Unlike Star Trek or a Quentin Tarantino film I’ve got to admit that I don’t have any emotional investment in James Cameron. Yes I grew up with his films and enjoyed them, but I never really loved them. From my point of view his weakness is that he tries to pull at your heartstrings with characters you just don’t give a damn about.
I first noticed this in The Abyss in 1989. It was an amazing film that kept you going, the special effects were cutting edge but it wasn’t the kind of film that you’d want to watch more than once. I experienced the same thing with Titanic in 1997: To be honest I was damn happy when Leo froze to death in the ocean, the only thing that would have made it better was if he was eaten by sharks after that.
However at the same time I’ve got to respect what the man has done: Anyone who can survive for over twenty years in Hollywood deserves credit. So while I’m not a fan of Cameron’s writing (can anyone recall one bit of decent dialog he’s ever done?) or how he directs actors I’ve got to admit that he’s a master craftsman. His films have great pacing and you know you’re going to see something that you just haven’t seen before in the special effects department.
How To See This Film
Above: This is the proper mindset required to see Avatar! Via Wired.
So I made it a point to not see Avatar on opening night to blog about it, but rather treat it as going to a party with my friends. In fact if you go to the film expecting something deep you’ll leave hungry. However if you go to watch two and a half hours of “stuff blowing up” in 3D you’re going to have a great time!
Honestly it’s almost as if Cameron is in on the joke: After all the main character in Avatar is a cyborg puppet of sorts. The result is that he’s like a GI Joe doll on the silver screen that you can throw out of any tree into a dirt field of firecrackers. The film’s animation is beautiful but never believable, yet I wonder if that was Cameron’s intent as director? The spectacular scenes that play out on your 3D glasses are like watching a big videogame on the screen; and like a good videogame you just don’t have any emotional investment in what’s going on.
So that lack of suspension-of-disbelief allows you to not pick sides in this epic battle of cowboys-and-Indians. In fact the one thing I guarantee you won’t do after seeing this film is to say “I wish more stuff blew up!” This isn’t the kind of film that you’re going to watch again and again when it runs on cable television, like a roller coaster ride: You buy your tickets once, scream at every turn and then go home.
Something Old, Something Borrowed and Something New
Above: Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.
Although I have to admit as a film fanboy that in addition to stuff blowing up I also loved how many other previous efforts Cameron borrowed from to put together this story. For starters the core of the film harkens back to Aliens complete with Sigourney Weaver and most of the same off-the-shelf mecha. In fact this film feels like it takes place in the same universe at Aliens.
However while Aliens owed a great deal to the Ridley Scott’s previous work, here Cameron is free to draw references from a wide range of films that you’ve seen before. In fact he does this in the same way a bad videogame might borrow from a film, and like a good first person shooter Cameron in unapologetic if you’ve seen something sort of like this before.
And if you’re any sort of fanboy you’ve seen every nook-and-cranny of this film before: The key plot owes a great deal to every Western film ever made that sympathetic to the natives. You’ve got just a bit of Little Big Man topped off with some Dances With Wolves. Lawrence of Arabia? Yup we’ve got some of that! Apocalypse Now? Yup we’ve got choppers too! Floating islands in the sky just like Laputa: Castle in the Sky? Check! Scenes of amazing eco themed arial battles that feel like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind? Of course!
Above: If you’re going to steal, steal from the best! And Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a damn good film if you want to borrow.
Of course one is tempted to resent Cameron for this massive theft, but if you view that as a crime you’re missing the point of this film. Just in the same way that something blows up every minute, like a good party Cameron is re-introducing you to old friends that you already know. And when Cameron is throwing a party it’s not some sort of literary salon with wine and cheese with some abstract art on the wall. Cameron’s idea of a party is a My Big Fat Fanboy Wedding!
And like a good wedding party there’s loud disco music blaring, really bad dancing and plates are being broken like they’re going out of style. So don’t insult this film by using the word film, think of it more as going to the circus. This isn’t a date film, this is a great time with your pals or treating a kid to a birthday gift. Just turn off your cell phone, your mind and put on those 3D glasses and have a great time.