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MOVIE REVIEW – THE HURT LOCKER (2009)

Spoilers in orange.

If you set your war movie amid the most controversial conflict for a generation, do you have to put it in context? To lay the war bare and allow your viewers to draw some conclusions? According to Kathryn Bigelow, director of the multi-Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.

Instead, Bigelow crafts an intense but narrow war movie in the mould of Black Hawk Down.  It’s really a three-hander about a renegade bomb-disposal expert, William James (Jeremy Renner) and the other two members of his unit, Owen Aldridge (Brian Geraghty) and JT Sanborne (Anthony Mackie).  As you would expect from the director of Point Break and Blue Steel, there’s plenty of action and loads of suspense, but the camera remains inexorably focused on our three heroes, resisting the temptation to look further afield for more than a few minutes.

Renner is fantastic as the loose cannon who joins his unit when his predecessor Matt Thomspon (Guy Pearce) gets blown up by a roadside bomb.  Thompson’s death in the first scene sets the tone for the movie.  The explosion is magnificent as the earth buckles in slow motion, and the guilt Aldridge feels for not shooting the trigger man seeps through every subsequent scene.

From the moment he arrives, James seems blithely ambivalent about whether he and his two colleagues will survive their year-long tour of duty. He loves taking the piss out of army protocol and those who adhere to it and, oddly, his detachment about the plight of Iraqis is somehow more humane than the suspicion of his fellow soldiers.  Nevertheless, the unit’s operation seems more than a little ridiculous.  They appear to report to no one, and James’ flagrant disregard for his life and the lives of his colleagues goes unreported and unpunished, with the exception of a sucker-punch from Sanborne.

During the film I found myself lamenting that so much time had been devoted to the character of James without revealing what makes him tick.  Even his emotional response to seeing the mutilated body of a small boy he thinks he knows tells us little about him.  But this all changes in the understated final few scenes, which make us understand in a few short minutes why a man may prefer the terror of war to the mundane day-to-day rituals of home. It is a brilliant way to give meaning to all we know about James, and it is clearly the highlight of the film.

James aside, The Hurt Locker is about the insane situations that soldiers find themselves in during an urban conflict.  About halfway through, it seems like every situation is the same.  Get called to street, deactivate the bomb, argue about what procedures were ignored.  Do it all again tomorrow.  However, the film then effectively changes tack when our three stars find themselves and a British unit pinned down by a sniper out in the desert. The Brits get picked off (natch) and Sanborne and James team up to play a game of chicken with the Iraqi assassins, each trading shots to see who’s hit first.   As they’re doing that, Aldridge sees another Iraqi masquerading as a shepherd and sneaking up behind them with an AK47.  This time he takes the shot, and finally learns the ultimate lesson of this movie – anyone could be an insurgent, so when in doubt, shoot them dead.

It’s riveting stuff, seemingly unfolding in real time and masterfully building up the suspense, but it also leaves a few unanswered questions.  Why do snipers happen to be located in the middle of the desert, just a mile upwind from where the Brits stop for a piss?  And why is a shepherd firing at them? It’s not every day you hear of an insurgent crossing open ground to fire on soldiers with his herd in tow. It’s fairly typical of this movie, which seems to be short on the sort of detail you’d expect from a big-budget film which can afford to hire an army of consultants to make sure they get their facts right.  Why is a bomb-disposal expert not disciplined for continually failing to adhere to protocol? Why can’t any of these Iraqis who are setting up the roadside bombs manage to detonate them in time when James is moving at the speed of treacle in that big bomb suit?

These little lapses in detail are not what really bothers me, however.  It’s the lack of context.  In my opinion, The Hurt Locker is a war film, but it’s not an Iraq War film, and the difference is not merely one of semantics.  If you want to set a film amid the most controversial, most publicized and most criticized American war since Vietnam, ignoring what’s going on in the background seems willfully misleading.  This was a war justified on clearly bogus grounds, where even the notoriously conservative Iraq Body Count website estimates that about 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died; billions of dollars have been poured into redeveloping the country, but the gains have been slight; US companies have gouged profits and, in some cases, embezzled funds; Sunni and Shia Iraqis remain in an uneasy stand-off, with the ever-present threat of all-out civil war; post-invasion Iraq has been the scene of the most brutal and successful Al Qaeda franchise yet; and bombs continue to explode in urban centres to this day.

All of this seems irrelevant to Kathryn Bigelow.  It is jettisoned in pursuit of a psychological drama about the effects of war on a small group of men.  Sometimes reality invades – James’ quip that if an Iraqi taxi driver they harassed wasn’t an insurgent, “he sure is now” is golden – but for the most part Iraqis have no role to play in this film. The brilliant Three Kings proved that it’s possible to make a tight film focusing on the struggles of a small band of soldiers while also putting the film in context.  Sadly, so few American war movies bother to try.

73/100

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Classic Movie Review – I, Robot (2004)

Spoilers are in orange.

Director Alex Proyas has genuine pedigree in the sci-fi universe, having ruminated on the question of what might be controlling us well before The Matrix came along (Dark City) and having directed one of the most enjoyable comic book movie ever brought to the screen (The Crow).

So it was reasonable to assume that Proyas’ handling of sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov’s revolutionary writing on robots would produce a cracking movie.  After seeing it, the only real question to ask is, what went wrong?

I, Robot is based on Asimov’s books of the same name, which envisaged a world where robots are ubiquitous and their service to humanity guaranteed by the “three laws of robotics” hard-wired into their brains:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov sought to explore these laws and to propose situations that would test the boundaries.  He sought ambiguity where there was seemingly noneI, Robot does enact one such moral dilemma – what should a robot do if two humans are in danger and only one can be saved? – but in the end this is an action film and the nuance of Asimov’s concept is excised because if it wasn’t, there just wouldn’t be that much action.

And so we begin with our hero, Del Spooner (Will Smith), being called to the scene of the apparent suicide of Dr Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), the founder of the world’s biggest robotics company on the eve of the rollout of its new robot model.  Of course, we suspect foul play and it’s not long before we have a suspect in the form of Sonny (Alan Tudyk), who is of one of these new-generation robots.  From there, it’s a short hop to lots of hair-raising chases and all sorts of conspiracy theories better left out of this review.

The character of Spooner is similar that of John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) in the middling 1993 futuristic thriller Demolition Man: a cop hopelessly out of step with the times (it’s 2035), who wears old shoes, listens to old music, rides a motorbike and refuses to embrace new technology.  Luckily for the film studio, Spooner (like Spartan before him) thinks the greatest age in history was ours and likes to live his life as if it’s 2004: roll out the latest model Converse sneakers for gratuitous product placement, people!  Being a technophobe, Spooner is suspicious of robots and suspects that they will eventually find a way to circumvent the three laws and start menacing society.

The copying of Demolition Man is only one example of the egregious cannibalisation of sci-fi whizzing past us at break-neck speed:  funky European automobiles (Minority Report), a wise old lady baking food in her kitchen (The Matrix) and dreaming robots (Blade Runner) to name a few, all of which is tolerable if we feel like the film is standing on the shoulders of giants.  Alas, it rarely rises to their belly buttons.

The performances of the supporting cast are generally tepid but, to be honest, there are few humans with significant roles in this film.  Most of them are consigned to rehashing the same, tired old clichés of hard-nosed police boss, (Chi McBride) obsessive corporate captain (Bruce Greenwood), enthusiastic young hero-worshipper (Shia LaBeouf).

The biggest cliché of all is Spooner’s love interest, Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynihan), a high-level scientist who is a workaholic and a woman, meaning that she is thirty-something and childless.  Hollywood should meet Dr Fiona Wood some time.  She’s also white, so it is fated that her relationship with Spooner will not go beyond mutual admiration.  If you want to see a black man and a white woman getting jiggy, well you’ll just have to rent a Spike Lee film.

This film is evidence that when you give an innovative, daring director a lemon, it’s probably still going to be a lemon once they’ve finished with it.  Alex Proyas has made his name by taking risks, by making us believe that crazy ideas – a man turns into a crow to avenge the killers of his girlfriend, aliens kidnap people from earth and place them on another planet to study them – are credible; therefore, it’s no surprise to me that he cannot pull off a film about something fairly rudimentary (robots gone bad!).  Innovators are usually the worst people to handle straightforward, uncreative projects.  In more recent times, see Ang Lee squeezing the life out of The Incredible Hulk.  In addition, Will Smith is not Proyas’ kind of star. He is forced to brood and sulk when he’s best at strutting and cursing.

A more fundamental problem with this film is that the baddies are robots.  Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones proved that lifeless protagonists (in that case, a whole army of clones v a whole army of droids) produce a lifeless movie and that point is reinforced here.  An essential trait of a baddie is his or her fallibility:  the baddie may be incredibly hard to kill, may be stronger than our hero, may be surrounded by many similarly endowed baddies but in the end, the baddie fears death or capture.  A robot feels nothing, fears nothing, cares for nothing.  And so when Spooner is driving through a tunnel and being set upon by a platoon of leaping, menacing robots, we may ooh and ah at the explosions and we may fear for Spooner’s safety but we scarcely even notice the fact that these robots are being disposed of one-by-one.  Proyas may have summed up the vacuousness of these protagonists best when he shows one of them disappearing under the wheel of a truck in a shower of sparks, his face entirely expressionless.

With genuine tension lacking, the last part of the film attempts to explore the three laws in more detail and the result is something between lip service and a detailed thesis.  Without giving too much away, imagine that a room-full of lawyers got a hold of those seemingly iron-clad laws and thought of a whole bunch of ways in which they didn’t properly apply.  Chaos?  Of course.  In fact, the film comes alive in the last 30 minutes with large-scale scenes of rioting and violence accompanying the sudden dissection of the three laws. These final scenes seem like an after thought, but I couldn’t help thinking that they made the better basis for a movie, and that the first 70 minutes should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Score:  45/100

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Classic Movie Review – The Matrix

For those of us who choke every time some grinning, varnish-skinned celebrity gets up and assaults us with the “I’d like to thank Jesus Christ my Savior” speech at an award show, the 1990s were a simpler time. We thanked God when our dealer came through with the goods before a big party, but other than that we were more interested in asking what the universe might look like if there was no god at all. And it seemed like everyone – from Dark City with its space island controlled by aliens to The Truman Show with its American Beauty suburb controlled by Ed Harris – was having a crack at the answer. And all that was before the Wachowski brothers came along with their big-budget cult movie (an oxymoron?) The Matrix.

In light of the subsequent, awful, sequels (please. Don’t make me review them), it has become almost de rigueur to be disdainful of The Matrix, but it is hard to seriously argue that this film is not one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made. If you’re not familiar with the storyline, I’m going to assume you’re younger than a fifth grader and use small words: the computer Hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a no-hoper who can hardly hold down a day job when he is suddenly pursued by another legendary hacker, Morpheus (Laurence Fishbone), who wants to help him, and a very weird special agent of some sort, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who tortures Neo without laying a finger on him. When Morpheus finally meets Neo, he gives him the now-legendary two options: take the red pill, and find the answer to the question that keeps him up at night – What is the Matrix? – or take the blue pill and “believe whatever you want to believe”. Oh how I would like that blue pill some mornings.

The Wachowskis haven’t just come up with a fantastic concept, they’ve told the yarn in ripping fashion as well. From the first scene, when Agent Smith tells a police officer that “your men are already dead” as they try to arrest Trinity, we are asked to surrender ourselves to a world that we don’t understand. Black-clad men and women fly through thin air and disappear into it, stiff agents punch through solid brick walls and a green hue washes through every scene as we come close to learning what the matrix is. The answer, when it finally comes, is a delicious twist: we’re not really living this life, we are lying bent-over in a bowl of soup being fed a fairytale by a very large computer as we generate power to keep the computer and its cohort operating.

Reams have been written about how the Wachowski brothers drew on philosophy, religion, science and science fiction when writing the film, in much the same way that Tarantino draws on popular culture. The philosophical and religious underpinnings of the books have spawned books, movies and a million websites, but I don’t understand all of that crap. I’m a simple man who thinks that it’s reasonable to pare the overarching theme of this film back to a commentary on the malaise of modern life. And so the main conflict of the film is not really between Neo and Agent Smith, but rather between Morpheus – who wants to free humans from slavery – and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) – who just wants to be plugged back into the matrix, where the steak tastes great and the women are plentiful. When viewed in this way, the Matrix seems to be paying homage to Naomi Klein’s No Logo as much as to Baudrillard and Kant, whoever they are (Gen Xrs such as Klein probably suspect that the entire Gen Y would take the blue pill and sail along in blissful ignorance if given the choice. Does that make us cynical?).

Nevertheless, it is the battles between Agent Smith and Neo that take most of our attention and provide the style for which this film has become legendary. It may have been OK for Jet Li to fight 20 feet in the air without explanation, as he did in legendary Hong Kong wire-fu movies such as Once Upon a Time in China, but in Hollywood you needed to provide an explanation for such physical feats (well, you did until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along). Which is why the matrix – a computer program where the rules of gravity can be bent – is the real star of this film.

The Wachowski brothers inevitably use this “wire-fu” effect in every action scene, allowing the characters to drill through the air as they deliver lethal kicks to the head, leap out of the way of trains and bound between tall buildings. But the Wachowskis also pay homage to our old friend gravity. Some of the best action moments were old fashioned, earth bound ones, particularly the hand-to-hand combat between Morpheus and Agent smith in the dirty, old bathroom of an abandoned building.

Of course the other special effect (do I sound old using this term? I don’t think the young people use it any more) associated with this film is the revolutionary “bullet time” effect whereby they surrounded the actors with a ring of cameras which all took the same footage from a different angle, allowing the camera to appear to rotate around a scene as its happening. The Wachowskis perfected “bullet time” and Hollywood’s been getting drunk on it ever since. For me, the scene with which “bullet time” is most closely associated – when Neo dodges bullets on the roof of a building – never excited me as much as everyone else, but I did love the subsequent subway scene when the camera spins around Neo and Agent Smith as they come together in mid-air; and, of course, the sight of the cameras panning around the leather-clad Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) as she leaps into the air to slay those poor cops trying to arrest her.

The other notable style of this film is the look. The Matrix emits a green hue, signifying the dull, monochromatic nature of the computer simulation (sure beats the hell out of the real world, though). Somehow, such a world seems perfectly created for Keanu Reeves. You can just see the casting discussion now. ‘We need a big name actor who isn’t capable of showing any emotion. Book Keanu Reeves and Ben Afflek in for screen tests’. It may not be a high bar to clear, but nevertheless this is the best performance of Reeves’ career. He manages to inject the necessary irony into his role, which is something he often struggled to do in earlier films.

Opposite Reeves, Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith is one of the all-time great screen villains. The Wachowskis obviously understood the cast iron rule of action/sci-fi films that if your nemesis is not a human or an animal, you must still inject a personality into it (see, eg, Terminator). Climate change activists would probably get a better hearing from the public if they could just wheel out Hugo Weaving to give Agent Smith’s fantastic diatribe on humanity’s similarity to a virus. His ability to impart verve, even anger, into the role of Agent Smith while remaining as stiff as a starch shirt is quite remarkable. Who doesn’t remember his simmering irony as he exclaimed to a chained up Morpheus:

I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.

Kind of like a country person who’s spent too long in the city.

Certainly The Matrix throws up some annoyances, particularly the ever-platitudinous Morpheus, but they are minor when compared to the originality of the concept, the stupendous action scenes and the depth of research and writing. It’s a beauty that I could watch again and again.

Highlight: The denouement: Neo v Smith in the subway, which we watch with the words of Morpheus ringing in our ears: “Every single man or woman who has stood their ground, everyone who has fought an agent, has died”.

Lowlight: Tank. Did everyone want to drag him off the set and lock the door behind him (which they actually did before the sequels), or was that just me?

Stereotypes: Certainly this film was more blokey than it needed to be. No female agents? And what’s with the Oracle telling Trinity that her one role in life is to fall in love with The One?

91/100

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Classic Movie Review – The Chronicles of Riddick

You could be forgiven for not knowing that this film is the sequel to the 2000 cult (honestly, I think I’m just euphemising for “little watched”) sci-fi flick Pitch Black. The two things that Pitch Black had going for it were a fun Aliens-inspired plot and Vin Diesel at the height of his powers: when Diesel flexes his muscles and mostly refrains from speaking, he’s fantastic. When he tries to adopt a personality (see, for example, xXx) he’s woeful.

So, the thinking obviously went: revive Riddick, throw a lot more money at this one, get a decent backup cast (Judy Dench, Thandie Newton, Colm Feore) and we’ll have a sure fire hit. The main problem with this theory is that the joy of Pitch Black was watching the slow development of Riddick: at the beginning he was the dangerous and mysterious convict before a crash landing forced him and the crew to rely upon each other to defeat the aliens. We were never really sure if he was good or bad (OK, so we had our suspicions, but work with me here) and it was only at the end that the warm and fuzzy Riddick came out to play.

This time around we know from the beginning that Riddick has a heart of gold, and where’s the fun in that? Compare the identical scenes in the two films where Riddick is chained up inside a space ship. In Pitch Black it is near the beginning and his brooding face, his muscular body, the dark goggles, the mystery as to who he is, all combine to have us believing that any minute now he’s going to break out and do something really nasty to some poor, cowering crew member. Maybe the death will even be slow and painful. This time around we know our man won’t harm a fly unless he absolutely, positively has to (having already let some bounty hunters off lightly at the beginning of the film) and so, after a while, Riddick actually tells us that he doesn’t think he’ll bust out of his chains right now because it’s not part of his plan: not exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff.

For the most part, the best characters in this film are the women. Alexa Davalos, upon entering proceedings halfway through as the grown-up version of the little girl who survived Pitch Black, almost steals the limelight away from Vin, with some fairly impressive spinning back-kicking and quality trash-talking: not bad for a former model with a resume briefer than the outfits she dons. Seeing Judi Dench in this film, on the other hand, is a little like seeing your mother in a nightclub. Mum! What the hell are you doing here? She is very wise, however. We know this because she sounds like the Queen of England, and she brought Thandie Newton with her which is a very wise move. Thandie would not look out of place in any nightclub and neither does she look out of place playing Dame Vaako, the resident Sexy Evil Chick, with a healthy streak of Lady Macbeth.

I must say that I enjoyed Twohy’s decision to get a little Shakespearean on our resident bad guys, the Necromancers, and develop at least a smidgeon of depth. Yes, the word “Shakespearean” may be a little OTT but at least Twohy – who also wrote the script – does his best to inject some personality into the dark side. Films like Independence Day would certainly have benefited from the same approach. These Necromancers are at first glance a homogenous mass of Gladiator-looking types, obliterating life one planet after another and giving those who surrender the option to have their brains re-worked so that they’ll follow the Necro faith, or to have their souls ripped out of their bodies. Very Ghost. Before long the Necros are succumbing to the plotting of Dame Vaako, who is constantly telling her man, Vaako (Carl Urban), that the boss is overlooking him for promotion. Meanwhile the mental makeovers they give their underlings don’t seem to be ensuring that everyone toes the company line and at least one of the leaders does some “thinking outside the box” as they say.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of this film is the lack of hand-to-hand combat action. Diesel has been around long enough not to have to resort to cut-and-move tactics from the cameras, and yet this is what we get: very few properly choreographed fighting scenes. Instead we have the tell-tale close ups of fists connecting with faces and lots of rapidly-moving cameras obscuring what’s actually happening. For a $100 million action flick starring the genre’s then pre-eminent man (I know, slim pickings back then) this is simply unacceptable.

All-in-all, this is a middling action sci-fi work-out but it certainly didn’t bore me. Rather the cinema seat engulfed me lovingly and we were given what we demand as an absolute minimum: enough colour and oomph to keep us contented, if not quite ecstatic.

Highlight: Riddick’s narrow escape from a crash-landing space craft. That’s where all the money went.

Lowlight: Twohy’s attempt to flip the premise of Pitch Black on its head in a scene where it’s deadly to be out during the day, instead of the night. The sun is so hot that you’ll spontaneously combust if it touches you, but you’re safe in the shade of a rock? Please. This is not Buffy.

Stereotype Watch: The guards running the prison we visit at one point in the film are all Russian, so you can pretty much guess the rest: they are bad, they are corrupt, they are very dirty and they drink a lot of wodka. By contrast, the female characters are strong, but they mostly know to stay back and watch when the boys have to settle the score.

Verdict: 52/100

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Movie Review – Avatar
January 5, 2010, 10:20 am
Filed under: Movie reviews | Tags: , , ,

Spoilers in orange.

When you’re handed a $400-million movie budget, the possibilities must seem endless, but you still have to follow the first commandment of Hollywood blockbusters: give ’em good and evil, and lots of action.  It’s a lesson James Cameron learned the hard way long ago when he made the action-free big-budget flop The Abyss, and one that he applied in Titanic by working a gun-wielding terrorist into a movie about a ship that hits an iceberg.  But that’s nothing on the trailblazing Avatar, in which Cameron wraps cinema’s most extraordinary technological experience around a hackneyed story you’ve seen countless times before.

The plot revolves around Private Jake Sully, a foot soldier whose life has been ruined by the death of his twin brother and his own war injury, which has left him a paraplegic.  Jake’s brother had been a scientist in the groundbreaking Avatar program, which makes creatures who look almost identical to the Na’vi, the huge, light blue beings who live on Pandora. Each avatar is matched by DNA to its human pilot, who controls it while lying in suspended animation, feeling, seeing, hearing and tasting whatever the avatar does.  The Avatar program works from within the heavily fortified base camp of the huge mining operation set up by humans to extract a rare mineral from the ground.  The program is designed to build trust with the Na’vi but the miners are systematically destroying it, kind of like anthropologists working with Shell in the Nigerian oil fields. Since Jake’s brother has died back on lawless planet Earth, Jake is the only person capable of driving his new avatar because he has the same DNA.  So it is that a paraplegic man gets to walk again, albeit while lying in a trumped-up coffin.  Jake’s first moments in control of his avatar are quite beautiful as he clumsily breaks out of the lab to sprint through the grounds of the compound, stopping to feel the dirt between his toes and marvel at the sensation of walking again.

There is a clash between those who believe that Avatar is the most amazing cinematic experience of all time and those who think that it is a cliché-ridden farce.  In many ways, both are right.  The last 20 minutes are depressingly formulaic, but this movie is really about experiencing the stunning world of Pandora, a planet so richly conceived that it takes your breath away.  What’s most amazing is that Cameron has created an entire jungle on his computers and made it feel real.  He has not filmed it in the Amazon or the Congo and he hasn’t used a single plant from planet Earth. Instead there are giant parasol-shaped flowers that retract at a touch, and others that light up when stood on; the animals range from flying dinosaurs to six-legged horses.  Like the language of the Na’vi, Cameron has created the whole world from scratch in minute detail.

Cameron spent over a quarter of a billion dollars on the production budget and you should do him the courtesy of seeing the film in 3D.  The field is like none you’ve ever seen; the picture extends deep into the screen, allowing you to focus on the foreground or the background, which obviously works best during the all-important action scenes.  The film will undoubtedly age well.  Just like Star Wars now, we’ll watch this film in 30 years’ time and marvel at how beautiful it looks, even if by then we’ll be able to pick up plenty of technological flaws.

But not even Cameron’s techno tricks can stop us from needing to bond with the storyline, so soon enough the landscape recedes. During his first sortie, Jake is separated from his companions and saved by the blue bombshell Neytiri, who reluctantly introduces him to her tribe.  This is where Cameron goes mainstream, employing a narrative that could be labeled “Going Native” (or what about “Blue Love”?).  Think Tarzan meets Dances with Wolves.

While Sam Worthington channels Russell Crowe (which isn’t high praise on this blog), Zoe Saldana puts in one of the stronger performances as a hissing, high-maintenance feline lead.  She is one of a host of gutsy women, including the scene-stealing Michelle Rodriguez, who basically reprises her Lost role, and Cameron favourite Signourney Weaver. Weaver has done more than any woman to put strong female characters on the sci-fi map and everyone from Linda Hamilton to Jennifer Garner should bow down before her. She seems to be loving this role as a benevolent mother figure who battles the meatheads trying to wipe out the native population.

The lead meathead is Colonel Miles Quaritch, who Stephen Lang seems to have leaped into after watching Full Metal Jacket one too many times.  In James Cameron’s 3D universe, Colonel Quaritch struggles to give us two dimensions.  Unfortunately he becomes the lead nemesis of the Na’vi, but Cameron would have been better off investing more screen time in Parker Selfridge, the head of the mining operations on Pandora.  Selfridge, played by Giovanni Ribisi, is the archetypal weak leader who ends up trying to project strength through violence.  Cameron could have infused more nuance into the script by making Selfridge the chief head-kicker, but with Quaritch in that role there could only be one ending.

Nevertheless, what most people will take away from this film is the feeling that they’ve just watched cinematic history. And a message.  As for what that message is, it doesn’t seem like a commentary on the Iraq war to me.  On imperialism? Sure. On environmentalism? Obviously. But the real value of this film is that it uses an imaginary world to critique the real one. In this age of feuding culture warriors, the preferred method of warfare is to undermine your opponents by picking pedantic holes in their books or movies. That strategy was effectively used five years ago against Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, to cast doubt over global warming, and has been repeatedly used against those who have criticised the historic oppression of Australia’s Indigenous people.  In Avatar, Cameron has laid bare the exploitation and destruction of an indigenous population, but no right-wing academic will be able to quibble that the Na’vi couldn’t really control horses using their minds, or that they were adequately compensated for their lost lands and treated with humanity.  His overarching message that human progress bows before no one may therefore prove more durable than many rigorously researched documentaries about real-life events.  If so, that may be as impressive an achievement as the special effects.

78/100

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