Thursday, December 10, 2009

My thoughts on Avatar (before I see it)

MILD SPOILER ALERT: This post (obviously) won't spoil Avatar, but if you haven't seen the first two Terminator movies, this may hurt them for you. Also, I realize that my examination of the time travel in the Terminator is crude, but few discussions about time travel end up making sense anyway, so I just kept it brief.

I don’t hate James Cameron, although with the way I talk about him you might soon think that I do. However, I do hate how he seems to be perceived by the media, film critics, and most regular folk. For some reason, people just absolutely love this guy’s work. I have trouble seeing why he gets the love he does though, and it's not just because I constantly try to think the opposite of what mass society deems I should think (I suspect this explains why I often loudly claim my love for Steven Seagal movies, that the Lord of the Rings sucks, and that Annie is hotter than Britta), but because I actually don’t think his movies are much better than well-made action movies.

Anybody who says that the Terminator movies are expertly written is at least half-crazy. The plot of the first movie goes something like this: Kyle Reese is sent from the post-apocalypse 2029 to pre-apocalypse 1984 in order to stop a Terminator from killing Sarah Connor, a woman who will eventually give birth to a sort of Che Guevara who hates machines instead of America. Obviously good triumphs, with Sarah and Kyle defeating the Terminator and leaving it a scrap heap.

The second movie, however, takes place in 1995, as we are inching closer and closer to the apocalypse. Cyberdyne Systems found the remains of the Terminator from the first film, and was able to create a powerful microprocessor for weapons systems from it, which is eventually what leads to the development of Skynet, and then, you know, the apocalypse and stuff. A young John Connor with his mom and a modified, wisecracking T-1000 are trying to stop this, but the whole plot of the movie and the eventual apocalypse requires the existence of the remains of the first Terminator.

Kyle Reese is sent back to 1984 by John Connor himself in order to stop the Terminator, thusly allowing its remains to be found and for Cyberdyne to develop Skynet. Given that the means for time travel exist in 2029, Connor must know that by altering the past even in the slightest, you will change your present. Connor should have realized the risks of having a destroyed version of some pretty advanced technology being found by a tech company in 1984. He should have let the Terminator kill his mother and by extension himself, because then there wouldn’t have been any giant police station shootouts and the Terminator could leave 1984 without his remnants being found. Knowing what was at risk, Connor's death and his mother’s death would likely be seen as necessary for the greater good, the Terminator would be a 20-minute movie that did not spawn a franchise, and Edward Furlong never would have become a pop music sensation in Japan*.

The Terminator is an interesting movie, mostly because it’s so dated now that I don’t think I could qualify it as “good” anymore. It was made on a very low budget, and the special effects make that obvious to the casual modern viewer. While it was definitely very well-liked at the time, judging by the lengths of their respective Wikipedia pages, the sequel is far more beloved. James Cameron gets endless amounts of love from critics and film nerds just like me for writing and directing a cool action movie around a plot hole… and like John Connor, T2 unnecessarily ushered in a negative change in its respective environment.

James Cameron is often noted as starting the advent of computer generated imagery in film, and he has received plenty of praise for it. CGI has allowed for a number of great films to exist, but I think that its use is more often than not a detriment to an action movie. Now it seems that whenever the choices are between CGI and trying a little harder and doing it for real, 90% of the time CGI will be used for a variety of reasons. Any big action scene generally requires a suspension of belief and an unbroken sense of tension in order for a viewer to be completely engrossed in it, but the second I see a computer generated image that is noticeably bad, I think about it instead of the scene, and that tension is lost. I think the best action movies of this past decade are the Bourne series, Collateral, Casino Royale, The Lookout, Public Enemies and others that are slipping my mind currently. What these movies all have in common is a decided focus on avoiding CGI whenever possible: while Public Enemies has one bad CGI shot towards the end, I can't think of any other notable uses of CGI in these movies. While there are some movies that use CGI flawlessly in their action scenes (the Transformers movies come to mind), you are still taking the viewer out of the action as they marvel at the technology.

Through the success of the first Terminator, Cameron was in a position to be hired to make Aliens. I would imagine that after Aliens’ box office success, Cameron could pretty much do what he wanted, which meant the Abyss, T2, True Lies and then Titanic, all featuring his baby CGI. When Cameron (kind of embarrassingly) claimed he was the king of the world at the Oscars, he was probably right if that world was confined to “Hollywood in the 1990s.” And then, he disappeared to his castle until 2005, when he announced Avatar, the film whose commercial is currently bombarding you whenever you watch professional football.

I am curious to see how Avatar does financially, just as I am curious to see whether or not the movie is actually good. I bet it will be a colossal hit, and I will probably classify it as “pretty badass.” But I want it to fail… horribly. I want it to be the new Cutthroat Island. I want it to be the new Waterworld. I want Avatar to "Ishtar," and then I want Avatar's name to be used as a verb for the poor performance of a future blockbuster. And it’s all because of one thing James Cameron said.

Cameron has mentioned multiple times that he cut back on the story element of Avatar in order to focus on the new stereoscopic 3D technology. While I concur that few blockbusters put the story over the action, most of these movies aren’t directed by people who are hailed as the saviour of the modern blockbuster. It seems like critics and movie nerds alike are expecting to see the world changed by Avatar, but it will probably only be a mediocre-to-good movie that has elements taken from it and put into countless other shitty blockbusters. It isn’t going to reinvigorate the modern blockbuster, it’s going to hurt it.

When Avatar inevitably does huge numbers, its success will likely be attributed to Cameron’s innovative use of technology, and probably deservedly so. By almost all accounts the effects are insanely cool: while one Guardian reviewer said the 3D effects made him nauseous, it seems that everybody else says "WHOOOOAAAA." The problem is that by sacrificing story, and also by making that sacrifice known, Cameron has given viewers few other reasons to cite for the movie’s success. This then leads future blockbuster filmmakers to (rightly) assume that the technology was the reason for the success, and then these filmmakers also ignore story in favour of messing with the new technology.

From what I can gather without having seen the movie, Avatar is about humanity's encroachment on a world that is living in harmony, populated by the Na'vi. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a paralyzed U.S. Marine who is able to walk again through the development of the new Avatar technology, and he starts to explore the Na'vi world of Pandora. Through technology, Jake is able to do what he wants in this world that existed before him, but he quickly realizes that what the humans are doing is destroying a world that was more or less a utopia before they arrived. Cameron has mentioned that he sees the movie as a sort of warning, and that he wants viewers to think about how they interact with nature, and yet he doesn't seem to realize how big of a metaphor he is creating for himself. While Hollywood is far from a utopia, James Cameron was able to do what he wanted with the blockbuster due to the advent of filmmaking technology, and in doing so he forever altered the landscape of the world of filmmaking.

All of this makes me sound like a luddite who hates any sort of technological growth, but I think I have a point here. While James Cameron often uses his technological advancements well, many others that borrow them in the future just aren't using them as well. Despite the fact that it exists because of what I deem to be a plot hole, T2 has held up over time and is still a good action movie. Aliens is still good as well, and every time I see True Lies on television, I always find myself watching it until at least the next commercial break. The problem is that they are just that: good. They aren't great like many people claim, and Cameron is above all else trying to make some money. He is barely different from Michael Bay, the most reviled modern filmmaker of the past decade: the only real difference is that Bay is more honest about his ambitions. He wants to make money and knows he is making popcorn movies, whereas James Cameron seems to feel he is advancing the state of filmmaking, while most critics and movie fans seem to feel the same way. While Cameron has said that Avatar is for 14 year old boys, he knows nerds like me will think about it far more than we should, and he expects us to marvel at the technology and praise him for it. While I will likely marvel at the technology, I don't think it will add much to the future of filmmaking, and it will detract more from future action movies than it will help them. CGI is consistently used well by Cameron and Bay, but not many others. I worry that the same thing will happen with 3D in action movies.

Maybe Cameron wrote the character of Jake intentionally as a metaphor for himself, and that Jake will use technology to achieve his goals without care for what is going on around him… or maybe it's just a coincidence. It appears from the trailer that Jake has a crisis about how humans are treating Pandora at some point, and the ending of the movie will likely feature a "we need to treat nature and our fellow man better" type of message. However, I think it would be far more appropriate if Jake and the rest of the humans used their technology to do whatever they desired within Pandora, because that's what James Cameron is doing in Hollywood. And like John Connor's decision to send Kyle Reese to 1984, Cameron's work is going to affect the future of his environment in a negative way, not a positive one.

*according to Furlong's IMDB trivia page, this happened. I would have looked into it more, but honestly I just didn't want to find out that it wasn't true.


  1. Only $73 million in US box offices. Oops.

  2. It made $230 million or something worldwide though... it will probably make back its budget, but I don't know if the marketing costs were included in the $500 million figure I read.