among others. Star Trek early on was hampered by a tiny budget--all they could do was paste rubber horns on small time actors. The mold was set from then to the movies.

But that's not my main point re: Avatar. It's uncomplicated, simpleheaded, naive. Check out, oh, Return of A Man Called Horse, or Princess Mononoke for a more sophisticated view of relations between races, or species.

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