Monday, July 30, 2012

James Cameron Roundtable #9: Avatar

Individual reviews are useful, but film criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I'm Max O'Connell of The Film Temple, he's Loren Greenblatt of G-Blatt's Dreams, and we've got some things to say in the James Cameron Roundtable.

Max’s Grade: 45 (C)
Loren’s Grade: C

Max O’Connell: Before we start on Avatar, do we want to talk a little bit about what James Cameron was doing between Titanic and Avatar?

Loren Greenblatt: He took a bit of an absence, you might say: twelve years. That’s a long time for any filmmaker. He wasn’t sitting in his cave counting money, though. He was doing stuff. Right after Titanic he worked on a Spider-Man movie, which he never made because he wasn’t happy with the technology available.

MO: It sounded interesting in theory, at least. He wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Octopus…I’d watch that.

LG: I love Molina in Spider-Man 2…but that would have been interesting. We never got that, but in the meantime Cameron was doing a few other things.

MO: Right before Titanic’s release, he was developing a potential third film in the Terminator franchise. What we got was his supposed warm-up, T2: Battle Across Time, an attraction at Universal Studios Florida that’s basically a Terminator 2 reunion and his first extensive use of 3-D. It’s not as sophisticated as Avatar, obviously. There’s a lot of sequences of stuff poking out at you. But his use of the environment is still great, and we get to see everyone come back, so it’s fun.

LG: And it’s notable for what he did technically. He used 3-D and 70mm cameras, and he used higher frame rates for the first time, which he says he’ll do with Avatar 2 (and 3 and 4, if we’re to believe it).

MO: He also co-created the show Dark Angel.

LG: Another strong female sci-fi thing which we didn’t have time to get into. He only directed the finale, and we’re not watching that without having watched the show. He was also working on a remake of Fantastic Voyage which he may still produce for Real Steel director Shawn Levy.

MO: Cameron also went on an underwater documentary kick with three films: Bismarck, his exploration of the Bismarck wreckage; Ghosts of the Abyss, which is basically Titanic bonus footage and Aliens of the Deep.

LG: The latter two are both early explorations with 3-D technology for Cameron. The last one is more deep water bioluminescent stuff. I understand that they’re all fairly anonymous. They show his interests, but not his personality.

MO: It shows his ability to turn his personal pet projects into things people want to see. It’s almost like a precursor to Avatar 2, which should explore the oceans of the fictional planet Pandora. Cameron played around with 3-D technology and developed two projects: Battle Angel, a return to hard-edged sci-fi that would use the same technology as Avatar…

LG: It’s based on a manga, and I understand it features a strong female protagonist, so there’s a return to his 80s work.

MO: It’s a film that’s ostensibly still on his agenda, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon, because he’s so preoccupied with Avatar…which we love, right?

LG: (long pause)…well, I don’t hate it. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s the best Star Wars prequel ever made.

MO: In that it’s not terrible.

LG: Though come to think it, it’s the second best now that John Carter came out. Avatar made $2 billion, so everyone’s probably seen it. Just in case, though, here’s the basics: Jake Sully is a paraplegic marine in the distant future who goes to the planet Pandora to assist with the native culture, the Na’Vi. His twin brother was a scientist helping out, but he’s been killed, and they need someone with the same genetic code for his brother’s avatar. Avatars are genetically engineered Na’Vi bodies with wi-fi brain link-ups.

MO: And basically, the military comes into conflict with the Na’Vi and the scientists.

LG: Now, Cameron loves building sci-fi universes, and this is his most intricate one. It’s not as intricate when it comes to the storyline, unfortunately. This is his environmental movie. It’s not the first message movie he’s done, but here it’s the most overt. We have problems with the last ten minutes of The Abyss. Imagine that scene dragged out to three hours, and you’ve got Avatar. A lot of my problems begin with the casting of Sam Worthington as the hero.

MO: He is the least charismatic actor who has ever lived, I swear.

LG: I worry about Sam Worthington. He looks sleepy or hungover or something. He never looks awake. He’s not engaging at all. He’s a total lump.

MO: His Australian accent is always coming through, too, but it’s a secondary problem compared to his lack of screen presence.

LG: I’ve seen other actors that are not charismatic. He is the first actor who has negative charisma.

MO: He is a black hole for charisma.

LG: He drains charisma away from any actor he’s standing next to, aside from Zoe Saldana, who’s very charming as the native princess.

MO: He’s perfectly OK when the dialogue is minimal in the early going or when he’s the avatar. But whenever we see his face or hear him give a speech, he’s boring. He’s essentially in a sci-fi coma throughout the film, since the avatars…it’s sort of a biometric wi-fi he goes through that leaves his human body asleep.  That’s almost symbolic for his performance.

LG: It’s interesting, though, that we learn late in the film that the whole planet is a biometric network, because it’s not built up at all. It’s a great idea, but we need more of it. My other big problem with the film is the Na’Vi. Their culture is very generic. There’s so much amazing production design in this film. It’s gorgeous. Cameron spent years making it…

MO: He waited until the technology was advanced enough to make it.

LG: And you can tell. He’s thought up the whole ecosystem of this planet…but when you get to the culture of the natives, it’s a generic mix of native cultures. It’s a pastiche of natives.

MO: It’s hokey and it’s nonspecific. They believe in nature, and that’s all I know. It’s this hokey New Age crap that I neither understand nor am I interested in. We don’t get to know any of them other than Neytiri, the princess, and even then, I’m uninterested.

LG: It helps that Zoe Saldana is very charming in the role. She’s the shining light of the film.

MO: She’s a presence. She’s got some chops.

LG: Based on this and her work in Star Trek, she’s got a lot of potential, and I want to see her in more stuff. Worthington, meanwhile, keeps getting cast in stuff…

MO: I don’t get it. He’s been cast as the hero so many times in so many movies, but he’s a complete non-presence.

LG: This, Terminator Salvation

MO: The two Clash of the Titans movies and Man on the Ledge, which has the worst title of any movie ever. It’s like they gave up. “There’s this guy on a ledge, what do we want to call the movie?” “Well, shit, how about Man on a Ledge?” “Good enough.”

LG: It’s as forgettable and generic as he is.

MO: Hey-o! But as for Avatar…it’s kind of a mix and match of sci-fi films. The big intricate world feels like it’s inspired by Star Wars, the biometric network is like something out of The Matrix, there’s some technology that reminds me of what Spielberg did in Minority Report (the touch-screens the scientists used, specifically), and there’s plenty of stuff from Cameron’s own films. People made comparisons between John Carter and Avatar, and they’re both inspired, to varying degrees, by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels, as are Star Wars and Superman (John Carter is a direct adaptation of Burroughs’ works).

LG: John Carter does it a lot better.

MO: I have a lot of similar problems, but yes. It’s actually goddamned fun.

LG: It’s not three hours long, it doesn’t have an environmental message to beat you over the head with, and it’s funny. There’s a great gag where Carter and his friends run across the planet to fight the bad guys only to find that they’re at the wrong camp, and they needed to go the other way. As disappointing as Taylor Kitsch is in that role, he’s not boring like Sam Worthington.

MO: There’s some problems with exposition in John Carter, but there’s a sense of fun and discovery throughout. Avatar has that for a little while: the first fifty minutes are pretty engaging. It turns into a coma when it gets to the Na’Vi stuff.

LG: My reaction to it when I saw it on IMAX 3-D was that I didn’t have to see it ever again. It was gorgeous, and the CGI and 3-D is at a level that it’ll take years to top, but the story is so draining and boring. We watched it for the first time since it came out, and for the first forty minutes I forgot about my criticisms. And then I remembered…

MO: Here’s how it works for me: I saw it in 2D. I was excited for it, but I grew bored quickly. When we saw it together in 3D, my opinion didn’t change. It’s great looking, he’s worked out most of the world and technology (although we have complaints), but I don’t care about anything.

LG: He has created a great platform to tell interesting stories, he just hasn’t managed to tell a good story himself. When Avatar 2 comes out, he needs to tell a more engaging story and get more specific about the Na’Vi culture. It’s in him, but he’s been out of the director’s chair for so long that it hurt him.

MO: But we’ve seen so many of these things done better. Like I said, I saw a lot of the human technology in Minority Report. The avatar-human connections is like The Matrix, only without the stakes. The motion capture is impressive, but we saw great motion capture with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and King Kong, which are better movies. It’s better than what Zemeckis has been doing with it, but that’s not saying much.

LG: We watched the extended edition, which we hoped would add some more specificity and stakes to it. For the first few minutes, we were really hopeful. There’s a new opening on earth that establishes the Blade Runner-like corporate-owned world. That’s pretty good. We get to learn more about who Jake Sully is. That’s pretty good. Sam Worthington isn’t so bad, we see that earth has been destroyed. We see Worthington, in a wheelchair, take on a big guy in a bar after the guy starts beating on a girl. The way he compensates for his disability while picking that bar fight is resourceful and endearing. I learned more about Jake Sully in those opening minutes than I did for any of the rest of the movie. There’s one other addition I like that shows the tensions between the scientists, the corporate world, and the Na’Vi, where we learn that the military shot up a school Sigourney Weaver was using to teach the Na’Vi English and stuff. It helps my understanding of the world. But not much else is added that’s very useful. There’s no specificity to the characters after that.

MO: We started speculating on whether or not it’d be more engaging with a better actor at the center, since Cameron usually has a charismatic center to his movies. We threw out a few names: a younger Guy Pearce, Ryan Gosling, Jake Gyllenhaal, James Franco, Chris Pine…but honestly, probably not. We know nothing about this character.

LG: He’s driven to the point of being self-destructive, but that’s not explored enough.

MO: Saldana is better, but what I know about her is basically that she’s the love interest.

LG: Who’s kind of domineering at first in a cute way. Saldana is so good that you can overlook the blandness of her character.

MO: That worked better for you than it did for me.

LG: It did, but my point is that good actors can rescue dire material. Sam Worthington needs the light-up-in-the-eyes smile, which he just doesn’t have.

MO: Cameron has been good at casting people in his films until now.

LG: I don’t know where he found this guy. It’s not like he was a rising star at the time. Terminator Salvation was filmed after Avatar (though it was released before), and up to this point he was most famous for an Australian version of Macbeth, which is weird. I want to see a good performance from this guy.

MO: We really don’t want to beat up on him. Acting is hard, it honestly is, and I hate beating up on actors over and over again.

LG: We want to see him be funny and likable, but he’s just not. Three years later we’re losing hope.

MO: The supporting cast isn’t much better. Michelle Rodriguez is brought in as a tough-girl marine with a conscience, almost like Vasquez, but she has no character.

LG: She is literally “Not Vasquez”.

MO: I don’t know anything about her other than the fact that she disobeyed orders.

LG: She disappears for about an hour of the film. There’s a few people who do that: they’re established only so they can disappear for a long time and come back when at the end.

MO: Sigourney Weaver plays…Sigourney Weaver, basically. She’s good, but she disappears for a long time, and her character is basically “I am a scientist”.

LG: She’s basically her character in Gorillas in the Mist. She hates the military, loves science, and that’s that. She’s charming enough to make it work for a little while. I also like Stephen Lang as the G.I. Joe villain. He’s a Space Racist who wants to kill the “blue monkeys”, and you know he’s a villain because he has a big scar on his face and he works out a lot. He has fun in the role, though we don’t see enough of him. Though, much as I like him, I would have loved to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in that role. How much fun would that have been?

MO: He was too busy being the Governator. And we don’t want to begrudge Lang the thing people will remember him for. Here’s my problem: Michael Biehn played the same reactionary jarhead in The Abyss, and that character was more interesting. He had a reason he was evil. He’s not the only recycled villain: Giovanni Ribisi basically plays Paul Reiser in Aliens. He’s the corporate lackey who’s evil…except Ribisi is terrible in this film. He’s terrible. Ribisi overplays every bit of this, though it doesn’t help that the script is awful.

LG: Paul Reiser had a character arc in Aliens. He’s not so bad at first, until we find out what he’s really like. Ribisi is there to do bad things from the get-go. He doesn’t care about the Na’Vi, he has kill trophies from before the events of the film. He has bows and arrows and dreamcatchers (yes, they’re that generically Native American). He’s there for unobtanium…now, we don’t know what unobtanium does, we just know it’s valuable and hard to get. It’s a technical term used in mining, but to actually call a metal that…

MO: It’s lazy. It’s like saying…”OK, we have this thing that can solve everything. It’s a widget!” “What does it do?” “IT’S A WIDGET!”. That’s all the explanation we get, basically.

LG: That could work if you committed to being silly, but it’s all done with a straight face.

MO: And there’s no struggle over it, sense of what it does, or what the Na’Vi feel about it.

LG: We could have one line! “This metal can save the earth by doing this”, and that’d be at least something. Now, I understand Cameron using shorthand for the sci-fi stuff going on in the movie to give the audience something familiar to hold onto. But to go so far and make them so recognizable is lazy. They’re an alien culture! Make them a little alien!

MO: They’re called “Na’Vi”! Like Native, or na├»ve. It’s so bad. It doesn’t help that the planet, meanwhile, feels totally underpopulated until we find out that there’s actually several other tribes (though they seem exactly the same as the one we saw) that haven’t been referenced before. There’s no dynamic we know about. Oh, and “Pandora” is the planet name.

LG: Nothing bad will happen at a place called “Pandora!”

MO: We’re not the first people to point out that this is basically Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai all over again. It’s another painfully reductive noble savage myth.

LG: Sorry about imperialism, but the one good white man will lead the natives to victory by being superior to them!

MO: And there’s none of the complexity we need.

LG: It’s condescending and annoying, though less so than The Last Samurai, where there’s a real culture you’re reducing.

MO: Well, yes, it’s not a terrible movie, just not very good. Another complaint: the dialogue is terrible and uninteresting. Cameron is known for his one-liners. I can’t name on. Not a one.

LG: Um…”I see you”?

MO: Yeah, and that’s awful…and reused from Titanic. And the narration is clunky and overly expository, there’s no forward momentum…even Titanic and The Abyss, which are slower than most Cameron films, have forward momentum and characters we care about.

LG: Now, Cameron’s films are usually well-structured. Cameron doesn’t do a lot of lulls. His films usually have some sort of a timetable in the story to keep them going but Avatar stops cold a lot. The film needs momentum especially near the end cause the climax of the film takes forever. Cameron’s ticking clocks usually get us going (“the ship is sinking”, “T-1000 is after us,” “the planet is going to blow up”). That’s a very good screenwriting move, but it’s nowhere here. Stephen Lang says “we should go in now, because it’ll be harder to do later”, or something like that, and it’s vague and not as effective. It’s not a very hard to invent a “we need to do this in three hours or we’re all dead” scenario. Instead, Cameron allows the characters way too much time to do other things, like recruit other tribes from the other side of the planet that we didn’t know about…we didn’t know there were more Na’Vi characters until the end of the movie, by the way…

MO: I was complaining that the planet was so underpopulated, and then there’s more? Why haven’t we seen them? Why don’t we know anything about them? What’s their stake in that magic tree I don’t care about?

LG: That tree…look, we’re environmentalists, but part of me clapped when the tree got blown up.

MO: Because something fucking happened. Here’s the thing: I agree with everything he’s saying about the Native Americans, the Iraq War, and the environment, but it’s all painfully simplistic.

LG: His stylistic tropes also get really silly in places. He does the blue smoke and water like he always does, but he has this new trick here where he desaturates almost to black and white. It’s so obvious and cheesy. It’s something you’d see in a bad videogame.

MO: That can be done well, obviously. I think of Saving Private Ryan.

LG: But that’s made by a director who had been making films consistently rather than taking time out.

MO: That’s my point. He seems to have lost touch with everything that made him great. There’s no kineticism, there’s no momentum, there’s no great characters or memorable one-liners, there’s no sense of humor, and there’s no fun. There’s nothing to hang your hat on other than the world of the film and visuals, which doesn’t interest me that much here.

LG: The eye-candy kept me going a little longer than it did for you, but after a while the problems with the film pile up. By the time he becomes a man in the Na’Vi society, I had pretty much checked out.

MO: There are so many plot holes in this thing that I was having trouble listing them all (and I can forgive plot holes). The scientists go off to avoid military interference…they can just leave? With a corporation and the military having such high stakes in this, they just let them go? Lang doesn’t do anything about it? Then there’s the bit where they bring up all the women in the Na’Vi tribe. But we don’t know any of them! We never see them, other than Neytiri and…Neytiri’s mother whose name I can’t remember. Who? We haven’t seen anyone.

LG: There aren’t too many we can remember…

MO: Jesus, Dances with Wolves had more Native American characters I knew.

LG: We don’t really get to know any of the other characters. It’s the world through two characters’ eyes, which can work, but you need to be a lot more specific.

MO: Why don’t we just start with the Na’Vi? We’ll learn a little bit about them, maybe. I don’t particularly care about them, but there’s something to work with there. Then there’s the Na’Vi spiritual network that isn’t explored at all. There’s Michelle Rodriguez abandoning the military and getting zero punishment for it.

LG: I assumed they arrested her too and she broke out, and they didn’t show it because she’s not a main character.

MO: We don’t get that. There’s the fact that the equipment for the avatar hookup is still there after they shut it down. They didn’t destroy it? Is their arrogance so great that they don’t consider Jake and his friends a threat?

LG: Here’s a problem I have with the technology. Cameron is usually great with showing how technology in his films works, but there are big questions I have regarding this avatar wi-fi thing. They go to a place where none where non of the other tech uplinks work, but their Na’Vi equipment still works. One sentence could explain it, but we get nothing. Bigger, though, is that they don’t explain the consequences if your avatar body dies. Basically, we know it was expensive. We don’t know what, if anything, happens to the person driving the body. Do they die, or have a schizoid embolism, or go into a coma?

MO: Again, one line would explain it.

LG: In The Matrix, it’s simple. You die in the Matrix, you die in real life. With those 10 words we know what’s at stake, and we care about Neo getting shot at in the computer world.

MO: Hell, a year after this, Inception explains what happens if you die in a dream, and there are more complications later on. Here? What happens? It’s so vague, there are no stakes, and when we finally get some explanation it’s late in the film and we don’t understand.

LG: There’s a sequence where Jake has to claim his flying bird thing, and they’re wrestling on the edge of the giant cliff. If I knew that if the avatar body died something would happen to Jake, I might have been a little more invested. It also would have helped if Sam Worthington was a good actor, but that’s beside the point. You need to set up the stakes of what happens if your body dies out there. For most of the film, as far as I knew, it’s “your body dies and you’re out of the game but otherwise unharmed.” That’s it.

MO: How about Jake’s arc? I don’t believe in any of the changes he goes through. He’s gung ho and doesn’t care about the Na’Vi until he does. Sam Worthington can’t project anything anyway, but the script just isn’t there. I’m not invested in his arc, his conversion is bullshit (it’s via narration), and it doesn’t work.

LG: He changes because the screenplay gods demand it.

MO: How about when he’s sent in to learn about the Na’Vi for the colonel? What is he doing for them? What is he learning that they don’t already know?

LG: They’ve been out there for at least twenty years. Probably more. Do they not have any other sort of intelligence? It’s very vague. I’d be more willing to buy it if it were done well, but it isn’t. His conversion you expect because it’s that kind of movie, but that’s the only reason it happens: it’s that kind of movie.

MO: By the end I was drained and disengaged, and I’ve been beaten over the head with this heavy-handed allegory. The death scenes for characters I don’t care about (who were barely introduced) go on forever…

LG: The horse has a death scene! The horse! I half expected Jake to have a flashback to all those great times he had riding that horse!

MO: It looks great, but I don’t care, and by the end I’m ready to leave. And the song doesn’t help. You commented that you’ve never seen a theatre clear out as fast as during the “I See You” song. People think “My Heart Will Go On” is bad? This thing is just…the corniest...

LG: We got about four seconds into it this time. When we walked out of the theatre, I said that it was losing half-a-star for this.

MO: It’s just so bland. It doesn’t help that the melody provided by the score isn’t good. This is James Horner’s weakest score for Cameron. I couldn’t hum this if I tried.

LG: Well there’s bum-bubububum…no, you really can’t. It’s very generic. Horner has a lot of detractors, but he’s done some great work. And it’s not age. Howard Shore still does excellent work.

MO: As does John Williams, whenever Spielberg has something for him to do.

LG: I don’t think he was passionate about this.

MO: If he was, it didn’t come through.

LG: Now, we don’t hate this film. It’s still better than the Star Wars prequels.

MO: The storytelling is lazy, but the creation of the world and integration of the actors and characters in it isn’t. Whereas the Star Wars prequels are lazy all around, except for some of the creations, which feel like they were made to be toys.

LG: I really don’t need to see this again. I’m giving it a C.

MO: I’m giving it a C as well. This is easily Cameron’s weakest film, since Piranha II doesn’t count, nor do the underwater documentaries.

LG: I’m going to get on my John Carter soapbox because that film was a huge flop. It’s way better than Avatar. Whatever problems it had, I had fun, and I walked out with a huge smile on my face. I gave it an A- when I reviewed it because despite all it’s flaws, I still had fun.

MO: I gave it a B. I found it more problematic than you did in the storytelling, there were things in the world I didn’t understand, and I didn’t remember very many of the characters. But there’s a sense of discovery and fun to it that’s missing from Avatar. This thing just clatters and clangs. I compared Ridley Scott’s Legend to being the Avatar of the day: looks fantastic, well-realized world, but it’s hokey and clunky, and it moves at a snail’s pace. But even Legend was more engaging than this.

LG: I’m also worried. This film has suffered a huge backlash after being such a monster hit. I think a lot of the goodwill towards it was due to the novelty of the 3-D, which has worn off now. If Cameron wants Avatar 2 to be a hit, he’s going to have to either come back with a better, more involving story, or come up with an even more audacious world, which I’m not sure is possible.

MO: If he promises to kill off Sam Worthington’s character he’ll clinch a C+ from me.

LG: Or at least recast him. It’s sad that we have to end this on a down note, but the last twelve years has not been kind to his talent. One interesting anecdote I read is that he showed the film to a Native tribe in South America, who hated the film because they felt the answer of fighting these people with violence was wrong. Cameron said that this was interesting, and that maybe he’d incorporate that into the next film.

MO: Well it’s also the noble savage fallacy, where they’re all pure.

LG: They’re pure, the military is evil, and the scientists are science-y. There’s no shades of grey. You look at the history of Native American culture, they’re not all peaceful. There’s a lot of grey in there, and I would have loved to have had that, minus the condescending “white man has to save everything” plotline we see too often. It’s very lazy and played out and outdated.

MO: I would love to have seen more investment in the spirituality beyond the generic Native beliefs. Cameron is an atheist, but there’s some sort of New Age-y connection there, maybe. But it needs to be more specific.

LG: That’s the end of the James Cameron Roundtable. Hope you enjoyed our collaboration. I’m Loren Greenblatt of G-Blatt’s Dreams.

MO: I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple.

LG: And to borrow from Arnold, “WE’LL BE BACK!”

MO: We certainly shall.

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1 comment:

  1. Nice article!
    I liked reading the entire roundtable on Cameron, very informative.

    Just wanted to respond with a few points pertaining to Avatar specifically;

    The "military" in the film don't have much of a stake in the whole thing other than employment - they are hired guns, mercenaries as stated by Jake during the landing scene.
    Recon by Jake was needed because they nearly exhausted peaceful solution methods to negotiate with the natives and needed a pressure point. Finding out about the sacred tree grove that was bulldozed was one such point.
    The stakes regarding the Avatar body are unnecessary - the body being at stake is sufficient. If the body dies he is left without one, with his own crippled human body that can no longer experience Pandora the way he could as a native, and there is no chance of getting another. To someone tired of his life on earth and bound to a wheelchair that's a high stake.

    I realize that this hardly affects the overall impression of the movie, but it might add some coherency.
    Write on.