Sunday, February 7, 2010

Avatar (Cameron 2009)

If I was 15 there's a good chance I'd think this was an amazing film but since that's been a long time ago now all I think is why so many awards are going to what is in every respect except budget a B-movie. Yes that does sound almost like a compliment but I mean it's closer to one of those lame Lippert productions that MST3K loved to ridicule (except that Avatar is mostly an animated film). It probably doesn't take any more than 15 minutes into Avatar than you can predict the entire story. Isn't there supposed to be some kind of second act twist? Or did Cameron (who can still direct an action sequence like nobody's business but shouldn't be writing his own films) believe that he'd actually done that? Michelle Rodriguez could have hooked him up with a Lost writer or two. (Just imagine The People teaming up with The Others leading a herd of polar bears.)

Some stray thoughts:

* So 140 years into the future when they send a super-expensive piece of biotech out into the field nobody bothers to put a GPS into it?

* The aliens are a mix of generic American Indians and Ewoks (and mostly "played" by black actors) while the evil miners & soldiers are almost all white guys. Did nobody point this out to Cameron? Or was a working title for the film Liberal Guilt? (Though not guilty enough for Cameron to realize how racist this is.) Can you imagine if he'd swapped Rodriguez and Ribisi's roles? Or better yet had the mining boss played by, say, Oprah?

* This good v. evil idea is also why the military sequences are deliberately evocative of Vietnam movies. Notice how the opening sequence is mostly VTOL-type craft but later we get what are essentially helicopters. I couldn't help but think of a line from Gardens of Stone where somebody says how can the enemy possibly hope to win by fighting helicopers with bows and arrows and the response is how could they possibly hope to defeat an enemy that would fight helicopters with bows and arrows.

* One reason for making the aliens that way is Cameron wanted them to be utopian and one function of utopias over the past four centuries is to criticize the existing social structure. But Cameron really should have been telling a story and he's made them so perfect that at some point there's really no drama. Even trying to make them underdogs he went so far to underpower them that he had to create a "flux" to reduce the power of most human weapons and vehicle. Apparently even that didn't satisify him and in the film's most jaw-dropping moment (again, not meant in a good way) he used a literal deus ex mundus to save the aliens. (Mama Planet has a sense of dramatic timing - note how she didn't bother attacking until it would change the course of the battle.)

* Why even bother making Jake lame? The story would have played out almost exactly the same if he wasn't and actually might have been more interesting if he had a conflict between duty and what he's seeing rather than wanting to get an operation. (Though honestly I'm not really sure if viewers are supposed to believe he's thinking at all considering how little is devoted to anything except his Dances With Wolves moments.)

* And like the Costner film this is in a long line where some white guy shows minorities/Third Worlders/indigenous people how they can save themselves and live a proper life. (Or similarly a man showing women how to be women in Tootsie.) What seems so obvious in stuff from the 30s & 40s probably gets a pass now if we have to read subtitles.

* So Rodriguez does show up to rescue our heroes from prison. Good for her. But wait - didn't she disobey direct orders and visibly break ranks? Shouldn't she be in prison herself waiting a court martial?

* For a world that's so deadly (I half expected something on the order of Harry Harrison's Deathworld) it's notable that by the end bodies can lie in the forest for hours and nothing tries to nibble on it. Maybe The People don't taste so good. Ever notice how many designers (or creative consultants if that's their title) when trying to come up with alien wildlife just add a couple of limbs? Now why would animals that live in a heavily undergrown jungle need extra legs? Especially on a planet that we're told has lower gravity (though apart from that bit of dialogue there's nothing else to indicate it).

* I also can't help wondering why the shaman woman knew the Tree of Life can transfer a consciousness. Is that something they do often? An inspired guess?

* The frequent use of 2008/9 slang ("bitch" etc), attitudes and the simplistic story mean that viewers in a 30-40 years will think this is just as dated as old stuff seems to us now. The dialogue part in SF is always tough because if you try to make it too much like a potential future then you're likely to lose readers/viewers (think of A Clockwork Orange (book not film) or Riddley Walker). Still, Cameron didn't even bother trying. Dude, the computers are just toys - they can't improve the film.

* Nobody cares but it was odd (well not too odd, in fact barely even worth mentioning) watching Drag Me to Hell in the morning and then going to this later and seeing the same character actor Dileep Rao (psychic and scientist respectively). He's been in exactly two feature films and I just happened to see them on the same day.