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Friday, December 18, 2009

A 14 Year Old Boy's Dream Comes to Life

Dir. James Cameron

There's a good book to be written about how all most of our most important films, as far as the development of film technology, have been racist. From the first feature film, DeMille's The Squaw Man (1914) to the film that legitimized sound, The Jazz Singer, to King Kong, to the film which kicked off the "golden age" of 3-d films the Bwana Devil. Maybe its connected to the fact that modernity was kicked off by slavery and genocide, and primitivest movements have always been connected to various facets of modernism. This was partially my reason to see this film, out of curiosity as to if it'd fit the trend.

I don't like James Cameron. He's not a particularly great person, and I hated Titanic. He's never been a particularly great storyteller, his Terminator franchise is awesome but rests on the biggest plot hole ever (why not just go back and kill the first man? I mean you're robots that can travel in time why not kill all the humans before they're born?), nor a particularly progressive filmmaker (see True Lies or Aliens).

That said, this is a ballsy, ludicrous, beautiful, and insane film. Seriously, forget Inglorious Basterds, and sorry Lars Von Trier, this is the most adventurous, brassy, bold film this year, not just in its technology, but in its singularity of vision and Verhoeven-esque "wow, either he's a genius or he's a crazy hack" (I've always thought that Verhoeven knows what's he's doing, I don't think Cameron has the same type of subversive meta-text going on here, but he's really close) and moments (which often include unintentional humor). I mean this movie is Dances With Smurfs, just like South Park pointed out, but it works and its awesome. Seriously how do you do that? And release it on Steven Spielberg's Birthday of all days! What I was most surprised about is how much this is a personal film. It's Cameron's best film, and you can tell that this is one man's personal dream world brought to life on screen, perfectly realized. I wish that dream wasn't so grounded on 19th century melodramatic story tropes, but then again if you let a 14 year old make whatever movie they'd want, I'm thinking it'd be a lot like this. In that respect, I found this bizarrely touching at times. In a Warner Herzog so audacious, so near-disastrous, that its commendable sort of way.

The film looks amazing. I had not seen a digital 3-d film before this. It was astonishing, this film should only be seen in 3-D. It's not a jump out and poke things at the audience 3-d. In an early scene bubbles begin to condense on the periphery of sight. It's gorgeous.

The film's presentation of the Indians, and lets be honest here the N'avi are Indians with tails, is that of Dances With Wolves, which this film is nearly a remake of, right down to Wes Studi in a supporting role. They're the noble, overly-spiritual savages stuck in a nature-based past in the face of impending progress. But is this the most racist film of all-time, in that it has managed to make a colonialist fantasy without having to even look at The Other, instead having them replaced by lanky, blue CGI Thundercats (perhaps more correct than smurfs?) ? That's what I feared, but that isn't the case, at least not my feeling right now. It is a paternalistic look and romantic look at the other, but this film is both the Star Wars of this generation, and the antithesis of Star Wars. Star Wars was a film where Vietnam was so absent it was deeply about that war in how it managed to ignore it, perhaps the only film from that period that didn't have it show up somewhere. Instead it was America as the divinely righteous rebel against a monolithic, machine-like evil. In this film we are the Empire, we're trying to destroy paradise, it is us the rebels are attacking, and even the force, this film's amalgam of Gaia fantasies from the 70's is essentially the Force post-Matrix, is against us. This film is very much about Iraq and Afghanistan, but also what we did to the Americas and Africa, and are doing to the environment. It's ham-fisted, but its almost earnest in its indignation. This is a film where the white American, out of the guilt of all his past colonial carnage, becomes the other, in order to destroy the American imperial force and right his wrongs. Of course, since this is a blockbuster built on melodramatic tropes its settled by armed confrontation, and the whole existence of this film as technological advancement seems to contradict the films themes, but its nice to see a conflicted film; it shows at least some thought going on.

The motion capture is amazing. And when the film's story gets too tired and old, basically if you've seen any White-Indian story you know this story, you can focus on the depth of the images. That's what doesn't show up in 2-d ( I really wonder how this will do with DVD sales, since its really not worth seeing in anything but 3-d). There are touches which make these landscapes and these characters look real. I really didn't expect to see the N'avi as non-cartoonish. But this is as good as our technology allows right now. What's ironic is that the love story in this film is far more believable and natural than the one in Titanic, even the acting is better, though the ending is a bit of a cop-out.

This is a film that's nothing like you've ever seen visually, but on a story level like 75% of the films you've ever seen. And at 2:40 minutes at least it has plenty of shiny distractions.

For an interesting review looking at this film in Anthropological history see Lee Ngo's review.


Rob said...

I saw this last Friday, also in 3D. I was skeptical walking into it, but walking out of it (even though I knew the story/plot/whatever possibly had certain implications that could hurt it), I knew I had just been completely blown away. It's not perfect but it is very impressive and has a real heart in it.

Great review.

Armond White had an interesting critique as well.

Nick Stentzel said...

really enjoyed your review! thanks!