[4 February 2010]
Last month, I went to go see James Cameron’s Avatar in glorious 3D at an IMAX Theater at Chicago’s Navy Pier. I wouldn’t brave that nauseating tourist trap for just any popcorn flick. No, this was the return of the mind behind Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss. I sat down with fairly high expectations. Only Steven Spielberg (my favorite director) has played a greater role in shaping my appreciation for the cinema than Cameron.
Snigger all you want. I realize that those two’s mug shots grace many a cineaste’s Wanted poster. The two are guilty as charged. Spielberg fathered the ridiculous summer movie season. Cameron taught it how to walk. Neither of them will fill the screen with tactile subtlety when a plummeting 18-wheeler will do.
Their films go to 11. So what?
Hollywood desperately needs the two, now more than ever. With HDTV, Netflix, and the ready availability of broadband internet connections, Hollywood sits by the music industry’s death bed, holding its hand, counting the days.
Hollywood has even higher expectations for Avatar than myself. Hollywood produces dreams. You don’t need to read Variety to know those are a tough sell in a down imagination market.
So Cameron rides into our IMAXs on his white steed, Avatar. If anyone can lead the studios back to black, who better than Mr. Titanic himself?
I placed the Larry King-sized 3D glasses on my head and awaited greatness. I was not disappointed.
Avatar is a unique modern entertainment product. It is an event. It is an outing. You need to see it on an IMAX theater in 3D. Unless you are Richard Branson or Jerry Jones, you can’t do that at home.
Further, you need to pay for it. You must hand over hard-earned cash to a venue if you wish to enjoy the film. That noise you just heard of was the collective gasp of millions of torrid torrenters.
Of course, you could head to your local multiplex or bodega and view the film. You will see it, but there will be no way you can experience it like you do in 3D.
The first 90-minutes of Avatar melds computer generated imagery and film-making into an art that doesn’t just suspend disbelief, it outright dissolves it. Never before have filmgoers so immersed themselves in a filmmaker’s imagination. I always wanted to know what it felt like to be the first audience to see Dorothy open to door to Oz, or the Imperial Star Destroyer fill the screen at the beginning of Star Wars. With Avatar, I now know.
The film lacks a defining moment equal to those cited. Instead it overwhelms the senses with a pulpy fantasy concept raised, through tender loving technological detail, into a fully-realized cinematic environment.
Behind the Matrix ‘Whoah!’ factor lies surprising depth. The Avatar the title refers to is the alien Na’vi host the hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) embodies when scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) put him to sleep. Sully can only control his alien self by sleeping.
When we sleep we dream. Avatar tiptoes across that concrete barrier between our imaginations and our senses. We watch Cameron’s vision of a sleeping human guiding a computer generated alien through a fantasy world, Pandora, ripped right from the pages of ‘50s nickel and dime fantasy stories.
Rumors that Avatar‘s working title was Whose Dream Is It Anyway? could not yet be confirmed.
While watching the film I wondered what Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan and John Carter, would have thought. Proud that an obvious fan of his (either directly or indirectly) brought his images to life? Or bitter that he was born too soon to accomplish this himself?
Also, how about Peter Jackson? Four years ago, Jackson’s remake of King Kong promised a similar fantasy experience. It failed to deliver on that promise. Yes, the computer effects available to him then are at a video-game level compared to Avatar. Yes, too, he chose to double the length, so a simple monster story turned into a somnolent Tolkienesque epic. But his Kong‘s major problem is just that it is too much. His Skull Island is populated by just about every form of screen monster any fanboy has ever sketched while in study hall.
Jackson wanted to show everything he can do. His Kong leaves you exhausted. I couldn’t wait for the film to end, and I’m exactly the kind of geek the film was made for.
The first 90-minutes of Avatar don’t have those problems. The adjective that came to my mind while watching was ‘lyrical’. Yes, ‘lyrical’. Sure, the plot rips off Dances With Wolves, but it’s ripping off the best parts of that film. Doesn’t all good art do that?
Unfortunately, Avatar doesn’t end at 90-minutes. Cameron tosses his lyrical, special-effects odyssey aside for a didactic, misanthropic message movie which revisits George Lucas’ worst instincts. The Na’vi change into fierce little Ewoks who must overcome the corporate Man! All irony informed by the fact that the film itself is nothing but a gigantic corporate product, with all the merchandising ties that entails, is most likely unintentional.
Why, Cameron, why?
Sure, most of Cameron’s films contain corporate bogeymen of one kind or another, be they Skynet, Aliens’ Carter Burke, or even the White Star Line. But Avatar is blatantly anti-human. Yes, we’re frying our planet, but does that mean every human except two needs to be perp-walked into their ships at the end by the Na’vi? In Titanic, Cameron’s class politics add depth to what could have been four hours spent waiting for a ship to sink. In Avatar, the insertion of Cameron’s personal politics, no matter which ballot you punch, leaves a bitter taste in your mouth and takes much away from the film.
Avatar had a chance be a on a level with 2001, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Star Wars. I left more than a little disappointed that Cameron wasted that opportunity, especially when he takes so long between films.
Avatar without a doubt raised the possibilities of what cinema can do to the near infinite. It will most likely take at least a generation to catch up to where Cameron just placed his mark.
As for Hollywood, Cameron proved that filmgoers will leave their homes for a destination movie. The problem is, I don’t see too many young Camerons in the generation beneath him, besides the aforementioned Jackson. If it wishes to prevent itself from lying in the recording industry’s bed, then Hollywood must remind itself that an Avatar only exists because at one time a studio took a chance on Terminator.
Until then, I’ll fondly recall those treasured first 90-minutes on Pandora.