I chose these three significantly different movies for some pretty similar reasons. My primary reason was that all three were touted as something special or standout by their studios: Avatar was some kind of revelation of cinematic technology; Prometheus was to be a new benchmark in dramatic sci-fi storytelling; John Carter was to signal some bold new creative direction for Disney. Also, these three are probably the biggest sci-fi movies that have come out for some time previous to their release in that all three were big on world building. This is a similarity I hadn’t really noticed until after I watched them. The fact that big revolutionary science fiction seems to be a grand venture in world building seems to indicate something about the nature of transcendence: we go from being rote experiencers of the world to integral makers. The thing that is bound by the experiences determined for it is not yet transcendent, or the more we can fashion our realities the more ascendent we become.
I watched Avatar first, so we’ll start there.
Cards on the table: I don’t like Avatar. It’s as big and dumb and spectacle driven as the reputation of a blockbuster would indicate. And this is the world’s blockblusterest movie in that it’s made two billion dollars worldwide and is the world’s most expensive movie with estimates somewhere between 237 and 310 million, with an additional 150 million in marketing dollars. Taking those numbers (after marketing, this movie nearly cost half a billion dollars to make) in context with my assumption in my first post about movies having something to say, you’d expect a half billion dollar revelation. But… not.
Before anything else, I’m impressed with how well the CGI looks five years later. There are moments where the Na’vi look almost human, and the movie never veers into the uncanny valley. Though: a lot of the native animals have that weird sheen common to 1998 PSX cutscenes. And there were some times in which I felt like things were floating above the ground as opposed to moving across it. District 9’s prawns are the only other thing in the world of CGI I can think of that holds up like this.
I saw the movie on opening night with my best friend, in 3D (what a waste of an attempt at innovation), with little knowledge about the movie, only knowing for sure that I was bummed out by the seemingly oversimple cat-alien designs. I mean, come on: it’s too easy. Want an alien? Oh, it’s totally an anthropomorphic human thing. Bam, you got your alien. The best part of the night being, before the start of the movie, periodically putting on my 3D glasses and staring dumbstruck at another part of the theater and remarking, “Whoa! It’s like I’m really sitting in a theater! It’s like I’m really sitting next to people!” There might be a reason I don’t get asked to see many movies in theaters.
The story is obvious: Fern Gully and Pocahontas get married and have a Dances With Wolves story, but in space. And this is where I get confused about why it cost half of a billion dollars to tell me this message (knowing full well it cost that to animate the CGI). It’s oddly colonialist even in its anti-colonialism and trades transcendence for the mostly mundane. It really is a movie of opportunity not taken. If this movie were made with the actors behind the cat sex-aliens, it would be loudly proclaimed as racist. Of the human cast, all but two are white. Of the entire Na’vi race, only four get speaking parts, of those four, three are black, and one is native Indian. With that in mind, this becomes a movie about a white guy who is so good at going native, that he out natives the natives. And good thing too, because without the white guy, they would have all died. He is so talented at being native, that he’s able to tame the giant flying lizard that evades and overpowers everyone else.
I could easily spend a college essay’s worth complaining about the things that get under my skin about this movie: the choice of unobtainium naming (yes, I know it’s a thing scientists say, but not trillion dollar corporations that have to sell shit to investors); the Snidley Whiplashness of the mining company contrasted to the painful Dudley Dooright scientists (Hitler had scientists too); how the world, while pretty, seems like a world that’s just meant to be pretty and not functional; the alien sex scene whose sexiness is proportionate to how needed it was (i.e. not); how this movie isn’t considered a cartoon; how it looks like everyone member of the Na’vi looks like they’ve had minor hairlip surgery. How the word Na’vi is an inversion of the word naive complete with an apostrophe to indicate a missing letter.
The biggest bother of this movie, however, is it’s inability to challenge a viewer in even small ways in the midst of a very predictable and probably soothing story. This is, inherently, a movie about literally changing how you see the world. The central conceit is a technology that allows people to leave their God-given body for a lab created body to be able to see the world in a totally novel way. And then this body has the ability to interface its brain with that of another living wholly independent being, and, AND, the dominant life form of this planet has the ability to hook into some kind of world goddess tree. Yet the only way this movie communicates any of this is montage. I don’t know how, exactly, I would recommend James Cameron go about this a different way, but the lack of any substantial difference in presentation makes being a nine foot tall blue cat alien seem no different than being a meathead industrialist in a machine.
I think the easiest method would simply be a first person view. When Jake wakes up in his new body, it becomes as disorienting for the audience as it was for Jake. Apply some fish lens, and his arms seem grotesque and too far away from the central mass. His gangly legs seem to flail in all parts of our peripheral vision as he learns to run, and sometimes we catch distracting glimpses of a tail. It wouldn’t have to be more than a few scenes. Maybe when he merges minds with another animal, for a moment the world takes on a Predator style hue while his mind incorporates the new state of being. And since the world tree is essentially some kind of Buddhist metaphor, the first time his brain hops on in that tribal scene, he experiences a disorienting taste of total enlightenment that shows him the planet from the planet’s biggest brain. And then instead of his goal being to murder the industrialists before they murder him, maybe he’d want to show them this enlightenment and that’d be his motivation, but instead his hand is forced in favor of defense.
Instead we get a big, dumb, obvious action scene that goes on for way too long. Perhaps it’s meta-commentary on what it’s like to be American right now.
click page 2 below to see my thoughts on John Carter…