Feb 21, 2010

Thoughts on Avatar

My nephews, the Mini-Enchiladitos, 8 and 4 years old, probably have more sense of the nuances in life, of the gray areas, of the ambiguity of things, than James Cameron. At their tender ages, like any other child, they probably sense that sometimes things are complicated and not categorically and clearly divided into good and bad with nothing in between. Life is all about moral and emotional complexity. This is why there is nothing in Avatar that remotely resembles human life, human thinking or human feeling. Avatar is a well-oiled money making machine that you have seen and heard many other times before, but with a new coat of spectacular visual effects. It works great in places and in others it sputters, swallowed by its own hypocritical bombast and its thunderous lack of charm.

Besides James Cameron and most bloated commercial Hollywood spectacles, what other entities tend to deliberately erase moral ambiguity? Religions and totalitarian despots. The deliberate withholding of ambivalence (with its attendant corollary, the disappearance of irony) is a very dangerous thing. It numbs the mind.

Avatar's pompous, selfrighteous, off-putting sermonizing about respect for nature, love among the species, or the evil actions of the Bush administration, is deeply suspect, because it is premised on oversimplification. Plus, you gotta have nerve to spend half a billion dollars making a movie that probably used more electric energy than what entire countries have used in centuries, and give the audience an utterly inappropriate speech about the destruction of the planet. What's more, I think it is deeply cynical, because it banks on a global sense of grievance against the United States, which is one of the reasons Evo Morales likes it and it has grossed billions of dollars abroad.

Some right-wing nutjobs claim Avatar is anti-American. I think it is more American than apple pie. They shouldn't be fooled by its liberal criticism of our recent invasions; this is just calculated ingratiation with the global audience ("See? we're not so bad"). They need to look at the hero of the movie, Jake Sully, who, like Pocahontas' John Smith or Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, changes sides to supposedly help the good cause. He of purity of motives and a decent heart will vanquish evil all by himself, because even though he belongs with the meanies, he wants to be unencumbered by greed and ambition and achieve a puritanical state of grace (and shag the gorgeous natives). It may seem like ambivalence that he is torn between loyalty to his race and his sense of decency, but real ambiguity is much more complex than deciding between the totally corrupt and the totally innocent. If it were so easy, we'd all be saints. That he switches sides never to go back is not that big a deal, since it's established that there is nothing worth going back for. This myth is the epitome of self-serving American self-righteousness. It's what Americans want to believe of themselves, that they are really decent at heart, despite their predatory, plundering ways. It's the wishful thinking of a bully. I have less trouble believing in Santa Claus.

James Cameron may be very gifted at managing the creation of huge cinematic spectacles, but his imagination is pedestrian, he is utterly unoriginal, and has terrible taste. He shamelessly recycles myths that are extremely hard to swallow in this day and age. I've had it with the myth of the noble savage (which is nothing but soft serve racism) for quite a while now, but what I cannot abide a second longer is the myth of the American hero. One more stupid fight between Good and Evil and I'll start randomly shooting my invisible long range missiles in the general direction of Hollywood.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy certain parts of Avatar, towards the beginning, those in which no one was speaking. I was fitfully transported here and there by some beautiful sequences with lovely colors. However, the moment language intruded, it was as jawdroppingly stupid as some of the visuals were beautiful. James Cameron hasn't an ounce of wit or a sense of mischief, unlike Steven Spielberg, who is a genius when he is playful. Cameron wouldn't know lightness of touch if it tickled his tight, important ass. The comparison with Spielberg is useful. In my view, Spielberg's greatest weakness is his sentimentality, but at least his schmaltz feels genuine, whereas with Cameron it's all posturing bullshit. Spielberg is much more human, much more ingenious, much more thrilling, much more fun. I don't get a sense Cameron has real feelings. He has statements.

This movie is at least one hour too long. All the good faith it elicited from me at the beginning, with the admirable CG and motion capture improvements and the beautiful colors, evaporated by the last act, which is an unforgiveable groaner (compounded by the increasingly atrocious score by James Horner, plus Celine Dion screeching at the end). There is an endless battle scene with weapons and explosions and not much plot coherence and the trite mano a mano to the death of Jake vs the Meanie (an insufferable Stephen Lang). The villains are too evil, the heroes are too good and none of them are interesting. Sigourney Weaver makes the most cringe inducing entrance ever by a good actor in the history of film, which is a credit to the heavyhandedness of the director (as is the casting of mostly insufferable people like Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez). Sam Worthington, playing the hero, was the only mildly likable character in the movie, even when every line he uttered conspired against him.

So yes, Avatar is technically amazing, but it is intellectually empty and spiritually unconvincing. Technical wonder coupled with inanity is a total waste.
Somebody with more artistry and originality should come along and give these amazing new tools a try. Do not hold your breath though, because as long as there are hundreds of millions of dollars invested, we are going to be awash in trite, predictable, onedimensional formulas. Studios are going to sink hundreds of millions of dollars to try to replicate Avatar's success, and most of the outcomes are going to be even worse (already the trailer for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland looks awful).

Hollywood is more and more is like a hellish version of Groundhog Day where all the movies and all the stories are one and the same, rehash after rehash, getting more bloated and staler every day.

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