Home > Uncategorized > The king’s new clothes.

The king’s new clothes.

A funny thing happened to James Cameron on the way to his retirement. Somewhere along the way, he got confused and mistook himself for an Important Filmmaker with Something to Say™.

He didn’t lose his way on his own, though; no, he was in fact led down the wrong road, given the wrong directions when he clearly should have made that left turn back at Albaquerque. See, Cameron was a perfectly capable director for a certain type of film; The Terminator showed that he had the chops to craft a satisfyingly exhilirating sci-fi action film with an interesting concept and a low-medium-sized budget, Aliens allowed him to stretch out and proved that even when allowed to indulge himself, he still kept the results compelling and strictly in service of the film, The Abyss gave Cameron more license to explore his creativity and ambition, while also providing a retrospectively prescient setting shift to the earth’s oceans, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day was Cameron’s opportunity to really wow the audience with cutting-edge special effects (which still are impressive even by today’s standards, mind you), while also turning his first breakout success into a franchise with a whip-smart concept and tight execution, creating that rare sequel which is at least equal to (and arguably better than) its predecessor. Cameron could have quit in 1992 and secured a legacy that would be remembered and celebrated in filmdom.

After phoning it in with by-the-numbers yet well-executed Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle True Lies, however, Cameron decided to indulge one of his pet obsessions: the Titanic. I can skip over this step of the story, because you all know it. Top-grossing film of all time, Oscars, “king of the world,” et cetera.

The catch is, though, that while Cameron’s “king of the world” proclamation at the Academy Awards ceremony seemed to be too tongue-in-cheek to be sincere, the joke was on us; he was in earnest when he claimed this title. No longer content with being a groundbreaking and innovative filmmaker, Cameron now fancied himself a vanguard of contemporary filmmaking. Soon afterward, rumors began to swirl of a new science fiction project called Avatar. Allegedly, this film was going to completely revolutionize filmmaking and the way we think about film. The common wisdom also dictated that in order for Cameron to be able to fully realize his vision, the audience would need to wait several years before the technology could catch up to his imagination.

In the ensuing years, one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Cameron had indeed gone into retirement; for a triumphant Oscar winner, his career was intriguingly low-key for the next 10 years. He created a short-lived television series (albeit one that did have at least one minor cultural impact in that it turned Jessica Alba into a household name), Dark Angel, and directed a handful of mediocre underwater documentary films that later proved to be, presumably, on-the-job training in shooting in the IMAX format. It was not until late 2008 that the hype wheels for Cameron’s new feature film project began publicly turning again; early word was that this was a juggernaut that was going to shock and awe everyone who saw it and that would indeed change the face of filmmaking forever. About ten years in the making, Cameron’s Avatar was finally going to see the light of day.

This just about brings us up to the present. During the summer of 2009, the first teaser left many, myself included, underwhelmed and fully prepared to call shenanigans on the whole project. The visuals looked overly synthesized and oddly flat and lifeless, and the lack of any revealing of plot or characterization left the film looking like a flimsy, Hudson Hawk-on-steroids-sized flop. A full trailer with some more tantalizing visuals and further revelation of plot and thematic elements made the film look somewhat more appealing, but critics still seemed to harbor a slightly-more-than-healthy level of skepticism and were by and large sharpening their knives in anticipation of December 18.

It’s unclear exactly what happened at this point, but the end result is that several critics, many of them with their heads typically at least somewhat reliably on their shoulders, began to praise the film. And not just the super-high-priced visuals and 3d filming, but the film itself. The story. The characters. Two prominent bloggers have suggested it is the frontrunner for the Academy Award for Best Picture (and hey, we all know the Oscars are bullshit, but some of us idealists would like to imagine that they still have at least a shred of credibility). Hell, it even won an award for best picture of 2009 already. It’s like everyone gave in, drank the Kool-Aid, and abandoned their skepticism, objectivity and ability to think independently, and bought into Cameron’s self-created myth. (Thank [insert deity here] for critics like J Hoberman – an endangered species!)

You can doubtless tell from my tone where I stand on Avatar. I am going to begin, however, by talking about what Cameron does well in the film, how it succeeds. After all, if you don’t have anything nice to say you shouldn’t say anything at all, right? Plus, we here at Flaws are not in the business of unrestrained hatemongering. (Plus, I figure if I start my appraisal with positive points, I won’t be accused of mindlessly buying into some barely-visible backlash). Technically, this film is indeed a marvel. Let’s be honest here: if one is going to see Avatar, one should do it right – that is, the way it was intended to be seen: in IMAX 3D. The teaser and trailer only reinforces this; on a computer screen, television screen, or even standard movie screen, the film looks flat and unexciting. Seeing it in IMAX 3D, however, is a completely different kind of experience – Cameron has truly created a completely immersive world in which the viewer can get lost. The strange and beautiful flora and fauna of Pandora enticingly dance toward you and draw you in, the color palette is suitably rich without being overwhelming, and even the sound design and mixing helps to entrench the viewer into the environment. This is not so much a film as a sensory experience. This being the case, there is no doubt in my mind that this film will not play well on DVD or BluRay, and to those who bought a bootleg: congratulations, you’ve missed the point and completely ruined the experience for yourself.

Unfortunately, however, this is where Avatar‘s successes end. After spending so much money creating such a beautiful and enchanting world, Cameron either neglected or did not deem it appropriate to populate this world with memorable or believable characters or a compelling or original storyline. Rather than develop actual characters to inhabit his planet (and, seriously, Pandora? I know that James Cameron has never been known for subtlety, but still…), Cameron instead decided to invest even more money into hiring a USC linguistics professor to create the language spoken by the Na’vi. I would not criticize this decision and this added layer of realism that is often neglected or dismissed by most filmmakers if Cameron had seen fit to give his Na’vi lines worth translating into a new language. Instead, we get, as many critics (even those who give the film the highest praise) have pointed out, a Na’vi translation of Dances with Wolves.

Speaking of which, can we talk about the jaw-droppingly astounding yet head-scratchingly perplexing tonal and attitudinal balancing act this film pulls off? It kind of manages to be New Age shlocky, environmentalist, anti-imperialist, militarist, and offensively racist – all at the same time. It’s kind of breathtaking, but not in a good way. Ostensibly, the film’s message is supposed to be one of environmentalism and respect for native peoples and their beliefs, with an anti-imperialist/invasion bent. In the process of delivering this trendy neo-hippie moral, however, Cameron employs enough explosions, violence and destruction to satisfy a hormonal teenage boy’s lust for such things for at least 48 hours. A look at Cameron’s output reveals that yes, he does indeed have a hard-on for explosions to rival Michael Bay, but unfortunately that propensity feels at odds with what he seems to be trying to communicate with this film. The fact that the characters are not well developed means that we only root for “the good guys” because they spend the most time on screen and because the score (composed, surprise surprise, by Titanic culprit James Horner) tells us that we are supposed to. Most problematically, however, is the treatment of the Na’vi themselves. The “bad guys” of the U.S. military often refer to them derisively as “savages,” and we are meant by association to see them as quite the opposite. However, the portrayal of the Na’vi in this film is tainted at all levels by the myth of the “noble savage” that has often dogged Western perceptions of native peoples, and contributes to an overall holistically racist view of this alien species. White guilt and condescension do not add up to equal egalitarianism, James.

There are other problems I have with the film, including the fact that, in addition to the interplanetary racism, the film portrays seemingly the entire American military force as being composed exclusively of white males (with the somewhat marginal exception of pilot Michelle Rodriguez), as well as the need of most filmmakers in general to anthropomorphize their alien creations to a ridiculous degree. I recognize that this is partially the whole “god creating man in his image” issue, but seriously, with the talent and imagination that Cameron obviously has, not to mention the ludicrous amount of capital he dumped into the making of this film, I somehow expect more. All these complaints, however, can be seen as me overintellectualizing the film.

Let me address, then, the one issue I have with the film that is inescapable and not so prone to overthinking: its length. You must understand, I am often something of a sucker for long movies. Honestly, I am. I love me some epics. And here’s the thing – from my point of view, two hours and forty-six minutes is not even particularly long. I am quite used to watching 150-minute films, so really, an extra sixteen minutes should not be a chore or feel indulgent. Remember, I am a fan of both Kubrick and Kurosawa.

Somewhere in the past decade, however, Cameron has forgotten how to effectively pace a film. Between the action and the explosions and the seductive visuals, this film should have flown by, in theory. It should have left me disappointed that it ended, salivating for more and willing to plop down another fifteen dollars to see it again. The last word to describe it should have been dull. Instead, I found that it felt longer than Gone with the Wind.

Let’s extrapolate this a bit further. The film felt shorter than the Ultimate Cut of Watchmen, which is in truth about an hour longer. Earlier this year, I went to see the roadshow presentation of Steven Soderbergh’s Che. That film, I believe, clocked in at four hours and forty-two minutes, almost a full two hours longer than Avatar. It was methodically, deliberately paced, and it included an intermission.

Avatar felt just as long as Che had felt.

This is ultimately Cameron’s failure – he delivered the world that he had promised his audience, but he forgot the two most crucial aspects of a successful narrative film: identifiable characters and a compelling story. While he has changed the face of filmmaking, what he has ultimately given us is a first stepping stone, a building block that may eventually lead to something truly great. As impressed as I am with what he has achieved, I am disappointed in the critical discourse that has found itself entranced hopelessly by Cameron’s illusion, and I find it distressing that all of this mostly unchallenged praise is only encouraging him. It is seeming increasingly likely that Avatar will indeed go on to be named Best Picture of the year, and that upsets me more than I care to admit. It’s frustrating to feel like you are the only one who can see that the king of the world wears no clothes.

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