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!"
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.