Don’t Bogart That CGI, My Friend

Avatar is a ridiculous movie that should never have been made. For all the vaunted technology it’s boring. *The* cardinal sin. It’s stupendously overlong, bludgeoning the audience into a slack jawed quiescence. And this is the short version. They cut out 40 minutes. One can only imagine OLC justifying using *this* as an enhanced interrogation technique in 2002. ACLU, start your engines.

True, it’s periodically spectacular and beautiful. And most disagree with the Stiftung’s view, apparently. Some but not all of this we suspect is the XBox-Live Generation embracing familiar eye candy. The decidedly AARP-membership demo that filled the theater tonite gave it polite applause – perhaps simply for concluding.

The plot? Imagine the Warlord reading ‘My Pet Goat’ to hapless kids. The protagonists are cardboard stereotyped beyond Uwe Bolle’s most infernal hackitude. Cameron’s narrative ‘arc’ and ‘conflict resolution’ are both excruciatingly drawn out and then perversely rushed. Supposedly heroic deaths are blips. Emotional pay off? Zilch. The Twilight Vampire movies have more gravitas.

This movie really isn’t about movies at all. It’s about Cameron with his toys – new fangled 3D. And so we get something closer to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within than real drama. Cameron clearly learned one lesson from that misfire: his animation avoids the ‘uncanny’ valley – the reflexive human recoil away from almost life-like animation that fails just short. He realized the trick is making the eyes seen alive. Cameron then forgot the other lesson: avoid a meaningless plot with mumbo jumbo.

At his best Cameron epitomized the director capable of reducing a script to its essence. His most successful films have character demonstrated through action. Exposition tucked between fast cuts. The Kyle Reese introduction to Sarah Connor is a classic sequence showing his skills at his apex. It’s no accident that this genre defining work benefited from his then wife Gale Ann Hurd ramroding him as a no-nonsense budget watching producer. Hurd famously refused to allow Cameron now iconic use of the lasers in Aliens’ opening as they scanned the sleeping Ripley for salvage. No lasers. Not unless unless he could find offsetting cuts elsewhere. The now divorced Hurd probably couldn’t have saved Avatar. Aliens had a script about characters in a situation that audiences cared about. Avatar is just a kid run amok with an overclocked Wii. Here, Cameron with no discipline joins Spielberg in that elite group American directors who have forgotten how to make movies.

We can’t close without saying there are spectacular sequences that have nothing to do with the plot or characters. Some are awe-inspiring. They stand out from more pedestrian footage that look like staple cut scenes from a video game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. When Cameron offers moments of poetic beauty then this alien world really is alive. For those who remember Roger Dean and his psychedelic album covers, Cameron at his best literally brings those scenes to life. Astounding touches upon it. In an earlier age one would trek to a local planetarium for a Pink Floyd or Zepp laser show. How Model T in concept and inefficient in execution. Cameron gives us all of those imaginary vistas in true 3D with multi channel sound. Magic.

How Avatar will save Hollywood escapes us. Forget the ridiculous budget. Hollywood squanders the GDP of small nations all the time. Cameron developed and farmed out the special technology to WETA in New Zealand. (ILM was brought in at the last minute for the traditional guns and ammo ‘Aliens’ reprise). Hollywood’s disregard for local production and talent is no surprise. Studios morphed into mere intellectual property managers instead of storytellers long ago. Much scipted ‘Hollywood’ TV product is already shot abroad (Vancouver or Toronto) and movies in Australia with jobs and technical expertise following suit. Kiwis shouldn’t be shut out of the outsourcing trend. (But if all that is left are a bunch of Hollywood suits, who needs them at all?) Still, while it lasts, Hollywood’s all about numbers and IP. And a movie that should never have been made now will be a trilogy: have to leverage and recoup the investment. Plus the licensing streams from tie-in games and action figures.

We are disappointed. Cameron was among our favorite genre directors (his famously difficult personality aside). We hoped Avatar would be a home run. It’s a huge, expensive, drawn out single.