What makes a movie a good? It’s a straightforward question with a surprisingly straightforward answer: whatever you think makes it good.
Over the last few years I’ve come to the full realization that my extensive film school background has amounted to little when it comes to deciphering what makes something “good” on the popular level. We like to think that the opinion of someone who has seen thousands of different kinds of movies somehow accounts for a more qualified opinion, but this is truly not the case. Sure, it may provide someone with the ability to articulate their opinions and provide a historical or cultural context for their statements… but really it makes no difference, as the court of public opinion always wins in the end. Thus there is a kind of acceptance needed when making a statement that you believe to be true, but fully recognizing that it’s nothing more than like, your opinion man. So here’s an opinion:
I don’t think James Cameron makes good movies. So there.
Oh don’t get me wrong, he’s a hell of a technical filmmaker. I’m not just regurgitating the popular rhetoric you see everywhere. This is going off all that “trained opinion” nonsense mentioned above. The guy simply “gets” cinematography. He knows how to line up the camera subject with enough spacing for the eye to process the movement. And he’s THE great editor of big budget action films (1, this is a really good footnote). With those two abilities he stages some of the best action I’ve ever seen on screen. Not in WHAT necessarily happens, but instead HOW it happens. I also greatly admire his commitment to creating full, tangible worlds and staying true to his vision. He is never half assing it and you can always be assured that movie goers get their money’s worth. This is to be admired. But as I have just lauded him with superlatives, we must always consider the whole filmmaker if we are going to speak to his merits. These are just aspects of his proverbial “game” and can in no way assure a singular, fully-formed piece of goodness from anything he does.
For example, he cannot write a screenplay. This is fine. A lot of great directors can’t do it. Spielberg never could and the dude is considered the best. Tim Burton famously insists that he has no idea what makes a good script. The problem is that Cameron thinks that he can write a screenplay. And proceeds to do so stubbornly.
It really is a shame that Cameron seems to have the brain of 12 year old. Sure, he’s a really smart 12 year old who is super-duper into perfectionism and computers and stuff, but all his films operate on in extremely juvenile plane of interest. And if you’ve ever heard anything about him as a person he’s operating on a 12 year old social level too.
So let’s actually get into AVATAR in relation to this topic. Having just seen the movie earlier yesterday, the thing that sticks out most in my head is how all the characters often swear in the silliest, 5-th grader like mentality. Really. The swears are the absolutely point of each line when they are uttered. They’re the joke. For example say there’s a big reveal and a pause: “Oh SHIT” or during a fight scene our witty dialogue is “take this BITCH!” The words are capatilized cause ever actor is so emphasizing these swear words that’s it’s like they’re delighted by their guts to swear. That’s because that’s exactly what Cameron is doing. It’s a PG13 movie and he’s using these swears in such a juvenile and silly manner that the entire theater was eye rolling and groaning. I also fully recognize that these moments are completely harmless, but it’s just so prevalent and on the nose that you can’t help but get the full window into Cameron’s mind… the guy has a 12 year old ‘s sensibility to swearing.
He also has a 12 year old sensibility when it comes to military ideology, politics, ecology, and socialization. Sure that super advanced 12 year old brain converts these things into logical setups complete with a fully realized set proper nouns for his movie, but that doesn’t change that this is the most obtuse kind of rhetoric and analysis. The entire construct of the plot is the most in-your-face allegory of American imperialism I have ever seen. The details are hilarious: a precious resource, “unobtainium.” A earth goddess who you can actually hear through trees. References to modern warfare tactics that are literally thrown in to hammer home the Imperialism comparison (but in hilarious fashion, are the complete wrong use of those words). And make no mistake about this “original” story, it’s just Dances with Wolves in space. I’m talking beat for beat the same movie with 3rd act battle thrown in. Hell, throw in some Star Wars, Dune, and vast array of other films to be grossly aped and you have AVATAR. And let us not forget the short story he absolutely and totally ripped off :
Seriously, you got to see this cover:
Beyond that there is the fact that every single character in the film is the most broad and ridiculous stereotype possible. And no, not in a scenery-chewing, fun and self aware meta way that guys like Cronenberg and the Coens are absolute masters of. This is Cameron. And his characters will be willfully fucking obtuse. The general is absolutely insane, invasion-happy beefcake. The head scientist is stuck-up, military-hating, granola tree hugger. The guy in charge of it all is an aspergian dickhead who only wants his profits and to get at the precious resource beneath the Na’Vi’s home (not to mention work on his putting game… ugh). The girl Na’Vi who connects with the earth is nothing more than the infamous Noble Savage stereotype. And our main character, the jarhead marine, is nothing but the uneducated white man, who must learn the ways of the lesser people and connect back with the world. Now, all these stereotypes could be just fine for the movie. Actually, you use those five stereotypes and you’ve got all your angles, themes, and conflicts covered so that might not be a problem at all. You got your base. You just have to find away to make it organic.
Cameron don’t do organic. Nope. This is balls out broad. The idea of badassery. It’s all posing and posturing. Like 12 year old suburban kids starting “gangs” or that weird thing Japanese teens do where they literally pose to look cool. This is the cinematic equivalent of whatever the hell that is. And it’s laid on thick. This is cartoon villainy and college freshman idealism. And it kills the movie. (2)
So okay, we have some broad 12 year old dumbness. So what? Lots of films do that and are embraced by millions.
True. I’ll take Cameron’s logical filmmaking and epic scope any day over the parade of nonsensical trash and litany of directors who simply seem to have no interest in making good movies… but not by all that much.
The central problem is that Cameron makes these big action movies as if they’re actually prestige pictures. As if he’s making the singular profound statements for all man kind. Really, it’s just soaking in that kind of hubris. Once again, coupled with his real life obnoxious persona you start to get the idea of just what Cameron is all about. It’s all up there on screen, readily apparent. This is the stuff of the inane.
So obviously, I didn’t like AVATAR, right?
Actually, I kind of enjoyed it.
Devin Faraci over at CHUD, who evaluated the movie in far better terms than I have, made the excellent point that your ability to enjoy AVATAR fully depends on you ability to get into the designs. It sounds like a strange comment but it’s wholly accurate. The film takes a turn after the first act and essentially becomes a world viewing sequence where the viewer is brought along on a 40-60 minute tour of Pandora. And unlike Devin, who was not able to get into the design of the creatures, I eventually went along with it. And when this all happens, the film soars.
I should note that this is largely due to the 3-D, which works amazingly well. It gives Pandora a real sense of depth and texture. You not really emoting FOR the actors or anything, but you’re emoting with them as they emote with Pandora too (you can surmise this works best because Cameron is in love with the world he created as well, and it shows). In particular, the first flying sequence with those pterodactyl thingies I found to be the most exhilarating part of the movie. This whole chunk of the film is enough of a cinematic experience for me to recommend it to anyone. It just works.
But eventually this too must pass and the film heads into heartbreak mode/final battle sequence. Of course that’s when the wheels fall off. Not for any good reason either. This was always what was going to happen and you knew it was coming. Hell you can predict every single moment of this movie beat for beat, but that’s okay. The real reason the wheels fall off is you realize you just spent the last hour on the cinematic equivalent of a nature walk and there was no actual story to begin with. Thus the climactic battle is taking place and I’m sitting there not caring if anyone lives or dies. This is not my usual modus operandi either. I’m an empathetic motherfucker when it comes to my movie protagonists. I actually found it a little distressing: “I was just enjoying these two and now I don’t care?” Really, there was just nothing there to begin with.
Just hollowed out tropes and clichés desperately hanging onto the sublime skill of action filmmaking on display. It all looks fantastic. I just didn’t care.
To wit, if there was one word I would use to sum up this “game-changing” “action epic” called AVATAR, the word would be… pretty.
It is a very pretty movie. Which might be considered highly insulting to a movie that is trying desperately to be so much more. But it doesn’t have a single idea of how to transcend its base qualities or indulge in nuance.
And no, I’m NOT saying I need my big action movies to have Merchant Ivory level subtext or anything. I’m just saying they need something that transcends the basic archetypes into something resembling good movie entertainment. Like Ironman’s delightful sense of humor and organic characters. Like The Dark Knight’s moral complexity and stunning performances. Like The Lord of the Rings sense of balance and scope. Even Star Wars works because Harrison ford just kills it as Han Solo. These were all popular, epic-feeling movies that used certain strong qualities to move past the archetype and become a good movie for the popular consensus.
And with AVATAR, the prettiness, world-building, and actioneering almost get it there. But Cameron just relishes too much in the Archetype.
(1) Let us speak for a moment about what editing truly is: there’s a popular notion that good editing is when you notice really good cuts and stylizations and juxtapositions. This notion fully feeds into that awards season it’s not “Best picture” or “Best acting” or “Best editing”, but instead “Most picture” “Most acting” and “MOST editing”. That’s why the Bourne films always win. Because it’s the only tangible thing an untrained eye can gravitate toward. And that’s totally understandable. The paradox is that great editing is truly invisible. Cuts in action that blend so seamlessly it feels like a perfect flow. This is especially significant in action films. And Cameron and his rotating cast of editors are masters of the invisible cut (the rotating cast means that’s it’s really just Cameron doing most of this stuff).
(2) I should at least point out that I thought Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana did their fricken damndest to make it all work. In fact I thought they were both rather good in their roles (extensive mo-cap and animation to boot). But there’s just no saving the inanity of it all.
A) I always argue that the reason Titanic was so beloved was because (obviously) it was the perfect storm for girls and (not so obviously) because the music of that film is so amazingly beautiful that you simply had to swoon with it. The music was what transcended that movie from being a horribly forced allegory of class struggle and tragic romance into a movie that actually had some legs to stand on. There is a reason that soundtrack went on to become more iconic and referenced than that actual film, which was sort of just a moment in time.
B)Mr. Beaks over at AICN made an interesting note that even with all the problems with the movie, the cinematic world still needs Cameron. And they need him to be successful. The need guys like him and Spielberg to go huge, push technical boundaries, and stretch budgets. And I think I agree, but it is an uneasy bargain for me.
C) Reader Kevin linked a positively great article in the comments section below about Cameron written by David Foster Wallace. Everything he says about T2 and the approaching Titanic, can completely be said for AVATAR. http://www.theknowe.net/dfwfiles/pdfs/Wallace-FX_Porn.pdf