Friday, December 18, 2009
I love James Cameron.
Let me back up. The Terminator was the first R-rated film I was allowed to watch as a child, at the ripe age of six (my parents brought down the hammer if nudity was involved, but for some reason all the violence in the world was fine, which more or less makes me a microcosm of warped American priorities in censorship). To this day, I prefer it over its smash hit sequel, not simply for nostalgic reasons but because the original is one of the most visceral and fast-paced (while still intelligent) action-thrillers ever made. As I grew, I came to admire his perfect visuals and and his Fulleresque dialogue, long before I knew who Fuller was so I could assign an "esque" to him.
Avatar, his return to science fiction following Terminator 2 and his first narrative feature since 1997's Titanic, will inevitably be lost in the hype, regardless of whether it makes back its considerable budget or flounders. It's almost impressive, given the sheer, mind-blowing, tongue-tying scope of the film. Cameron, along with the technical crew he amassed in his decade-long wait for technology to catch up to his vision, create a world that is animated but real, featuring motion-captured actors without ever looking like Robert Zemeckis' dead-eyed, creepy kid's films. The result is something, for all the inflated pre-release hysteria, truly revolutionary, even if it won't change the face of cinema as we know it.
Narratively, Avatar doesn't stray far from Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and one can easily draw lines to numerous science fiction, action, adventure and epic movies. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, the next Jude Law in terms of ubiquity), a paraplegic ex-Marine, travels to Pandora, the moon of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri to take his dead twin's place in a scientific experiment. The moon is inhabited by a species called the Na'vi, a race of 9ft tall, blue-skinned humanoids who just so happen to live on top of a reserve of unobtanium (the biggest shout-out the fictitious material has yet received). Humans cannot breathe the atmosphere, and the prospect of open war threatens PR liabilities for the company hiring all these contractors, so a group of scientists creates Na'vi -human hybrids known as Avatars. Controlled via a mental link, the Avatars allow the humans to venture into Pandora' endless forest, able to experience all of their senses while in bodies that can run for hours and withstand massive injuries. These humans believe that looking theNa'vi will gain the natives' trust, allowing for the introduction of education and modernization, along with a peaceful solution to a heartless corporation's money-grab.
As one might expect, Cameron does not exactly tackle this story, a conflict between pure, nature-loving natives and a corporation that treats an entire planet as so much dirt and sticks standing in the way of a fat quarterly report, with what we might call "subtlety." Jake works for the scientists, but his true allegiance lies with Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the leader of the mercenary forces who acts like Robert Duvall's Col. Kilgore on steroids. He infiltrates the Na'vi on the colonel's behalf, exploiting the tribe's acceptance of him when the seeds from their gigantic "Hometree " signal that he is special; naturally, the longer he stays with them, the more he comes to love their way of life. Eventually, he sides with the Na'vi over the humans.
Cameron's primary strength as a storyteller has always been his ability to cover up his vast weaknesses as a storyteller: The Terminator is, in terms of screenplays only, still his finest film, because it hits the ground running and features only two moments of pure exposition, one laced with an undercurrent of tension and the other culminating in a sex scene with some breasts. Know your audience, budding filmmakers. But with Terminator 2 and his mega-hit Titanic, he occasionally broke all narrative momentum for moments of expository dialogue and dubious displays of emotion. Aliens, in contrast to Ridley Scott's original, is absurdly direct, but so skillfully directed that one never questions the two-dimensionality of his characters or his blunt dialogue (that he would with this film seek to cover this up with actual 3-D visuals perhaps offers some insight into his mindset). This is a film where non-scientific humans are bloodthirsty killers and natives are literally in tune with nature, thanks to some funky tendrils in their hair. All roads in the story lead to Massive Firefight. Even the character names are basic and obvious: Jacob, the liar who disguised himself as his brother to steal his inheritance, infiltrates the tribe to betray them but later feels regret and shame. Cameron not only uses this story to comment upon the extermination of Native Americans that haunts America' past but on the problems plaguing our present: at one point, someone actually says the line, "We will fight terror with terror."
And yet, Avatar is more than the sum of its clichéd script. The many comparisons people have made to Dances with Wolves are certainly true, but, when you factor in the visuals, Avatar edges closer to the great cinematic tone poems of natural beauty, Baraka and the Qatsi series. The rendered world of Pandora is a living, breathing specimen, its web of tree roots serving as synapses to accept stimuli and issue responses. The Na'vi can plug themselves into this world and, by the end, so can we. This can be partially attributed to Cameron's innovative 3-D technology, used not for distracting moments where objects arbitrarily fly toward the screen and, thus, the audience but to add stereoscopic vision to the mise-en-scène (though I confess I'm still not sold on 3-D technology and would have found the film perfectly lush and overpowering without it). More than simple technological breakthroughs, though, Avatar is so captivating because Cameron threw everything into the world and its fully animated inhabitants. The plants react to the characters' touch, glowing, shrinking, expanding at under the weight of footsteps or the light caress of a finger; the animals have obvious real-life counterparts but are perfectly crafted to look like a part of Pandora itself. Cameron helps us achieve a oneness with Pandora, its unspoiled beauty contrasting harshly with the angular machines the humans bring to subjugate it. We never see Cameron's idea of a futuristic Earth, but Jake mentions once that it no longer has trees, and the harsh juxtaposition of the modern, "civilized" world and the untainted purity of "primitives" in Koyaanisqatsi.
The Na'vi, even above Pandora, are a technical marvel. Taking the innovations behind Gollum and expanding them, the Avatar crew create the most photorealistic CGI creatures yet: every moment is fluid, the gracile bodies of the towering creatures bending and twisting with pure beauty. The Na'vi also sport faces matching the actors playing them: Worthington's Avatar gradually shifts from looking bemused and stupid to a collected warrior who projects an aura that signals he's a leader of men (or Na'vi). Weaver, so authoritative and intimidating in her height and intellect among the humans but filled with awe and a dopey, nerdy glee while walking through the jungle in her Avatar.Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the warrior princess who teaches Jake and falls in love with him, is oddly, inescapably sexy. While Cameron has never completely fleshed out a character in his life and doesn't start here, the Na'vi and the humans in Avatars have personalities where the Injuns of Dances with Wolves are uniformly portrayed as noble creatures in a pathetic grab for political correctness; I was overjoyed to see a Na'vi that was just a complete dick for most of the film. I saw Avatar with a group of friends, one of whom left the theater waxing about how he too wanted to be a Na'vi after watching the film. Who on Earth wouldn't?
How then, does one rate Avatar? It's impossible to ignore its narrative deficiencies, what with its tendency to stop all plot movement for moments of blatant moralizing and its half-hearted attempt to link this pure fairy tale to political relevance (how sad it is, though, that Cameron's dialogue that concerns the War on Terror has likely been in some version of the script for years and still applies). Yet some of the breaks in the story allow us more time to marvel at Pandora's lush offerings. Even if his script is his least-engaging, least-suspenseful yet, his visuals have a maturity to them that stunned me. When Cameron retreated from fictive films to wait for the development of the necessary technology for this film, the King of the World lost his action throne to Michael Bay, an inbred Hapsburg whose malformed brain concocts ludicrous decisions that fly from jaws that cannot properly close. Compare Bay's style of hectic, sloppy filmmaking to Cameron's willingness to literally stop and smell the roses, or the poetry of a bombing run so horrific that its haunting reverie is in no way undone by James Horner's derivative score. There is true beauty in Avatar, the sort I'd never expect a director like Cameron to depict.
What James Cameron may have created, in his dogged,uncompromising, notoriously difficult way, is this generation's equivalent of Star Wars. Like Lucas' landmark cash-cow, Avatar sports a deeply clichéd, often flat-out boring story, but one filtered through the prism of such visual innovation and imagination that everything else becomes secondary. My generation never had such a film; I leeched off of Star Wars like every other kid who grew up in the '90s -- the closest thing we had to a technical breakthrough that allowed for sumptuous fantasy filmmaking was, well, Terminator 2, which could hardly introduce children to their own imagination like Star Wars or this can. As I am now old enough to see the glaring flaws of Lucas' film, and of this, I wouldn't dare proclaim Avatar a masterpiece, but it has filled every thought I've had since leaving the theater. Cameron announced that, given the time, money and resources he sank into this project he was considering writing two sequels. Where this story can go I'm not sure, but if it sets up the possibility for an Empire Strikes Back-like maturation of tone and delivery, the best is yet to come.