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25/01/2010

The Cross That Wouldn't Bomb

Dean Sobers reviews Avatar

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I had epic hopes for Avatar. They naively took root last Autumn.

The building noise was that Avatar was set to 'irrevocably change the landscape of cinema'. Key to my hopes – beyond the film's concept – was a short list of attributes.  First – a technological feat of CG photorealism (with the term 'e-motion' lurking irritatingly in the mechanics). Then – a lengthy gestation period (due to director's Vision being beyond the means of existing technology from approximately 1995 to approximately 2005). Then – impending heavyweight 3D blockbuster set to legitimise the awkward revival of 3D films.  Then – a massive $200-$300 million invested. Then, James Cameron – back to Hollywood after a decade in meditation.

Last but not least – the number of noteworthies identified as eager witnesses to the birth of his marvellous new beast: Fincher, Lucas, Abrams, Jackson, Spielberg. All visitors to Avatar's production facilities; all with keen interest in whichever fate awaited it.

The above factors combined were suggestive of a catastrophic fate. Come December 2009 we were going to sit in the dark, wearing headache-inducing sunglasses, for two hours and forty-two minutes, in the company of Sam Worthington. Mr Worthington was going to soberly introduce us to the Na'vi – blue, spiritual people who lived in a rainforest full of displaced aquatic wildlife. Time was to be spent admiring the presented world's many pantheistic wonders, whilst reacquainting ourselves with the wrongs of cutting down trees, forcibly relocating native populations, and the waging of war on terror. To be roundly concluded with a lengthy, orchestra-drenched battle in which Worthington and Mother Nature would join forces to amend those wrongs.

In other words, one of our most renowned innovators was about to burst forth from his hiatus with hundreds of millions of dollars, the enthralment of his fellow luminaries, the words 'revolutionary experience' and the unenviable task of de-gimmicking 3D – all weighing on him. He would rise to these burdens with a strange assemblage of banality that we were informed comprised an amazing thing called “Avatar”.

A bizarre process was in the works that would result in the undoing of Cameron – this seemed clear. This “Avatar” could only fail – with the sort of whimper that Watchmen made before slipping into a £4 DVD bin at Sainsbury's. Not an undoing altogether unprecedented. A glance at recent efforts from Tim Burton, Michael Mann, Spielberg, Lucas, Quentin Tarantino and Terry Gilliam suggest the '00s wasn't on the whole the most triumphant of decades for previously established hotshots.

Yet, despite the not-unlikeliness of Cameron ending up in this area of fiction (he's been all about remote operated vehicles since The Abyss), embracing cliches, or producing a timely stinker, a compelling part of this looming failure struck out more prominently, and was less easy to explain.

He appeared to be following a manual on box office bombing.

This manual was prepared in 2001 by the genuinely estimable Hironobu Sakaguchi. It went by the name of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It was a $137 million, heartfelt attempt to explode a vision of the future into our cinemas – which, with all its noble ambition, achieved little other than demolishing the studio that developed it. It was the first (and only) mainstream Hollywood endeavour at a photorealistic, entirely CGI feature. It was about how the Earth and all other life-bearing planets each possessed a spirit (a 'Gaia') which connected the ethereal essences of indigenous creatures. A destructive alien force posed a threat. The movie's good guys were adamant that enlisting Gaia's support was the solution. A sinister military man wanted instead to make right with a giant canon. The good guys were proved right and the military man devastatingly wrong. There endeth the movie.

Not to suggest that it was the same movie as Avatar. There are obvious differences. But also significant formulaic similarities – qualities replicated in Avatar which strike as key to the demise of Spirits.

As Avatar's ancestor within the forward-looking medium of the 'hyper-real', a note of caution bequeathed by Spirits' failure was that if you're going to stray into the territory of this whole 'earth mother/Gaia theory/militarism vs spiritualism' thing, you're going to need to execute it with some sort of charm or a masterful subtlety – otherwise it will play as ham-fisted and probably quite patronising. Says Spirits' villainous general (in James Woods' voice), “gathering plants and animals from around the world to fight the phantom is utter nonsense.”

Another reproduction was the provocative notion of synthetic human beings. Spirits had invoked debate about whether or not we were witnessing in 2001 what might become a future norm – virtual actors. And this of course, was revived by the format of Avatar and amplified by the significance of the concept within its story. Consistent within arguments surrounding both films, a determining metric turned out to be the sexual attractiveness of the virtual heroine (that of corresponding male characters was rather less addressed). If Spirits is any indication, this isn't something that seems to have aged particularly well. Lacking the backbone of a riveting story (snap, Avatar), pretty much everything Spirits had was invested in the novelty of what it was. Time has consequently been cruel to it. Aki Ross may have appeared in a Maxim list of 100 sexiest women around the turn of the century, but neither her acting or modelling careers seem to have blossomed much since. Perhaps the 'captured' resemblance between Avatar's blue-skinned Neyitri and actress Zoe Saldana marks a distinct departure in this case. Neyitri is after all essentially a CG costume for her human counterpart. But underlying all of this, the fact remains that once technology has surpassed that which produced Avatar's avatars, the frisson surrounding the 'soul' in Neyitri's yellow eyes or the recogniseability of Grace Augustine's Sigourney Weaver-smile will surely wear thin.

Back in 2009, I had my theories. Hopes. Cameron is a smart director with a passion for technological innovation. He had surely caught Spirits when it came out, considered its successes and limitations, probably perused some of its critical reception. He probably caught this remark from Roger Ebert's Spirits review, which goes on to contemplate future possibilities for the format:

“George Lucas' actors, who complain that they spend all of their time standing in front of blue screens that will later be filled with locations and effects, would be replaced by computerized avatars scarcely less realistic.”

A coincidence, eh? I don't think so. At least, I hoped not. My essential hope was – suppose Cameron wanted Avatar to bomb? Like Spirits did but with a greater trauma. Why? Well, visualise circa 2005 – James 'King of the World' Cameron is contemplating his next steps and so considers what's around. Revenge of the Sith has just rounded off a lamentable six years of Lucas and the Wachowskis. Horrific, post-Gladiator epics are bloatedly roaming the landscape, 3D specs are creeping back into mainstream cinema (– admittedly partly Cameron's fault). A terrible new Indiana Jones sequel is threatening to be made. Listless and desperate times by and large. Something needs to happen to irrevocably transform everything. Transformers will not be it.

What about a bona fide cataclysm?

What if a director – absent for a significant time; known for grandiose projects – returned stridently with another? But one designed to implode. His silhouette pars with that of Jake Sully's in Avatar – the messiah rallying towards him swathes of the increasingly uncertain in Hollywood, assuaging their fears, focusing their outrage. He promises them the salvation of 3D cinema, monumental estimated returns, a possible change in the trend of declining theatre attendance, the promise of many new wonderful technologies.

And as they arrive, he grins benignly, takes all of this collected hope, bundled with all of these millions of dollars, and sinks the whole kaboodle spectacularly in Avatar: a film that seems to dare the viewer to find within it any sense of mystery or anything to give a rat's about. That seems peculiarly bent on amping the missteps of The Spirits Within with added sanctimony, duration and funding. Perhaps the dullest Cameron feature that has yet been made.

What would follow in the wake of such a disaster? Such a ground-shaking act of self-sacrifice from the man with the initials J.C.? What will follow? There's an exciting question with which to begin a decade.

...Well – it was an exciting question. But because it's now late January 2010, the answer renders the question pitifully naive – two sequels.

Yesterday I watched the movie for a second time and so have contributed about £24 to its $526 million total gross to date. I've sat, a little baffled, through two ovations. During the second sitting –  in the daytime – it was a smaller audience comprising about 25 people, which somehow made the clapping creepier.




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