the better truth

the better truth

Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar (2009)

More Art, Less Matter

It would be difficult to miss the hoopla surrounding the new James Cameron feature. The man who re-sunk the Titanic, creating as much buzz as the original trans-Atlantic tragedy, has delivered his chef d’oeuvre: “Avatar” – a vast science fiction epic using the latest and greatest special effects money can buy. And money certainly was spent: $300 million production cost sans advertising. This is ironic, as the era of the HUGE budget special effects feature seemed to be heading the way of the Soap Opera. The success of “Paranormal Activity”, which was produced for less than $100,000 and grossed $150 million, seems to signal the future of the film business. The traditional movie theater is becoming as anachronistic as a newspaper.

It is hard to imagine a studio chief “green lighting” this budget-busting project in light of overall box-office carnage due to the endless small screen entertainment alternatives. The same executives employed this strategy in the 1950s with the advent of another small screen: the television. That decade saw the heretofore-static movie house “improved” with wondrous innovations such as growing screens (cinema-scope, cinarama) and outdoor settings (the studios got behind the Drive-In). There was also the development 3-Dimensional films. Well past is present: Mr. Cameron’s brave new world is delivered in a highly specialized updated version of: 3 D. (Note: I saw the 2 D version). Bigger wasn’t better. Cinamax, a technology rooted in these 1950s innovations, has had some lasting success but it’s impact on the “average” movie theater experience has been negligible. “The plays the thing” would be closer to what has traditionally drawn people to the boxoffice. Good writing, acting and directing ALWAYS trumps technology.

Cameron’s “Avatar” is very impressive. Even in the traditional format the experience is extraordinary. This is a magical world; unfortunately it fails to be a magical film. The disconnect lies in Cameron’s visionary lack of vision in understanding his own strength. This director’s best work “Aliens” and “The Terminator” exhibit co-screenwriter credits. But when the director assumes total control of the screenplay the results are “The Abyss” and “The Titanic”. Cameron should take a cue from Ridley Scott, who directed both “Bladerunner” and “Alien”. These works are the most influential sci-fi blockbusters of the latter half of the 20 century. Scott never pretended to be a writer. He focused his abilities on telling the story in a fashion that literally set standards for decades after the films’ debuts. Ironically Cameron’s sequel to Scott’s “Aliens” is a stronger film… but not as groundbreaking. Cameron egotistical need to be a self-contained “auteur” has weakened the impact of his work. Ironically the mega-hit “The Titanic” assured the money-men that Cameron could handle the task of writing and well as directing. It’s a dangerous thing for artists to judge the impact of their work merely by initial box-office reaction. “Kung Fu Panda” was the third highest grossing feature in 2008…. it is doubtful a sentient mammal would consider it the third best film.

“Avatar”’s story centers around a paraplegic soldier who steps in for his older brother, a scientist, on a complex mission where he will inhabit the body of an alien. The basic idea revolves around identity. Cameron deserves praise for having a wheelchair-bound protagonist. This is certainly a first for the sci-fi action adventure genre. Kudos as well for giving the self-discovery narrative a new dimension: IN ADDITION to wrestling with the ghost of his brother he is finding his way as an alien in another culture. Great start. Unfortunately Cameron’s mastery of spectacle cannibalizes character and storyline. His other world is very familiar in an unintentional way: the multi-million dollar landscape is chockablock with airport novel heroes who would seem more at home on daytime TV. There are the valiant magical colored people attacking evil big-business. The tough kind-hearted female scientist pitched against the ruthless bloodthirsty commander who in turn answers to the feckless corporate lackey. Cameron tries to gloss over the thin dramatic structure by throwing in a few one-liners indicating he honestly believes he’s making a parable about current politics. Anyone old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes would see the irony of a major studio insider spending hundreds of millions to launch a crunchy pro-luddite anti-corporate screed. In listening to him on the promotional tours it would seem he is sincere in believing he is a thinker and a writer. “Avatar” proves otherwise. There was an air of bragging in his revelation that it only took him 3 weeks to create the script. Given the final product, 2 days would have been sufficient (without an all-nighter). A major plot point, greedy anti-environmental interest attacking the sacred holy tree where the good guys live, appears in Wes Anderson’s “The Fabulous Mr. Fox”. Perhaps Cameron was inspired by the source material for Anderson’s work – a Roahld Dahl novel. Actually this in unlikely as Dahl and Anderson seem to possess something completely absent from Cameron’s epic – a sense of humor.

Cameron is a virtuoso with the tech – it is easy to be stricken with vertigo on the mountainscapes or be wowed by the realism of the invented language of the alien race – created by a PhD in linguistics especially for this project. The father of the new tongue was on set, and available to the actors settle questions of grammar and syntax. One wonders if the father of “Avatar” was jealous? There were probably other experts paid vast sums: anthropologists, botanists, programmers, architects, product designers…. How unfortunate the master of the Universe failed to hire a script doctor…. Or an editor. His baby wails for nearly 3 hours. One can feel that it took nearly 15 years for Cameron to bring his creation to the screen, post his 3 weeks of banging out the script. He suffered for his baby – and now you’re gonna. In the end there is a parable unfolding: Great powerful men conspiring to spend vast sums to re-conquer a lost audience. They are employing failed strategies from mid-century. “Shower them the most expensive interconnected, computer-driven extravaganza since Ben Hur!!!!!!” The audience has a limited attention span and is glued to their mini-phone screens. No matter – “stuff the movie houses with a 180 minutes of slicker versions of their video game heroes!!!!!!!” Unfortunately the targets are at home hiding behind their Avatars in a world of their own creation. When will middle-aged men understand that you can’t conquer the world by shock and awe?

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