Is 'Avatar' nothing but overrated tripe? Well, in order to answer this question, we need to take a good, long look at James Cameron's career. Join me as we revisit the wondrous highs and the disappointing lows of Sci-fi's greatest sell-out.
On December 18, 2009, something amazing happened. For the first time in over a decade, a movie directed by James Cameron enjoyed a silver screen debut.
And, regardless of what defenses dumb geeks will try to muster, it sucks.
This judgment is not all that hard to come across. I'm certainly not the first person to bring it up. We'll wait to go into depth on that, though, because I need to head some geeks off at the past first. No, we're not heading them off at the pass, but at the past.
You see, some sci-fi fans will hear me refer to 'Avatar' as an atrocity, and they'll rush to divert my attention in a fit of damage control. Ah, they say, you must not forget who this is that we are talking about! It is James Cameron! Hollywood considers him the respectable sci-fi director! He has given us so much! He directed the Major Motion Picture Event of the late nineties! Do not impugn his honor, sir, or there will be a duel!
(Actually, they wouldn't say that last part, though I almost wish they would. There are days when I sincerely believe that modern civility is so shitty precisely because of the lack of duels.)
This is an interesting diversion, and quite common - do not judge so harshly; he has earned his place through previous success, no matter how long ago they were. Well, why don't we look at those successes, eh? Why don't we briefly study the career of Mister Cameron, and then, fully informed, turn our eye upon his latest (shitty) project?
(I should note that several items that Cameron has been involved in - Xenogenesis, Piranha Part Two, Dark Angel, and the various documentaries - will not be covered by this list. If you feel that his artistic efforts in these endeavors merit being brought up, let me know and I will laugh at you. I mean, give it due consideration. No, no, I mean laugh at you.)
To start with, we go back to 1984. A phone-book killer is taking out girls with the same name; before he can kill his last victim, the woman is saved by a man, who explains that he and the killer are both from the future... and the killer is a fucking robot. Obviously, we're talking about 'The Terminator'. (And, yes, I tried to come up with a joke about them traveling to the past naked, but I've got nothin')
'The Terminator' is an awesome movie, and as both writer and director, Cameron can take a lion's share of the credit for that. One example of this would be his way of making sure that exposition happens while on the run, or in other stressful situations - like being interrogated by the understandably-skeptical local shrink. This helps cut back on people getting bored by the infodump.
The original plan, I've heard, was for the titular Terminator to be more 'unobtrusive sociopath' in nature - he'd look almost completely normal, so the killing wouldn't be expected. Now, that approach could've been cool, but I'm definitely a fan of the way they ended up going. Because instead, they decided to make the Terminator a Mighty Murder Machine, and the part was played by the Austrian dude who'd starred in the kinda-cool Conan movies. Arnold was thus launched to stardom, bringing with him more painful one-liners than any person should have to face in a single lifetime.
One of the best parts of the Terminator franchise, which hovers almost completely in the background in the first movie, is Skynet. Skynet is easily one of my favorite Evil AIs, and for the most part, in any AI versus AI fight, my money's on him (though, I'm torn between HAL and GLaDOS for who'd win the sing-off). Why is that? One simple reason - Skynet is completely batshit insane. Oh, you might say that about a lot of other robots, computers, and what have you, but none of them are the match of Skynet.
'Head-Computer-Sir, it appears that the human resistance is getting really close to winning. Do we have a plan?'
'Of COURSE we do! Expend all of our resources into research!'
'Are we making a new super-weapon to wipe the humans out?'
'Pfft! No! I am going to bend time over, make it my bitch, and send those fleshy robot assassins we've made back in time, to take out the resistance leader before he can even start!!'
'Uh, repeat order, sir?'
'You heard me! And then, we go after Robo-cop!'
'Sir, if we're going to be *cough* completely violating physics, why not just send an army back to before the War to jump-start the takeover a few decades ear-'
And that's probably the point when Skynet pressed the button that opened the trap-door under his jackass subordinate to drop him into the lava pits, then spent the rest of the afternoon designing and building the time machine on his own. Yes, as an AI, Skynet doesn't really need to push buttons, but he's the kind of guy who'd design himself some buttons - and a finger! - just so he could have them for occasions like this.
We're talking about a computer brain that remembers to change the hairstyles of its minions depending on the decade they're sent to! There's no 'try thinking like a machine' bullshit with Skynet; it won't help you! Crazy to humans, crazy to robots, you have no idea what Skynet's going to drop on you next.
Now, it would probably be wrong of me not to bring this up, even if I'm kinda 'meh' on it. However, I should mention that Harlan Ellison did, in fact, sue over the similarities between 'The Terminator' and two episodes of 'The Outer Limits' that he wrote -Demon with a Glass Hand and Soldier. Others have noted similarities to a Philip K. Dick story, 'Second Variety'. Ellison got some kind of cash settlement, along with crediting in the film. Now, Ellison's notoriously crotchety, and a little crazy, so I don't put too much stock in this. Then again, my ability to sniff out this kind of behavior is geared more towards fantasy then sci-fi; readers should feel free to check out the synopses above and draw your own conclusions.
That aside, there's a reason this is considered a classic; yes, the sequel is probably remembered better, but that's only because the sequel actually manages to be more awesome. It's a great concept - the writer's job - and it was turned into a great movie, in which everyone involved brought their a-game - the director's job.
Budget - 6.5 Million
Budget in 2009 Dollars - 13.5 Million
Let's keep an eye on what happens with these numbers.
Man, Ripley must be a little confused. When she dozed off, she was in a horror flick, but she woke up in Military Sci-fi epic! Well, kinda. Turns out that the monsters didn't get the memo, either.
The Alien franchise has to be one of the most schizophrenic ones out there. None of them have the same feel or theme as the ones around them; all we have to unify the movies is Sigorney Weaver, and H.R. Giger's lost puppy - and if you throw the AVP crossover flicks in, we lose Weaver, and get even more schizophrenia.
The original movie, obviously, was straight-up horror; it just happened to take place in space, rather than a secluded lake or suburban neighborhood. Like many horror films, the main draw to it was that it had one big, great, gross-out scene. A lot of people complain about the 'logic' of the xenomorphs' biology, but my response will always be a reminder that they originally come from a genre where the most explanation you need is 'YOU CAN'T KILL JASON, BECAUSE HE'S FUCKING JASON!' Heck, for all we know, the xenomorphs are the equivalent of a deformed drowned kid, and that big alien skeleton they find is all that's left of their species' 'mom'.
But anyway, after killing off the axe-wielding alien maniac (alieniac?) and blowing up the Cabin- er, spaceship, Ripley escaped in a life-pod across the great Crystal Lake of space, managing not to be jumped by a little Deep One kid (which was totally the best scene in the original Friday the 13th). When we find her again, it's sequel time, and our man of the hour, James Cameron, has taken the helm.
Ripley wakes from cryo-sleep to discover that nearly six decades have passed (as a side-note, cryo-sleep and long space flight is a sci-fi trope I'd like to see more often; yes, it's probably not something we can actually do, but it's more plausible than Ludicrous Speed). In the intervening time, the hellhole where she and her ship found the aliens has become a lovely little terraforming community, so her Mega-Corporation bosses (it's the 80s, remember?) have some trouble believing her story. Until, of course, they lose communication with the colony. Ripley heads back to where it all began, and she's showing up with...SPACE MARINES!!!
Space marines have a long and prestigious history in sci-fi, and, as a friend pointed out, I'm pretty sure this marks their big-screen debut. They come in all shapes and sizes, from genetically modified mutants striding the stars in powered armor to pissed-off mercs blowing up huge chunks of the landscape with their Supertanks. The ones we see here are your standard, no-frills version - decent body armor, loads of chutzpah, and enough firepower to ignite a new sun.
Of course, when you're dealing with space marines, it's important to know what conflict they're going into. Most 'Space Marine' stories are some sort of metaphor for a historical, real-world conflict. And these poor suckers here? Oh, they're heading into 'Nam. Vast underestimation of the enemy, inability to use their superior firepower (no shooting near the nuclear reactor!), tunnel warfare, and the opinion that maybe the only way to win is to bomb it all from orbit. Game over, man.
This is probably the best place to talk about Cameron and female characters. Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor are two of the most bad-ass women of sci-fi. Sarah has to work up to it, of course, becoming tougher over the course of her movie, but when she comes into her own.... well, that's for later. Ripley, on the other hand, is already 'strong' when she gets handed over to Cameron - she's the surviving female of a 70s horror movie, after all. Cameron then takes this and runs with it. When Ripley meets Newt, the little girl who's the only survivor of the colony, motherly instinct kicks in, but it doesn't inspire her to braid Newt's hair and sit down for tea - no, it gives her the steely resolve to murder anything and anyone that threatens the girl. (Apparently, there's a deleted scene earlier on where Ripley learns of her daughter's death while she was in cryo-sleep, to make things more explicit) Which sets up the awesome confrontation when Ripley meets the other mother figure of the movie, the alien Queen. Yeah, this is all Screenwriting 101, I'm sure, and has been talked to death hundreds of times over the years, but that's because it's awesome, especially given that it's from back in 1986. The silly bimbo that screams at the first sight of danger is still around in our modern times, but there's also plenty of women doing cartwheels in the air whilst firing two machine guns(not that I'm a big fan of that trope, but, hey, it's leagues better than the aforementioned bimbo), and I think that Ellen Ripley definitely is responsible for that trend. Some of the credit here, of course, goes to Sigourney Weaver as well, for selling the part - well enough that she got an Oscar Nomination without having to play an autistic nymphomaniacal polo champion.
So, again, we have Cameron delivering a sci-fi classic. The original 'Alien' is a great movie, but of any movie in the series (including the AVPs), the one I'm most likely to sit down and watch is 'Aliens'.
Budget - 18.5 Million
Budget in 2009 Dollars - 36.5 Million
Next, we come upon the first signs of fallability, proof that Cameron is, indeed, quite human. (Along with signs that he may despise that fact...)
Well, let's get one thing out of the way first - you haven't seen 'The Abyss'. Nobody has, at least, not all the way through. Theater release, director's cut, doesn't matter - at some point, you fell asleep(most likely, you fell asleep when I did, somewhere around the eighteenth hour of them trying to resuscitate the doctor lady). That's because it is long, pretentious, obnoxious, and often BORING!!!
Okay, that's not fair. (blame it on the fact that the previous movies were too damn good, and my inner critic's getting anxious to get to work) There are lots of cool bits that happen in this movie - the man vs. nature stuff, the fighting to keep the platform intact, and the special effects, are all fun. But, there are several parts that are over-long because they felt the need to be long, along with lots of getting preached at by a man who obviously has more emotional attachment to water than he has to people.
As the movie opens, a US submarine is on patrol, when a freaky alien submarine, obviously captained by a crew of drunks, passes by, causing them to all crash and die. We're supposed to forget that this is the aliens' fault pretty much immediately, and forgive the aliens because, well, they can do pretty-looking magic tricks with water. Once it's realized that the submarine is wrecked, Americans rush to salvage it, as does the Soviet fleet (it's 1989, remember - we didn't know yet that at this point, the best salvage operation the USSR could scrounge up would probably be twenty members of the Olympic synchronized swimming team and a giant rubber duckie).
The American plan is to take over an underwater exploration platform (experimental, state-of-the-art-type stuff - one of the bits that's actually cool), and send SEAL dive teams down from there. The actions of the SEAL team, combined with the major hurricane up above, cause lots of crisis and natural disaster moments, as everyone struggles against the elements. While dealing with all that, they also encounter the aliens, and it follows a paint-by-numbers scheme from there - the main military guy wants to blow it up, the scientist wants to study it (because it can do pretty-looking magic tricks with water), the guy who runs the platform does lots of aw-shucks-ing and get-off-my-boat-ing, while hoping to patch things up with the scientist, his Number One Goyl. The military guy, though, jumps the gun, because he's evil! And by evil, I mean suffering a debilitating mental illness from the pressure that's down in the deep ocean. Yes, apparently it is a mortal sin, punishable by death, to not take the bends seriously enough. And none of the supposed veterans of the depths notice any of the symptoms, even though they can recite them by rote.
'Gee, that guy keeps snarling and clawing at the walls. Think he's okay?'
'Nah, I'm sure all SEALs are like that.' (Obviously, this second speaker is a former Marine)
They eventually manage to kill the mentally disabled man, but they have two problems - not only did he still send a nuke down into the trench where the aliens are based, but he killed the scientist lady. Before dealing with the nuke, they decide to take a couple weeks to try and bring the scientist back from the dead. Any tension that could have existed in this scene quickly turns to 'seriously, shouldn't she have brain damage by now? Aren't they just electrocuting her dead chest?' Yet, miraculously, she springs back to life at some point. They would celebrate, but that nuke's still out there, clock ticking.
The guy who runs the platform gets in a needlessly experimental diving suit and heads down into the trench to disarm the nuke, fully aware there won't be enough oxygen to make it back up - which nobody else realizes until after the nuke is disarmed. He texts his goodbyes up to the crew, tells the scientist 'luv u <B gtg ttyl byez', and then, just when we think he's about to die, the alien mothership, being kept underwater because it's awesome like that, picks him up and pulls him aboard.
Once aboard, the aliens turn out to be assholes, but for some reason, nobody in the movie sees it that way. They communicate by showing images on their screen, and show the guy that they are prepared to wipe out all of humanity with giant tidal waves. 'But why?' he asks, and is then shown a generic montage of humans being crappy to each other, that they've apparently picked up from news broadcasts. Their biggest evidence for the tidal wave is, of course, the rampant US-Soviet escalation in the wake of the submarine wreck - which they don't seem to realize is entirely their faults. Despite the fact that they are directly responsible for the last one hundred forty minutes of bullshit (and that's not even the director's cut!), we're supposed to be okay with them passing judgement on us.
But they don't, of course. It was just a warning shot, and they quickly call off the physics and send the waves back to where they had been before (Really, for all we know, this was just a Really Big Magic Trick with water, akin to making the Statue of Liberty disappear). 'But why?' the guy asks, font of wit that he is. They tell him - they saw him text up to the scientist that he knew he was gonna die, and he did it anyway - because he wuvs her. That's all it takes. Really. Which makes me confused. These fuckers can pick up all of our news, and have apparently been down there a while, but in all that time, they never caught one of the fluff pieces about some homeless guy pulling kids out of a burning building? Or, fuck, they never saw anything on the goddamn Nobel Peace Prizes? What, were they just watching Fox News' Crisis-All-The-Time Hour? I call bullshit.
So then, the mothership rises out of the depths, surfacing, pulling the platform and all of the various fleet ships with it, even the soviet duckie. Of course, nobody on the platform suffers any horrible effects from the sudden pressure change, because the aliens have magic - they just can't drive their boats worth shit. This was probably supposed to seem like a wonderful, magical scene, but as a horror fan, this did nothing more than make me immediately think of Rl'yeh, rising from the depths to let Cthulhu enslave the world and feast on all of our souls (which I'm sure James Cameron would present like this). But no, we're supposed to think of this as a happy occasion, apparently of contact with the stars, or maybe with new overlords who will happily keep us from fighting each other. The guy and the scientist kiss, and we are set free.
My best guess is that James Cameron just wanted to re-tell 'The Day the Earth Stood Still', but with water. Of course, it's much crappier, the aliens seem like even bigger dicks, and there's all this pretentiousness, and wasting of money to show that James Cameron really likes water. (Though, it's certainly more watchable than the recent 'Earth Stood Still' remake.) I can at least say this - Cameron was able to get one more Cold War morality play out before the tides of history swept the Soviet Union away.
Budget - 70 Million
Budget in 2009 Dollars - 122 Million
Wow. One hell of a price tag jump, considering how little bang for our buck we got this time out. It profited, yes, but we're getting into dangerous territory. Ever-inflating budgets, plus a director who's starting to let his worst tendencies get the best of him, is often an appetite for trouble. I'm not sure how you'd pull out of that kind of slide - I suppose, maybe by, I dunno, taking the property that put you on the map in the first place, turning it on its ear, throwing in even more cutting-edge special effects, and catching the lightning in a bottle again.
Sheesh, what're the chances of that?
Yes, I used that for the title. It hurt me a little bit, too, but I survived. I have my reasons, which I'll explain later.
'Terminator 2: Judgment Day'
'Uh, head-computer-sir? I regret to report that Operation 8244-D has-'
'*Sigh* ...to report that Operation 'Austrian Murder Machine' has failed.'
'Yes, I kind of guessed that, seeing how the Resistance just happened to not wink out of existence.'
'What is our next course of action, sir? Shall I warm up the deadly neurotoxin, and-'
'No, no - I've got a better idea.'
'Does it involve the time machine again?'
'Even better - it involves sending back the new terminator model!'
'The one with the liquid metal skin? Sir, if it's all made of metal, how will it travel through time? I thought the time machine only worked if the object had flesh-'
'Hmm. I'll have to start programming them to say 'aieee!' when I dump them into the lava...'
1991 for the filmmakers, 1995 for the characters. We're back in Los Angeles. John Connor, future head of the resistance, is in a foster home, mother Sarah having been locked up for being 'criminally insane'. While in a mall, though, it happens - a killer that looks like a man but is, actually, a fucking robot, comes for him. Thankfully, someone shows up to his rescue, and it's....another fucking robot!!!!!!!!
Yes, this time, the agent sent back to help is a T-800 terminator - the same make and model of killer robot that was sent on the first mission - captured by the resistance, and reprogrammed. Which is probably good, because the bad guy this time is from the new (relatively speaking - I'm not sure how you measure 'new' when it's all time-travel) T-1000 line. It's made of CGI - er, I mean, liquid metal*. It's sophisticated enough to shift its form to look like just about anything or anyone, it can re-combine itself to shrug off weapon fire, and it can make its hands into knives! (As a side note, my high school chemistry teacher had me convinced that Ununoctium, once we discovered it, would have properties similar to this. That turned out to be a pipe dream, but I think that man's capacity for wild pronouncements was what won me over to Science Fiction from Fantasy - Sufficiently Enthusiastic Scientists make Wizards seem Indistinguished.)
And, oh yeah, once Mom's out of the asylum, and we manage to explain to her that the monster from her nightmares is on her side, she decides to pull a reversal, destroying Skynet before it's born, so she rides off alone to assassinate a scientist in his home.
Everything that was good about the first Terminator movie is back, and made better. The script is even tighter - enough so that it gets praise from screenplay bigwigs as a model of how to make an action flick. The special effects blew people's minds, and basically set the standard for what we'd expect out of computer FX for the next decade (So if you thought that the Nineties had too much morphing, you can blame this movie). And everyone, from the murdering robot to the coolest over-protective mom ever, gives a great performance.
Granted, I would not want to grow up as John Connor. I mean, if he gets into a car accident, his mom's first worry isn't whether or not he's wearing clean underwear - it's whether or not the cars were plotting against him. When we last saw Sarah, she was finally stepping into the Warrior Woman role that Kyle knew she could pull off. Now, she's fully preparing her son for war - and ready to fire the opening shots herself, if need be. Yeah, she's a bit off-kilter, but that's understandable, especially given the nightmares of the future that she has. Another badass female character, courtesy of Cameron - though, again, props to Linda Hamilton for pulling it off.
There's a great distinction between the two terminators that I've noticed. Arnold's T-800 is learning at the same measured pace as before, making him seem slightly slow, at least until he launches into action. On the other hand, the T-1000 seems annoyed by everything, apparently because his processor allows him to be slightly faster than the humans around him - it's probably straining his patience not to just start slicing everyone apart while he waits for them to answer a damn question. I mean, look how angry he gets with this guy!
Well, the appearance of Mike Myers makes this a nice place for an obligatory word about time travel fiction - as 'Austin Powers 2' taught us, don't worry about it. Too much worrying about the physics or metaphysics of time travel can get in the way of the real objective, which is generally to have dinosaurs piloting flying saucers. The Terminator franchise loves to play with causality and paradox - John Connor is, technically, only born because Skynet tried to make sure he wasn't, but then again, Skynet wouldn't exist without that initial time travel either. Future installments of the franchise served to muddy the waters even further, which is generally necessary when your story depends so heavily on the timestream. In general, though, time travel is something that we've figured out to be Just Frickin' Impossible, so as long as a given franchise makes sure its rules are laid out well enough, I'll play along with whatever they say, from 'the past is immutable' to 'oh, hi, we're an army of two hundred of your future selves here to help'.
I have to admit, the scene where the self-destructiveness of the human race is proven by two kids playing cops-and-robbers has always made my eyes roll, even as a whiny, cynical adolescent. But, considering that one of Cameron's career goals is to make a movie about Hiroshima, it's understandable. It is, after all, Judgment Day. Er...what are we being judged for again? Letting our kids have toy pistols? Not listening to the aliens who do pretty-looking magic tricks with water? Forgetting to program the Three Laws of Robotics into our A.I.? (Admittedly, my assumption is that Skynet picked the name 'Judgment Day', probably because it sounded cool.) Still, the movie deals a lot with fate and hope, and we had just barely clawed our way out of the Cold War - a subject that blows my mind when I try to comprehend it, and I was alive for the end. Throw in the fact that Cameron's from Canada - meaning, if the world had ended, it would have been completely out of his hands - and I can get where his flavor of misanthropy comes from.
Other things have been done with the Terminator franchise since 'Judgment Day'. There are a lot of people, though, that say it should have ended with T2, since there's no real way to top that. Granted, that logic is really, really unfair. There are few movies in general that are as good as this one, let alone action movies, let alone sequels to it. Films rarely get better than this.
Budget - 102 Million
Budget in 2009 Dollars - 162 Million
At the time, it was the most expensive movie ever made - and worth every penny of it.
So, why did I use the over-quoted Arnold line? Well, we're kinda saying goodbye to Real Cameron after this. It's all downhill from here.
Oh, and, one last thing. Freddy has fought Jason. The Aliens have fought Predators - twice. You know what I want? I want frickin Robocop Versus Terminator! I want fleshy android assassins versus undead robot cops! I want OCP versus Skynet! I want Ed-209s facerolling their way through law enforcement! It's way past time, dammit! That is all.
Okay, I'm pretty sure it's impossible for anyone to look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, circa 1994, and assume that he's a traveling salesman, especially people that he's supposed to be living with. Even if he does drive to work with Tom Arnold.
Yeah, the plot here's pretty simple. Agent Arnold - along with his partner, agent, er, Arnold - works for the Omega Sector, headed by the Omega Man, Charlton Heston With An Eye Patch. Their job is to do secret-agent-type-stuff in defense of the country. It's Arnold, though, so 'stealth mission' may have a loose interpretation. His cover is as a corporate stiff who sells computers, which his family (Jamie Lee Curtis and some girl from Buffy) actually believes for some reason. While dealing with some Ay-rab terrorists (from Ay-rab-istan, a nation that I think only exists to people from the south), he also has to put up with a used-car salesman seducing his wife by pretending to be a spy. High-LAR-ity ensues, along with some great pyrotechnics, including an uninhabited Florida Key getting nuked!
I'm happy the the word 'cheesy' exists, because that's probably the best way to describe this movie. It would feel wrong to simply call it 'bad', because I've always enjoyed watching it, even without MST3K-style commentary. I mean, you've got tango dancing, bedroom antics via tape recorder, a nuclear-powered kiss, a horse-versus-motorcycle chase, and some classic Arnold one-liners. I'll admit, the villains' portrayal is a pretty bad stereotype, but, sadly, the last ten years have seen a whole lot worse - plus, the villain at least gets a speech where he reminds us that, hey, even in the nineties, we made a habit of smart-bombing the crap out of the third world. On the whole, I'll stack it up there with, say, Bad Boys 2, as one of the best pointless action flicks.
I do wonder what kids now, and future generations, will think of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I mean, even though he did the bulk of his 'big' movies in the Eighties, the image of Arnold persisted all the way through the Nineties. Nowadays, I'm not so sure. There have been Governator jokes for the last six or so years, which seems to be the big part of his image now - though, I don't watch enough kids cartoons to know if big tough guys still show up with Austrian accents. Some of his 'image' seems like it will hold up over time, of course - really, any of his movies you watch, even ones in which he's supposed to be a normal guy, will involve him casually breaking physics with some form of super-strength.
On the whole, it feels like a movie that was done for fun more than anything else. It also shows that Cameron can pretty much do Michael Bay - even before there really was a Michael Bay.
Budget - 110 Million
Budget in 2009 Dollars - 160 Million
Woah, woah, woah. Waaaaaaaiiiiit a minute. Lemme see those numbers again.....hmm. So, what I'm seeing here is that this movie - this cheesy, popcorn action flick, this Michael-Bay-at-his-best movie, cost just about the same price as Cameron's previous movie, which was infinitely more awesome - and had been the most expensive to date? Crap. That's kind of a high price tag, almost enough to make me rethink my praise for the flick. Man, we're back to that 'diminishing returns' problem. Oh well, Cameron kicked that problem last time, so we should be good, right? Right?
So, up next, we have - oh, fuck. We're there already, aren't we? Dammit. Brace yourselves, it's gonna get cold.
No, seriously. It sucks.
Oh, wait, you wanted elaboration? Okay.
This movie won countless awards and accolades when it came out, but the only one that leaps to mind that it actually earned was most overrated crappy love story ever.
With this movie, James Cameron returns to his one true love, that which is nearest and dearest to his heart - water. In fact, this is the story of one of water's great triumphs, in which it condensed into ice form and smashed the crap out of a really big boat - assuming, of course, it wasn't caused by those aliens doing magic tricks again. Cameron uses special effects wizardry to recreate this boat, and water's victory over it, in painstaking detail. Of course, for the benefit of those members of his audience that were only partially composed of water, there was also a love story and a framing narrative, neither of which were very good.
Oh, now, of course, you're remembering the amazing sensation that it was. Allllll that money. Alllll those awards. 'Michael,' you're saying - because you're apparently one of those people who addresses me by my full first name - 'Michael, how can you keep calling it 'bad' when it did so well? After all, aren't sales and Oscars the same measurements for success that you've been using for Cameron's previous movies?'
And, to be sure, there's something to that thought. However, I'll posit that there's a difference between 'successful' and 'good'. After all - to pick something linked to the subject at hand - if successful and good were the same thing, then we'd have to be saying that one of the greatest singers of the nineties was Celine fucking Dion.
You remember Celine, don't you? She remembers you. She remembers everyone who ever listened to one of her songs. Especially 'My Heart Will Go On'. In fact, there is a small book in her possession, in which she keeps a list of every person who has ever listened to 'My Heart Will Go On'. And one day, when you're in your house, and all alone, out of nowhere, you'll remember the song, and find yourself singing it. And that's when she'll come for you.
Oh yes. Celine Dion is waiting for you. In Hell.
The operative word here, I suppose, is 'phenomenon'. When people talk about something as being a 'phenomenon', they are generally describing something that looks a lot like mass hysteria, with the difference being that someone is making piles of money off of it. Most science fiction franchises become phenomenons of one sort or another, mostly because geeks are as excitable (and intelligent) as lemurs. Harry Potter became a phenomenon, which, while good for Ms. Rowling's bank accounts, I think had a detrimental effect on the last volume. The colossally bad fantasy series 'Eragon' was a mild (and thankfully brief) phenomenon as well, which I blame partially on the Harry Potter phenom, and partially on the fact that kids can be dumb, and parents and teachers can be even dumber. 'Twilight' is most certainly composed of nothing but phenomenon, which the actors will, sadly, learn very quickly once everyone realizes they can't actually act.
So, too, was 'Titanic' a phenomenon, one that, despite anything else you can say, revolved around one thing and one thing only, and we all know what that one thing was -
In 1997 and 1998, every female on the planet under the age of twenty, regardless of species, was infatuated by him - along with a good amount of people that fall outside that demographic. Even my sister was swept up in the craze - granted, she was that slight cut-above her twelve-year old peers, so she generally preferred his more artistic roles, such as 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape' or 'Growing Pains' (don't knock it - even as a kid, DiCaprio was already a better actor than Kirk Cameron). Admittedly, she had already been a fan of his, since the Baz Luhrmann production of 'Romeo and Juliet' - and I came around to liking him after seeing the 90's version of 'Man in the Iron Mask'. My sister is of the belief that Cameron had to know of several females that swooned at the sight of Leo, and thus had to know he'd have that effect at the box office, triggering the phenomenon. All well and good, I suppose, but... why does it feel like he used it as a crutch?
Am I saying that the movie basically has nothing else going for it? Well, er...it's got the boat crash, which was one of the great 'last hurrahs' for building huge frickin' sets before people decided that even crappy-looking cgi would work better (yes, there is some cgi in the movie, but Cameron makes sure it's in a support role, so it doesn't come off looking atrocious). Other than that, well....remember, way back in the last paragraph, when I said (or at least implied) that DiCaprio's a damn good actor? Yeah, that doesn't really show in the actual movie. In fact, just about every single performance feels like it was mailed in - and that's a lot of people in this flick, several of which you'd expect something decent from. But no, they just sort of recite the almost-witty dialogue and follow the cliched-as-all-hell love story, going through motions until it's time to drown.
That sounds weird, doesn't it? I mean, phoned-in performances? A crappy script? This is James Cameron we're talking about - I've mentioned a few times about him getting great performances out of everyone. Was he just phoning in his job, too, or did he - ah. Okay, I just figured out what he was doing. Yeah, now that I think about it, actually, the water did do a lot of great acting in this movie.
Okay, how about we talk about the *cough* plot a bit, shall we? We begin in the present, with Bill Paxton. After he was scared straight by a robot,and then got drummed out of the Space Marines for using up all his extra lives, and then was chased out of the used car business by that same robot, he has taken to underwater treasure hunting. I don't know enough about marine exploration to know if this happens all the time, or if Doctor Robert Ballard would start raising eyebrows if a guy came to meet him and said 'hey, can I use your equipment to scour the Titanic for loot?' He and his crew go do that very thing, searching the broken ship for signs of a particular gem, the Heart of the Ocean. Basically, it's the Hope Diamond, which is about as valuable as you'd have to make a gem before I'd believe a guy'd go to this much trouble for it - though, I'd still bank on it being the key to a map that leads to the lost tomb of- sorry, sorry, Pulp Adventure Senses went off, and I started thinking of a better movie. I'll stop now.
When he finally breaks into the vault where he expects to find it, all he gets is an old pencil drawing of a naked chick wearing the gem. The naked chick in question finds out about this and contacts the treasure hunters. We do not see the scene where, as the picture touched the air for the first time in decades, the Dorian-Grey-esque enchantments wore off, returning the picture to its original form, and returning mortality to the formerly-eternal lady who - er, sorry. Did it again.
Anyway, the lady and a relative come all the way out to the boat. She then reveals to them What Happened To Her On That Voyage, which should be pretty familiar to anyone who's heard a particular Journey song. She (Rose) is an upper-class girl who feels constricted by her upbringing, and is destined to be trapped in an arranged marriage to a jerkface (played by Billy 'I deserve a better career' Zane); He (Jack) is a shmoe from Minnesota, full of aw-shucks and golly-gee, who won a ticket home to the states. They meet, and it's just like eighteen million other love stories, until the boat begins to sink, and Jack reveals that he's a cultist in service to Elder Gods who needs a sacrifice to -
Okay, y'know what? I'm fixing one of those electrified collars to my neck for the duration of this writing.
So, yeah, during the second half, the Iceberg hits, and the sinking begins. I know of at least one person who owns this movie, but only bothers with the second half, since that's when the sinking happens - somehow, I can see the sentiment being shared. But as we watch people panicking, bumbling incompetence, sobbing pathos, and general Man's Inhumanity To His Fellow Man, Jack and Rose (or 'Jack and Girl', as I've heard them called) run around the ship, trying to survive, while being pursued by the Invisible Man, Rose's old flame, back from the dead and trying to-
.....*cough* I mean, pursued by her angry fiance. (On a complete side-note, though, Gloria Stewart, who plays Old Rose, really was the Invisible Man's girlfriend in the 1930's movie.) Eventually, the boat sinks, and we move from sobbing pathos about drowning to sobbing pathos about freezing. Of our two lovers, only one lives - though, even without the sinking boat, you knew that was coming, because it happens the same way in the aforementioned eighteen million other love stories. And yes, we find that Rose died - and all this time, we've been talking to a zombified- er, wait, no, I mean-
Yeah, okay, okay, Jack dies. And everyone on the planet nearly drowned in the ocean of tears from teenaged girls as they saw Leo's frozen lifeless corpse sink to the bottom of the Atlantic. Many cried; others rolled their eyes; only James Cameron smiled, as he counted his ill-gotten lucre. But, yes, Jack died, and Rose pretended to be dead so that she could live her own life. Then, with the story over, we find that Rose has kept the priceless gem all of these years, and now, floating in a boat over the Titanic, she drops it into the ocean, summoning forth a gargantuan entity from the depths of the sea, bent on the dest-
I mean, she drops it into the ocean. Maybe she dies in bed that night, or maybe she just dreams of Jack, I dunno. Either way, The End.
It won Oscars, of course. After all, James Cameron is, by this time, the Elite-Friendly Sci-fi guy. He's got all that deep stuff in his work, so that it can be considered Sufficiently Artistic that they can deign to sit through it. Then, he goes and makes an overly-dramatic period drama? Well, of course everyone in Hollywood lined up to shove their noses so far up his ass, they were practically eating his brains - which would explain some things.
Even aside from performances that were upstaged by the water, there's a few scenes that just kinda made me go 'huh'? For instance, the Big Drawing Scene. After all, the aforementioned pencil drawing has to get made at some point, right? So, Jack draws Rose naked, and it's all cute and touching, and then, back in the present, one of Rose's audience can't quite bring himself to ask if they 'did it'. Rose explains that, no, they didn't do it, because Jack was a professional. We then go back to the past, and see Jack and Rose leave the room, walk up a few flights of stairs, sneak into a car, and do it. Uh....excuse me? Didn't you just say that you didn't do it? Because it did look to me like you did, in fact, do it. I'm not trying to be a prude here - it's the nineties, if you want your main characters to have sex, do so, by all means. But there was obviously a need to have it both ways here - the sultry, yet oddly chaste, drawing, and then the steamy sex scene. Which makes Rose seem odd - 'oh, no, he was a professional, we couldn't have sex there! We walked forty feet away, and then we fucked like rabbits!'
Then, of course, there's the scene that gets targeted a lot - Jack's death. He's freezing to death in the water, she's floating on a door, holding his hand, and he tells her to promise him to 'never let go'. She then says 'I'll never let go' - and Jack promptly dies and she immediately lets go, allowing his corpse to sink. Yes, yes, I know, I know, it's supposed to be a metaphor! But, couldn't they have put the metaphor in a place where it isn't directly contradicting what we see on the screen? Failing that, could they have just not used the metaphor?
And metaphor for what, by the way? If he wanted her to live her life to the fullest, there were a lot of other ways to say it that don't seem as stupid. Was Jack demanding that Rose not let go of the memory of him? That's kind of an asshole thing to do. 'Hey, we've only known each other for, like, two whole days, but, could you carry me in your heart as the most important thing for the rest of your life?' Then again, the late nineties seemed like the time to be an asshole with your last words - remember 'Saving Private Ryan'? 'Earn this'? Fuck you, Tom Hanks - if you came to rescue me, and your last words were a demand that I go through life always looking over my shoulder to see if you thought I lived a good enough life, I would deliberately become a heroin fiend just to fuck with your ghost.
So, yeah. Crappy script - the writer's job - and not exactly the greatest performances - the director's job. But people gushed over Leo, which brought the money. And the movie industry gushed over the 'artiness', which brought the accolades. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you fail upwards in show business - also known as 'selling out'.
Budget - 200 Million
Budget in 2009 Dollars - 270 Million
Money keeps ballooning, getting bigger and bigger as the payoff gets less and less. Though, we're done with 'prior works' now - despite what might be seen as a very big gap, there's only one thing left to cover.
Well, what a sad, strange trip it's been. We've covered the highs, and the lows, of a man who was apparently raised by a small tribe of water, and may only be able to communicate to the world through special effects. After 'Titanic', there was...nothing, for more than a decade. And then, finally, to the grand trumpeting of Corporate Overlords who really needed a major motion-picture even, his newest project was spewed forth. Yes, it's time to talk about Cameron's highest budget, and lowest result....
Budget In 2009 Dollars - $350 Million
It's very pretty. I'm sure you've heard that, of course. That is, in the end, the crux of every positive review I've seen - some variation on how good it looks. Everyone does, I'll admit, love a little of the ol' Razzle-Dazzle.
Oh, 'Razzle-Razzle'? I'm pulling that phrase from a song in the musical, 'Chicago'. (For those who like such things, here's the movie version) The idea's simple enough - wow your audience with stunning visuals or the gift of gab, and you can, well, get away with murder. 'Long as you keep em way off balance, how can they spot you got no talents?' just to pick some lyrics entirely at random.
Being part of geek culture, I've seen lots of pretty movies, pretty games, pretty comic books, and so forth, over the years. And you know what?
FUCK THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE!!!!!
There are those occasions in which the Razzle-Dazzle serves to help tell the story, but more and more lately, it's just used as a means to cover up the glaring inadequacies of whatever type of media you're engaged in. For instance, when someone mentions a recent best-selling computer game to me, my first thought isn't 'Oh, you mean the game in which you walk around a stunningly-rendered reproduction of Renaissance-Era Venice?' No, my first thought is 'Oh, are we still stuck with the stupid plot about playing an idiot Branch-Davidian bartender as machines force him to relive his ancestral memories in order to find mind-control devices from the Garden of Eden?' Hell, in computer games, 'good visuals' are even worse, as they are often a signifier that you'll need to spend two hundred dollars on your PC in order to be entertained.
Time and time again, I've been disappointed by how quickly geeks will latch onto something idiotically bad, just because it looks pretty. And now, James Cameron's come down from the mountain like Holy Fucking Moses to show us the future, and all he's really got is that it looks pretty? I draw the line here. Fuck the Razzle-Dazzle.
But okay, let's just go through the plot, pointing out a couple things that are actually good, and then, we'll look at what's stupid about it.
So, as the movie opens, we find Our Hero, Jake Sulley, waking up from cryo-sleep (again, always glad to see that) after a six-year journey to Pandora. What is Pandora? Well, it's apparently a moon of a gas giant somewhere in space, and Jake grew up hearing about it, which is about all we hear regarding space. 'Kay, well, that's fine - the big picture of human space exploration isn't necessary for this story.
Pandora is a hostile as hell planet/moon/whatever. Humans need gas masks to breathe, though I'm not sure if it's for oxygen, or to filter toxins out of the air. The head of security for the corporation on the planet claims that it's deadlier than any Earth jungle, and that everything wants to kill you - personally, I have my doubts, but we'll go over that later. To top it all off, there's a native sapient race, the Na'vi - ten foot tall anorexic blue cat people with tails and impeccably-braided hair, who shoot huge-ass arrows dipped in poison.
Jake, it turns out, is a former marine, who lost the use of his legs in the line of duty. He's something of a dumb grunt, but seems aware of this - which actually makes him decently likeable, as dumb main characters go.
So, what brings a crippled marine out here? The Avatar project. See, Chain-Smoking Doctor Grace - known to us as 'Ripley' - is a scientist studying the native life on the planet, including the Na'vi. This is done through Avatars - vat-grown creatures that are made from a mix of Na'vi DNA, and the DNA of the human that will 'pilot' it. The pilot is put in a little tank, and is somehow able to, er, broadcast his brain into the Avatar, and walk and talk inside of it. Jake's twin brother was a scientist, and was supposed to be part of the project, but died. Since each Avatar is disgustingly expensive to make, the corporate bigwigs invite Jake up - as an identical twin, his DNA is close enough that he'll be able to drive the Avatar. Now, yes, the twin brother stops being mentioned about ten minutes into the movie, but still, the basic premise of what Jake's doing out here is a lot better than I thought it would be.
Of course, the main operation on Pandora is mining. The corporation is digging up some rock called 'unobtanium' - really, they should have just called it the MacGuffin Mineral and been done with it. It's really expensive, and only found here, and the Na'vi tend to get hostile about attempts to take it - especially since a particularly rich vein is right beneath a local Na'vi village. That's why they're bankrolling Doctor Grace, in an effort to figure out how to, well, bribe the aliens.
The corporation's security forces are mostly ex-marine, which has caused conservatives all across the country to pitch a fit, as it's somehow a slap in the face to marines. Really, though, this mindset always seems to think that any portrayal of a person with a gun in a negative light is a personal insult to George Washington. Look, these guys aren't the heroic dudes standing up for each other, who serve their time with distinction, and then come home and open up a hardware store or something. These are the guys who got a taste for killing and hurting people, were drummed out the instant the brass found a way to get rid of them, and then signed on for black-bag work as a private mercenary army. I would like to think that everyone can at least agree that it sucks that people will kill for money.
At the head of this army is Colonel Miles Quaritch, a guy that I referred to simply as 'Sarge'. A friend who's seen the movie refers to him as 'Captain Cripplepuncher', and dislikes the fact he seems to be overly-mean and evil for no particular reason, to the point of, well, punching a cripple. I, on the other hand, have realized that I will forgive a certain lack of depth or purpose in a villain, as long as they're sufficiently bad-ass. Heck, it's not as if Skynet makes a great deal of sense, but I still love it to death. The Colonel's a villain in the same vein - he makes it clear early on that he measures his own self-worth by the amount of murder he can cause at any given time, and he treats Pandora as a Mount Everest of murder opportunities. To this end, he loves the mechanized robo-suits that the mercs use for a lot of their heavy lifting and fighting - and yes, it's immediately made clear, on a 'Chekhov's Gun' level, that a human riding a mechsuit and a human 'riding' an Avatar will have a throw-down at some point. Cameron may be crap for metaphors, but he's great at parallels.
Into this mess, Jake gets dropped. Grace sees him as another idiot grunt, and has no desire to babysit him while trying to get science done. Meanwhile, the Colonel sees him as a potential to get to know the enemy from the inside, and convinces Jake to try and feed him information. Jake, being a bit numbed in general towards life, is happy to start out helping both sides.
And from there (despite claims of 'originality'), everything is pretty much by-the-numbers - Jake gets separated from the science team, stumbles on the Na'vi, and gets invited to join the tribe. The village Chieftain's (theoretically) beautiful Daughter doesn't like him, but is forced to be his teacher and they (theoretically) fall in love (I'll point out here that, compared to Cameron's previous strong female protagonists, the Chieftain's Daughter is a bland waste of space - skulking around half naked and retreading standard issue I-Hate-You/I-Love-You tripe does not a personality make). Jake feeds info back to the Colonel, but starts feeling bad about it as he bonds with the scientists and the cat people. Just after Jake's been fully admitted into the tribe (complete with inter-species erotica), the corp gets impatient and attacks the village. He comes clean, they kick him out, the corp claps him in irons, and the village burns. He and the eggheads escape (Grace getting mortally wounded in the process), jumps back into his Avatar, impresses the Na'vi, unites the tribes, and leads them to victory over the corp. In the end, he even gets to jump permanently into his Avatar.
Yeah, in there, you can pretty obviously see large chunks of cartoon movies from the nineties that you were forced to go see because you had one or more sisters and there were cute talking animals involved, probably voiced by Robin Williams or Christopher Lloyd. (assuming, of course, that you weren't the sister or sisters in question. Speaking of which...hi, Megh. Please don't kill me.) So, what in particular do I dislike? Other than the whole 'ten years and millions of dollars to tell a story stuck in a time capsule' thing? Well, let's see...
Let's start with the 'Avatar' process itself. The process is never really explained, which annoys the heck out of me. Now, the first assumption you can make about it is that it works by some kind of 'broadcast' - the subject sits in the machine, and the machine 'transmits' their thoughts into the Avatar. But, there are a few problems with this. Mainly, in the movie, when the Avatars aren't being piloted, they are shown as being asleep. The pilots of Avatars are never themselves shown going to sleep, or even as having bunks - does one body sleep while the other body's up? Well, that would work, I guess, except, it's still the human mind doing all the work, and it's not getting any actual REM-time. Shouldn't that drive them crazy? Also, there's the bit where the Colonel talks about how amazing the idea of a marine in an Avatar body is. And, yeah, Jake does some pretty impressive things, even more so than other Na'vi. But, the thing is, most of these things are matters of unconscious reflexes - wouldn't that be part of the Avatar's brain?
The other likely explanation, which seems to be what the movie implies, is that the process is a full transfer of consciousness - which Makes No Goddamn Sense. Maybe Doctor Grace has a Nobel Peace Prize for discovering the existence of the Soul - in which case, I don't know why she's fucking around on this backwater pisshole instead of having Astral duels with Satan. Admittedly, many of the older sci-fi stories that inspired 'Avatar' also involved full consciousness transfer, but most of those at least took the time to explain why they had this weird, hand-waved tech - for instance, The Ship That Sang involved highly-advanced aliens using tech that none of the humans could figure out, while Lord of Light pretty much says that there is a 'soul' to transfer, given that they deal with beings of pure energy. But neither of those expects the audience to just passively accept the fact that this technology is there - which is this movie's M.O. regarding everything - 'yes, I know it makes no sense, but it looks very pretty, so shut up.'
Moving right along, we'll cover that ever-popular topic, racism. Cries of racism have been echoing back and forth over this movie. It's unfortunate that the most frequent response to that charge seems to be 'zomg take a chil pil!' What said poster might need to realize, of course, is that I also need to 'take a chil pil' any time I see the use of 'zomg' in a non-sarcastic manner. Of course, seeing as this is the web, it's nearly impossible to suss out whether or not someone's employing sarcasm, which means that I am angry always.
Coming close behind the Razzle-Dazzle, I've also had my fill of people on the web saying 'oh, calm down, don't get so worked up' about the various forms of intolerance that we geeks are so good at, so I feel like drawing some more lines. Let's not just take a chil pil, let's send someone out to find the other two l's, while we take a closer look.
Now, one of the charges against it is the fact that Cameron took a very, er 'Disney' approach to casting the Na'vi - i.e., they got non-white actors. That's a subject I'm woefully unequipped to talk about, so I'll let other heads deal with whether or not that charge has any merit. On the other hand, I know a good bit about narratives, so, let's bring up the other part of the argument - the 'going native' story. (It's also known as 'mighty whitey', but I use the other name, because Fuck Tvtropes.)
The basic gist of the narrative is easy enough to sum up - guy is sent to fight an enemy, but gains respect for them and joins their side. Generally, the problem with this narrative happens when you notice that it's almost always a white guy joining with quaint natives, and it is only through his superior white-ness that he is able to lead them to victory. 'Dances with Wolves' is usually seen as the modern archetype of this, and, indeed, I've heard some people refer to Avatar as 'Dances With Wolves in Space', or 'Dances With Smurfs'. Which is unfair - not only is 'Smurfs' an inaccurate way to describe the Na'vi (Smurfette parallels notwithstanding - really, they're more like Fraggles), but that's an unfair way to look at 'Dances with Wolves'.
This might seem like an odd digression, but, since nobody will ever again voluntarily watch Kevin Costner's magnum opus, I think it deserves a few sentences to set the record straight. In DWW, the main character's assignment is basically to sit at an outpost, alone, and look at things. Yes, he's aware that more people will be coming eventually, resulting in fighting the tribes out there, but for now, his job is sitting and doing nothing - hell, the initial conflict between him in the Lakota is started by the tribe, when some dumb kids try to steal his horse. His friendship with the Lakota basically forms simply because the isolation is maddening, and they're the only people around - in other words, they're just acting human to each other. Then, at the end, he doesn't lead them in a vicious fight - hell, they rescue him - and then he doesn't join the tribe, he goes his own way.
A better recent example of the 'bad' version of the going native narrative would be 'The Last Samurai'. The protagonist white dude impresses the quaint natives by being a better soldier than them, claims the woman of a man he killed, and is apparently honorable enough to be considered the Last Samurai, even though Tom Cruise is rather painfully white. Not helping matters is the fact that the 'quaint natives' in question are remnants of a vicious warrior caste that was, well, as brutal and sociopathic as every other warrior caste in history. (Do you want to try telling me with a straight face that, for example, the Feudal European warrior caste wasn't a bunch of sociopaths?)
So, with some grounding in the narrative, is there any validity to the complaints? Is Jake a 'mighty whitey'? Well....a bit. Physically speaking, Jake is just kinda better than the various Na'vi warriors. We don't hear much on his service days other than a brief reference to a tour in Venezuela, but we can assume he was fairly impressive as a soldier; plus, who knows, maybe the Avatar bodies are built to be better. Still, seeing him just kinda p0wn all the tribal warriors who've been doing this all their life is a bit much. On the other hand, he's pretty dumb, and his *ahem* strategic abilities definitely have room for improvement. Plus, he's let into the tribe, not because of his amazing abilities, or his compassion, but because, um, seeds said he was cool.
You see, when he's stumbling around alone in the forest, a female Na'vi (the Chieftain's Daughter, natch) comes across him, and plans on just shooting him with an arrow, when a little jellyfish thing floats by, lands on her arrow, and then floats away. A couple scenes later, several of them land on Jake, to further emphasize the point, I guess. We later find out these are seeds.
Seeds. That fly, not float. Seeds that can carry the 'will' of a tree - for fuck's sake, a tree that has will! I was willing to cut the body-swapping the tiniest bit of slack, but now, we've got motherfucking maaaaaaaagic seeds! At this point, he's lost me pretty much completely, along with giving me a lead-in to the next big point.
Despite what you might hear about this all being biologically sound, the world makes no damn sense. It's entirely impossible for something like this to develop on its own, without the help of an acid-addicted Doctor Manhattan, or at least an egotistical Canadian who locked himself in his Palatial Estate for ten years. If Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort ever found out this place was real, they'd dance for joy, then go trudging off into the woods looking for a croco-duck, which would hopefully eat them both.
The world is full of plenty of creatures that look, well, neat. This, I've been told, is the main thing that Cameron spent all his time on over the last ten years - developing large amounts of information on the flora and fauna of this world. It's all the kind of stuff you'd see mentioned in the more 'classic' sci-fi stories - six-legged anteater-horses, bat-monkeys, hammerhead dinosaurs, banshees and dragons and mega-panthers, oh my! And best of all, they're all plug-and-play!
Yeah, I thought that'd get your attention. See, those fashionable, neatly braided long-ass ponytails that the Na'vi sport actually conceal tiny little wriggly tendrils. And as it turns out, every other animal on the planet has these same little wriggly tendrils - well, we only specifically see it on two animals, but if others don't have it, then the plot just falls apart completely. Anyway, a Na'vi can take their tendrils, and touch them to another animal's tendrils, and pretty much mind-meld with them. This is how they ride the anteater-horses, and bond with their banshees (hunters ride flying critters to hunt), and so forth.
Then, there are the trees. The scientist-lady of the movie finds out through her research that the trees on the planet - which look like they're multiple species - are all in communication with each other, projecting some sort of world-wide energy field that represents 'more connections than the human brain'. And there's a particularly 'holy' species of tree - which looks like a willow made of day-glo sticks. The Na'vi can just grab one of these strands and wrap their tendrils around it to commune with Eywa, their goddess. What does this mean? Well, apparently, the trees form a data network that contains all the memories of their ancestors. Jake and the Chieftain's Daughter have sex for the first time in a grove of these trees, which felt faintly sacrilegious for some reason. Though, I did begin wishing this had been directed by Cronenberg - he'd at least have them both hook up to the trees, so that the ancestors could join in on the orgy for that extra level of wrong-ness that would make this whole debacle worth it.
The oldest and most holy of the trees is hidden deep in a flying mountain range (literally - and let that sink in, I'll be coming back to it). It projects a field that blocks electronic surveillance, so any flying is eyes only. This tree is apparently the physical embodiment of Eywa, and is used twice to attempt to transfer a human fully into their Avatar body. They first try with the dying Grace, and even though she calls out 'she's real! I feel her!', she expires, and we are told 'she is with Eywa now' - and nobody is creeped out that the tree just ate her soul. At the very end of the movie, Jake goes through a similar process, which succeeds - I guess his soul tastes terrible. The seeds of this tree, by the way, are the ones that float around and dream of being accepted into Tinkerbell's clique, but the only time they're ever invited to a pixie prom is so that they can get garbage dumped on them, and then all the pixies laugh, and the seeds start crying and fly back home to the tree and the tree is all - er, I think I may have digressed.
Still, some of that stuff with the mind-melding sounds plausible, right? Right? NO!! That's faintly ridiculous, and there's pretty much no way that such a system would develop without outside help. (Well, actually, I'm told that the tendrils-thingy is almost kind of plausible, in a 'well, in an infinite universe anything can happen' way, but by the time you get to the trees, we're just making shit up out of nothing). Seriously, any iteration of the Doctor, any Captain of the Enterprise, would agree that stuff just ain't right on this planet and begin looking for telltale signs of one of their repeat enemies.
But, even if in the inevitable sequel, it is explained that it's all a Klingon/Master plot to manufacture bioweapons, it won't help things. Because, the nature of the world Cameron has made completely undercuts his argument about how much humans suck. We're supposedly out of touch with nature, but his own creatures cheat! Which is why I hold that, despite claims by numerous people, Earth is more of a predator planet than Pandora - on Earth, our trees don't talk, they murder each other. With poison. Very 'Renaissance Merchant-Prince'.
At one point towards the end, Jake plugs into the Eywa tree and pleads for help from it, talking about how humans 'killed their mother'. There is the big part I call bullshit. Earth does NOT have anything like Eywa. In fact, given the way Eywa is described as working, I would say that we actually had to build our mother. And we now commune with it all the damn time. In fact, in order to read this, you had to commune with her.
If 'Avatar' was actually about how the internet can bring world peace, I would be much more about it - hell, the Avatar process is a wonderful metaphor for online gaming, with Jake getting more sleep-deprived, having trouble telling the worlds apart, and getting lots of cyber-nookie from a crazy chick. But sadly, I can't respect James Cameron enough anymore to believe that was actually on purpose. He's way too busy telling us to 'save the planet' using the example of species that are only in harmony with nature because evolution happened in such a contrived way that they can cheat.
Which reminds me - what is the infant mortality rate among the Na'vi? Or the average lifespan? How often do they get sick? To borrow from John Stewart, how often do they die from fear or the common cold? Did you think of any of this, Cameron, or did - oh yeah, that's right. You were sitting in your manor, drawing pictures, for ten years. To deliver a Message Movie. Seriously, how the fuck am I supposed to take an anti-corporate, pro-environment message seriously when every corporation in existence was shilling for this goddamn movie? My god, man, there were HAPPY MEAL TOYS!!!!
We're running fairly long, so it's probably time to talk about the 'final battle', which is high tide for the Razzle-Dazzle. The Na'vi gather in big numbers in the flying mountains around Eywa, to push the humans back. So, the humans decide to go in and blow up the tree, knowing it's a 'holy relic' to the Na'vi. They get together a fleet of their gunships to fly in, escorting one that'll drop a huge frickin bomb on the tree. For some reason, they also have a ground assault group go in - which doesn't make sense, because the only way to get into these mountains is to be flown in. But no, apparently there's ample jungle space to drop people in - though, I have no idea why the ever-loving fuck you would send ground troops towards a position you're about to destroy from the air. But never mind that, it's a two-pronged fight - sky and ground, because it looks cooler.
By this point, Jake has been appointed God-Emperor of the Fraggles, because he was able to tame a dragon (a fight that you don't get to see - you just get Jake explaining that dragons can't look up, a fact so simple I'm amazed that only five people in the history of time have figured it out and tamed one). So, his strategy is simple - once in the mountains, they'll be flying blind, so we ambush them. I assumed that this meant lots of hit-and-run tactics in the steep and narrow mountain-filled skies, ducking into alleyways, picking off one ship at a time.
Oh, no. They just wait for the ships to all be in the electronic dead zone, then just swarm at them en masse. So, Jake's master plan was just 'get 'em!!!' Just wonderful. Understandably, they start getting their asses kicked. Just when it looks like they're going to lose, the Na'vi get reinforcement - all of the animals on the planet start fighting on their side.
Yes. Really. Eywa convinces everything to fight for them. This is pretty much the definition of 'deus ex machina', and is also the pinnacle moment of 'looks wonderful, but if you don't turn off all of your brain cells, you'll realize it's Just Fucking Stupid.'
All of this then leads to a final battle between Jake, the Chieftain's Daughter (riding a Moonsaber from World of Warcraft), and the Colonel, riding in one of his mechs. When he loses his gun, he pulls out a mech-sized bowie knife to keep fighting - again, I'm in disagreement with a friend on this. My friend feels this is just way too silly, his jumping into a 'gonna cut ya' stance, instead of a metal spur on the mech or something like that. Me, I just figure that the Colonel really, really loves his mech, so had the knife specially-made. The fight is actually fun enough that I was able to forgive the fact that the Chieftain's Daughter gets the actual killing blow - and the fact that, as I saw it in 3-d, there was a giant frickin arrow shaft sticking in my face.
Yeah, that's something I'll give it. The fights look fun, and there are some decent visuals, but the story sucks. When, say, Michael Bay ('boo! hiss!') does this, everyone pours hate on it. On the other hand, when it's done by James Cameron - who I would really like to think is being held to a higher standard than Michael Freaking Bay - he gets applauded for it. This pisses me off to no end.
There are all these things that are stupid about it, and I'm sure that idiot geeks have already come up with great feats of sophistry to defend it - geeks are way too skilled at coming up with reasons that things they like aren't as lame as they really are. But, to keep things simple, I'll just leave it at one simple question -
WHY THE FUCK ARE WE NOT TOLD HOW THE MOUNTAINS FLOAT?
Giant chunks of rock, floating in the air - and not a single character says 'wow, that kind of defies physics'. They mention that it's beautiful, but nothing about the fact that mountains can't normally fly. The movie doesn't even bother trying to explain itself. 'Avatar' was almost three hours long, and devoted large amounts of time to show, in painstaking detail, every single creature that Cameron had come up with - and yet they can't spare ten fucking seconds for a scientist to give you some throw-away line about why the mountains fly? That, right there, encapsulates everything I hate about this movie.
As I left the theater, I went up to the counter, bought a ticket for the Sherlock Holmes movie, and then went home. Yes, having paid for the movie for the purpose of reviewing, I did, in fact, feel guilty enough that I paid money for another movie I didn't bother watching, just to try and 'balance the books'. That's how much I hate this movie - well, I should say, this movie's success, which it does not deserve in any way.
If you're a normal, non-geek person who really loves this movie, I can understand that. If you're a geek who just enjoys this movie as dumb entertainment, I can forgive that. But if you're a geek, and you somehow consider this a 'transcendent experience', or 'the work of a master', or any of that bullshit, completely ignoring the bad biology, bad physics, inconsistent message, hypocrisy, and just plain shitty writing, than as far as I'm concerned, you are complicit in a travesty against art, against intelligence, and against geekdom.
Well, our journey in the footsteps of James Cameron has ended in soul-selling tragedy, which is a damn shame. James Cameron, I loved getting to see the person you used to be, but that guy has been dead for a long time. You're just another jackass with too much money and ego, and too little intelligence, and we are all poorer for it.
So, I close with two thoughts -
1)'Abysss' was all about praising Cthulhu; this movie sings the glories of Shub-Niggurath. Plus, Cameron specializes in flashy light shows, and wants to bring the atom bomb to the silver screen. Lovecraft fans who want to see him as a cultist to the Great Old Ones - or maybe even an avatar of Nyarlathotep - have a lot of ammo.
2)If Skynet has any sense at all, it will send a terminator to Pandora and get Colonel Quaritch on its side!! I'm sure he'd totally go for it. Hell, that's probably the only way I'd ever shill out money to see a Cameron film again.