22 December 2009

At the movies: Avatar.

I yearn for the days back when the new James Cameron film didn’t also happen to be the most expensive movie ever made.

There’s an elegant grace to the way his scripts and ingenious approach to designing technical hardware meshed back in the early 80s, and 1984’s The Terminator and 1986’s Aliens serve as scrappy and inventive genre masterpieces that cemented the brilliant Canadian as the go-to guy for innovative SciFi and action.

Now, twenty-plus years down the road, he’s finally given us his follow-up to Titanic. How do you, in fact, follow up the biggest movie in the history of the world? With a three hour epic about culture clash, greed, evolution, and blue feline aliens with exterior ganglia capable of linking with any other indigenous life directly at the nervous system.

Also, there’s an inordinate amount of weaponry and a lot of explosions. Humans bad, aliens good, terrestrial spirituality viable, free market not so much. Characters, no. Archetypes, certainly.

Avatar is a bounty of visual riches. So much artistry and effort went into the creation of the film’s multiple environments that it becomes entirely possible to just soak in its atmosphere, disregarding the often obvious or clunky dialogue. The world of Pandora is so well laid-out with its multitudes of life that you could tell all sorts of stories in it- it’s just kind of a bummer that this particular one feels so played out (if looking for major influences, start with Cameron’s own Aliens, Dances with Wolves, Dune, Nightbreed, The New World, and eXistenZ).

If nothing else, this film cements the absolute divinity of Sigourney Weaver, who brings class, grit, bemused pragmatism, and fierce decency to her part. She gets the film’s most moving moment, and it’s her history as both icon and alien expert that give the uneven script its perceptible subtexts.

But the one thing I wanted from this film is something we get just a taste of in his highly enjoyable documentary Aliens of the Deep. An early scene, fairly inconsequential to the overall investigation of underwater volcanic habitats, but one that delivers a viscerality that even the highest-powered computers can’t manufacture. An extended tracking shot through an office, navigating rows of desks.

No people, no explosions, no redefining of the medium. Just physical space at constant time, something breathtakingly real. But I’d never bet the man out. He’s nimble, and thrives on limitations. I look forward to what comes next. And any film that can create this kind of hardcore debate (and believe you me, it has) speaks well to the future of the medium.

But the scoreboard doesn't lie: beautiful and derivative. Occasionally visionary, sometimes quite stupid. Worth seeing, certainly. But an odd parable, with uncertain lessons. Perhaps it's the goy's teeth, all over again?

No comments: