“…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
– Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act V, Scene V
James Cameron made two films that are high on my list of favorites: Terminator 2 and Aliens – not least because powerful women are central to the stories (even though he gave them the most conservative and clichéd motivation for heroism: maternal protectiveness). He was a taut, visually inventive storyteller once. But all his films after The Abyss increasingly resemble the Hindenburg: bloated, self-indulgent, lacking originality and subtlety in all but F/X.
The latest iteration, Avatar, is the culmination of these traits and a poster boy of the industry’s tendency to let CGI spectacle be the sole concern. A quarter of a billion dollars went into the film, the GNP of a small country, yet they couldn’t pay a decent SF writer a paltry sum to give even a whiff of freshness to the story. The characters are stale broad stereotypes, the plot reheated canned slurry, the dialogue rusty nails scratching a cement slab. The borrowings are endless, starting with the ersatz Campbellian mythology that failed so abysmally to add resonance to Star Wars. But the definitive stamp of hackery is that many elements are frank rip-offs of older Cameron creations. The vaunted 3-D effects are devoid of unique payoff and the Pandoran life forms look like shiny hood ornaments.
The worldbuilding is equally shoddy. As I said in SF Goes McDonald’s, scientific accuracy is not crucial in SF. However, consistency and informed imagination are. A moon as close to a gas giant as Pandora is would be awash in radiation and wracked by earthquakes and volcanoes like Jupiter’s Io. Also, its independent biogenesis would give rise to life forms that would not remotely resemble us. But let’s concede that point for the sake of audience identification. Since all Pandoran animals are six-limbed and four-eyed, the Na’vi would share these evolutionary attributes. This would actually make them far more interesting.
The clunky clichés and logic gaps of Avatar are wince-inducing even if you accept the film’s premises. Here’s a species that’s essentially the “neocortex” of a sentient planet – yet they have… nuclear families and hereditary chiefs. The conceptualizations of the avatars and of the Na’vi neural links to the Pandoran flora and fauna are too silly to dissect. If the link worked as advertised, they wouldn’t need to hunt (or, conversely, killing an animal would have concrete physiological repercussions). I discussed mind uploading in Ghost in the Shell. If you want to see a linked, communing ecosphere done right, read Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean or follow Odo’s individuation struggles in Deep Space 9. And if you want action with stunning animation, elegiac depth and heartbreaking stakes, watch Hayao Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime.
The Na’vi are sexed-up Ewoks and Pandora is a prelapsarian Eden where they can live dilemma-free with Stone Age technology. Yet like all Others, they’re helpless until a White Alpha Male steps down literally from on high to rally them to battle, while in turn they enable him to reconnect with his inner Mother Earth anima. Soft-focus imperialism and New Age fuzziness mix queasily with post-genocidal sentimentality about Noble Savages — a pernicious mindset that I described in And Ain’t I a Human?
It’s bad enough that films since the maturation of F/X have been aimed at 15-year-old boys. Far worse is the fact that the most lavish Hollywood films have been made by their directors’ 15-year-old inner boys – tightly conjoined with plans for lunch boxes and video games whose complexity far exceeds that of the films. Welcome to Infantileland, where crudity, banality and sloppiness rule, where clouds of sycophants allow directors to call themselves Emperor of the Universe or Master Jedi without a trace of irony. In one of my visions of hell, I’m forced to endlessly watch Lucas’ Star Wars (except, perhaps, episode V), Jackson’s King Kong, all of Spielberg’s SF/F and Cameron’s Avatar.
There’s nothing wrong with adults enjoying Disney-level spectacle, as long as they don’t make it their moral, intellectual or esthetic measuring stick. An artist with Cameron’s credibility and clout should undertake real challenges that inspire our innate desire to explore instead of recycling militaristic violence porn and preachy feel-good platitudes. He did it incredibly well before, he can do it again. And some childish dreams should remain dreams. They work far better as beckoning beacons.
Images: top, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in James Cameron’s Terminator 2; middle, David Switzer’s cover for Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean; bottom, Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas in Terence Malick’s New World.
Update: The Huffington Post just re-printed this article. I’m donning my asbestos space suit!