Sunday, December 27, 2009

Credibility Lost: How James Cameron pulled a George Lucas cubed with Avatar.

James Cameron was a major influence during my formative years. I can easily recite every line from his 1986 sci-fi thriller Aliens in my sleep. Since the early 1990's, my best friend and I have frequently quoted these scenes with reckless abandon during our conversations. There is so much I want to salute Cameron for when it comes to Aliens, but I'll distill it down. Beyond being a compelling story about redemption, terror, honor, betrayal, desolation, and fear, there are complex layers to plot that get peeled back with more viewings. Most of the marines transcend the one-dimensional jar-head stereotype Hollywood frequently pushes on the public and are both likable and despicable. There is an impressive feminist streak to the film pushed primarily by Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley character, but strongly supported by Jenette Goldstein's portrayal of colonial marine Vasquez. Aliens is also one of the first major films post Vietnam War to portray the military in a positive light. In fact, one of the primary themes of the film is how the honorable loyal marines get betrayed by the mercenary civilian industrial-government coalition in pursuit of bottom-line profits. While there is strong anti-government and corporate tone to the film, it aggressively pushes what can be perceived as conservative themes and a truly positive portrayal of the military. It also leaves the audience satisfied.

Cameron's 1991 sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the first R-rated film I saw in the theater. (Thanks, Dad!) Again, between endless one-liners, mind-blowing(at the time) special effects, a captivating story arc, an uber-strong feminist lead lead via Linda Hamilton's Sarah Conner, and Arnold Schwarzenegger's badasstic presence, it is a thoroughly enjoyable and timeless movie going experience.

Cameron's 1994 action bonanza True Lies is the only film I have ever seen twice in the theater on opening day. (I am not sure if that is something to be proud of or not.) Beyond including simple reality based details like having the villains be crazy Islamo-fascist terrorists, the film has a very human and neat story arc. It centers around a Captain America like super-spy, Harry Tasker, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who saves the world from villains on a daily basis, yet, has a cover that includes maintaining a very boring family life. Tasker strives to be the ultimate family man. As the conflicts between his family life and career as a super spy begin to overlap, a thoroughly entertaining, action packed, joyride, complete with appropriate doses of hilarity and sincerity ensues. Jamie Lee Curtis, Bill Paxton, and Tom Arnold all need shout-outs for great supporting roles.

The original Terminator and The Abyss are both strong films that I enjoy. This leaves us with Titanic. I don't think Titantic will ever get a fair shake from me because of all the estrogen I associate with it. I was a sophomore in high school when Titantic was released and the thing I remember most was a cadre of girls bragging to our gay algebra teacher about how many times they saw the film in the theater over the past several weeks. These gals were claiming around five and six viewings apiece. Jesus! It made me feel like I need a freakin' tampon to buy a ticket to the film. Anyhow, I recall seeing the film a few weeks after it opened, enjoying parts of it, (especially the scene when the dude bounces off the propeller as the ship is sinking), but being mortified by the symphony of teenage girl sobs towards the end of the film. Still, massive props to Cameron for directing such a profitable film.

On to Avatar. I was excited when previews for Avatar starting popping up regularly last summer. The buzz around the graphics and 3-D was certainly interesting, but from what little I could glean from the previews, the plot looked rich with potential. As the launch approached, blogs and reviews I read began to generate some unfavorable impressions. That still didn't deter me, because I viewed Cameron with a reverence and respect one grants a titan. I was prepared for some unoriginal left-wing bullshit, as that is standard issue with most Hollywood products. I would have been okay with that. So, I went into the film with incredibly low expectations, and was still appalled by what I saw. The technology was okay, but not worth the excessive hype. Although the rendering of Pandora, the world where the film is set, deserves some serious merit, it wasn't enough to trump the vacuous plot and perceived betrayal by Cameron. A good friend commented that "Avatar" combines the worst features of Dances with Wolves and Final Fantasy. He hit the nail on the head. However, beyond being a retreaded and exhausted plot about evil white people and their capitalistic corporations, altruistic academic biologists, the glorification of primitive native peoples (who look like smurfs on steroids), how these smurfs live harmoniously with nature, and the celebration of literally going native, the betrayal of your species, and dragons fighting helicopters, there truly was no substance to film. To say that every character was one-dimensional would be giving each character too much depth. The plot was so incoherent and inconsistent that it rivals George Lucas's Star Wars prequels for shear idiocy. Therein lies my primary gripe.

I can forgive Cameron for being an idiot lefty who is a slave to boring, unoriginal, and expired dogmas. Most of his peers in the film industry are just that. What I can't forgive him for is thinking that technology and graphics are a reasonable substitute for a respectable plot and storyline. I was, and to some extent still am, I fan of the original Star Wars trilogy. I recall being excited about the prequels, and subsequently let down. George Lucas essentially shat out three craptastic films that had no plot, no writing, and no coherent story arc, and in essence, were a massive insult to fans of his original films. That's done and over with and the fact that people got snookered into seeing the prequels is a testament to the strength of Lucas's original franchise. What Lucas should do for the galaxy is retire from the film industry and enjoy farming Ewok pelts and playing squash with midgets. Cameron, a visionary in his own right, should have heeded the "Lucas lesson," and at least indulged his fans with something akin to a plot in Avatar. He had twelve frackin' years to work on that small detail! Most of Cameron's films have worked their way into pop-culture and Americana because he was able to blend technical innovations with solid stories and rich character development. He's proven himself on that level with five of his last seven films. Who doesn't know lines like "hasta la vista baby" and "I'll be back?" Cameron has had a decade to learn from the mistakes of peers like Lucas, yet he fails miserably in the execution of Avatar as if he used the Star Wars prequels as a blueprint instead of a warning. He literally creates a whole new world and blows his credibility load on making that world so ridiculous and cliched, that it may inadvertently restore some credibility to George Lucas. It takes a lifetime of work to earn respect and maintain credibility, and one careless action to thoroughly undo it all. That is the real tragedy of Avatar and James Cameron. Credibility lost.

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