Sunday, January 10, 2010
I Don't See You: James Cameron's "Avatar"
Where do I begin with the potential minefield of discussing James Cameron's "Avatar" considering the box office records the movie is currently breaking and the discussion of the film extending far beyond its merits as a film, but about its significance in the history of motion pictures? Sure, we have the usual suspects raiding internet boards to insult anyone who does not recognize the genius of James Cameron. But, we also have extensive articles about the politics of the film with those on the left and right sides of the political spectrum chiming in about its message. This movie is at the center of the cultural zeitgeist in America at this given moment.
Now, I have to admit that most films that occupy this position in our culture I usually respond to with a certain level of skepticism. I believe any sensible person should because, otherwise, the likelihood of falling into group think mentality grows considerably. Ultimately, much of your preconceptions about a film go away when your eyes and mind engage directly with the movie playing on the screen right before you. What often happens, as with recent heavily hyped movies I have watched in the last month such as "Watchmen" and "Star Trek", is that I am actually surprised about how the movie themselves bear little resemblance to what I read about them. "Watchmen" was derided as either an overlong mess or celebrated as a faithful adaptation of a graphic novel considered one of the all-time greats. In some ways, they are both right, but what bothered me more were the clumsiness of its big ideas which seem to have come straight from its source. "Star Trek", on the other hand, was heralded as a clever and fun adaptation of a series, while I thought the script was mind-numbingly stupid and found the film to be amateurishly directed. Expectations versus reality.
I watched "Avatar" in 3D on the one true IMAX screen in New York City a couple of weeks after its release to distance myself from what everyone else had to say about it. It was rather difficult, considering that the discussion of this film has reached levels of mass hysteria not seen since, say, the embarrassing displays from both the supporters and detractors of "The Dark Knight" a year and a half ago. Admittedly, I always ask myself why films like "Avatar" take up so much of the space in public debate while a richer film like "A Serious Man" (which has plenty of aspects to provoke debate) gets relatively ignored. Watching this film under the best circumstances made me consider that question more. Why? Because, as a film, I consider "Avatar" to be shrug-worthy, something I tried unsuccessfully to engage with on an intellectual or even visual level. This is a movie that I saw at a 3PM showing and yawned about 7 or 8 times during its duration. As many problems I had with "The Abyss" (which I watched two days later, at a nightime hour), that film still engaged me in a way that "Avatar" never did.
Since everyone has seen the film by now, I will not go heavily into plot summary. In short, a mining company from Earth, RDA, comes to the planet Pandora in hopes of finding a substance called Unobtainium that will help revitalize their dying planet. They recruit a former marine Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) to take his dead twin brother's place (Beware of any movie using the dead twin brother plot device) in occupying the body of a Na'vi, the indigenous people of Pandora. The scientists (the main one, Dr. Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver) involved would prefer Jake to learn about the Na'vi and gain their trust for the purpose of understanding their planet. However, his mercenary superior, Colonel Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang), and the company man in charge, Peter Selfridge (played by Giovanni Ribisi) want Jake to get information on the Na'vi to make it easier to attack them in a few months' time. Jake, however, falls in love with Neytiri, one of the Na'vi, which, of course, makes him realize what the corporation will do these to peaceful people is wrong, wrong, wrong. Yes, it is "Dance With Wolves" with a more anti-imperialist and pro-environmental message.
The thing is that actually watching the film unfold adds no more to the story than just describing it to you, as I have just done. This may be one of the most clumsiest movies that James Cameron has ever written. Sure, most people can mock the dialogue with its cliched lines like "You're not in Kansas anymore!" (Glad to see cultural references in 2154 still date back to a movie released in 1939.) But what I was most surprised about this was how slapped together this movie felt, considering its long gestation period. Information is given to us through clunky exposition. Character changes are told to us through dialogue and voiceover (signs of last minute editing room patches) or, in the case of Michelle Rodriguez's character Trudy, not at all. Nothing regarding story ever feels developed, as much as it seems stuffed into an undersized truck whose contents are then dumped onto our brains, much less we consider how absurd things are, even playing by the rules of science fiction.
Did anyone really care about any of the characters here? Jake Sully begins the movie as a blank slate. I would not exactly knock the performance of Sam Worthington because he does not have a whole lot to play here. I would even compliment him a bit by saying he's a better poor man's Russell Crowe than Gerard Butler. Sully is presented simply as a guy who you should feel bad about because he's in a wheelchair. (Though one would think that in 2154, not only would Sully have mechanical leg braces, but, at least, have a more advanced wheelchair than the dinky one Jon Voight used in "Coming Home".) The scene when Sully first inhabits the body of his avatar is sort of blown when he seems to take to his new legs a little too quickly when a little struggle dealing with this would have given him a little more personal vulnerability. He does not have any distinguishing characteristics rather than coming across as an affable lunkhead. You would think the guy would be a little more indifferent towards the Na'vi or something to make his inevitable character turnaround (which is not much of a turnaround) to be more dramatic.
Let us compare this to "Dance With Wolves", which bothers to actually have a prologue showing its lead character fighting in a battle in a way others thought was brave, but was actually his attempt at suicide. If we are going to spend this much time with Jake Sully who eventually decides to not only turn against his own kind, but to actually physically become another being, then one would think that the guy should be loaded with some personal demons. Maybe he does this because there is some level of self-hatred. Maybe he changes because he long had doubts about the way his planet treated its veterans. Something. Anything better than what we are given, which is not much beyond a bunch of webcam confessions about how he does not quite understand his rather vague feelings. You can watch similar videos by emo teenagers on YouTube that have about the same emotional content. Sully inhabits the body of his avatar with the same feeling of "How cool do I look?" that a kid would have putting on a Halloween costume.
I am quite disappointed that James Cameron has now turned into another director that makes supposedly visual films that, in reality, are mostly all telling and no showing. Watch a film like "Children of Men" to get how Alfonso Cuaron presents a lot of information about the world of that film without resorting to dialogue to plaster all the gaping holes of logic. Sometimes, Cameron just lets moments happen without the characters making any sense. I lost count of how many times Neyriti trusted Jake and then distrusted him and then trusted him again, all for no particular reason. She decides not to kill him during their first encounter because of his bravery during a fight with a wild animal. She takes him to her tribe because mysterious jellyfish creatures land on him, inexplicably indicating his "specialness", I guess. Sully is shunned by the entire tribe after the humans' first attack, but then earns their trust again by taming a bigger dragon than the one he tamed earlier in the film, as opposed to proving his worth by doing something, I don't know, useful in helping to prevent the approaching army. No character turns in this movie seemed earned, but are merely told to us which we are supposed to accept. This film truly has a deep problem understanding the basics of drama.
In terms of plot, the movie comes together like a series of mad-libs, with ideas being introduced only to be disposed of later when it becomes inconvenient to the formulaic storytelling. Early in the story, they tell us that the reason Jake is sent down as an avatar by RDA is due to their equipment being unable to function on Pandora. Of course, when Quaritch and his soldiers attack, all of their computer and communications equipment function perfectly. Trudy openly refuses to fire upon Hometree and is, for some reason, not even detained for not following orders, which makes it easier for her to break Sully and Augustine out of their cell. In fact, it is never quite understandable why RDA targets both Hometree and the Tree of Souls when they (or us, the audience) are never shown as having much of an understanding of their significance. You would think the attack of Hometree would be followed up with immediately, but it seems to have been taken down for the sole purpose of watching it burn so that James Cameron could work in his cheap allegory about September 11th (which we will get to later). I thought RDA was supposed to be considered ruthless, but, after destroying Hometree, they just went back home to finish the annihilation another day.
Many have defended this film by saying that James Cameron is making a big entertainment that should not be compared to the ambition of, say, "2001: A Space Odyssey". Basically, many of these same people resort to the tired "Stop thinking!" argument. My position is that I was not expecting that deep or complicated a movie from Cameron, which is why it surprised me that the story is told as sloppily as I have pointed out. Is it asking much for a movie that is being sold as a visual extravaganza to actually understand what visual storytelling is? Is it asking much of Cameron to present heroes with something that I, as a paying audience member, could possibly relate to? Is it asking too much for James Cameron to stop writing villains that are one-dimensional assholes?
I got into this a bit in my "Abyss" piece about how Cameron does not seem to trust us to dislike his villains enough, as if presenting Michael Biehn's character in that film as an unfortunate victim of an underwater condition coupled with somewhat misguided militaristic judgment was not enough. No, he also has Biehn's character in his very first scene, mouthing off like a jackass. Well, that character was still far more nuanced as an antagonist than what Cameron has come up with since then. I still think "Titanic" would have been vastly improved if Billy Zane had been completely edited out of the film. Wasn't trying to survive a sinking ship enough of an obstacle for that film's star-crossed lovers?
In "Avatar", we get a double whammy of assholes in Quaritch and Selfridge. Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi are actually much better actors than Zane, but even they cannot overcome that both their characters are cartoons from their first moments on screen. They proceed to hit the same notes again and again during the entire course of the film. Like previous Cameron villains, I became exasperated with them, not as much wanting to see their comeuppance than wanting to see them swatted away like the pests they really were. We are dealing with people who are on a mission to save a dying Earth, so you would think there could have been some nuance to their imperialist ideology. It is not like they do not have a relatable motivation even if their actions to save their planet are reprehensible.
This leads us to the politics of the film which has been the subject of much debate over whether Cameron should have included it or not, as well as whether we, as the audience, should actually take it seriously. As I wrote about Cameron's political messages in "The Abyss", it is clear to me that he is attempting to make a big statement regardless of whether he succeeds at it or not. Sure, we can choose to not take it seriously, but considering how painfully ham-fisted it is, I do not know how you cannot talk about the film without engaging its ideas. To ignore it is to do a disservice to the entire notion of watching a film and thinking about what its images and words are saying to us.
Am I threatened at all personally by the movie's politics? Not directly. In many ways, my politic beliefs probably line up with Cameron's a great deal. The bigger problem is that he presents them in a way that I think does them a true disservice, similar to the complaints that many liberals have lobbed at Michael Moore films. Earlier, I had brought up the point that destroying Hometree and then going away did not make sense as a military strategy, as they would have probably continued their attack further into the forest. The reason I believe that scene in the film is all about the destruction of the tree was due to Cameron desperately trying to engineer a science fiction allegory to the Twin Towers going down on September 11th.
An earlier science fiction film that attempted to do this and left a serious bad taste in my mouth, but was heralded by some critics I respect, was Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds". I live in New York City and, personally, would have preferred if Spielberg and Cameron did not employ the tragic events of that day to such cheap and trivial effect for their sci-fi projects. It is not as if these films were attempting to explore the moral quandaries of September 11th through science fiction allegory. Instead, they attempt to recall the images of that day from our collective memories to try to exploit our fear, sadness and other emotions. To me, it is not much different than the despicable Rudolph Giuliani using televised images of the towers burning in his presidential campaign commercials.
What is Cameron trying to accomplish when he has Hometree enshrouded in dark smoke much like the Twin Towers? Spielberg's film was just as vacuous in its use of that imagery, but, at least, he made up for it with "Munich" later that same year, one of the most incisive critiques on the "War on Terror". Cameron does not stop there, making allusions to the war in Iraq with phrases like "fighting terror with terror" and "shock and awe", but he often stacks the deck in his favor to score political points. Are the Na'vi anything less than perfect beings who are complete victims? Are the villains any more complex than mini-Hitlers who do not care about who they kill to achieve their goals? I certainly do not mind when a big-budget film wants to engage with me politically, but this film feels like a mash-up of rants compiled from the crank section at the Daily Kos.
I do find it odd that Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation, which owns Fox, has fully financed this film with such leftist ideology. Though, the most conspiracy-minded section of my brain considers that this film accomplishes the true end goal of what Murdoch's media empire represents: the dumbing down of our discourse. In some ways, this movie represents the most dismissible crank opinions of the left and makes it mainstream, so that the right can easily dismiss the left's opinions as unserious because we allow them to be represented by a somewhat ridiculous movie about blue people who communicate with trees. We are a culture that often allows the stupidest people to represent different political views in the media. Granted, that is a stretch and completely unprovable, but I only present it as some food for thought as to why Fox released this. Oh, and the other reason is that it would gross a lot of money and that is more important to Murdoch than sticking to his political principles. A supposedly subversive film is repackaged as a corporate commodity, which works out for anyone making money off this film.
I have managed to get this far without even touching upon the visual aesthetic of "Avatar", as well as its groundbreaking use of 3D technology. It would be ridiculous to not be impressed at the scale of the visual effects in this movie. Without a doubt, this film presents enveloping environments that are enhanced by watching this in 3D. I do wish Cameron and his team had a better instinct for designing memorable creatures than the planet they inhabit, but he clearly does not have the eye for that as much as Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro do. But there are quite a few memorable landscapes, trees and plants in this film that stick in my mind. It also helps that Cameron knows how to shoot environments better than someone like George Lucas does. Even though Cameron uses green screen, the actors and environments are always shot with a sense of depth. In the Star Wars prequels, George Lucas' style of direction was often to place actors flat against a green screen and then clutter the background with distracting visual effects. It is clear that Cameron has more of a visualist's eye for combining effects with live action.
However well Cameron employs these visual effects, he still falls into the same trap that other filmmakers have when they use them. There are always too much of them. The strongest compositions in the film are often when one or two characters are seen in the middle of more open space, so that you can take in the environment. For the first half of the film, Cameron's images on Pandora try to achieve some level of visual poetry and succeed at it pretty well. The problem with his images occur when the film shifts into action mode and he seems to abandon all the things that made him an action director a cut above all others. This film is actually the reverse of what I felt during "Titanic", where the love story bored me, but the last hour, when the ship sinks, is probably the best filmmaking of Cameron's career.
I do not know what happened to Cameron in the last 12 years, but, like Lucas after his long self-imposed layoff from the director's chair, he seems to believe that cluttering the frame with special effects makes for exciting filmmaking. I am quite surprised few have called out the final battle sequence in "Avatar" for having some surprisingly sloppy filmmaking. I had a great deal of trouble figuring out the spacial relations of one character to another or where the ships were in relation to the dragons or whatever else was going on. Why? Cameron clutters the screen with flying objects and explosions with little sense of screen direction or even a sense of the strategy of battle that was employed in "The Lord of the Rings". It literally becomes a mass of flying objects seemingly edited in a blender. Is it better than the mess J.J. Abrams made of "Star Trek"? Sure. But I expected a whole lot better from Cameron to serve up such underwhelming action that is more than a bit visually incoherent.
Cameron has fallen into the trap that putting more, more, more onto screen inspires cinematic awe. It may be for those who consider going to the movies the equivalent of a theme park ride, but the 3D in this movie did give me a bit of a headache and, throughout this final sequence, I honestly could not wait for the movie to be over, so that I could make my head stop hurting. Perhaps, if Cameron was more interested in telling a more involving story rather than hurling everything new he's developed in his workshop the last decade at you, I would actually care more about what was going on.
Of course, I cannot talk about the visuals of this film without going more into depth about 3D, as the film was specifically shot to be viewed this way. I have to admit that I do not quite understand its appeal nor am I convinced of its long-term impact. Isn't it ironic that the film's expression of love are the words "I see you"? All movies ask us to engage with its imagery and you would think that 3D would be the next step in that logic with images that are truly immersive. But is it?
I watched Avatar on a true IMAX screen in 3D. The IMAX presentations actually show the film at a 1:1.77 aspect ratio common for HD video, as opposed to the 1:2.35 ratio presented in non-IMAX theaters. The taller ratio on the eight story screen attempts to provide a complete 3D experience, as if doing everything to not remind you that the screen has edges. Except I was always aware that the screen had edges because, no matter where the director draws my eye, an attentive viewer (which I humbly consider myself to be) tries to pick up as much information from a frame's composition as possible. Even on a big screen like this, my eyes still reached the edges of the screen many times, taking me out of the illusion of reality and depth that 3D is supposed to have. I also do not believe that 3D is actually true depth, but more like looking through those old Viewmasters, when there are flat planes of depth rather than actual dimensionality. When an actor is shot almost directly on, let's say in a close-up, they still look like a moving cardboard cutout placed a few inches in front of a background.
Another major issue is that not all images are in deep focus, so, sometimes, your eyes wander to a section of the frame that is not in focus due to usually a telephoto lens having a limited focal range for certain shots. When you are talking to someone and then look over their shoulder to focus on what is happening behind them, your eyes need to adjust slightly for that focus. But film is not reality. You are still restricted by what information the director wants you to focus on. Thus, you find yourself adjusting your eyes for something you want to see in clearer focus that will never be clear, which often results in a headache that is situated above and between your eyes.
Perhaps, 3D works for you on a visual level than it does for me. A question I actually want to pose to anyone out there is what does 3D actually do for you besides its obvious use as a visual stimulus? You cannot go a day without seeing another article about how 3D is the future of both film and television. Yes, during selected, but not many, moments, I would admit it provides a cool effect. That shot at the beginning where Jake is pulled out of his sleep chamber is quite great. But I do not know what I am supposed to get out of it beyond its gimmickry.
We should also consider that James Cameron is one of the better action directors out there. Though I had issues with the way he used 3D, he probably has more of a sense of how to use it than most of the hack directors out there who are now probably lining up to cash in on this fad. It is a format that is about immersing ourselves in cinematic space, during a time when most directors do not have a sense of how to present space on screen. What I fear is that we will be looking at the visual noise and clutter of Cameron's final battle sequence multiplied by 10. This is a format that needs more fluid and distinct camera moves and less hyperactive editing for it to work, which is not what you get from directors today who plant 20 cameras in 20 different places and cut between each of those angles every second. This is not a format that will be served well by the mostly graceless directors making modern-day blockbusters.
I have to wonder if this push for 3D is yet another step towards what I consider to be our culture's constant desperation for fake reality in this century which I had brought up in a post a few months back. We have movies like "The Blair Witch Project" or "Paranormal Activity" that are sold on the illusion that they are comprised of found footage. We have reality shows that purport to show the true lives of people, but are actually staged events manipulated even further in the editing room. Although "Avatar" takes place in a fantasy world, 3D is employed to make us feel that we are actually occupying this world, witnessing the events in the story, first hand. Yet, I was curiously detached from the film, always aware that I was watching a movie due to the artificiality of the effects and the story itself. Nothing in "Avatar" was as immersive of the 2D IMAX image in "The Dark Knight" when Bruce Wayne is looking downward from that tower he leaps from in Japan. That shot actually induced vertigo in me. The image was effective because it left enough space in its composition for my mind to register the height. Trying too hard for a fake reality often calls attention to how fake it truly is.
As I mentioned before, my eyes may focus on a part of the screen the film will not allow me to focus on. Also, despite the size of the screen, the film cannot make my eyes realize the edges of the screen do not exist. In some ways, the illusion of depth in 2D allows me to use my imagination more than when 3D forces me to look at some objects as having perceived depth while other objects look somewhat flat. The basis of my rejecting this level of fake reality is that I cannot prevent my eyes from exploring and discovering anything in the frame.
This push for 3D actually reminds me of the virtual reality experience presented in the film "Strange Days" directed by Kathryn Bigelow. In that movie, characters put on a headset that essentially wires a pre-recorded first person experience into your head. You can have the experience of robbing someone or having sex with a woman or anything for that matter. The illusion has even more depth to your eyes and mind than 3D has, but there are still two issues. You cannot actually touch or feel anything and your experience is still limited to what disc is playing in your headset at the time. The main character in that film, played by Ralph Fiennes, plays older recordings he made of time spent with the woman he loves, hoping to have that feeling again. In the virtual world, he reaches and caresses a naked woman that does not exist. At the same time, in the real world, he reaches out and finds nothing. A man trying to create the illusion of his emotions is a sad thing to watch because it is ultimately a fake reality. It is not a surprise that the film treats the trading of these recordings as if they were drugs and depicts the main character as a sort of drug dealer. Like drugs, it feels like a desperate attempt to not face true reality, but to convince oneself that a fake, idealized reality is more true. By the way, "Strange Days" was co-written and produced by James Cameron.
So, consider me skeptical about 3D and, certainly, whether this mediocre film will stand the test of time. If the loathsome "True Lies" did not exist, I would consider this to be James Cameron's weakest film. Perhaps, this level of skepticism will result in many out there labeling me a "hater" or accusations that I "think too much" and not allowing myself to just sit back and be entertained. But I can tell you that a healthy level of skepticism in anybody usually results in them making smarter choices, having more intelligent opinions and some level of perspective as to how things work in the long term. It is often those that resort to labels that see things in the short term and more likely to subscribe to a herd mentality. Let's not forget that many who went bananas for Cameron's previous film "Titanic" are a bit embarrassed about it nowadays and would probably watch box office failures such as "Fight Club" or "Office Space" for the 20th time than sit through that movie again. Was there a character in "Avatar" you are going to remember more than Milton, the put-upon stapler fetishist?
As I write this, it is less than a month into this movie's release as it rakes in cash from all around the world. Time will tell if most of us actually did "see" this movie the way "Avatar" itself defines the word.
"Avatar" was seen at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square in true IMAX 3D.