Film Review: Avatar

Avatar (2009, directed by the King of the World... err, James Cameron)

I have never been more perfectly ambivalent about a movie as I am about Cameron's masterpiece.

And make no mistake -- despite what you are about to read, I think it is a masterpiece. A flawed one, but a masterpiece nonetheless. 90-plus-percent of Avatar is revolutionary genius. The look of the film, the effects and the way they are delivered to the audience, the obvious thought Cameron put into the science of Pandora itself... all these elements are not just great, they bust through the envelope of what is possible in movies and challenge everyone else to catch up. Even some of the things in the film that bother other folks don't bother me (Sam Worthington's wavering American accent, for instance. I mean it's not like they went into any detail about his background beyond his having a dead twin).

(This seems a good spot for the obligatory plot synopsis: Humans find rare ore on distant planet and want to dig it up. Local tree-hugger aliens object. Monkey wrench gets thrown into middle of brewing war when a grunt Marine joins the team of scientists trying to study the aliens by downloading themselves into vat-grown alien bodies and walking among them, learns their ways and goes native.)

The 10 percent or so that make up the rest of the film, though, specifically the rampant, colonial lens view of the Na'vi as some sort of noble savage/Magic Negro hybrid... it's not merely bad. It's inexcusable. And I'm not sure how to resolve those two extremes.

The worst part of it is, I'm quite sure Cameron deliberately chose to fall back on hackneyed racist tropes for his portrayal of an alien culture. It was clearly a commercial decision to make the Na'vi look more human than the rest of the Pandoran ecology would suggest (even as that ecology, with horse, rhino and deer surrogates, is less 'alien' than it could have been), so that a human audience could relate to them better. It was also clearly a commercial decision to make their culture something a human audience (specifically a North American audience) would find somewhat familiar. The joking and semi-joking references to Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves etc. that you've seen and heard aren't actually slags on Cameron's story-telling ability (even if the person writing or saying them thought they were). Cameron used those templates, not because he didn't know any better, but because he did.

Which, again, makes their use inexcusable.

I'm not going to launch into a diatribe about Otherness and Non-Whiteness here, but these are attitudes straight out of the 1800s. Think about it this way: in terms of the science of Pandora, Cameron's work is grounded in modern science fiction, even if it does shade some things more towards fantasy. In terms of the Na'vi though, Cameron's work is grounded in the golden age of pulp.

It's as if Kim Stanley Robinson re-imagined Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, but left the various Martian cultures completely intact.

It's also equally baffling to me that in a film with Avatar's political subtext (from its depiction of the use of military force, to its shot of the burning Hometree that evokes images of 9/11), Cameron thought it would be a good idea to tap into the same racial constructs that enable lunacies like the Obama birth certificate nonsense.

Hell, what do I know. Based on the box office ($280 million-plus heading into this weekend) Cameron apparently made the right call. But I can't help but think that he copped out, that a Pandora containing an actual believable alien race and not a blue-skinned relic of humanity's colonial past would have been just as entrancing, and been just as big a hit.

And it would have pushed the envelope on what was possible in a science fiction film above and beyond the technology used to create one.

I guess in the end that's what bothers me the most about that 10 percent. It's not anger I feel, it's regret. Avatar is a masterpiece, but it's also a huge missed opportunity.

December's Travesties

Only 26 different songs sung in December:

1999 - Prince
Because the Night - Patti Smith
Common People - Pulp
Deacon Blues - Steely Dan
Don't Get Me Wrong - Pretenders
Down In the Tube Station At Midnight - Jam
Everlong - Foo Fighters (w/live band)
Golden Years - David Bowie
Heartbreaker - Pat Benatar
Here Comes the Night - Them
Hold Me Now - Thompson Twins
I Wanna Be Like You - Louis Prima
Jump - Van Halen
Let My Love Open the Door - Pete Townsend
Maneater - Hall & Oates
Messin' With the Kid - Junior Wells
Only Happy When It Rains - Garbage
Sister Christian - Night Ranger
Sunday Morning Coming Down - Johnny Cash
Superfly - Curtis Mayfield
The Bends - Radiohead
The Passenger - Iggy Pop
True - Spandau Ballet
Under My Wheels - Alice Cooper (w/live band)
Wishing Well - Terence Trent D'Arby
You Sexy Thing - Hot Chocolate

In the next day or two I'll compile what I've got for 2009.

Happy New Arbitrary Gregorian Orbital Rotation!

Things I intend to do in 2010, roughly in order of attainability. These are neither resolutions nor goals. It's just life, which tends to take me where it will:

- get back in the gym
- try doing stand-up
- perform at Hip Hop Karaoke
- get to New York in April for the NarcoNews anniversary bash
- get back to Vegas
- finish three movie scripts
- get an agent for said script(s)

Yeah, I'm Marking Out a Bit

Bret Hart's coming back to the WWE next week, with a storyline likely building to a match with Vince and/or Shawn at Wrestlemania.

Now if only the WWE actually had some younger talent worth a damn... Seamus as the champ? Seriously? That's the best they can do?

The Friendly Skies

This is a fascinating read after having seen Up In the Air last night.

There is no mention of terrorism whatsoever in Reitman's movie. No paranoia, no fear, nothing. Clooney's character spends his life aboard airplanes and never once shows a trace of worry that his life choice might get him blown up. You see security screenings, but they are from the point of view of maximum efficiency and how quickly Clooney can get through them with a minimum of fuss. There's no sense that they are serving a useful purpose.

And that attitude is, to me, much closer to sanity than the hysterical shriekings we've been getting from the usual suspects since Christmas.

Sully Gets Hysterical

No, the recent near-miss in the skies was not a "massive failure by DHS", unless you believe it's DHS' job to prevent anyone from even attempting violence on an airplane.

The fact of the matter is that the existing restrictions forced a terrorist to use a hapless, hopeless would-be incendiary device that would get laughed off the set of an episode of Mythbusters.

That's not failure, that's success.