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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Avatar



Avatar (Four Stars)

U.S.; James Cameron, 2009, 20th Century FoxAvatar,

James Cameron’s planet-shaking, moon-rocking, eco-boosting, dragon-riding new science fiction fantasy epic-and-a-half, may not be a perfect movie. But it’s sure as all blazes an incredible movie-going experience. Cameron’s long-time labor of love and money is a genre-movie knockout, a technological marvel, whose feats of 3D motion-capture and CGI pyrotechnics, and the spectacularly imaginative alternate world this snazzy technique helps Cameron and company create — a world of wonders set on a distant Alpha Centauri moon called Pandora, where the natives are blue and the zeitgeist is green — all keep blowing you away.

That gargantuan dream-world of Avatar is so marvelous, so popping with delights — gut wrenching, lyrical, exalting and even borderline campy — that your senses may get seduced, even as your literary sensibilities flinch at the usual Cameron script shortcomings: the sometimes flat, humorless dialogue, and the pulpy characterizations.

Here, those “flaws” seem merely serviceable, while the stunning visual imagery around them — those blue-skinned, golden-eyed, Na’vi extraterrestrials and the human-controlled Avatars or Na’vi counterfeits astride swooping semi-pterodactyls soaring above super-rain forest landscapes, in deep focus shots of astounding detail and nearly overwhelming richness and color — tend to transport you.

Wow, you may think as you watch this movie’s bounteous gallery of wonders — its` vast luminous greenery, willow God-icons, huge stomping robo-thugs and wave upon wave of deep-focus imaginary landscapes — if this man could only tell a joke, he really would be king of the world!

The well-worn, well-worked, relatively humor-free, but still engrossing story of Avatar hovers on what used to be called, in literary science fiction cicles,  “space opera” — a standard Western movie or pulp story transplanted to other planets, other worlds. But the plot isn’t just pulpy. It also recalls more adult ’50s-’60s ecological ssience fiction, like Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters, Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse and Frank Herbert’s Dune.

In this case, Cameron has taken the old theme of the soldier going native, the Dances with Wolves plot of the white cavalryman who goes Native American, and transplanted it to his world of Pandora, where the aliens are tall (twice as big as an NBA shortie guard of the ’60s) and the trees are taller. There, an expedition from an ecologically ravaged earth, has shown up to talk the natives or Na’vi out of their most valuable resource (something called, in a moment of rare Cameronian whimsy, “Unobtainium”), and, if that fails, blow them off it.

Avatar is a Hindu term for a deity descended from Heaven to Earth, and the Avatar plan is the evil corporation’s brand of outreach. Here, Avatars are the go-betweens: phony Na’vis, who look like the real article, but are actually Na’vi-like beings operated by encased earthlings, who control them from afar, while the Avatar bodies are sent to the wilds to palaver with the aliens (who call the earthlings sky people).

The movie’s hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an Avatar-by-accident, a paraplegic ex-marine recruited after his twin brother, part of the program, dies and necessitates a quick DNA-matching substitution. Pulling Jake in various directions before he opens up his Pandora’s box, are the sterling, all-worlds-tolerant Stanford scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, a Cameron veteran), corporate creep Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi, oozing sleaze) and the macho-beyond-macho, mean-multiplied-by-mean Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).

Miles is the kind of steely dude who thinks Clint Eastwood is a Carmel, California hippie, and that Arnold Schwarzenegger needs more Terminator hormones –and he recruits Jake as a spy for the cause. (As we will later learn, the cause is carnage, the goal is theft, the motive is money, and Miles is a Terminator with more testosterone.)

Avatar Jake will move in another direction. On Pandora, an ambulatory Jake soon finds that blue is beautiful and that he loves the language (devised for this movie by Paul Frommer). He meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the sexiest, toughest, 12-foot tall blue gal you could ever hope to rub tendrils with, and she guides him and becomes his Pocahontas-like partisan. So Jake joins the tribe, tries to win over doubters like Eytukan (played by Cherokee actor Wes Studi) and also begins to see his own higher-ups as exploiters.

Meanwhile, Parker and Miles, twerpy boss and murderous thug, have grown tired of diplomacy. They want to escalate contact into shock and awe. And so they do, in this movie’s  ferocious final battle, a marvel of technological mayhem, but also one that comes after a lot of careful set-up, therefore wounding more deeply.

So Cameron was the king and Avatar the movie of 2009, neck and neck  with  The Hurt Locker — another, more modest and realistic anti-war saga by Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow. We’re talking here less about box-office or aesthetics and future classic stature, than about cultural penetration and influence.

Generations of movie-going kids will clutch these hothouse images to their chests in their sleepy time dream-weavings and fantasize about Avatar affairs and adventures, and blue bombshells. (Adults, maybe not.) And, no, I don’t think Cameron’s obvious political sentiments — against corporate mendacity and exploitation, the Iraq War, ecological damage and class and racial bigotry — are too bald or too heart-and-art-on-sleeve.


Who cares? Commerce is commerce, art is art, and Avatar is Avatar.

Still, as I watched Avatar, I felt a little sad, because, much as I love great genre movies, and much as I was entertained by Cameron’s phantasmagorical knockout of a show, I’d still like to see virtuosity like this more often deployed at the service of an adult story. Something richer, denser, more real and more human. Something like Citizen Kane or Vertigo or The Godfather.

That’s not a knock on Avatar, but on the culture that tends to spend almost all its money and invest its most massive cinematic resources on the kind of pop dream-weaving that most twelve year olds cherish. We’re not all twelve, much we’d like to be. So where’s our modern movie Shakespeare?  Why not give the smarter, less video-game oriented twelve year olds of today, and more importantly, the adults, something to dream about too? Where’s our modern movie Shakespeare?  We know where one of our modern masters of sci-fi super-melodrama is. He’s no Fritz Lang, no Steven Spielberg, no Andrei Tarkovsky, and he’s no avatar either, but he puts on one hell of a dragon ride. (Even if he’s weak on jokes).  So remember: It’s good to be the avatar. And it’s good to be the king.

Extras (on three-disc Collector’s Edition): Documentaries; Deleted Scenes; Documentaries; Visual effects reels; Screen tests; Scene deconstruction.  

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon