Monday, July 26, 2010

James Cameron: A Cinema of CAPS LOCK + A Second Take: Avatar

Since publishing my original review of its theatrical release, my opinion of Avatar has become informed by two lengthy conversations about the film with friends who didn't like it. I will do my best to represent their viewpoints here.

"It's really just an excuse to do pterodactyls versus helicopters." - James Cameron

The New Yorker ran a profile of James Cameron by Dana Goodyear a few months before Avatar's release last year. A friend named Trevor pulled a quote from this article on my previous review's comment board as telling of Avatar's being a failure, in particular, as an 'anti-war' movie: "I suppose you could say I believe in peace through superior firepower."

I told Trevor at the time that what he should've quoted was Cameron's lengthy discussion of the science and story behind one of the film's battle scenes, which he sums up with: "It's really just an excuse to do pterodactyls versus helicopters."

This is a problem with the film, and it's one that is likely shared in most of Cameron's work: he's such a creative filmmaker—his stories so imaginative—that the 'wow' factor tends to overshadow the more important elements like the story and the characters. This extent to which this is happening on the set or in the teenaged heads of his audience varies from film to film, but it's too bad that even in a movie as thematically complex as Aliens we tend to focus on the badassery and the bloodletting.

Cameron makes really cool movies (or at least, he used to, before he grew a big soft one and started making romances: “Of course, the whole movie ends up being about women, how guys relate to their lovers, mothers—there’s a large female presence [...] I try to do my testosterone movie and it’s a chick flick.”), and a great deal of Avatar's success, even amidst today's jaded, self-aware moviegoing populace, was due to its gimmickry. Photorealistic aliens! Three hours on a planet that feels real! Digital 3D like you've never seen it! Sexy cat people! All the plants and animals have Latin names and the Na'vi speak a real language that he hired some guy to make up!

Like Titanic before it, Avatar was an event movie (already faded from the spotlight—and that much too fast) that people talked about just because everyone else was talking about it. But with the hype machine interested only the gimmicks, it's increasingly difficult to remind ourselves exactly what it was Cameron was trying to do.

See, Cameron's been making and remaking the same Vietnam War movie since the beginning of his career. It was when I stumbled across an archival press interview from the release of Aliens that I realized this. Cameron discussed that his main intention with the sequel was to tell a parable about Vietnam, in which a squad of overqualified, over-armed, over-mechanized soldiers goes into a jungle and gets their collective ass kicked by an allegedly dumb, primitive race that they should've easily pwned onto the next planet. Now, for me, Aliens was always about maternity (and it's about both of these), but it's easy to see that this is the same movie he's been making ever since. Cameron's story is always about man vs. machine or nature vs. human design. The fancy pulse rifle with grenade launcher vs. the Aliens. The humans versus the terminators. The Na'vi archers versus the giant bombers. The Titanic versus the laws of physics.

What's inconsistent throughout his oeuvre, then, is the confusing notion of the 'we'. In that man vs. machine battle that Cameron has extrapolated from the demons of Vietnam, his different films take different sides (possibly because, as an American, Cameron's 'we' was the American military machine). Cameron actually examines this directly in Avatar, as over the course of three hours we witness a gradually shifting allegiance from the protagonist, Jake Sully. From the beginning he is torn between his duty as a marine and his new position as a science officer, and eventually he finds himself at the wrong end of evil Col. Quaritch's clumsy one-liners like "I'd say diplomacy has failed!" and "How's it feel to betray your own race?"

In Avatar, Sully's transformation from human to Na'vi is as much a matter of his 'soul' as it is his physical appearance; by the end of the second act he's already turned down the long-desired reparation of his paralyzed human form. And with the hero's allegiance so turns the audience's, which is one of the more interesting facets of Avatar's story. As heavy-handed as it may be, Cameron holds nothing back in making the human race into the bad guys.

And this is what's fun to trace throughout Cameron's work: in returning to the well of the darker sides of human nature, he seems to waiver back and forth in regards to whether or not he believes there's any hope for us. Says Ripley, upon learning of Burke's deception: "I don't know which species is worse. You don't see [the aliens] fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage." As a species, we may or may not be any better than this race of venomous, acid-blooded killers, and we are absolutely a bunch of assholes when compared to the ethically and environmentally pure Na'vi. In Titanic, our ambition to bend the laws of nature kill more than 1,500 of us. In The Terminator, our technological ambitions take us even further, killing off most of the human race.

Yet, the lesson of that film's sequel turns out to be one of hope, as is also the case in The Abyss. Both Terminator 2 and The Abyss end unequivocally with saccharine messages of hope for our future; from our darkest wars we will emerge cleansed and prepared for a new age of prosperity.

Only with Avatar, though, has Cameron finally given up on humanity—likely the result of the Bush administration further informing his anti-imperialist beliefs already clung to decades after the Vietnam War. Even as the Na'vi shelter the few humans righteous enough to side with them, those are the humble sky-people that studied the alien race, learned their ways, and actually became (in Sully's case, literally) part of them.

But this is not the only way to read Avatar. To quote Kelly from that previous discussion board, "the important thing is that we can pretend we understand them through a billion dollar, 3-hour movie where we literally murder our own guilt with a roomful of other cheering white people."

In a non-internet-based, real-life extrapolation of her argument, Kelly told me that she understood what Cameron was trying to do, and actually was able to get behind it, were it not for Cameron's failure to follow through on his point in the end. To hear Kelly tell it, the way Avatar should've ended is with the humans winning, the Na'vi completely slaughtered and Pandora ravaged for precious unobtanium. Now, here's an ending that would likely have been more difficult for Trevor to deny as being 'anti-war'.

Kelly's idea is potent, and in many ways, she's right. Even though Cameron has shrugged off responsibility for human actions by siding with the aliens, that doesn't absolve humanity of its power or its history, and as clever as the Na'vi are in besting the human military machine, it's still pretty absurd that they don't all get crushed (but again, that's how it went down in Vietnam). This, by the way, was exactly what Cameron was going on about when he started waxing adolescent about helicopters and pterodactyls:
"The idea is that Pandora has such a hot, humid climate, with incredibly powerful magnetic fields, that they can’t use sophisticated energy weapons. A lot of the equipment is retrofitted, from their perspective, because it works on Pandora. So you’ve got vehicles that are more consistent with twentieth-century warfare.” His face was flushed and happy. “It’s all just an excuse to do helicopters versus pterodactyls,” he said.

Whatever, dude. Here's the thing: if you want to be an environmentalist filmmaker and actually stir people into action (a laughable premise, right away), you're giving up way too easily when you let the humans of Avatar give up way too easily. As Kelly puts it, the ending of Avatar is far too easily construed as an apology and an absolution for our long, storied history of military imperialism and murder.

So where does this leave me as I attempt to wrap up my restrospective on the films of James Cameron? Do I believe his visceral, kinetic filmmaking tends to overshadow his ideas? Probably much of the time, though I'm not convinced that's a bad thing. It's definitely not bad in theory, and in the practice of Cameron's films it's probably better this way, as we know all too well what happens when he doesn't shut his characters up and put guns in their hands.

I have to revisit the incidents of the teenagers in the theater during Avatar, shouting "Yeah, get some!" at the screen during the extended battle royale. Though the onus of coaxing an audience out of passivity into analytical thought can never be put solely on the shoulders of the filmmaker, it's a shame that in Cameron's case he so often gets caught up playing with his toys. Avatar becomes, rather than an anti-war treatise, a story of helicopters and pterodactyls. Even as he smacks you over the head with his allegory, it's easy to view the whole thing as an extended playtime.

And yet, when I was a little boy, it was the nuclear detonation from Terminator 2 that gave me recurring nightmares, and I still think of it whenever the topic of nuclear weapons is raised. Where T2 was a hugely successful summer blockbuster with one-liners and set pieces, its staying power for me was a (simple and obvious, but nonetheless true and important) message of peace. Nuclear war is bad. Humans are good, but we created nuclear war. We have to reconcile this with ourselves.

Is there a similar message to be found in Avatar for the boys who went out for it to cheer on the soldiers? Yes, certainly. There's a purity to Cameron's ideas, even as obvious as they always are, that sticks with you and works in concert with the awesomeness of his action. Taken even as dumb action movies, his work sticks with us as we grow up. Perhaps this isn't anywhere more clear than in Titanic, as mawkishly sincere a story of love triumphant as we can hope for and the movie of the decade for so many heartsick middle-schoolers, whether they deny it now or not.

Of course, Cameron's not done yet. There are allegedly two Avatar sequels on the way, and it's always possible that the man with the biggest head in the business can get his head back in the game. Some of his best work so far has been sequel: with the setup out of the way, Cameron's proven he can hit the ground running. And regardless, even mediocre Cameron is thrilling, exciting, ripe for discussion, worthy of our time and money. I'll be there at midnight on opening day.

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