Avatar (Cameron, 2009)

Movies represent a necessary escape from the drudgery of everyday life for many people (rightfully so), and James Cameron’s uber-epic Avatar provides such a journey, jettisoning the viewer through an exotic, technologically enhanced frontier with stupendous visual appeal. So it’s not surprising Cameron’s long awaited return to feature filmmaking now seems too big to fail, a box office maven destroying records and expectations simultaneously. This has mostly to do with Cameron’s 3-D technology, which constructs a dynamic world of great comprehensiveness, intricately detailing colorful flora and fauna and expanding the horizon with elaborate action scenes. In short, the Pandoran landscape consistently exudes a breathtaking sense of place, brimming with possibility and danger.

But such aesthetic splendor can invariably cloud a viewer’s judgement to the smaller issues (in Cameron’s mind) of character, context, and that evil bastard known as subtext. In the case of Avatar, these defects turn out to be completely damning. Cameron’s brawn over brains approach assigns phantom weight to a story bloated by cliche, characters anchored by convention, and a mythology flaunting the simplicities of Native American culture. The problems begin and end with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the tenacious paraplegic Marine at the center of Avatar. Sully acts and reacts without much thought for the big picture, even when fighting in the name of the native Na’vi people who are being hunted and displaced by the evil corporation mining their native planet.  Excusing him as a dumb jarhead doesn’t cut it, especially with so much thematic baggage on the line.

To speak ill of Avatar seems indicative of screaming into the wind, but the film deserves more attention than defensive celebration or complete dismissal. It’s become the movie of the moment, and like it or not, Cameron has achieved something completely singular in terms of cinematic artistry. As a pop filmmaker, Cameron magically seduces us with his sly mixture of familiar tones and mind-blowing scope, a decisive combo impossible to ignore and far too easy to forgive.

Blu-ray DVD: Terminator 2: Judgement Day

“Cameron isn’t evil, he’s not an asshole like Spielberg. He wants to be the new De Mille. Unfortunately, he can’t direct his way out of a paper bag. On top of which the actress is awful, unwatchable, the most slovenly girl to appear on the screen in a long, long time. That’s why it’s been such a success with young girls, especially inhibited, slightly plump American girls who see the film over and over as if they were on a pilgrimage: they recognize themselves in her, and dream of falling into the arms of the gorgeous Leonardo.”

– Jacques Rivette on Titanic, during an interview found at Senses of Cinema

Quotes like these always get me riled up, not because I think Rivette is wrong (everyone is entitled to an opinion), but because the statement itself seems to resonate with purposeful and abrasive hyperbole uttered simply to make the interviewee feel superior. I definitely get the De Mille reference (Cameron can be a visual blowhard), but the “can’t direct himself out of a paper bag” line doesn’t add up in my book. Cameron is one of the few directors who can wonderfully balance epic action sequences and meaningful character development (see Terminator, Aliens, and T2), something few Hollywood directors are able to achieve. I even went back and watched T2 tonight just to make sure I wasn’t crazy (the film holds up as one of the best action films of all time). Even Titanic has its great moments as a doomed love story and brutal disaster film. Is Rivette only speaking about Titanic with these remarks, or Cameron’s filmography as a whole? And just for the record, why is Spielberg an asshole? Anyone out there able/willing to clarify, because this interview in particular reads as something akin to instinctual blabbering. And Jacques, Kate Winslet wants an apology.