Dragging 'Titanic': James Cameron's Opus is all Wet

City Pulse | December 15, 2009
Dragging Titanic

James Cameron's Opus is all Wet

Avatar (Three Stars) (722 words)

By Cole Smithey

The most expensive film ever made leaves much to be desired. Paralyzed from the waist down, former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington - "Terminator Salvation") voices several movies worth of tell-don't-show narration for the benefit of audiences who like being read to when they watch a movie. With no oil resources left on Earth in the year 2154, a battalion of outsourced military bozos have set up camp on the moon "Pandora" with a group of optimistic scientists in order to incite a tribe of native aliens called the Na'vi. They want to drive the Na'vi out of their giant tree home to extract an energy-producing mineral called Unobtainium (an arcane reference to sci-fi B-movies of the '50s). Chosen for his DNA, Jake's lack of scientific training nevertheless allows him to rest in a coffin-like bed from which he projects a walking-talking avatar in the form of a Na'vi creature. Jake's mission is to earn the trust of the blue-skinned Na'vi and report back to the colonizing military forces, who want to dispossess the aliens rather than kill them all outright. The Na'vi are primitive aliens who wear loin cloths, do battle with bows and arrows, and fly around on winged six-legged horse-like creatures. Naturally, Jake falls for Neyfiri, a charming Na'vi played by Zoe Saldana, who returns his affection. The inevitable David-and-Goliath war that transpires delivers a familiar tale. For an ostensibly anti-imperialist war movie written in all caps and splashed with every primary color in the Maxfield Parish color wheel, "Avatar" ends up being a toothless rollercoaster of eye candy that sexes up war, the very thing it professes to detest. "Avatar" is the perfect film to desensitize young audiences before they get the call-up.

At least an entire generation has come and gone since James Cameron's last film ("Titanic") broke every box office record on file in 1997. To some degree, Cameron's success with "Titanic" seems to have caused him to do what Francis Ford Coppola did after filming "Apocalypse Now," go underground. So wrecked from his long and arduous jungle shoot was Coppola that, for his next film ("One From the Heart"), he set up shop on a soundstage to recreate a scaled down version of Las Vegas rather go to the actual place. The resulting film was nearly unwatchable and emptied Coppola's pockets so badly that his career never fully recovered. While "Avatar" surely won't bankrupt Cameron, it has sapped 12 very important years from a filmmaker who probably would have come up with a much better movie had he played the numbers and put out five or six films since then.

For all of its inventiveness, "Avatar" feels like it was made in a vacuum. From a science fiction standpoint, Cameron's "The Abyss" (1989) is a much stronger story, and a better film. Given the choice of watching "Avatar" again or screening Cameron's "Aliens" (1986), there's no contest. "Aliens" wins out hands down because, again, it's a better movie. It's more convincing and you care a lot more about Ripley and Newt than you do about a glorified inflatable doll (Jake's avatar) whose organic facade fools a group of doomed natives whose unavoidable fate is inextricably bound up with that of the American Indian, and hordes of other cultures that 500 years of colonization has wiped out. That "Avatar" toys liberally with refiguring the effectiveness of arrows against rocket propelled grenades shows a lack of imagination on the part of screenwriters whose strategic logic would be utterly useless in any group of asymmetrical resistance fighters. This year's "District 9" did a much better job of getting at the complexities of an alien occupation, and of the psychology of a changeling being, which is what Jake aspires to be.

There is an unintended subtext in the phenomenon of "Avatar" that points up the misplaced priorities of a country engaged in two endless wars for oil, while its own infrastructure collapses. No one needs to see "Avatar" to contemplate a little bit of macro-consciousness that Americans comprehend all too well. In relation to "Avatar," it's a matter of timing. The film would have played a lot better ten years ago. Now it's too little, too late. 2154 came a long time ago.

Rated PG-13. 160 mins. (B-) (Three Stars)
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Address: 1905 E. Michigan Avenue, Lansing, MI 48912-3011
  • Phone: (517) 371-5600