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Tuesday, December 15,2009

Blue In the Face

James Cameron delivers dumb escapism with his expensive special effects in 'Avatar'

By Armond White
. . . . . . .
Sam Worthington with his avatar.

Directed by James Cameron
Runtime: 162 min.

James Cameron’s love of technology is enough to sell Avatar to fans awaiting his first techno-feat since 1997’s Titanic. But will they understand the awful thing he’s done with it? Avatar’s highly-touted special effects depict an army from Earth traveling to Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centuri-A star system, to mine rare ore from under its inhabitants, tall, blue-skinned creatures with tails called the Na’vi. These F/X show Cameron’s ex-Marine hero, Jake Sully (the great everyman Sam Worthington), taking part in a quasi-military program where he enters the alien society via a hybrid body (an avatar) made from human and Na’vi DNA. Cameron’s “fully immersive” 3-D technology is irritating to watch for nearly three hours. And then there’s his underlying purpose: Avatar is the corniest movie ever made about the white man’s need to lose his identity and assuage racial, political, sexual and historical guilt.

Only children—including adult-children—will see Avatar as simply an adventure film; their own love of technology has co-opted their ability to comprehend narrative detail. Cameron offers sci-fi dazzle, yet bungles the good part: the meaning. His undeniably pretty Pandora—a phosphorescent Maxfield Parrish paradise with bird-like lizards, moving plant life and floating mountains—distracts from the inherent contradiction of a reported $300-$500 million Hollywood enterprise that casually berates America’s industrial complex.

Cameron’s superficial B-movie tropes pretend philosophical significance. His story’s rampant imperialism and manifest destiny (Giovanni Ribisi plays the heartless industrialist) recalls Vietnam-era revisionist westerns like Soldier Blue, but it’s essentially a sentimental cartoon with a pacifist, naturalist message. Avatar condemns mankind’s plundering and ruin of a metaphorical planet’s ecology and the aboriginals’ way of life. Cameron fashionably denounces the same economic and military system that make his technological extravaganza possible. It’s like condemning NASA—yet joyriding on the Mars Exploration Rover.

While technically impressive, Avatar’s basically a daft version of the Transformer movies’ sci-fi, techno fantasy. Michael Bay’s extraordinary gift for flashy spectacle found perfect expression in the gargantuan slapstick comedy of technology run amok; his teenage characters’ rapport with cars and machines showed an ambivalent relationship with the things that expedite human activities yet threaten our peace and our history. Avatar, however, invents an alternate world to make the airy-fairy pronouncement: “There’s a network of energy that flows through all living things.” Alien-girl Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) teaches Sully how to bond with a tie-dyed, eagle-like creature by docking his wriggly tail into it. “Feel her!” Neytiri urges, and Cameron emulates the boy-plus-car symbiosis of Transformers—but with pulsing loins, veins and orifices. Better than Titanic’s kitschy romanticism, it is Cameron’s most sensual incident since the husband-wife airlift of True Lies yet, strangely, this sexualized conquest suggests latent fascism in his style.

Bay’s exultant technological thrills climaxed with Transformers 2’s war metaphor, where mankind’s historical continuity was at stake. But Cameron gets sappy and hypocritical. Set in the near future, Avatar is a throwback to the hippie naiveté of Kevin Costner’s production Rapa Nui (directed by Kevin Reynolds). While prattling about man’s threat to environmental harmony, Cameron’s really into the powie-zowie factor: destructive combat and the deployment of technological force. At first, Sully, a “warrior and dreamwalker” like The Matrix’s Neo, is shown as a fierce, sculpted meathead with a wounded look in his wide eyes. Cameron lights Worthington superbly in tremendous, empathetic close-ups, yet when Sully’s involvement with the avatar project increases—as hair and beard grow in—his humanity becomes nondescript and he identifies with the Na’vi. (It’s disappointing that the great Worthington only appears in a quarter of the film; most of the time Sully is a Smurf.) Going native allows Cameron to move on to the violent technology he really loves—though never scrutinizing Sully’s new bond with an angry red dragon or how Sully’s temperament becomes dangerously enflamed.

Here’s the hypocrisy: As Sully helps the beleaguered, virtuous aliens fight back and conquer the human invaders, Avatar puts forth a simple-minded anti-industrial critique. Despite Avatar’s 12-year gestation, Cameron’s obviously commenting on the Iraq War—though not like his hawkish Aliens. Appealing to Iraq War disenchantment, he evokes 9/11 when the military topples the Na’vi’s sacred, towering Tree of Souls. The imagery implies that the World Trade Center was also an altar (of U.S. capitalism), yet this berserk analogy exposes Cameron’s contradictory thinking. It triggers the offensive battle scenes where American soldiers get vengefully decimated—scored to the rousing clichés of Carmina Burana.

The fantasy of Sully giving up the impediment of his (American) humanity is a guilt-ridden 9/11 death wish. References to “fight terror with terror” and “shock-and-awe campaign” don’t belong in this 3-D Rapa Nui with its blather about the Na’vi’s “direct line to their ancestors.” Once again, villainous Americans exhibit no direct communication with ancestors. That’s Cameron’s fanboy zeal turned into fatuous politics. He misrepresents the facts of militarism, capitalism, imperialism—and their comforts.

Cameron’s seditious hero cheapens Neveldine/Taylor’s timely concept in Gamer, where modern characters took responsibility even for their avatars’ misdeeds. Invested in his own techie legend, Cameron never risks Neveldine/Taylor’s honest critique of our technological dependency—which would be to examine national values. Cameron’s deep failing as a pop artist lies in the fact that, unlike the avant-garde Neveldine/Taylor team, he’s a techno-geek who conflates mindless sentimentality with meaning.

Avatar’s going-native F/X fantasy infantilizes Cameron’s technology-infatuated audience; they’ve never read Joseph Conrad on colonialism or feel any compunction about balancing politics and fantasy. There’s even a Busby Berkeley-style tribal dance to divert them. Also, Avatar’s techno-exoticism involves blue cartoon creatures, not brown, black, red, yellow real-world people. It’s the easiest, dumbest escapism imaginable.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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Posted at 12/17/2009 
why the spoilers?!


Posted at 12/17/2009 
Doublee, I agree with you 100%. He is one of the few film critics challenging conventional thinking of what a "good movie" is suppose to be. I definitely do not always agree with him, but he raises better points about movies then I could ever find by, what you call, "group-think" film-critics. Kudos to you my friend. And here is a great quote from the creator of 'The Wire' when his show was snubbed through five seasons: "The best journalism and the best storytelling used to outrage people. In these times, people are inured to outrage.”


Posted at 12/17/2009 
Wow, how is Armond White still employed. Like seriously, he's a complete joke of a person.


Posted at 12/17/2009 
What's so revealing about these fanboy commenters is how they bristle so easily at someone who simply aims to challenge their thinking. Armond White is the best film critic we currenlty have simply because he pushes you to reevaluate your views about film. You don't have to agree with him - I often don't (for instance, I think "Drag Me to Hell" is magnificent and that "The Hurt Locker" deserves all of its high praise...) - but you should welcome someone who has an independent voice in a field where there is WAY too much group think. "Avatar" fans on here may wince when Mr. White says "Transformers 2" is better, but I find it much more discouraging when a majority of professional film critics lap praise upon on such a god-awful film like "Invictus". So stop these lame bomb-throwing terms like "neo-con" and "Fox News" around (have any of you actually read Armond's book 'Resistance'?), and know that Armond White is a free thinking critic that who thankfully pushes back against conformity. I guess that scares people these days, unfortunately.


Posted at 12/16/2009 
Wow, a lot of Avatar fans really are proving themselves to be infantile crybabies, I guess this reviewer was right about them after all. How sadly ironic for these imbeciles.



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