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Avatar: The Ups and Downs of James Cameron

December 16, 2009

Writer/Producer/Director James Cameron’s career in sci-fi is like Rick Rossovich’s johnson in Top Gun, long and distinguished. The sci-fi nerd in me likes to say that his career began with Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars, an 80’s take on The Seven Samurai in space, on which Cameron was both Art Director and Miniature Designer (and Bill Paxton was a set carpenter!). Soon after, he was responsible for one of the most iconic characters in science fiction: the Terminator. By the mid-late 80’s, Cameron had brought us what is arguably the best Alien sequel in Aliens. (However, I remain equally and unapologetically devoted to all four Alien movies, as well as the first Alien vs. Predator. There, I said it.) He capped off the decade with the deep sea sci-fi film, The Abyss, in which he expanded upon the intriguing (though not original) idea that interesting aliens need not be from outer space. (Nerd aside: The Abyss remains the one and only movie for which I have watched every second of the abundant DVD extras, including 20 minutes of time-lapse footage of the 5 days it took to fill a 7-million gallon water tank. My geek-fu is strong.)

Cameron, displaying a minor conceit common in Hollywood auteurs, likes to claim that all of his films are about “people” rather than “monsters” or “gizmos.” Of course he’s wrong. The Terminator is about one thing and one thing only: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bare behind. Oops, did I say that out loud? No, I meant, it exists purely as a vehicle for terrifying cyborg badassery and awful 80’s hair. And Aliens was about GUNS GUNS GUNS and technology and holy shit, GUNS! And then of course, there were the GUNS! And who can forget the GUNS! Also Bill Paxton whining like a little taint. (Where’s HIS Academy Award, I ask you? Daniel Day Lewis can piss and moan about his left foot or some such for two hours and get an Oscar, but Bill Paxton can’t get one for going from cocksure Marine to weeping like a 5-year-old in the space of one alien attack?) Cameron even cut a few GUNS(!) out of the original release of the film, only to put them back in the extended director’s cut, proving that you can never have too many GUNS(!) when a xenomorph may be involved. Without the guns, it’s game over, man. Game over! (To its credit, Aliens also showed us that it is, in fact, possible for Paul Reiser to not be completely lame.)

The Abyss was Cameron’s first story whose conflict was largely human vs. human, rather than human vs. other. Sure, the underwater beasties gave the story a reason for occurring, but its ultimate battle was between Ed Harris’ blue-collar, underwater trucker and Michael Biehn’s crazed, paranoid Navy SEAL rather than a murderous cyborg or an alien queen. There are valid complaints to be made about the movie’s whiplash-inducing left turn into deus ex machina fantasy in its final minutes, but on the whole it is clearly a human story surrounded by technology as opposed to the reverse. Having said that, Cameron actually had to invent new technologies in real life in order to make things work on film. New full-face diving helmets were developed so the audience could actually see and hear the actors emote under water. The famous CGI “water tentacle” was a precursor to the technology used to render the liquid-metal T-1000 in Terminator 2. This kind of technical, behind-the-scenes development has been a major part of Cameron’s films, including the nearly full-size replica set he built for Titanic.

I will say only two things about Titanic. For one, despite its faults (which are legion), Cameron must be credited with providing a human story to carry us through the world’s most famous maritime tragedy. If it had been a mere step-by-step journey through the night’s events it may been interesting from a technical standpoint, but it would not have enjoyed mainstream success, and it certainly wouldn’t have won any Oscars (except for maybe a few of those technical ones they usually announce during a commercial break, like Best Best Boy or something.) Second, back when Titanic was only available as a 2-tape set on VHS (V-whatnow?), I told my girlfriend that I would only buy a copy if I could throw tape 1 away, because the movie really only gets good after the ship hits the damn iceberg. There are only two things that make tape 1 worth keeping.

It behooves me to mention here that James Cameron was also responsible for two movies in the 90’s besides Titanic. He wrote and produced Strange Days, one of the decade’s most underrated movies, a story of love, addiction, police brutality and racial tension in an America on the cusp of Y2K (which, in 1995, was still “the near future”). Despite being brazenly dependent on its own hi-tech macguffin, in this case a technology that allows people to record their sensory output and play it back later to re-live the experience, Strange Days is a thoroughly enjoyable film with slick direction, a great soundtrack, and a top-tier cast in Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis (playing the same character she always plays), Tom Sizemore, and Vincent D’Onofrio. Cameron’s other notable, non-Titanic movie in the 90’s was, of course, the Arnold-tastic True Lies, a movie which everyone has managed to convince themselves was “OMG teh awesome!” but was in fact merely “okay”. (Sorry, Tia Carrere’s lameosity cancels out MILFy Jaime Lee Curtis. Bonus points are given, however, for underage Eliza Dushku and yet another Oscar-worthy performance by Bill Paxton.)

Unless you’ve been on Mars for the last decade (in a cave, with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears) you must have heard that James Cameron’s latest opus is a 3D, CGI-infested, sci-fi adventure called Avatar. The short version: the planet Pandora (spectacularly original name there, Jimbo) is a lush but hostile world inhabited by dangerous and beautiful life forms. Among these is a primitive, humanoid race called the Na’vi. Pandora is also an abundant source of a rare and powerful mineral (macguffinite?) sought by humans. Since humans are unable to breathe the Pandoran atmosphere, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (geez Cameron, why not just call him Biff Studly?) agrees to be telepathically linked to a genetically engineered human/Na’vi hybrid body, the titular “avatar” (derived from the Hindu concept of “manifestation”). Sully’s avatar is sent into the Na’vi community to learn and possibly sabotage their efforts to hinder the humans’ mining of the aforementioned mineral. Unfortunately, Sully falls in love with a female Na’vi warrior and wacky hijinks ensue.

Twentieth Century Fox started rationing Avatar production stills and footage over a year ago. The first official trailer was unveiled at the San Diego Comic Con back in July to a collective “WTF?” from geeks nationwide. The footage and story details revealed in the trailer were underwhelming to say the least. Subsequent trailers have gotten a little better, but most folks remain cautious in praising what they’ve seen so far. Fox has marketed the ever-lovin’ crap out of the movie for weeks now. There was even a shameless tie-in recently with another Fox property, the nerdy, hi-tech crime procedural Bones, wherein some of the Bones boys have acquired Avatar tickets and must camp outside the theater to maintain their place in line.

Much has been made of the fact that Cameron has been working on this movie for over 10 years and it would have been made sooner if the technology required for his “vision” existed 5 years ago. Three-dimensional motion-capture was used extensively and the entire Pandoran ecosystem was fabricated in CGI from, literally, the ground up. Look on the web. Consult the Great Gazoogle. You will find hours of footage detailing the technology used in the making of this film. You will see actors Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana wearing unitards. There’s some eye candy, lemmetellya’ (and Zoe ain’t bad either!) There’s enough green-screen to make George Lucas (wait for it…) green with envy. You’ll hear Cameron and other production folks go on and on about how they CGIed the hell outta that leaf in the upper-right corner of this one scene, and about how some of Pandora’s fauna are based on automotive design. You’ll see how they created Cameron’s favorite sequence of the movie, wherein Worthington’s and Saldana’s characters bond as they ride winged beasts, by realizing the entire flight-path in 3-dimensional space so Cameron could place a virtual “camera” wherever he wanted.

Those kinds of technical details are sweet, geeky ambrosia.

What you won’t see…is much about the story, about the motivations of characters, about the conflicts. As a certain long-past-its-prime cartoon about vulgar 4th-graders has pointed out, the story is essentially a sci-fi Dances With Wolves. Here is Cameron’s opportunity to show the world that he can combine the human-centered storytelling of Titanic with the techno-explodination of Aliens or True Lies. Science fiction resonates best with geeks and non-geeks alike when it uses science and technology to explain, expose, or exonerate the fragility of the human body and to symbolize or celebrate the power of the human spirit. If it does none of these things, it’s just spaceships, laser-guns, and women in absurdly revealing costumes.

From what we’ve seen of Avatar, and what we know of the production and story, it seems like Cameron’s attempt at a transcendentalist “barbaric YAWP,” will end up a resounding “meh.”

Oh well, there’s always Fantastic Voyage

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9 Comments
  1. December 16, 2009 6:39 pm

    I’ll give Cameron credit for trying to make the first movie that requires you, personally, to upgrade your video hardware to see it.

  2. Tony Mendocino permalink
    December 16, 2009 11:50 pm

    I wish there was a drug that would allow me to watch Avatar as a wide-eyed 11-year-old, amazed by all the rowdy stuff happening on screen. Do you see yourself getting around to looking at “Moon”, the Duncan Jones-directed film that echoes “Silent Running”? I am waiting for a break in the missus’ marathon English royalty drama to see a film that received an enthusiastically-positive review from BBC 5 Live’s Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo.

  3. Paul permalink*
    December 17, 2009 1:13 pm

    “Moon” was amazing. A complete 180 from Cameron’s style of sci-fi filmmaking.

  4. December 30, 2009 5:31 am

    The year’s most ambitious film is so breathtaking, it detracts you from the fact that Cameron’s characters are caricatures, and too much of the dialogue is stock. The good news? None of it matters.

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