Friday, July 22, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Avatar (2009)

"Watching "Avatar," I felt sort of the same as when I saw "Star Wars" in 1977. That was another movie I walked into with uncertain expectations. James Cameron's film has been the subject of relentlessly dubious advance buzz, just as his "Titanic" was. Once again, he has silenced the doubters by simply delivering an extraordinary film." (Roger Ebert, "Avatar," December 11, 2009.)

"The last third of the movie, a battle between the Na'vi and their human destroyers, is a groundbreaking blend of digital and live-action. OK, it's unnerving that a movie preaching peace hits its visual peak with scenes of mass destruction. But Avatar is no Hollywood wankfest. It extends the possibilities of what movies can do. Cameron's talent may just be as big as his dreams." (Peter Travers Rolling Stone:, "Avatar." December 9, 2009.)

"But Avatar is also a distinctly political work of art, with a strong anti-American and anti-Western message. It can be read on several levels – a critique of the Iraq War, an assault on the US-led War on Terror, a slick morality tale about the ‘evils’ of Western imperialism, a futuristic take on the conquest of America and the treatment of native Americans – the list goes on..." (Nile Gardiner: "Avatar: the most expensive piece of anti-American propaganda ever made." The Telegraph, December 2009.)

"It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration." (David Brooks: "The Messiah Complex." The New York Times, January 7, 2010.)

This week for the Cameron Curriculum, our film selection is Avatar (2009), James Cameron's sprawling, science fiction trailblazer.

As you will no doubt recall, the movie proved itself a veritable box office Goliath, and also earned positive reviews, at least in the majority. By and large, audiences loved Avatar as well. The film stands on the IMDB's list of best rated films (currently perched at 183 in the top 250).

Yet, Avatar's success does not mean that the film is non-controversial, as the above critical quotations make abundantly plain. Some critics and audiences view this James Cameron film as an anti-American political diatribe and despise it specifically on those terms.

Others simply can't bring themselves to approve of a film that proved so hugely popular. This is the so-called "Woody Allen" critique. These fans can't be part of any club that would have them as a member. Many geeks apparently believe they can differentiate themselves from "the mob" by rejecting Avatar out-of-hand....some of them without even seeing the movie in the first place!

What those naysayers missed, however, is a film -- much in the spirit of Aliens (1986) or The Abyss (1989) -- that consists of both enormous heart and vision.  Here, Cameron obsesses on the yin and yang of the human equation.  He recognizes our natural desire to explore the new and strange, and in the process overcome hurdles. 

And -- on the other side of the coin -- he clearly "sees" our uncomfortable tradition of destroying or polluting that which we discover on our brave explorations.  

Exciting, emotional and visually pioneering, Avatar is a modern-day genre masterpiece, even if the sci-fi community has not yet entirely embraced it as such.  In time -- when there is some audience distance from some of the politics raised by the film -- the film's reputation will evolve.  And it will be for the better.

Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.

On the forest moon Pandora, the indigenous people -- the blue-skinned Na'vi -- unwittingly stand in the way of big business and "progress."

Namely, Earth men have come to Pandora to mine the ground for a valuable rock known as "Unobtanium."  

Business and military interests align to re-locate the Na'vi from their Home Tree in order to mine a rich deposit of the critical mineral.

The handicapped Corporal Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) fulfills his dead brother's contract and heads to Pandora to work as a "driver" for a genetically-engineered Na'vi avatar.  Collaborating with Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), Jake is assigned to learn more about the Na'vi so he can facilitate their orderly departure from Home Tree.  His military superior, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), however wants Jake to gather tactical information about the Na'vi and their environs, should diplomacy fail.  For a time, Jake works both sides of the street.

Inside the body of his avatar, Jake also learns the many ways of the Na'vi.  His teacher is Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the Chief's beautiful daughter.  She reveals to him the true Na'vi soul, and the duo soon falls in love. 

Meanwhile, Grace learns that all the creatures of the planet, including the Na'vi share a link with Pandora itself, a planet-wide symbiosis forged by "signal transduction."  The Na'vi see this bridge to the planet as a link to their God, Eywa.

Before long, the military and business interests grow tired with Jake's lack of progress, and  under Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) launch a devastating assault on Home Tree, scattering the Na'vi so their giant machines can commence mining.  Neytiri's father and many other Na'vi are murdered in the strike.

Finally realizing where his true loyalties rest, Jake decides to make a stand against the Earth men, and he gathers the disparate Na'vi tribes to fight back against them. 

But to gain the trust of the Na'vi, Jake must first tame a giant flying beast of legend: Toruk Macto.

"You are not in Kansas Anymore" - Avatar as visual experience

As Roger Ebert's quote above indicates, Star Wars is likely a fine point at which to commence an analysis of Avatar.

Like Star Wars did in 1977, Avatar stands at the vanguard of a new technological age, and a new threshold in terms of special effects achievement. 

Only this time, those achievements are in the realm of CGI and 3-D rather than motion control, alien make-ups, etc.

Because of this accomplishment, Avatar truly belongs in a select group of great science fiction films such as Planet of the Apes (1968), Star Wars (1977), Blade Runner (1982), Tron (1982) and The Matrix (1982).  Like those genre landmarks, Avatar absolutely immerses the viewer in a new world of unfettered imagination, complexity, color and depth.

The film's protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) notes that his arrival on the moon of Pandora represents indeed a "fresh new start," and that synonym for a "brave new world" might very well be our metaphor for the 3-D and CGI presentation of Cameron's Avatar

For once, CGI effects actually seem to comprehend the subtleties of flesh: the nuances of movement, expression, and even the "weight" of gravity.  

No doubt the visual wonders of Avatar will one day be eclipsed, but for now (and for the foreseeable future, given the state of films this summer..), they are certainly state-of-the-art.  In this arena, Avatar is never less than entirely convincing.  You never feel like you're watching special effects or limited, animated digital figures.

Instead, you see characters, creatures and strange lands.

What I find particularly noteworthy about the use of the CGI and 3-D is that Cameron uses the special effects techniques to make Avatar perhaps the very first movie in human history not scaled to us; not scaled to human proportions.

Although Lord of the Rings (2001) inventively blended pint-sized hobbits with human-sized elves and other humanoid beings, the general effect was still one of putting other life forms (Hobbits) into a world we recognize as ours.  Avatar takes a different and far more impressive stance.  It lands us in a world not made for us; and one in which human concerns are secondary. 

And that's very much an example of form following content.  Thematically the film is also about petty human concerns dwarfed by alien but ultimately more important ones.  The universe isn't always about us, and we see that idea (that slap in the face?) reflected in the very colorful, very dangerous, very oddly-scaled world of Pandora.

Accordingly then, Pandora exists against a backdrop that we can hardly conceive, and which is consequently awe-inspiring. Unlike many directors attempting to deploy 3-D, Cameron doesn't merely toss things at the audience in a blatant "coming-at-ya" style. On the contrary, he marshals the process to develop visceral emotions in the audience: to generate vertigo, for instance, and to dramatize for us extremes of height, and altitude and speed. 

Cameron also utilizes 3-D to reveal the depth and breadth of the Pandoran wilderness, escorting us into the greatest silver screen jungle since Kong's lush Skull Island in 1933. 

Again, the level of detail and complexity in this landscape is simply staggering.  I'm not exaggerating.  We get the feeling here not of a small geographic region in sight of a limited camera -- a region encumbered by the exigencies of movie budget -- but of a whole world stretching as far as the eye can see.

The point of the height, altitude, speed and depth, of course, is total emotional immersion.  And because of Cameron's integrated (rather than carnival...) approach to 3-D, in Avatar, audiences come to believe most profoundly in this fantasy world.  Avatar is magnificently unbound from the sound stage (and human proportions), but not at all in the static fashion of the Star Wars prequels, where characters seem to be forever standing in front of green-screen compositions.

Now, I don't share many fans' hatred of those three Lucas films (I rather enjoy 'em, actually...), but they certainly appear shallow in conception and execution next to Cameron's rich, layered vision for Avatar.  Here, every plant, every creature, every insect that swings, stampedes or skitters into view, captivates the attention and the imagination.  Cameron doesn't just record another world for us, he creates an otherworldly ecosphere from top-to-bottom.

Certainly, there's much you can debate regarding Avatar, but as a resounding technological and imaginative triumph it is virtually unimpeachable  No film director in history has utilized 3-D and CGI as inventively and in as integrative a fashion as Cameron has here, and on those grounds alone, Avatar is a watershed event.

"I see you" - Avatar and its themes

Avatar very much concerns the yin-and-yang of the human spirit.  

As a species we are always looking to explore what's over the horizon. And yet when we reach our destination, we yearn to make that new land ours; to harness the dirt and the water and make it serve our needs.  This is a fact of life.

We don't always use our resources wisely, yet the hunt for resources will one day, I'm certain, carry us to the far reaches of this solar system and beyond.  We are driven to explore. And apparently just as driven to use up that which we find along our journey.

In Avatar, we are introduced to a character, Jake Sully, who exemplifies the best aspects of this human equation.  

Despite suffering a physical impairment, he broaches not just a new world, but the "most hostile environment known to man."  And when he takes part in the Avatar program, Jake throws himself into his work.  He learns the Na'vi language. He learns to hunt, ride, fly and live as another life form all together. 

Again, Cameron reveals to us mankind at his most noble: questing and searching for meaning over the next hill.  A wise person once noted that disability is just a matter of perspective, and in some way, Jake's journey reflects that truth.  He first countenances, then embraces, a new way of living while also maintaining the finer qualities of our species (to love; to balance morality, and more).  This is what evolution  truly is: integrating new ideas and new concepts into the self as one's horizons expand.

The opposite side of that human equation, of course, is colonialism and imperialism, and Avatar's central conflict revolves around those very controversial issues.  Although we boast a history of imperialism in this country, we are not alone in that characteristic.  Not by a long shot.  Ancient Rome, England, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, France, China and other nation-states have also gone to war (again and again...) over a desire to "take" strange lands and harness them for explicit purposes of Empire-building.

Specifically, Avatar crafts a futuristic metaphor for the settlement of the American continent. 

It's easy to read the lines of the comparison.  The Earth men are the Europeans, come across the ocean of space to take and develop the land.  And the Na'vi are the Native Americans who see their existence and way of life threatened.

In film history, we've seen this very dynamic played out in Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990),  Walt Disney's Pocahontas (1995) and Malick's The New World (2005), among others.  It's not a new idea by any means, but that's acceptable because the presentation is new...and cutting-edge. 

Star Wars wasn't new in terms of narrative, either, especially if you have any familiarity with the oeuvre of Akira Kurosawa.  And Star Trek, of course, looks very much like a variation on Forbidden Planet (1956)  Avatar harnesses the familiar metaphor of the Native American/European conflict to tell its tale, but does so in ways that boast resonance both as science fiction, and as a reflection on contemporary times.

In the case of Avatar, I would argue that the film succeeds rather admirably in making its case about the moral evils of colonization or occupation.  It does so -- as is Cameron's tradition -- in entirely emotional, manipulative, and even grandiose fashion.  

That's the very nature of the medium of film and Cameron exploits that nature.  Ruthlessly.  As an artist, he is not merely interested in making audiences think about an issue; he wants us to feel it, intensely. 

Some people may object to this approach, but in doing so, they object to Cameron's singular gift as a filmmaker.  Using breakthroughs in movie technology, he brings the experiential, emotional aspect of visual storytelling closer to the audience than ever before. He constructs these intense dramas (like Titanic) based on intimate human relationships and ideas (like the interconnectedness of all life) because he apparently believes in a unique axiom: the more advanced the film in terms of technical prowess and achievement, the more it can impact your heart.

Not that the emotional approach doesn't have downsides.

For instance, the villains in the film are not truly fully developed people, but rather true evil-doers.  Giovani Ribisi plays a despicable character named "Parker Selfridge."  Selfridge?  Sounds like selfish.  Or maybe his name is about what we hope to find over that next horizon or ridge: something for the self

And the nasty Colonel Quaritch refers to the Na'vi as "blue monkeys" or as "cockroaches," and basically attempts to bomb the Na'vi back to the stone age.  He's a racist and a destroyer, and entirely easy to hate. 

Yet, to give Avatar some credit, it's pretty clear why Quaritch thinks as he does.  It's not because Cameron is anti-military as some insist, but because Quaritch has had a very negative personal experience with the Na'vi. 

On his first day on the planet, he was badly injured (and scarred) by them.  Fear and hatred have thus colored his perception of the planet and its people.  Quaritch can't put aside his negative experience with the Na'vi in the face of new thoughts, new ideas.  He can't evolve.  He stays as he is...never outgrowing his fear. He is thus an effective counterpoint to Jake in the story, if not a fully dimensional character in his own right.  This echoes the character of Coffey in The Abyss as we discussed last week.  Both characters effectively move the plot forward and effectively reflect a larger, symbolic issue (intransigence or stagnation in the face of facts, the self-destructive nature of nuclear war, etc.), but on some human level they aren't adequately developed.

Avatar: Does it hate America?
Many people have asked: Is Avatar anti-American?   Unfortunately, that's the wrong question to ask. 

Certainly, Avatar knowingly mirrors much of America's journey in the last decade (2000 - 2010).  Colonel Quaritch notes near the end of the film that "Our only security lies with pre-emptive attack.  We will fight terror with terror," invoking the Bush Doctrine.  

Furthermore, his mission to drop a bomb on a Na'vi holy site is also equated with a "shock and awe" campaign, conjuring memories of our siege of  Baghdad in the second Iraq War.   Also, we have seen people like Tom Tancredo suggest bombing the holy sites of our political enemies.  He mentioned bombing Mecca, specifically.

Following this line of thought, many critics have also looked at the Home Tree assault -- with twin plumes of smoke stretching high into Pandora's sky -- as a thinly-veiled reference to Al Qaeda's attack on the United States that Tuesday morning in September. 

Even the Earth men's hunt for natural resources on Pandora -- with war backing up that hunt -- can be seen as a coded reflection of the belief by many Americans that the war in Iraq was launched so our nation would have direct access to Middle East oil.

These points are certainly unmistakable; but they don't make Avatar anti-American.   That's where there's a crucial fallacy.

On the contrary, all of these issues simple reflect what many Americans truly feel about the direction of our country in the last ten years.  This commentary by Cameron is only anti-American if you assume that America never makes mistakes, that America is always right in the international actions it pursues, and that President Bush's decisions represent the full spectrum of American beliefs about this country.

I mean, is what Tom Tancredo suggested doing to Mecca the American way?  Is pre-emptive war the American way?  Is that the America that people defend when they claim that Avatar is anti-American?

And frankly, I'm baffled by people who want to view Avatar only as some kind of America-hating film anyway.  Avatar is the same story, essentially, as Battle: LA (2011), a film which has clearly not been debated in such terms. 

To wit: in both films a race of extra-terrestrials attack and occupy another planet to gather its resources (alternatively Unobtanium and water). And the natives in both situations strike back against the invaders, mounting a violent resistance to the plunderer.  The invaders in Battle:LA are non-human.  The invaders in Avatar are human.  That's the only difference, in broad strokes, in terms of narrative. 

So why is Battle: LA not anti-American, but Avatar is?  Both films argue the immorality of occupation/colonialism and the imperative to fight back against invaders.

The plain truth of the matter is that Cameron aims for a higher morality here. His statement is simply that it is not right to go to someone else's land and take their resources.  Simple as that.  It seems to me that ought to be something everybody can agree on in principle. It's true whether you're American, Chinese, Russian, Klingon, Jedi or Sith.  In the situation depicted by Avatar, the human beings are seeing only what they can take, not that they have no right to take it.  Now, you can argue the Machiavellian politics of the whole thing; that if mankind is dying out, he must take the Unobtanium and is justified in doing so.  Self-preservation and all.

But by the same Machiavellian mind-set, then, you must accept that the Na'vi -- in trying to protect their own existence -- are also justified in fighting back against the Earthers.  It doesn't only work one way.

It always bothers me when people are unable to see both sides of an issue.  We would hate it if aliens landed on our soil and began mining our land.  We'd fight back, and rightfully so. Just as the Na'vi fight back in Avatar.  But since humans are placed in the role of bad guy (as they are in many sci-fi films, from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, to District 9, to Blade Runner, even...) then Avatar is suddenly anti-American.

Here's my long-winded point: being leftist is different than being anti-American, and to conflate the two is the facile trick of the propagandist.

Go back and watch Planet of the Apes (1968) -- made at the height of the Cold War and the Vietnam War -- and honestly tell me that it is not a leftist film too; about man's self-destructive, warring nature.   It ends with a symbol of America, Lady Liberty, destroyed.  So is it anti-American too?  If Avatar is, then Planet of the Apes is.

It's only because we live in such hyper-partisan times that Avatar is constantly saddled with the moniker Anti-American, when what the film actually concerns is a human truth: that our drive to explore and increase our knowledge is a double-edged sword; It keeps us alive, but also, often, puts us in conflict with each other, and with nature itself.

Again, it's much easier to brush off Avatar with a simple label ("anti-American") than it is to examine Cameron's story and take it for what it is really about - human nature.  Does the film have a leftist bent?  Absolutely. Just as some science fiction films have a rightward leaning (Zardoz [1974] for one.). 

The right has not been alone in attacking Avatar for perceived "philosophical" flaws.  The left (plus David Brooks) have really gone after the film as being an example of "The White Man's Burden."  In other words, this is a film in which a white man saves a native culture and ascends to leadership of it.  Apparently, that's insulting to ethnic minorities or something.

Again, this is a more simplistic view of the film than is merited.

For one thing, when was the last time that a handicapped character took a leadership role in a major, over-200 million-dollar action film?  Jake Sully is a white man, it is true, but he's also one who has been largely discarded by his culture because of his physical impairment.  He's not physically powerful alpha male Kevin Costner, for instance.

Jake is not the typical "messiah" in that regard.  Instead, he is a perfect man to lead the fight because he is also, like many of the characters in the film, separated and isolated from his true nature.  His physical handicap has prevented him from being what he knows he can be; from doing what he knows he can do.  The avatar program grants him the capacity to tap that potential and to become whole again. 

The film is as much about the Na'vi (and the Na'vi experience) saving Jake as it is about Jake saving the Na'vi.  He learns much through their interconnectedness, after all.

David Brooks' comments bear closer scrutiny.  He writes that the film depicts colonists as "rationalist" and "technocratic" while colonial victims are "spiritual and athletic".  He should take a gander again at Quaritch, a man who is also quite athletic; so damned athletic in fact, he can pick off human targets some distance away while holding his breath for minutes at a time (in Pandora's poisonous atmosphere).  Qauritch is no armchair general.

And why does Brooks assume that the film says "illiteracy is the path to grace."   Nowhere in the film is illiteracy even broached.  The path to grace in the film is through inter-connection; through the link and harmony between man/woman and the land.  Because we cannot see this psychic connection, the Na'vi might very well call mankind "psychically illiterate."  

Again, this attack on Avatar is too simplistic. 

Would it have been nice if the Na'vi could save themselves without Jake as the leader?  Well again, look very closely at the actual specifics of the text in question.  Which character destroys the villain?  Hint: it's not the white man Jake.  No, he is rendered paralyzed, in the final battle featured in the film. 

No, Neytiri finally takes out Quaritch.  She is no mere "supporting player" (as Brooks puts it).

And who turns the tide towards the Na'vi in the battle?  Again, it's not Jake or any other "white man." 

It's Eywa, who through her powers of inter-connection, summon the forest animals to attack the occupiers.  So again, it's not entirely accurate to say that Avatar suffers from this movie "Messiah Complex."   
On the contrary, Jake is present in the film to serve as surrogate for the audience.  He is our (human) entrance point into the world of the Na'vi, an example of -- again -- how mankind can go beyond what he knows and explore a new and alien situation. 

Even the film's ending is about this idea of crossing the next hill; evolving to the next point.  Jake is able to cast aside his human body and become fully Na'vi.  This is because he has embraced the better part of our human nature.  He has overcome his limitations (physical and mental) and become what he had only once "dreamed."   If you're James Cameron, you can't make this argument about human nature without featuring a human protagonist in the film.

In terms of the Cameron Curriculum, there's many points of commonalities between Avatar and Cameron's other films.  For instance, the Na'vi saying that goes "I see you," (meaning "I see your true self") is carried forth from Titanic. In that film, Jack and Rose share an exchange that seems familiar. "You see people," says Rose.  "I see you," says Jack. 

Also, like Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator and even Titanic to an extent, Avatar features as a hero someone who is "blue collar," in this case a so-called "grunt."  This also makes three Cameron films (Aliens, The Terminator and Avatar) in which a military man is amongst the protagonists, making it more difficult and less plausible for critics to argue that Cameron is somehow against the military.

And, of course, like out-of-time Ripley, an emotionless Terminator in T2 or Mrs. Tasker in True Lies, Jake is an outsider or fish-out-of-water in Avatar.  In a way, he is both outside of the human race because of his handicap, and outside the Na'vi because of his nature as a "Sky Person."  In many Cameron films, only those who are "outside" the dominant coalitions can bring a sense of balanced perspective to crises.

Earlier in the review, I brought up George Lucas and the Star Wars films.  Avatar treads on some territory familiar to that franchise, namely a primitive people waging a war against a technological foe. 

In Return of the Jedi the Ewoks battled the Empire, and in The Phantom Menace, the Gungans battled the Trade Federation.  Lucas essentially played both of those battles for laughs. 

By contrast, the final battle in Avatar is anything but funny: it's a harrowing, tense descent into all-out war.  In Avatar, the primitive species carries the day only because of a gift from Pandora: the ability of all  native creatures to communicate and connect with one another.  That's something the humans can't do, at least on a planetary scale.

Interestingly, Eywa does not normally "take sides."  She protects "only the balance of life."  But in this case, man is so egregious, so awful in his attacks, even God herself must become involved.   This is the environmental message of Avatar, another point that has enraged some people, apparently.

It's another critiique I don't really get.  What could be more conservative, more traditional, than taking good care of the planet you happen to live on?

Avatar is a great film because of the advances it makes in terms of technology, because of the commentary it offers about the double-edged sword of human nature, and because, perhaps, people just can't stop arguing about it.

So many people "see" Avatar.  Or at least they think they do. My recommendation to them is to watch the movie again, this time keeping in mind Neytiri's admonition for those whose mind is already sealed tightly shut.

"It's hard to fill a cup which is already full."

Next Week:  Are you ready to go back to Titanic?


  1. Anonymous4:40 PM

    Nice review john.


  2. I think you managed to give AVATAR its due, John. You've written a thoughtful piece, certainly and rationally, as a counter to those who have seen it as an attempt to be Anti-American, or even anti-white man. Yes, it does use the motifs from DANCES WITH WOLVES, POCAHONTAS, and THE NEW WORLD as a theme. But that's all it is... a theme. Cameron is shooting for a "higher morality" as you've spoke of, here. Still, I do sense there is an anti within the film.

    He is against those who tip the scales... in just about anything endeavor of man. As we go through life, is there anything more selfish than a child (something Neytiri notes early in the film)? Granted, this is self preservation instinct for a very vulnerable member of a group. Still, most parents seek to teach getting beyond just 'your' self for their children. To impart a greater community with those around us (even if it is just the human beings). However, given what we've seen in the last decades, there is an entity more selfish out there than any child. The wise and late comedian George Carlin once said (paraphrasing) that human beings became really successful as a species on Earth because of two 'C' words. Cooperation and Competition. He noted we've had less of the former and more of the latter, of late.

    Which leads to me to believe Cameron, like others, sees the rise of corporations as not in 'our' best interests. It's a recurring thread in his movies. Plainly, a corporation's best interest is the corporation (a child can be selfish, but to be really greedy demands [definition] "a company or group of people authorized to act as a single entity.") That's not to say Cameron is anti-business, just against those who only want for themselves beyond any measure of balance -- the "It's hard to fill a cup which is already full." metaphor you used. Notice, you never hear a reference to a government in the film, either. You hear about stockholders, worth, contracts, and the like, definitely. Or, anything other than "… what pays for the whole party…". There's no entity meant to administer and regulate a collective because that no longer exists. What's better than small government? This. Just articles of corporation.

    (to be continued)

  3. Part II:

    Another keynote in his films are the female characters he portrays (and God love him for that). For as much action and testosterone he throws at the audience with his gigantic set pieces & sequences, it is the women, the mothers and their warrior daughters, that are at its center. They never get shorted in the script. JC showcases them. Airhead women are in short supply in his tales. Generally, they're intelligent, emotive, and fierce as all get out -- as Quaritch finds out with Neytiri. The director understands the Yin and Yang thing, and pushes at it throughout his filmography. You could say Cameron is almost opposite of his ex-wife filmmaker, Kathryn Bigelow. JC fools us with his action and SFX. He's really giving us "emotional, manipulative, and even grandiose" stories. The type you'd expect would be the purview of the 'chick flick'. It's Bigelow who is all about the men and the macho (just see THE HURT LOCKER if you don't believe me).

    I do have to point out the writer-director's labeling by names in this film's script is pretty transparent (and not in a good way). I mean SELFridge and UNOBTANIUM?!? Luckily, we don't come to Cameron's films for his Shakespearean wordplay. Still, the filmmaker gave us everything he's been known for through the years in AVATAR, and then some. Action, SFX, technology to give a geek a hard-on, and the wringing hearts and minds throughout it all. His distractors keep waiting on him to fail, and he keeps succeeding. Although, ironically he doesn't have the best 'community' skills when on the set (tyrant or enfant terrible have been thrown about when discussing his behavior). But, maybe that's what it takes to pull off what he has. We don't have to live with him, but without a doubt I'll keep going to his movies.

    An exceptional piece for an exceptional film, John. Many thanks.

  4. Anonymous10:26 PM


    Another wonderful review. I feel similarly about the themes of Avatar, but I think they go even further than political challenge. I really think that Cameron is attacking the religious pillars of western civilization in three parts:

    First, the entire presentation of Avatar is at odds with the traditional reading of Genesis 1:26-29 (to paraphrase: Man shall subjugate the animals of the Earth), especially when you consider the "biological cable that all Pandoran biology uses. Second, consider that Jake Sully's eating of the Pandoran fruit (apple) symbolically initiates him to forbidden knowledge, however this leads him to paradise, as opposed to being cast out. Third, Cameron shows us what the logical extension of the traditional reading of Genesis 1:26-29 leads to - destruction of the natural world.

    Second, in the sequence where Sully first enters his Avatar body, he opens "Pandora's Box" in reverse. A traditional reading of this Greek myth would show that Sully's entrance to Pandora would lead to disease and death, however, by opening the base to Pandora and allowing the "toxic" atmosphere inside, Sully (and Cameron)give us a journey into a world of wonder and eternal life (via the Tree of Souls).

    Third, Sully's archetypal hero's journey fits the Hindu definition of Avatar (one who manifests or embodies a value or ideal in place of God), in the sense that Sully comes to represent the ideals of Ewya.

    I wrote about Avatar on my blog. If you have the time or inclination, I'd love your thoughts:


    Jeffrey Siniard

  5. Part I

    [In film history, we've seen this very dynamic played out in Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990), Walt Disney's Pocahontas (1995) and Malick's The New World (2005), among others. It's not a new idea by any means, but that's acceptable because the presentation is new...and cutting-edge.]

    Add to that list Fern Gully, The Last Samurai and, oddly enough, Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers.

    I have no problem with archetypical storytelling, and while the original Star Wars may have borrowed from The Hidden Fortress its narrative structure and from past cinema in general a half a dozen or more visual cues or motifs, what it doesn’t suffer from is one bad cliché after another.

    Nothing in Avatar surprised me. Virtually every thread of its narrative is an exercise in formula, to such a degree that the entire story, both scene-bye-scene and as a whole, is an exercise in procedure for the viewing audience. Neytiri isn’t just any Na’vi, but is the daughter of the head chief and preordained to marry the tribe’s prized jock-warrior Tsu'tey, thus setting up an all too predictable riff once Jake enters the picture and romances her away. Neytiri telling Jake of the Toruk is a plot-point with a blatantly obvious forgone conclusion: Gee, I wonder who’s gonna end up riding that thing in order to unite the tribes...?

    Jake falling off his horse, the narrated montage, the obligatory 'native massacre' (in slow motion with new age, chanting tribal music), the big call-to-arms battle speech... These are but a few random scenes amongst many others that only exemplify the broader stale tropes of the film; it’s really the moment-to-moment character interaction, dramatic tension and punctuation therein that made Avatar feel instantly dated the first time I saw it, as I was watching it – almost as if the film was made the way it would have been made in, say, 1994, and that I had already seen the film a dozen fold by the time I saw it in late 2009. The only notable update is the FX technology. But I think the larger issue I have with the film is its overbearing tone.

  6. Part II

    Star Wars is intentional melodrama but is likewise perhaps the driest satire ever committed to cinema, as deeply ironic as it is openly absurd, embracing space operatics with subversively irreverent, pulp retro, B-movie enthusiasm. Avatar meanwhile takes itself way too seriously at face value and suffers from one of the worst cases of histrionics in recent memory, relying entirely too much on contemporary method-drama when the material could have used a little more airy charm and a reality (to its fantasy) less naturalistic and more heightened, which is something Cameron can do and has done before... in a much better film... about spies and snow cone makers. But I digress.

    [Now, I don't share many fans' hatred of those three Lucas films (I rather enjoy 'em, actually...), but they certainly appear shallow in conception and execution next to Cameron's rich, layered vision for Avatar. Here, every plant, every creature, every insect that swings, stampedes or skitters into view, captivates the attention and the imagination. Cameron doesn't just record another world for us, he creates an otherworldly ecosphere from top-to-bottom.]

    What Cameron achieved was in volume and scale, and the technological innovations necessary to pull it off – the vision for creating his vision, so to speak. But the latter vision itself is markedly shallow in terms of imagination. In my opinion, the world of Pandora isn’t all that interesting and the reason why is because the world of Pandora is entirely pretty, and nothing else. To quote online critic Casey Broadwater’s Bluray review: Why is everything in Avatar the color of an early-1990s Trapper Keeper? When I read this I couldn’t help but laugh because it rings true the overall aesthetic silliness of the film or, more specifically, its constant attempt to be girlishly pleasing to the eyes.

    Frazetta’s illustrated book covers, Walt Disney’s Bambi and Fantasia, Cooper & Schoedsack’s 1933 Skull Island and Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth (and even his Skull Island) evoke as much dread and foreboding mystery as anything that simply fancies like a dayglow coloring book. Those Star Wars prequels show us worlds that are strange and bizarre, always slightly Henson-like in personality (even when CGI’d) and even weirdly objective. They are their own worlds, each with a mix of offbeat aliens and cultures, and are worlds that seemingly care not if we the audience adore them as eco-utopic, Hallmark screensavers.

  7. Part III

    Tis true perhaps that some of the blue/greenscreen shots are a bit flat or clinical in their affect but I’m still not sure if said affect is all that inappropriate given the comic-strip nature of the films, the emotional coldness or alienation of certain characters involved and Lucas’ overall embrace of pulp artifice. Either way, photogenic integration is secondary to the imagery itself. Otherwise, the original King Kong would have long since been unwatchable. And though I am truly marveled by Avatar’s FX technology, by its detail and immersion, I’m not all that inspired by what the technology is showing me. Pandora is almost too scenic. It lacks a certain edge or quirky peculiarity. It is pretty to the point of being petty.

    I can’t quite put my finger on it... Obi Wan doing battle with a crab-legged monster in the Geonosian arena is fantastical in the way it harkens back to some Harryhausen adventure, a product of boyhood imagination. Whereas the banshee flight in Avatar seems more inherently geared towards feminine daydreams – My Little Pony meets Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series.

    This, of course, makes my criticism totally subjective, but it also brings up a larger observation of the film, one that I’d like to add to le0pard13’s analysis by further reiterating my own thoughts from a previous retired blog. People talk a lot about the fact that the two highest grossing films of all time are both directed by James Cameron. Consider this: the two highest grossing films of all time are both chick flicks. Yes, Avatar is a chick flick. The ultimate, geeked-out, sci-fi epic chick flick. All aspects of this movie’s appeal are geared towards the female demographic. Every speaking female character is strong willed, dignified and heroic. Of the two leads, Neytiri is the real Alpha, a warrior woman and supreme female embodiment. Jake, on the other hand, is the wounded, vulnerable novice whose character arc is achieved by appeasing feminine ideals: he has to fall in love and must be the incompetent learner to the expertise of both Neytiri and Dr. Augustine. His victories are really just attempts to impress girly fantasies; note that his taming of the Toruk is largely in service of Neyriti’s dreamy awe, like a knight in shining armor who rides up on his glowing white horse.

    Neytiri is also the center of boys’ attention with both Jake and Tsu’tey fighting for her hand. And even then, masculine behavior proves inadequate, immature or, in the case of Quaritch and his Marines, immoral by default. The very essence of Pandora is personified by a goddess mother Eywa whose power champions Man’s crude machines. In the climax it is Neytiri who saves Jake and cradles his limp(dick) human form in a gesture usually reserved with the two gender roles in reverse. I should add that I have nothing really against this aspect of the film. It merely veers away from my personal tastes.

  8. Part IV

    It’s Cameron’s vision of Man’s mecha-encroachment that widens my eyes with wonder. My single favorite world fully realized within this film? That awesome long-lens vista shot of tiny human mine workers with the massive excavator in the background. Awesome but all-too-brief. Really, though, it’s the first 20 to 25 minute stretch of Avatar that I really dig.

    There’s an excellent scene transition that begins one half with Jake exiting the shuttle craft and rolling out onto the landing port amidst AMP walkers and a giant construction truck with arrows stuck in the tires, which then cuts to the introduction of Colonel Quaritch; boots first, walking down an aisle of Marines. This is the best scene in the movie tone-wise, and one of the very few that makes excellent use of classical, smartly storyboarded composition (Cameron sneaking in the now infamous American flag symbolism). Mauro Fiore’s live photography gives Quaritch and his surroundings a beautifully lit, steely gunmetal aura and James Horner quietly chimes the moment with seemingly synthesized instrumentation.

    Plus, Stephen Lang is by far the most entertaining character in the movie. Sure, Quaritch is an oversimplified villain but Lang makes the most of it with his impressive physical stature and screen presence. Raise your hand if the think the most fist-pumping moment in Avatar is when he commandeers the AMP walker in a last-ditch-effort and dive bombs from an exploding airship, or when he busts out a mega knife and goes toe-to-toe with Neytiri and her big jungle panther ...or when he punches a paraplegic in the face. Lang owns it.

    Avatar is not a completely bad movie, but I do find it mediocre and progressively boring up until the big action climax. However, I actually don’t have any real problems with its moral or political stance and the story, though generic, is also clean and well-paced. I further liken Cameron to DeMille in that he, too, is a commanding storyteller who always conveys the utmost confidence with every scene. He really believes in everything he puts up on the screen.

  9. Hi everyone,

    Magnificent comments and thoughts on Avatar here.

    I'll take the commenters one at a time, starting with Le0pard13:

    I think you've really pinpointed two aspects of the film that I didn't cover; and you've covered them well.

    Namely, you mention the roles of the corporation and of women in Avatar.

    You're absolutely correct: Avatar introduces us to world in which there seems to be no government at all, only business as the dominant coalition. Hence, there's no real sense of moral right or moral wrong; only the importance of a good quarterly statement. Also, (as was the case in Aliens), it seems as though the military has been made subservient to the corporation, and many authors have suggested that in the future we will have "corporation states" and fight corporation wars. Given today's political environment and the demonization of government, Avatar looks frighteningly plausible.

    I'm also glad that you mentioned the role of women in the film. Cameron is famous for his strong women -- from Sarah Connor to Ellen Ripley to Helen Tasker to Neytiri -- and Avatar gives us three strong women in the roles played by Saldana, Weaver and Rodriguez. (And I guess I shouldn't forget Mother Nature, either, Eywah...)

    Again, the presence of these characters suggests that the movie's "messiah complex" isn't as overwhelming as some of the critics suggest. These women aren't "supporting players" in Sully's drama.

    Thank you for your excellent comments on the film, and I'm very glad you mentioned both aspects of Avatar and Cameron's work.


  10. Jeffrey,

    I have now had the opportunity to read your review of Avatar. It is extraordinary: well-argued and beautifully written. I recommend that everybody read it. I actually think it's better than my review, because -- at some point -- I became bogged down in defending the film from the ridiculous charges of anti-Americanism. You nicely breezed over that aspect of the film's reception and went right for interpretation. Again, just beautifully done.

    You certainly support your thesis, "that Cameron is attacking the religious pillars of western civilization in three parts," and then use examples from Scripture to make the point; even better, you find visual moments that resemble moments from Scripture, to buttress your case.

    In short, as I wrote on your blog, you really made me "see" Avatar in a new and deeper way. And for that, I truly thank you.


  11. Hi Cannon,

    Thank you for a fascinating and detailed review of Avatar from a different perspective. I really appreciated reading your remarks.

    Firstly, I have to agree with you regarding Neytiri, and the observation that elements of her character are bad cliches.

    The chief's beautiful daughter and her powerful betrothed (one in line for the throne) are, if not cliches, then at least stereotypes. Also seen in Star Trek: "The Paradise Syndrome," back in the late 1960s.

    However, I don't feel that Avatar truly rests on these cliches so much as it proves a summation or synthesis of Cameron's career-long thematic obsessions.

    The bad corporation, the strong women, the grunts, the commentary on war, etc.

    These are his "things," as we can readily observe in Aliens and The Abyss, etc. It would be like noting, for instance, the abundant cliches in Casino (1995) or any other Martin Scorsese gangster movie.

    There may be familiar story elements/characters, but at some level we must acept them as the artist's playground, I would submit. The artist paints with the same colors and the same eye, each time out, just in a different pattern. It's in that way (at least partially) that we recognize the work as his.

    I call it an umbrella of consistency. And I think that Cameron has it (just like Scorsese, or John Carpenter, for instance.)

    to be continued...

  12. In Part II of your comment you note that Pandora is pretty, and not much more than pretty. I can certainly see that perspective, but remember, Pandora is also poisonous paradise.

    In other words, it is a blend of beauty and danger. Mankind cannot survive there without his tech stuff, and is constantly under assault from the native life forms, as Jake's first foray into the world amply demonstrates.

    I didn't find the images stereotypically girlish: the floating mountains, the black, skulking panther things, the dragons that seemed to be all jaws and teeth. I thought it was a fascinating and visually exciting place to visit filled with danger (and vertigo...).

    The color palette reminded me some of The Abyss and the aliens featured there: the idea that there's a heavenly, beautiful side to alien life. The point in Avatar is that the beautiful side walks hand in hand with the dangerous side, I think. It's paradise, as I wrote, but a poisonous one that man would be entirely denied if not for his air masks.

    I also truly agree with you that the Star Wars prequels have merit. I am not a hater on them, at all. What I believe is that Lucas, a canny historical observer, actually uses stages of 20th century American design (art deco, etc.) to hint at the rising tideof fascism in the Republic.

    Many of his shots (especially in the much-derided Phantom Menace) clearly evoke imagery of pre-World War II and World War II Europe. Most people don't care to see this facet of the film, when it's easier to make fun of Jar-Jar! :)

    Your point, which I accept and believe, is that the Star Wars prequels play intentionally as homage to a form, essentially, and you aptly named the Harryhausen fantasy films. Yes, I totally agree with that. However, realization/recognition of the homage requires, by definition, a kind of standing back from the action as it occurs. We observe it and note it (even appreciatively...), but we don't necessarily experience it as it is happening to us.

    Avatar -- as is James Cameron's want -- immerses us. There's no standing back. Now, of course, I can see why that may not be yours, or someone else's favorte approach. It is subjective.

    I also agree with you about the powerful roles of women in the film, but I'm not sure that this makes the film the proverbial "chick flick." The movie is still a hard-edged, violent thriller and, ultimately, war movie.

    For example, the prominence of Ripley and the Alien Queen (as matriarch battling another matriarch) doesn't necessarily make "Aliens" the proverbial chick flick, though there is a strong female perspective. Ditto "The Terminator."

    to be continued...

  13. In your comment, Part IV, I just have to say that I thought you offered brilliant commentary regarding the early scenes at the base and the landing of the shuttle. I agree with you that those moments practically crackle with imagination and intelligence, and start the movie off in grand format. The imagery of the vast, rolling machines, also contrast with the latter portions of the film, set in the jungle. It's a good yin-and-yang, revealing to us the differences between Man and N'avi.

    Than you for an amazing comment!


  14. Part I

    In your first response you make a good point regarding the thematic canon of certain filmmakers. John Carpenter was a good example. Most people thought Ghost of Mars was just a rehash of stuff he’s done better before and that it brought nothing new to the table. I for one quite enjoy that film and think it interesting the way Carpenter continued to work within his own envelope, flipping and rearranging familiar ideas, motifs and character archetypes that he’s loved for so long, and that the final product was a neat variation all its own. Of course, Carpenter is also one of my favorite directors, so I suppose that puts me in my place. I am more than willing to give Cameron the same leeway with Avatar but that doesn’t make the film’s storyline any less predictable for me. I can only remark how the routine nature affected my viewing experience. Using that as an argument in attempt to discredit the film’s potential artistic merits is something I cannot do with confidence. I definitely recognize and further admire in Avatar Cameron’s recurring themes and finer auteur qualities. Perhaps this particular variation simply doesn’t suit me as well as Aliens. I don’t know, it takes a lot of reflection on my part.

    I should have better clarified my view on Avatar being a chick flick; I still stand by my opinion that it is, but not necessarily in any way disingenuous. I believe action/war films can be as they are, quite bloodthirsty and intense, while also embodying more feminine sensibilities. As a matter of fact, I think the argument could be taken one step further... Verhoeven’s Starship Toopers has all kinds of hard edged action and carnage and yet maintains a predominately boyish “Gee-whiz-lets-kill-some-bugs!” attitude. Star Wars, too, is a boy’s club adventure where the female characters are, at most, plucky sidekicks or nurturing maternal figures along for the ride. In both films the emotional engagement of war often feels the product of daredevilry instead of some heated score to be settled. The entire roster in Predator consist of macho testosterone soldiers who swagger their way into jungle combat only to be rendered terrified and emasculated by their titular adversary; Arnold’s last stance is one of primal, male warrior ritual and even respect. What all of these examples share in common is that the intensity of their depicted battles are considerably less amped by the impassioned, the kind of turbulent emotional fire more potently fueled by female leads.*

    As they say, Hell hath no furry... and in Tarantino’s Kill Bill epic and Cameron’s Aliens the female protagonists lash out and kill because they are in fact truly scorned and robbed of something deeply personal. They kill not for country or the mission or for some rite of passage, but for love and love lost, and out of pure bitch-wrath. When Ripley torches the Queen’s eggs it is, as later observed by Ron Perlman in Resurrection, “a chick thing”. And while Jake is more the servant to Avatar’s narrative and thematic arc, it is Neytiri that drives the film’s emotional state, being the most sensitive and most responsive from her point of view, placing her at the forefront and in turn vying for the attention of the female audience during scenes of playful courtship, guarded vulnerability, sorrow and triumph (i.e. “Eywa hears you!”). Jake is merely in her orbit during these moments and, when on his own, seems lost in a pensive funk of moral confusion; when shaving his human face he appears to feel nothing – Neytiri’s world is the one that matters. The final and perhaps most heated act of violence in the film is Neytiri, with a wild woman look on her face, sending arrows into Quaritch to save her lover.

  15. Part II

    So, in short, I certainly don’t mean to imply that because Avatar is inherently ♀ slanted it is therefore weaker on thrilling action and effective battle scenes. I think Cameron has long since championed otherwise. Due to my personal tastes I will say that I am more appreciative of this aspect than I am engaged, particularly concerning Avatar.

    [Your point, which I accept and believe, is that the Star Wars prequels play intentionally as homage to a form, essentially, and you aptly named the Harryhausen fantasy films. Yes, I totally agree with that. However, realization/recognition of the homage requires, by definition, a kind of standing back from the action as it occurs. We observe it and note it (even appreciatively...), but we don't necessarily experience it as it is happening to us.

    Avatar -- as is James Cameron's want -- immerses us. There's no standing back.]

    Wwuh...well...I would argue that little Anakin’s pod race or the night time speeder chase through Coruscant’s skyline is as visually and aurally immersive into a fantasy environment as anything I’ve ever experienced at the cinema (I still consider all of Star Wars unmatched in creative sound design/editing). Granted, the addition of innovative 3-D technology gives Avatar a whole new discussion and, on a purely technical level, exceeds Star Wars and every other film to date, save for maybe Tron Legacy. But for me immersion itself into a make-believe world is as much dependent on how effectively said world entices my imagination as it is any virtual illusion.

    Seeing Avatar at the theater, Cameron succeeded in giving Pandora and added sensory depth so that I felt as if I could physically step into it. I’m not questioning the film to that extent, let alone criticizing. However, the aesthetic of his world only managed to evoke certain unappealing or superficial whimsies that I described and referenced in my earlier post. Therefore I simply didn’t find the imagery, even when stereoscoped, to be all that rewarding. I suppose a good analogy would be looking at an evocative painting or canvas-wide illustration from behind a glass case vs. standing inside a room with cheesy, rainbow bright, glow-in-the-dark wallpaper. That exaggerates a bit my “meh” reactions to Avatar’s world; I, too, thought those floating mountains were pretty cool. But I also thought the Na’vi themselves looked like something an 11-yearold girl might piece together from Saturday morning cartoons and whatever she may fancy when walking down the pink 'n' purple department store toy aisle. Ask me not to justify this sensation. I can’t.

    There’s a lot of silly looking shit in those Star Wars prequels as well, but the underlying tone of it all is something scruffier and playfully bizarre. Cameron expects us to take seriously his Pandora natives (his whole Avatar world, in fact) as we would Costner’s plains Indians or Gibson’s Mesoamerican tribesmen. Combined with what he actually shows us, the end result feels rather ridiculous.

    *One notable exception would be Rambo: First Blood Part II in which Rambo returns to Vietnam for the same reason Ripley returns to LV-426: to save lives, yes, but on a more personal level to purge the horrors of his pasts. Consequently, both end up single handedly laying waste to the enemy in cathartic fashion – hardly a coincidence that both films were written by Cameron.

    p.s. Sorry for all the blasted "Parts".

  16. Great review. Even if you might have gone overboard a wee bit defending the film against claims of anti-Americanism, I won't complain, because there was a lot of that out there, from what I recall.

    I greatly appreciate the comments from Jeffrey, Cannon, and le0pard13. The discussion really makes me want to see this film more than ever, and I'm sure I'll enjoy it and be highly entertained.

    Comments and observations: Like you, I can definitely see the parallels between the Imperial situation on Endor's forest moon, and the situation on the forested moon Pandora. Intriguing in this context is the similar sounds in the names of both worlds--Endor, Pandora. I'm sure Cameron did not intend that. He's not cold and calculating, even if he isn't that fun to work with.

    I find another parallel to the Star Wars saga with the attack on the Home Tree and the twin plumes you reference: the attacks by a small group of rebels against the powerful symbols of the Empire--two Death Stars--mirrors the flight paths into the Trench and into the Superstructure in films IV and VI respectfully and the attacks on the Twin Towers. And there's no way I'll believe Bin Laden copied George Lucas!

    to be continued

  17. Additional thoughts: Endor goes back to the Witch of Endor in the Bible. At the insistence of King Saul, she brought back the ghost of the prophet Samuel to advise him. At the end of Return of the Jedi, the ghosts, if you will, of his father Anakin and his mentors Obi-Wan and Yoda appear and will obviously advise him in the future. On Pandora, the race is the Na'vi (similar to the Spanish word Navidad, the Nativity, or Christmas), and they are a very spiritual people. Spirits which are the seeds of the sacred tree and they connect with Jake. Jake also rides a creature, much as Obi-Wan rides a creature in SW3 (not all that different from each other, except one flies and the other doesn't), and banthas and dewbacks are ridden on Tattooine. Jake's riding is much like Anakin's podrace in SW1, and then there's the coincidence Anakin was played by a Jake himself.

    Another subtle connection to Christianity is the character played by Sigourney Weaver, Dr. Grace Augustine. The famous St. Augustine was a deeply spiritual man and wrote on many topics of Christianity, including grace.

    Quaritch's name seems to have been derived from Quidditch, the big sport of Harry Potter's wizarding world. Even top players can be severely injured or scarred, despite the advanced medical wizardry, leaving them permanent reminders of their playing days. Then, Quaritch couldn't be restored to complete health either, despite the humans' sci- & tecb-bazed wizardry.

    Jake has to act as a sort of diplomat, much as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan did early in SW1. I have major problems with the prequels, especially the first, but I greatly appreciated the fact that diplomacy was a strong suit of the Jedi. And then despite that, all three still had to act as warriors on the side of the peaceful peoples who lived on the planet.

    to be continued

  18. I agree that this is probably the first film to not scale to us. Elements of Star Wars, or Godzilla, or King Kong, or Ray Harryhausen films are on gigantic scales, but they all revolve around the human scale of the viewers. I say it that way because Kong, and later Godzilla, and a number of Harryhausen's creatures and the aliens of Star Wars are sympathetic, so I can't completely claim that they are to the human scale of the protagonists.

    In Cameron's work, sympathetic characters don't have to be white middle-class males. The soldiers and the workers in The Abyss or Terminator or T2 or Aliens, or here in Avatar, are typically lower class, or female, or non-white. Most of the sympathetic characters from Titanic are lower class, too. Heck, the Na'Vi here are even lower than the lower class, in the eyes of Quaritch and the corporate bosses.

    I see you... Recently, I was reading about The Prisoner. It makes an interesting contrast between #2 and Jake. They both have to figure out what's going. They themselves are the key to what's going on. The puzzles to the societies they find themselves in are explored. But in the end, it doesn't appear that #2 solves the puzzles, figures out why he is there. Jake, however, reaches down deep and makes that connection: he is there to experience personal growth and to help others. They were both tools, used by the government/corporation. But the crippled Jake overcomes...EVERYTHING. As intriguing as The Prisoner is, #2 is still trapped there at the end. And it his own fault.

    Even Sully's name indicates he is sullied, how far he must grow, to become all that he can.

    One note--when you listed off a bunch of films including their dates that are genre landmarks, you sent The Matrix back in time to 1982 (because you had listed Blade Runner and Tron then, no doubt).

    Looking forward to Titanic!

    Gordon Long

  19. Hi JKM;

    Loving this Cameron retrospective and the ensuing debate. I'd like to quickly chime in with a few observations:

    1 - 'Chick flick' - no, one of the best things about Cameron's work is that 'feels' like classic moviemaking even as we argue about why. The appeal is to both genders - something that today's demographic-keened marketers seem to find almost terrifying, it seems. To pick two quick examples from the past, neither "Gone With the Wind" nor "West Side Story" were "chick flicks" in their day, though they'd obviously be considered such now. Cameron is in that tradition.

    2 - However, Cannon has an excellent point about the beats of Avatar. It is a very "safe" movie in terms of storytelling. Nothing surprises or shocks us; we delight as what we hope will happen happens and shudder as what we fear will happen comes to pass (bye-bye, tree!). This is not a bad thing because

    3 - Cameron makes Great movies that aren't always "good". Better than "The Ten Commandments" but Great and un-Good in the many of the same ways. When he's at his "worst" (Titanic, Avatar) he produces his most enjoyable work. "Aliens" is a better film (with some genuine bad-movie moments, let's be real) but I've watched the former two far more times than I've watched Aliens. (Including with Rifftrax).

    More to come

  20. Cont'd:

    4. Unpatriotic - people who say this have to be cynically advancing their own ideological agenda. Cameron's politics, to me, seem to be right out of Kennedy/Johnson era liberalism; the era of the Peace Corps and the moon landing. I grew up in that era, and those sort of values were what I saw around me. Republicans held similar values, but reflected them in different ways (in a real, policy sense, Nixon was to the left of Obama!). "Patriots" of the sixties and seventies thought largely like Cameron. The combination of radicalism and fanaticism that constitutes the modern "right" is weird and alien as anything on Pandora to me. Cameron (politically) reminds me of fellow throwback Chris Matthews, and especially in his

    5 - Paternalistic representation of women. I know Cameron is known for his "strong" female characters, and OK, by general standards, yes. But think about it; virtually all of his female central characters are mostly passive or retiring until Males affect their reality (Rose, Ripley). If you think I'm reaching here in calling this "paternalism", there's a "tell" - the secondary female characters, women who are already successful on their own terms, such as Weaver's scientist in Avatar, or Molly Brown. Almost invariably these women are depicted as "broads" - women who have adopted male characteristics. "Career" = "Male". (For variety, we also have a few "grasping bitches" such as Rose's mom). Cameron clearly means well, he's a liberal. But it grates when I hear about his "strong" female characters, especially if one compares them to the truly varied and genuine female characters in Harry Potter or Game of Thrones.

    6 - Compared to the Star Wars prequels, Cameron IS Scorcese.

  21. More great comments on Avatar! Fantastic!

    Cannon: It's good to know that you are also a John Carpenter fan, and in particularly admirer of Ghosts of Mars. I love that film, and for me it never gets old. I agree with you that Carpenter's re-shuffling of his thematic deck throughout his career has given us some real winners (Prince of Darkness is another). And I do think the same is true of Cameron to a large extent. He has the same set of conceits, but re-arranges them differently each time out.

    Thank you for your explanation of how you used the term chick flick. That's helpful. Seeing your definition, I don't find the term objectionable of disingenuous in the least. In fact, it fits in with my theory regarding Cameron and his view of war/warfare. He's not against fighting (he's not a pacificist); he rather he sees as "worthy" mainly personal reasons for war (The rescue of Newt; saving John Connor; saving the land of the Na'vi in Avatar). This might very well fit with your description of the films as chick flick. Your idea that the women are drawn into the fight by matters of heart and family.

    That said, your (excellent) definition of chick flick isn't exactly the agreed-upon one. We need to come up with a better term for your definition, because I like it, and it certainly seems to fit a subgenre :)

    You make a valid argument that the Star Wars films are immersive too, to be sure. I generally don't find them as immersive, in large part because I don't find that there's any character whom we can really relate to.

    You mention the pod race, and that's funny because the first thing I thought of was Ben Hur and the chariot race. And that leads me back to my initial thought about Lucas that he is really a master of the pop culture pastiche; paying tribute/homage to classic films, but that he reparses them through more technological/futuristic auspices.

    The pod race fits in very well with that conceit; the chariot race from Ben Hur, modified for a galaxy far, far away.

    This probably comes down to one of those subjective arguments (for both of us, i mean). I found Avatar completely immersive; and you did not. You found Phantom Menace immersive and I found it interesting, to be certain, but not immersive. I watched it from a distance, and could admire aspects of it without really getting "involved" emotionally in it (except perhaps in the final duel with Darth Maul, which is absolutely stunning.)

    Anyway, I appreciate you bringing more of your perspective to this discussion. Your comments are a pleasure to read, and have gotten me thinking about all kinds of stuff regarding Cameron, namely how and why the women characters in his films fight.

    Thank you,

  22. Hi PDXWiz:

    I don't disagree that I went overboard with my defense of the film from the anti-American-ers. I just hate to see when a film is tarred with a reputation that isn't really accurate. The film has a distinctive and strong point of view, no doubt, but it isn't anti-American. I like what you've already contributed to this front, in mentioning Augustine in relation to Grace. Very interesting.

    I suspect you will find a great deal to enjoy in the film, Gordon, especially because you are already thinking in terms of symbols and signifiers. Jeffrey's review made me see even more on that front.

    George Lucas and James Cameron both seem intent on staging these wars between "primitives" and high-tech cultures, and showcasing the primitives as victorious, which is interesting to say the least.

    And jeez, thank you for correcting me on the year of The Matrix. I really need to be more careful when I proofread, regarding those dates!

    All my best,

    to be continued...

  23. DLR:

    Wow, another fantastic and insightful, multi-point comment. This is turning it out to be one of the best comment threads ever on my blog, I think!

    1. I like your contextualization of Avatar alongside Gone with the Wind or West Side Story as a kind of Hollywood classic. It's a mainstream blockbuster, in your eyes, not a chick flick, though Cannon has now provided us a new and interesting definition of that term. Avatar is clearly a mass audience movie, and I never really considered the appeal one sided (male or female). But when I look at it through Cannon's eyes, with his definition in mind -- regarding the female centric reasons for the fight -- I get closer to his interpretation, even if I don't think Avatar is a traditionally-defined chick flick.

    2 and 3.You agree with Cannon about the beats of Avatar being predictable and routine, but draw a different conclusion from them.

    We're getting what we WANT to see in a big, blockbuster, or something along those lines; our pre-conceived expectations fulfilled. Wow. Great movies are not always good ones -- another interesting thesis!!! I do know there are no new stories, just new ways of telling stories, so there really could be something to this.

    For me, I just go back to the notion that this is Cameron's canvas, and he's going to paint on it with the colors he's used before. We're going to recognize a lot of the brush strokes.

    4. The patriotism/anti-American angle really is absurd. For one thing, it assumes a monolithic definition of America, and that's clearly not the case.

    At the very least, there are at least three views of America at war right now (Liberal, conservative, and libertarian).
    What the far right calls anti-American is simply leftist.

    And you're right about Obama and Nixon: I just read an analysis that showed exactly that; that Nixon followed more traditionally liberal policies than has Obama. What the article said, essentially, was that Nixon followed a liberal line of repairing a liberal state; while Obama has taken a conservative line trying to improve a conservative state.

    But to complain about Avatar on anti-American grounds is clearly a little bit nuts. Still, I wish I hadn't spent so much of my review defending the film against that notion.

    #5 Now this is a controvesial point, and a very welcome one. You see not the "strong females" I and others have noted, but a "paternalistic" quality to Cameron's representation of women. Wow. I can readily see that in terms of Titanic, and you make the case well regarding Avatar. What about The Abyss, however? Lindsey drives Bud and the others towards acceptance of the aliens. She's not guided by any male influence, essentially. It's true that she ultimately reconciles with Bud, but she's still the spiritual leader in that film, I would submit.

    Lastly # 6 - Ha! In his own way, Lucas is every bit the technical pioneer that Cameron is. However -- and this is my opinion -- he is not as strong in the nuts and bults of directing: staging and developing action, blocking the actors, and so on. He's got a great imagination in terms of spacescapes and creatures and such, but the actual, physical arrangement of those elements don't affect my emotions as deeply. Lucas and Cameron also share an affection for clunky dialogue. Above, Leopard13 reminded me of some of Cameron's bad dialogue in Avatar, and he's right. But it's certainly not any worse than any of the dialogue you get in any of the Star Wars films.

    One of these days, I need to get back to Star Wars blogging, and re-do some of my earlier posts regarding the prequels. I found some historical photographs from the Nazi invasion of France that looked very reminiscent of shots of Naboo in The Phantom Menace. I really do think there's something 'there' beyond the film's obvious deficits.

    Anyway, a fantastic usual!


  24. Just a couple more quick thoughts to add and then I’m done. I swear.

    About this argument that any and all claims of Cameron’s anti-American jabs are unjustified, I must inquire as to your thoughts on his American flag symbolism that backdrops Quaritch’s initial debriefing:

    Now, to be clear, I’m not proposing this image as contradicting evidence. I think anyone who references the symbolism seen here in direct relation to the main villain as being anti-American is perhaps oversimplifying the director’s intentions. Jeff Siniard makes some insightful points in his review that puts the encroaching humans/America analogy into a more proper historical context regarding the 19th century Indian Wars. The flag imagery, particularly its color desaturation (not unlike Spielberg’s flag that opens Saving Private Ryan), gives the proceedings a somber historical weight. But I don’t think this automatically makes Avatar “anti-American”. Not at all. Stil, I am interested to hear your guys’ take on the matter.

    [Lucas is every bit the technical pioneer that Cameron is. However -- and this is my opinion – he is not as strong in the nuts and bolts of directing: staging and developing action, blocking the actors, and so on. He's got a great imagination in terms of spacescapes and creatures and such, but the actual, physical arrangement of those elements don't affect my emotions as deeply.]

    I disagree. Boy, do I ever. But I don’t want to spill this over into yet another geeked-out Lucas/prequel debate thingy, at least no more than I already have. One of these days we’ll have to open that can of worms... with a pack of M-80s, no less, and let the guts fall where they may. Okay, I’m done. I’m gonna go watch some cartoons.

  25. Quick addition to what Cannon just said. As he indicates, the clear and subtle-as-James-Cameron parallels and visual references to the corporate/miltary hegemony as representing "America" are not "anti-American" unless one accepts the corporate/state SynGenOrg that currently rules us as "American". It's never anti-American to criticize the government or its policies, it's exactly what America was founded to be. Duh. There is a small (less than 20%) but vocal (and over-represented in the media) contingent of red-faced yellers that are always ready to shout that anything that doesn't conform to their ahistorical and counter-constitutional view of "what America is" is "anti-American" and I say again that this a deliberate, ideologically-driven attempt to cow filmmakers, artists, and (especially) financial backers of same who attempt to present contrary views. Mark Twain faced the same thing, and so did the Beatles. And it works! You said it yourself, JKM; you had to address the issue, even though it's really a non-issue that has been made an issue by the howls of the craven absurd. We only live in a "conservative era" because the pundits of Our Time have been browbeaten into accepting it as such; polls show that the mass of America is more liberal than ever - or, more to the point, that "liberal" values continue to be "conservative" ones, in that they are the common values held by the average person on the street, who fancies him or herself "somewhat conservative". End of rant. Can't wait for Titanic!

    Oh, and re: The Abyss. Like Cannon, I haven't watched it for a while so I'm not really able to comment. But that was the film where my then-girlfriend, now Mrs. pointed out the "paternalism" issue (and she's not a "feminist" in the common view, more along the lines of a Camille Paglia or a Rosanne Barr)(please picture her as the former in your mind) and I've been watching Cameron's work for it ever since. Since Titanic is one of her favorite films I don't think it's really a deal-breaker.

  26. More terrific comments here!

    Cannon: I think DLR gets to the point brilliantly about the film's purported anti-Americanism. The flag is there, and is symbolic, but as you yourself note, it doesn't necessarily represent anti-American-ism. It can be read that way, definitely, but more accurately, I think, it represents the idea of "this is what America has become," at least to those who drape themselves in the flag. Again, DLR says it infinitely more eloquently than I do.

    Regarding George Lucas -- I hope I didn't rub you the wrong way. I appreciate Lucas and admire what he does do well. Like I said, one of these days I need to return to and update my Star Wars blogging. There's a lot to look at there, no doubt!

    DLR: Bravo! Man, I loved your commentary on anti-Americanism and agree 100%. Avatar is only anti-American if you asssume that those who are calling it such represent America. They don't. Criticism of America is not the same as anti-Americanism. You just said it so well, I think.

    You've really given me a lot to think about here in regards to the paternalism issue. Now that I recognize it, it's hard not to recognize it. As you said, not a deal breaker, but an intersting twist, certainly, on something I thought I underestood about Cameron's films, but perhaps did not.

    Thank you both for insightful and thought provoking responses to Avatar.


  27. That was a very nice piece. Avatar deeply reminded me of one of my favorite films: "Little Big Man". Like Sully, Jack Crabbe continually moves between the worlds.

    The "white" world is absurd and filled with strange characters played by Faye Dunaway and Martin Balsam. In these sequences, his character speaks with a western drawl. In the "native" world, Crabbe speaks like Dustin Hoffman and participates in what seems to be "normal" life. Society here is balanced and inclusive. There is even acceptance of what must have been one of the first depictions of a gay character, in native culture no less! In the end when circumstances force Crabbe to accompany Custer to the Little Big Horn, he has to make a choice of what his life is and where his loyalties lie.

    Avatar is a great film on a number of levels. What I appreciate about Cameron as a filmmaker is he isn't afraid to make popular entertainment with a high level of emotional honesty. The drama in his films always revolve around choices people make and their consequences. In this case, Sully makes the same decision as Crabbe.

    In this case, Sully makes the same decision as Crabbe. But in the earlier film, the sensible world depicted in the native american scenes is inferred to be lost since Crabbe has been telling the story of the film in flashback while in a nursing home. In hindsight I see this as a political comment from another film made during the Vietnam war. But when I was younter, I always wondererd why he didn't live the rest of his life with Dan George and the other "human beings"?

    Avatar allows Sully to permanently become physically one of the Na'vi. At first, the program was an opportunity to have legs again if only temporarily. By the end of the film, his choice to physically become a different species underlines his emotional and spiritual evolution earlier in the film. What is great is the film really earns Sully's transformation and by the end, the change is perfectly natural.


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