Monday, January 04, 2010

 

Avatar is that most curious of creatures, a film that is clearly one of the best of the year and one that is also clearly one of the worst. Visually, it takes motion pictures – and sci-fi in particular – onto a whole new level. The world of Pandora is wonderfully conceived & beautifully crafted. Not coincidentally, so is the far more limited & gray world of the sky people, as the marauding earthlings are known by the clans of Pandora. James Cameron, the auteur of Aliens and Terminator, has conjured spaceship, robot & helicopter technology with a thoroughness of detail that will endlessly delight anyone who has ever cringed at the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. At the level of sheer nerdy craft, this is one of the great teenage boy movies of all time.

“Imagine what he could have done if he had hired a writer,” my wife sighed as we watched the credits roll, with special effects studios (Weta, Industrial Light & Magic, the Pixel Liberation Front…) nearly as numerous as actors. Cameron himself takes credit here as author, though all he has done is take one of the standard Hollywood plots – you can find it down to the footnotes in Dances with Wolves, but even Harrison Ford’s turn as the cop hiding among the Amish in Witness uses most of the same tropes – the outsider going native within a fragile-but-unique society threatened by some variant of Western Civilization. I think Cameron’s answer to that objection would be the same one he might have applied to Titanic or that George Lukas could have used with regards to Star Wars – a writer would only have gotten in the way, injecting characters & thought into what really is a tremendous roller-coaster ride. Anything that doesn’t contribute to the ride, the onslaught of special effects, is in fact extraneous. That is why, for example, the potential for a conflict between Jake Sully (or as the Na’vi call him, Jakesully) and Tsu’Tey, Neytiri’s betrothed & the Na’vi heir apparent, never develops. The outsider waltzes in, captures the girl, takes over the clan, saves the day & the displaced young Turks don’t do much more than snear at this interloper. Consider, for example, Viggo Mortensen’s reaction to Harrison Ford in Witness. There’s none of that here. Even the tribal pantheism of the Na’vi – which appears to have been lifted right out of The Lion King – is just given the lightest (and silliest) treatment. Nothing to slow things down.

Even worse than the absence of writing for this film, however, is the absence of music. James Horner’s score is intrusively stupid, coming across – at its best – like a knockoff of a Putamayo compilation of world music as easy listening, or out-takes from The Hollywood Strings do Clannad. Music is essential to the pacing of a movie, especially one that seeks to suck readers down an increasingly rapid luge course of visual effects, but the music here ranges from the infinitely bland to overt scratching on the blackboard of one’s aural soul. Ry Cooder noodling on a slide guitar for 160 minutes would have been one hundred times better.

The terribleness of the music points, I think, to what the real weakness in Avatar is. Which is that James Cameron set out to make Pandora the most beautiful Eden ever filmed, but his image of Eden is whack. Specifically, his palette is closest to the Pre-Raphaelites, especially John William Waterhouse (which is the tail-end slushy part of that movement), and especially as recast through fantasy novel cover art over the decades. It’s not just the tall blue natives whose women are not quite topless – and not a C cup in the species – or the flying dinos that are a cross, so help me, between a dragon & a rubber chicken (indeed, I was thinking of them as funky chickens whenever they turned up on screen, especially the big red Ur-chicken). It is within this framework that Cameron has painted his portrait of unspeakable beauty. Oh Lordy.

It’s worth contrasting Avatar with the other big blockbuster released Christmas week in the U.S., Sherlock Holmes or as I prefer to think of it, Sherlock Holmes and the Temple of Doom. Unlike Avatar, Holmes has two bankable stars to headline its cast, Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law, each so wildly miscast as to telegraph precisely how loyal to the Arthur Conan Doyle franchise it intended to stay. Indeed, in the IMDB credits, Doyle is cited for only the two lead characters in spite of the fact that several others are likewise extracted from the Holmes’ series.

Unlike Avatar, whose director takes himself more seriously than anyone else in the film business, save possibly for Meryl Streep & Jerry Lewis, Holmes is directed by Madonna’s ex-, Guy Ritchie, best known for directing action thrillers, including Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, which is still in IMDB’s rankings among the top 250 films of all time. What Ritchie has set out to make is, like Avatar, a rocking good roller coaster in the guise of a film. The Holmes-Watson duo is a convenient frame – he plays them as closer to Abbott & Costello than Doyle’s characters, but Abbott & Costello as really smart, terrific at martial arts &, at least in Downey’s case, tres buff. Downey is so built-out that it may well be CGI – it goes well with the fact that he’s actually a smallish actor, under 5’9” (he’d still tower over Tom Cruise).

In Downey, Ritchie has one of the great comic character actors in film history – every movie Downey makes is a gift – and Law is just good enough to play the straight man to Downey’s combination of Charlie Chaplin & the Hulk (as projected through Irwin Corey). It’s an effective combination and with the exception of maybe one or two scenes in the middle where you can almost feel the narrative taking a deep breath before plunging ahead, Holmes is minute-for-minute a lot more fun than Avatar.

I compared Holmes to the Indiana Jones franchise above, but actually – with its interest in distinctly urban & historic environments – the real doppelganger is the Nicholas Cage / National Treasure franchise. National Treasure exists to remind us of what these sorts of films might be like if they did everything wrong, if every effect was cheesy, the writing terrible, the acting just altogether sad. Cameron wants to invoke awe – indeed, shock & awe is explicitly part of its plot – while Ritchie wants us chortling all the way, and maybe is competing secretly with The Pirates of the Caribbean series for jokes-per-action-sequence. The result here is that I’m almost certainly going back to see Avatar for a second time, just so I can catch whatever I missed on first viewing, but ten or twelve years from now – probably much sooner – that film, like Titanic before it, will become unwatchable. Twelve or 15 years down the road, Sherlock Holmes will still be one helluva lot of fun.

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