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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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TV Series Review – V, Episode 1

Aired Australia – 7 March 2010
Aired USA – 3 November 2009

Aliens have been visiting Hollywood backlots for a good 50 years now, so we action/sci-fi fans get a little shiver down our spines when a fresh new concept comes along. And Hollywood producers get so excited that they flog it to death and then remake it at the earliest opportunity. Hence V, the blockbuster 1983 series and the 2009…erm…cult classic? We’ll see.

So, we begin with the “visitors”, as the aliens call themselves, making a conspicuous arrival on earth and proclaiming that they have come in peace to do what those in the international aid industry call a “technology transfer”. The visitors need water and “a mineral commonly available on earth” and offer in return lots of fun gadgets that Apple hasn’t invented yet. Then we learn that the visitors’ arrival is not really the first contact. They’ve been living among us for years, inhabiting invariably hot bodies and preparing for the day when they take over the earth. As the hot people always do.

When our visitors arrive, they come in huge ships which settle over 29 of the world’s major cities. Actually, 28 plus the pyramids, which the visitors of course constructed 4500 years ago and are probably just checking in on.* The sequence is not so much an homage to Independence Day as a blatant rip-off, but with a smaller budget and a much smaller screen to show it all on. As they peer upwards at the ships, the masses in the streets look as underwhelmed as we are. It’s not a promising beginning.

The show begins to pick up as we witness the visitors’ first days on earth through the eyes of five people: FBI Agent Erica Evans (Elizabeth Mitchell) and her oversexed teenaged son Tyler (Logan Huffman), young priest Fr Jack Landry (Joel Gretsch), wannabe TV anchor Chad Decker (Scott Wolf) and banker with a shady past Ryan Nichols (Morris Chestnut).

Erica’s work tracking terrorist cells drives the story. She notices that terrorist chatter on the internet falls silent when the visitors arrive, which I thought was a clever touch. There is one pocket, however, which starts chattering like schoolgirls, and we soon learn that it’s a resistance cell which has been fighting the visitors for years. When she infiltrates the cell, Erica meets Fr Jack, who’s also come along undercover as a civilian. Fr Jack’s main role in the series is clearly to let us explore the effect aliens might have on religious belief, because those little green fuckers aren’t in the bible. Hollywood seems to have missed the email reporting that most Americans worship in evangelical churches these days, so Fr Jack’s a good ol’ preacher with a dog collar. Nevertheless, his discussions with his fellow priest provide some philosophical ballast to the first episode as Fr Jack, the young cynic, is challenged by the old idealist determined to believe that the visitors are all part of God’s plan. Also at the meeting of the resistance cell is Ryan Nichols, who turns out to be a lapsed rebel, and so we have our good guys – Ryan, Fr Jack and Erica – ready to fight the good fight.

On the other side of the ledger are the visitors – led by Anna (Morena Baccarin) – and their human enablers, principally Tyler Evans, who quickly falls for one of the hot young visitors, and pretty boy Chad Decker. Chad’s going nowhere in TV land until he catches a break by sticking up for the visitors in a doorstop interview and is rewarded with a one-on-one encounter with Anna. From there his career skyrockets.

Like any sci-fi show, V sets itself up as a commentary on modern society, and so far it’s not a very good one. The lowlight comes when Anna, on a roll from a wave of positive publicity, promises to start up free healing clinics, ensuring “universal health care”. (If she can do it without adding to the budget deficit, maybe the Republicans will even jump on board.) It’s been said that the show is a critique of the Obama administration, but Anna’s preferential treatment of Chad Decker could just as easily be mimicking the Bush Administration and its close relationship with Fox News. The visitors have been here for decades, long before Obama came along, exploiting positions of power to  instigate disasters and start unnecessary wars, so George Bush and Tony Blair are aliens too! Whatever their aim, the producers should stick closer to the core of the show, which is obviously an alien-human smackdown. Or at least that’s my view.

Despite the weaknesses, there was enough in the second half of the pilot to suggest that this show has legs. If it can lose the simplistic allegories about US politics, its exploration of hope and change could be worth watching. But the most promising aspect of the show is the same thing that apparently made the original series of V great – a mismatched battle between a huge force of occupiers and a small band of fanatical resistors. As long as they lay off the Iraq War references.

* OK, so the pyramids are in Cairo, but they’re way on the outskirts. It would be like the mothership going to New York and hovering over Staten Island.

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A third Pitch Black film? Lord help us.

As the young people would say, ZOMG.

Universal is actually ponying up cash to make a third instalment of the Pitch Black/Chronicles of Riddick series, which requires me to ask (and answer) a few questions, dear reader:

  • Who liked Pitch Black? You and me.
  • Who paid to see Chronicles of Riddick and thought it was trash? You and me (check my review here).
  • Why on earth would they be making a third instalment of this series after the train wreck that was Chronicles of Riddick? To make bootloads of cash.
  • Who does Universal think is going to hand over this cash? You and me.

Which naturally leads to one more question: will we actually be stupid enough?

OK, I’ll bite.  The screenplay for the third instalment has been written by David Twohy, who directed both of the earlier films and will also be in the chair for this one.   Twohy was the third credit as a co-writer of Pitch Black, behind the movie’s creators, Jim and Ken Wheat.  Twohy then cut the Wheat boys loose and went it alone as writer of Chronicles of Riddick, and we all know how that ended up.

So, I’d probably have greater faith that the third instalment might successfully “hew closer in tone to the cult hit Pitch Black” – as insiders are saying – if Twohy had got the Wheat boys back on board.

Still, Twohy got some good kudos for writing (and directing) the 2009 horror flick A Perfect Getaway so maybe he’s on the improve.  And, like a battered wife, it’s just possible that I’ll end up rolling up to the cineplex having fallen for Twohy’s promise that Chronicles of Riddick will never happen again.  That this movie will be just like Pitch Black. Only different. And better.

That’s as long as I don’t think too hard about the fact that this is a Vin Diesel sequel.  Our favourite bald action hero will be making this film, his second  xXx movie and his third Fast and Furious* film back-to-back-to-back.  With that kind of track record, he’s in danger of becoming the new Steve Guttenberg.

* It will be the fifth film in the Fast and Furious series, but Diesel sat out the second and third instalments.

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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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Jim Schembri’s lame Avatar “plot holes”

Really, I’m not obsessed with Avatar and will be moving on to new movies shortly, but I couldn’t resist this lame piece of work from Jim Schembri, who has allegedly poked 20 holes in Avatar’s script. I’m on record as saying that Avatar’s storyline is not great, but it doesn’t excuse this piece of trash from Schembri. But then again, maybe I’m biased. Schembri, who writes for the Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia, is exactly the kind of person who gives movie reviewers a bad name among the action/sci-fi set. He wouldn’t recognise an A/SF movie if it delivered a spinning back kick to his head.

I’ve listed Schembri’s 20 “plot holes” in bold, but you can read the full article here: http://blogs.theage.com.au/schembri/archives/2010/01/fingering_avata.html (the shorter print version is here: http://www.theage.com.au/news/entertainment/film/problems-with-pandoras-box/2010/01/28/1264268045785.html)

* Why use avatars if you’re not going to keep them secret?

It seems like a fairly reasonable anthropological tactic: the Na’vi are 9 feet tall and move like the wind, you can’t breathe the air, and it’s incredibly dangerous out there, so you could get killed by any of the many animals you’re unfamiliar with. The avatar allows you to keep up with them, breathe and not die if you get into trouble. Seems like a very good idea to me, Jim.

Fail.

* If the Na’vi know from the get-go that these “Dreamwalkers” are biological shells remotely controlled by humans, why do they trust them?

Well, generally it seems they don’t. They’ve come to trust Dr Augustine (Sigourney Weaver)’s avatar over time, but even after his initiation some of the Na’vi have suspicions about Jake Sully (Sam Worthington).

Fail.

* What is the deal with the Eywa? Shortly after Sully (Sam Worthington) and Na’vi girl Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) meet, these spirits of the forest float down and determine that Sully, despite being human, is pure of heart. Then he tells his commander (Stephen Lang) about how to destroy the sacred Hometree, thus proving the Eywa are lousy judges of character. Yet the Na’vi, knowing all this, stick to their beliefs. Why don’t they take the Eywa back to where they bought them and demand their money back?

Eywa sees Sully’s good side before he sees it himself. The true test of any oracle. Sully saves the Na’vi, Eywa is proved right.

Remember, had Sully not gone to the Na’vi in the first place, Quaritch and Selfridge would have blasted them out anyway.

Fail.

* Why, exactly, is the Unobtainium so valuable? It’s never explained.

The way that Cameron handled the state of Earth was one of the things I really liked about the script. Earth is dying, it’s lawless (Jake’s brother was knifed there for “the paper in his wallet”) and it needs unobtainium to survive. We simply don’t need to know any more than that. It’s a pretty basic tenet of tight storytelling.

Fail.

* Why send in avatar ambassadors to negotiate and “make friends” with the Na’vi if you’re just going to go ahead and bulldoze their forest anyway?

I thought the tension between the do-gooding avatar program and the evil corporate arm was pretty clear. As I said in my review, it’s a little like an anthropologist working in the Niger delta with Shell. The anthropologist is the veneer of goodness that will be cast aside if self-interest deems it necessary.

Fail.

* During the Hometree attack chopper pilot Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) opts out and flies off. Why doesn’t her crew object?

It’s possible that her crew have similar feelings (did she have a crew? I can’t remember).

Possibly a reasonable point.

* Why doesn’t anybody give chase?

People have been deserting in the heat of battle for as long as there has been war. Their colleagues are often quite distracted at that moment.

Fail.

* And why doesn’t the commander, who has just lectured us about how highly he values loyalty, tear her a new one?

Aha! I agree with this because, surely once the dust has settled, someone would have noticed. But then again, it was such a rout that it’s also possible that no one would have noticed because – let’s face it – the job could have been done by one person, so accountability may not have been high on their agenda.

A good point.

* This makes her appearance in the brig to free Sully & Co implausible.

You’re just making the same point in different words.

Fail.

* And when she steals the helicopter, why doesn’t anybody chase her?

They try to shoot at her as she’s getting away. Obviously it would take a while for anyone to actually scramble another helicopter (it took her a fair while), by which time she would have been clear of the base.

Fail.

* Though central command can tell when she turns the helicopter on, they somehow can’t track where she goes.

Maybe it’s a stealth helicopter, maybe this is a legitimate gripe. Either way, it ain’t exactly Watergate.

Possibly a good point.

* Or determine the location of the portable lab she picks up.

The fact that they aren’t followed up there is explicitly explained – it’s just too dangerous. That’ll do for me.

Fail.

* After Sully is put into his Avatar body he runs out into the compound, where we see a whole lot of other avatars. What happened to them?

I thought they were actual Navi who were being “domesticated” or similar. Colonisers have engaged closely with natives for as long as colonising has been going on – there are always native turncoats. Remember, some of them were kids and there were no kids in the avatar program, so my explanation clearly makes more sense than yours.

Fail.

* Why does the company maintain no control over the Avatar program, even though they own it?

Coming back to the analogy of the Shell anthropologist in the Niger Delta, of course they’d be given autonomy to do their boring do-gooding work. Quaritch, remember, is not the company. He is merely a foot soldier. Selfridge runs the company. And once Selfridge thinks the Avatar program needs to be controlled, Selfridge lets Quaritch shut it down.

Fail.

* If Dr Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is so intent on preserving Na’vi culture, why doesn’t she tell her corporate boss (Giovanni Ribisi) about the miraculous, money-printing healing properties of Na’vi medicine?

Jake is told that he can be sent back to earth to have his spine healed so that he can walk again. Sounds like the ability to heal someone is not actually a priority back on earth. Remember that the Na’vi couldn’t save Sigourney when she was dying, so the difference between their life-saving abilities and those back on earth don’t seem that great. The Na’vi are just cooler at it.

Fail.

* Where are all the military drone weapons? Though humans can remotely control an organic being, they apparently can’t do the same with a simple gunship or walking tank.

The answer, obviously, is “remote-controlled machines mowing down natives is just not very exciting.”

A good point.

* Why do the walking tanks carry weapons with two arms, like a regular soldier? As Robocop, Terminator Salvation and Transformers show, they should have dedicated, in-built weaponry.

When your robot is 10 years old, you can retrofit the latest weaponry to him, thereby expanding his life very cheaply.

Fail.

* In the film’s final battle, the big ship is said to be “four clicks” – that is, four kilometres – from target. The time it takes to cover that distance doesn’t match the speed we see in the film.

In imperial times, they used the word “ton” for a very large mass (about 2200 pounds). Then when the metric system was introduced they called a similar weight (1000kg)* a “tonne”. Then over time the word tonne fell out of use and now 1000kg is often just called a ton because it’s a much better word. Do you think it is possible that – by 2154 – the military might have a different use for the word “click”?

Fail.

* And why do the Na’vi shoot arrows at the ships? Haven’t they figured out by now that they might need a bit more firepower than that?

Yeah, why don’t they build a factory and start making some real weapons? The fact that they sometimes manage to break windows or to hit soldiers who are hanging out of hatches is obviously beside the point.

Fail.

* Knowing he’s not real, why would Neytiri have sex with Sully? Shouldn’t she have saved herself until after he had committed? Or is she the Na’vi version of a slag?

Trying to sound young, Jim?

Fail.

Which makes 16 fails.

* Original post mistakenly stated “100kg” instead of “1000kg”.

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James Cameron’s World View
January 14, 2010, 10:22 pm
Filed under: Comment | Tags: , ,

The New Yorker took the slow boat to Australia, and I just got the chance to read its profile on James Cameron from the October issue in hard copy.  Here’s the online version: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/10/26/091026fa_fact_goodyear

As everyone knows, it is more than a decade  since Cameron’s last movie and if you don’t believe me you can compare photos from his past two films:

The man is getting old, and I reckon he’s getting mellower too.  Once upon a time, to be in a Cameron film was to spend months in a pitch black tank of water or sleeping on your feet in between takes on a tilted replica ship, but now you just don a black suit fitted with all sorts of gizmos, hook yourself up to a trapeze and get it on in a nice warm studio.

Nevertheless, Cameron is still very combative. As the New Yorker article points out, he seems to revel in having people hate him so that he can shove it up them when he succeeds.  Is it too cynical to suggest that that’s ultimately why he goes for twee storylines now?  The special effects and the sappy endings make vast masses of humanity happy while simultaneously infuriating film critics and those of us who think that Aliens and Terminator are among the finest sci-fi films ever made.

Of course we know that the reality was a little more conventional:  Cameron was setting out to do things on celluloid that no one had ever done before. Storyline be damned.  The other thing that he wanted to do, as George Lucas points out, was to create his own universe.  The greatest ever fictional universe was created by JRR Tolkien (not George Lucas, as Lucas immodestly implies), and so Cameron copied Tolkien’s playbook and created (or had created for him) a whole language for the Na’vi.  He also created beings seemingly very different from us: they were in tune with nature, had tails and could control animals with their minds. And yet there is something derivative about these massive blue people. Almost all of the main Na’vi characters were portrayed by black or Native American actors.  Seeing as these humanoid characters were inevitably going to have similarities with humans (they are, of course, played by humans), it is interesting that Cameron did conceive of an “uncivilised” race as one with a more white sensibility.  Now that would have shown some originality.  Instead he just made them all left handed. Perhaps, though, Cameron felt that – to make sure that we got his  anti-colonialism message loud and clear – he needed to make all the managers and leaders white men and all the natives non-white. Just like the old days.