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Two things were zapping through my head as the lightcycles and disccs passed across the screen: Avatar, and – strangely – Mamoru Oshii. For the former, this movie is its little brother. It creates a world, and populates it with characters created digitally. For the latter, I wished earnestly during the first half that a movie this visually dazzling was more cerebral, slower. It wasn’t until later on that I realized that Tron Legacy shouldn’t be an Oshii picture, that it’s a great film even without that meditative bent.
Having never seen the 1982 original, my only familiarity with the universe is vicarious through fellow nerds on the Internet and scifi history books. It’s the movie that revolutionized the use of computer graphics in film, and established a distinct look. It also came at a price for fans – the movie, from what I understand (and can infer from from Legacy), is totally goofy. Truly nobody believes that this is what the inside of a computer looks like…
No, it’s not cyberpunk by way of Gibson, but it’s a family movie. Kids, as we know, are ace at suspending their disbelief. Assumedly then the theory is ‘turn your brain off, sit back, and enjoy.’ Have your mind blown – one half of it, anyway.
Tron Legacy does the same thing: it numbs the skull as it blows the mind. It’s a battle between A to B storytelling and character and a devastatingly beautiful world. For me, the victor of this struggle was undeniably the visuals. In the end I suppose that this movie stands where Avatar falls, and it becomes one of the best scifi action movies in recent memory. The story and characters aren’t stellar, but they aren’t stultifying or offensive like most action contemporaries like The Expendables and Machete.
We find the son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges’ character from the original), Sam, the daredevil bad boy type, returning to Tronworld, better known as the Grid. There he meets his father who’s been trapped for twenty years, and one of the few non-hostile inhabitants of this strange world, Quorra. Together, they journey back to the Real World, and must contend with Clu, a doppleganger of Flynn who’s trying to defect to the Real World for nefarious Bond villain reasons. Blow up the ocean, probably. Father and son will reunite, good will fight evil, there will be betrayals, there will be chases of all kinds.
On paper, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. So how did something like this get greenlit? Well, that’s a question that has more to do with the Tron brand than anything, but it works because of the product on screen. It can’t help but feel fresh. I’ve seen stills and a trailer from Tron, and this is very rather different – they definitely embodied the J.J. Abrams philosophy of design, where everything has that Apple Store shine, right down to the lens flares themselves. The polygonal cyberspace of Tron has been given quite the update – I believe on critic described the world as “Blade Runner after gentrification.”
No matter what you call it, it’s still pure visual stimuli. It’s the kind of thing one watches scifi film to see – I feel like we’re glimpsing a rare thing here, the climax of cinema dreams thirty years old. I’d advise you to turn the sound off and just take the world in, but that’d be doing everybody a disservice. Yes, the dialogue is flat – though never poorly delivered – but the real kicker is the sound effects and score. Daft Punk’s thumping soundtrack looms with foreboding swell or pops with electric energy when the scene calls for it – layer this on top of some of the movie’s action scenes and you’ve got a recipe for gold.
It’s an action movie where the story doesn’t bother me; in movies in the mold of Bond or Bourne, the budgets are high, giving the action scenes the filmmakers’ attention. They may be entertaining, but much less focus put on the characters, premise, and storytelling shows. So in between car chases we must slog through dead characters and poorly told story that was bland to begin with.
The argument can be made that Legacy is the same way. But it offers something new in these hard times between the action. The characters don’t gather into the Pentagon or in a hotel room or outside the White House to move the story along, they sit on a floating laser train in an electrical sky, or on the neon streets of the Downtown area, where fog and light dance in the background like classic Ridley Scott.
Of course, the action scenes alternating the obligatory plotforwards are so good, they make the movie. Fighting with discs may sound idiotic, but it’s elevated to aesthetically violent pleasure by the art design of the costumes, the environments, and the weapons themselves, all of which light up and react when touched. Everything’s streamlined and coupled with the slick energy and movement of the choreography and cinematography. The director comes off as an expert here, despite this being his first – and rather ambitious – feature film. He establishes rules for the action and then lets the situation run wild. Everything feels logical as it flows by us.
There is also that great sense of invention pervading these sequences. I know that the trailing light was a product of the first movie, but it’s a great idea, and lovingly applied to the new film. For offense and defense, the characters find many inventive purposes for it, and it feels like something that would be difficult to handle. Every time a vehicle would emanate with that light stream my interest would pique, the suspense would ratchet up – how are the heroes going to maneuver this challenge?
As inventive and dizzying as everything was, there was one major issue I have with the action scenes, and with the movie in general, and her name is Quorra. Olivia Wilde’s character is terrible, an absolute joke that makes the movie feel like it was made in 1982, an era where genre women had to be punched in the gut by the hero for him to move on, like in the otherwise awesome Streets of Fire, or nearly raped as in Blade Runner: the women that make Ripley look like a fucking saint. Remember the little girl from The Matrix Revolutions? The one Neo meets in Mobil Station? That’s Quorra. A program who doesn’t quite understand you humans, only twenty-something years old, just like all the naive alien babes out there who you can totally have sex with.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Kate Lloyd, from the other update of a 1982 classic, may have been a simple imitation of the aforementioned Alien heroine, but she was proper in the form of the Strong Science-fiction Female Character arehetype. These women don’t get kidnapped – and by extension don’t get rescued – they kick just as much ass as everyone else, whether that means fighting Agents in the Matrix or Renaissance knights in the post-apocalypse, and probably looking good as they’re at it, because there’s nothing nerds like better.
It wouldn’t be a problem (I can handle weak females just like I can handle weak males), but it didn’t match up with expectations. Wilde, in some of her press interviews, discussed how little girls these days don’t really have movie role models anymore – obviously this doesn’t mean women a la Kill Bill, but certainly not this. I did assume that her perception of Quorra was pure marketing speak, but in my heart, I hoped. Cyberpunk is generally pretty good about tough, well-to-do women, but alas.
One minor fumble aside, Tron Legacy is great fun. It’s an exhilarating marriage of image and sound – there’s nothing that looks or sounds like it, not even Tron. Maybe it could’ve been bettered if there was no dialogue (same solution to Wall-E), and if it was ninety minutes of straight action, but as it stands, it’s a delightful entry in a cult favorite franchise. My appreciation of Tron Legacy was as a nerd. I liked the flashbacks, the moments where we find that Tron had fought to save Flynn from Clu during the creation of the Grid – I don’t know, something about that rang right with me, the history of this world. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with the original mythos, so named for a character and not the world itself, a fact I always found odd, but it was interesting to me nonetheless. I look forward to this story being furthered.
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Spoilers for The Abyss, Avatar, my life
James Cameron is a champion of technology in film, and his latest thing is 3D. I’m among the majority that tends to scoff at 3D in movies and TV; there’s just too much about it I disagree with. But in the case of Avatar, 3D makes sense, and it is perhaps the only movie where the visually stunning gimmick has thematic significance, aside from maybe Friday the 13th Part III. It’s a movie where immersion is of the utmost import, such that it should stretch beyond the hero and onto the audience. We feel what he feels because it’s our journey of discovery too – he’s our avatar.
The award-winning filmmaker has always upped the ante with each movie in terms of technology, diving into one of the most difficult and technically challenging shoots ever with The Abyss (which nearly claimed the life of Ed Harris), and diving further with those deep sea documentaries and that critical darling Titanic. It’s kind of ironic, seeing as how his iconic Terminator would theoretically make him out to be some kind of creative luddite.
Alas no, and Avatar is the next step in this evolution, and it’s hands down the best-looking film of all time. Best visual effects, besting Transformers and The Lord of the Rings and Pirates 3 and even Terminator 2 by miles. Is it the most beautiful film? That comes down to art design, and I still contend that movies like Akira and Ghost in the Shell 2 achieve higher in that department. It’s something that can’t be overlooked or treated lightly – impressive doesn’t even begin to describe the quality of work here, so in the end I don’t think it’s entirely unfortunate that the visuals are the only thing the movie has going for it.
Now, for two years I had read every article online about Avatar, seen every production still and followed it closely such that the words Project 880 burned into my eyes; I had never been more excited for a movie. It was James Cameron’s return to feature films after a decade, and his return to science-fiction (more importantly) after nearly twenty years. Also note that the last time he made a science-fiction film, he made Terminator 2. Everything seemed to add up, and this was looking to be the most ambitious magnum opus attempted. It would be his first SF flick I’d be alive to see in theatres, so I was going opening night.
That decision came probably in 2007. Two years later, it was two days after opening night, a Sunday. Me and a friend of mine were able to see it at the IMAX, which was pleasant, as that screen was both huge and three-dimensional. Two and a half hours later I stumbled out. My friend was like, “Yeah that was pretty good. What did you think, Harry?” and I thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it.
And I continued to think about it. I recall recording a podcast about it, but don’t remember what I said. Probably that it was good but not nearly as good as it should have been. Well it’s July 9th 2011 as I write this, it’ll probably go up tomorrow, and I’ll tell you one thing: I now understand what people feel when they hear the words The Phantom Menace. They cringe inside, they feel slightly embarassed.
As the months were drawing closer to December 22, 2009, the Internet was ablaze with a storm of “holy shit Avatar trailers… suck?” and I was one pissed off little nerdlet. That’s actually what made me break up with a podcast I had listened to loyally for like two years – Slice of Scifi. It was the very first podcast I had ever heard of, and was kind of a personal stepping stone into further nerdom, but when the first Avatar trailer was underwhelming and one of the guys said, “He should just stick to documentaries,” I couldn’t believe it. To be fair, I remember the other guys wrangling him in like “Hey. That’s too far,” but it was too late. I loved James Cameron. He had done only good for the world, unless you count those many ex-wives and one disgruntled Harlan Ellison (not JC’s fault).
I was like, “Have you people forgotten what this man has wrought?” Apparently T2 wasn’t like the greatest thing ever, and it kind of makes sense. I grew up watching the movie, and would only later discover the general consensus was that Aliens was actually his best film (this is in nerd circles, of course, where we don’t use the T word. No, the other one). My heart was broken; I felt betrayed, but my burning desire to confirm that Avatar would blow my fucking mind, man, burned all the brighter – and it burned for half as long, as the movie was nearing release.
In the aftermath, I still don’t want to hear commentary on Avatar, and fortunately have suffered only a minimal amount. It’s just hard because I acknowledge that it’s a bad movie, but I’m in denial. Also exacerbating my perception of the film is the fact that the visuals are out of this world. They elevate the movie, but it’s still a bad, bad movie. It sucks. Seriously, it fucking blows. Cameron took ten years to write this script? Should’ve been looking over Nolan’s shoulder – and I never thought I’d say that.
Apparently I can say that it sucks, but I won’t hear it from anyone else. It’s like if somebody is self-conscious, they can laugh at themselves nervously and say they’re weird, sure. But God forbid anybody else do the same. If I were in your position reading this (I hope somebody reads this) I’d be shaking my head and thinking, no, nobody should read this. It’s inappropriate.
But like I said earlier. It’s July 9th, 2011. It’s been awhile. I’ve had time to think, and I’ve come to my conclusions. I guess now I should tell you why. (Please God don’t let this be a Scott Pilgrim-lengthed post… it won’t be nearly as fun to write…)
The biggest problem I’ll always have with Avatar, and with James Cameron, is his treatment of the military in his movies. Aliens owes everything it is to Military SF like Starship Troopers – essentially Cameron pulled a Wachowski Brothers and said “I want to do this for real,” (preempting Verhoeven by ten years) referring to space marines, of course, who have never been seen before or since the 1986 movie. The military isn’t depicted unfairly or anything, but their ultimately being criticized in a Vietnam War allegory – situations occur where technologically advanced forces are beaten time and again by the lesser-equipped simply because they didn’t know what they were doing.
In The Abyss, the military once again dons the face of Michael Biehn, and they are spoilers the badguys. The Terminator actually offers an interesting view, one that I agree with – the marriage of technology and warfare seems to breed something we won’t be able to handle in years down the road, and here it’s depicted as Skynet. Isn’t it interesting that in order to fight this ungodly child we have to resort to warfare as well? That could have made an interesting study, but unfortunately that’s never what Terminator was about, and instead of something where we destroy ourselves with combat, we get Rise of the Machines.
And finally in Avatar we have the space military in all their glory – but they’re assholes. We have one qualifying line in the beginning where hero Jake Sully notes that these are sort of the rejects, a PMC squad working for a capital-c Company, think Weyland-Yutani. Alright, fine, they’re not really America’s military or Space America’s marines or anybody we should be rooting for, but the end product is still space marines are the bad guy. And that really rides me. I’m not some gun-nut who unconditionally praises American’s army, it’s just that my feelings about the military seem to conflict with Cameron’s various depictions, and goddamn it – it wouldn’t be so bad if the heroes of the tale, the Na’vi, weren’t so goddamn insulting.
I’m not even saying they’re disrespectful towards Native Americans – I’m saying they’re disrespectful towards me because they use the fact that they’re Native Americans, and nakedly so, to draw sympathy rather than use actual characterization. What does Zoe Saldana want? I don’t know, to save the trees. Oh so her character coincides with the message of the film. That means she’s a blank slate to which Cameron can paint his environmental theme – she’s like Mr. Exposition for the moral of the tale, and that’s bullshit. That’s not writing; the themes should come about in a more organic manner. We shouldn’t be tricked into getting the message, we should just get it.
Let’s look at these goddamn things, these Na’vi [from Zelda]: they’re interesting looking, but I don’t like them at all. Not only do they look like taller versions of Asari, they’re somehow worse, if that’s even imaginable. They’re cliche because they’re Out-to-Save-the-World Native Americans, and they’re uninteresting because Cameron thought that he didn’t have to write anything beyond that. Was that seriously your selling point? Did you actually think that that made these things compelling? That they liked nature? Are you fucking kidding me?
And we haven’t even touched upon the alien sex. I guess the most poetic way to show our hero becoming one with nature was to have him bump uglies with a nine foot tall cat, and (actually, does that even happen in the movie? I forget) I guess it’s just consistent enough with the other garbage going on that we don’t notice how zoophillic that is. It’s okay though – she’s hot. Look at that sexy tail… Well, at least Zoe Saldana is in real life actually very attractive, and – fun fact – another extremely good-looking woman, Yunjin Kim (Lost, Shiri) screentested for the same character. But anyways…
He tries to draw us into an unconventional romance through conventional means, and nothing could be more inappropriate or miscalculated. It’s true love and it has to be, as the message to stress with Avatar is be cool with everything and everyone. Cross-cultural boundaries should be breached, but more generally and more significantly, we need to have open minds if we want to save the world(s). Makes sense on paper, but in the film, it just does not work. Let’s look at some other unconventional relationships in movies, and the two that come into my mind maybe aren’t obvious examples of this which is itself not an obvious thing: JSA: Joint Security Area, an old standby on Dreck Fiction, and The Yakuza.
In JSA we have, and I hate this term, a bromance. What’s more, it’s a forbidden bromance, but let’s just call it a friendship. These guys aren’t supposed to be friends – it should be shocking that they’re even talking to each other. Their relationship develops very naturally throughout, and when it all comes crashing down, like they anticipated, it’s tragic. It works because we get a feel for these characters and we don’t want to see them fail.
With The Yakuza, we have an interesting relationship between two guys, Harry Kilmer and Tanaka Ken. What they have is both weaker and stronger than a frienship, because they share something important but can never just chill and hang out. Dialogue between the two is alternatively tense and poigniant, and it’s handled just as we should expect from such writers with pedigrees as Paul Shrader and Robert Towne.
So the fact that Cameron treats his odd relationship with normal terms – courtship, which is bizarre – is embarassing and kind of naive. There even could have been an interesting discussion there about cross-species relationships, but as it stands the Na’vi just persist in being no different from us afterall. This really is like Mass Effect, but that title – a video-game, mind you – makes up for it with surprising levels of characterization and a cool SF story.
Avatar has no such thing. Its story is template. Formula. Seen before. As much as those fuckings mountains in the sky are wowing and unprecedented (except for those wonderful Internet comparison photos, courtesy of a dozen beautiful minds), we can’t be entirely swept away because this story is so damn familiar. Story beats seem to be hit like somebody’s checking them off a list, and as a result, everybody is a stereotype or an archetype. There isn’t one original character in the entire movie. We have the tough-as-nails mentor with a heart of gold played by Sigourney Weaver, the tough-as-nails pilot played by Michelle Rodriguez, the guy who starts out antagonizing our hero until he becomes one of the People and then heroically sacrifices himself, the racist old guy (the only good character), the nerdy technician, and the flawless hero.
Star Wars is a similar situation, in that it used archetypes like the gunslinger Han Solo and the Hero’s Journey hero Luke Skywalker. But in the context of what Star Wars is, it makes sense and it works beautifully, which is why that movie is and will be remembered for being a good movie, but Avatar will be remembered for being pioneering. Unfortunately people and things that set the wheel in motion are forgotten when surpassed – think Willis O’brien when Ray Harryhausen came along.
The potential Avatar had was really the thing that pissed me off the most. It’s a science-fiction movie by James Cameron. It’s got dragons, it’s got space helicopters, it’s got war. How do you fuck that up? Big things and littles things. Big things like blank-slate characters, and little things like moments that just feel so out-of-place and immature, like when the rhinos pop out of the forest to victory music and overwhelm the enemy soldiers at the last second.
It’s a beautiful movie, and it will always look good because the art design will hold up, though I do think the mechs were better-looking in The Matrix Revolutions. The casting was good, the technology was in place, but the script needed work – about ten more years. And left in the center is one confused nerd, and I doubt I’ll even seek out Avatar 2 in the theatres. I just wish he’d drop this ‘trilogy’ bullshit and go ahead with Battle Angel. Maybe at this point in his career he needs established characters to work with, but who knows? Hopefully I’ll come to reneg on those words.
I’ve been wrong before.
Man, I really missed science-fiction. The last few posts have been pretty Movie-centric in terms of the Movie/Science-fiction split on this website, so this should be a nice return to form. I guess the posts here do happen to reflect my movie-watching habits – lately I’ve been watching a lot of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – and I’ve seen some cool non-SF movies like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Mulholland Drive, it was nice to finally sit down with a movie about cops in the future.
It was also nice to see a movie I knew I was going to like – and liked! I assumed I would like End of Days, but it didn’t have the one liners or the action of other Schwarzenegger classics, but Minority Report certainly worked out. It’s a good movie.
It’s definitely a Spielberg thriller; elements of drama, elements of action, elements of genuine science fiction, but none of these are more pronounced than the others. Combined, it’s an entertaining film, but right in the center of Dick adaptations to the right of A Scanner Darkly and to the left of Paycheck. It’s a great premise, and throwing in this convulted murder mystery seemed to be the right way to go, but everything non-Philip K. Dick and not pertaining to the look and feel of the film was formulaic. The tortured backstory for Tom Cruise, the twists and turns, the one dimensional secondary cast – those didn’t add up to much in the movie’s favor.
In the original short story, “The Minority Report,” John Anderton is a middle-aged bald fat man, but in the film adaptation he’s Tom Cruise. That should begin to illustrate the level of adaptation we’re working with here: not quite as faithful as Linklater’s rather strict constructionist take, but then again not as overtly “Philip K. What?” as John Woo’s extremely embarassing outting, just another in his line of extremely embarassing American movies.
It is perhaps more Spielberg than Dick, but that is never a bad thing. Spielberg is ace at nearly everything when it comes to that little thing we call filmmaking, so Minority Report may not be one of his better science-fiction blockbusters, but this is really only due to of the weakness of the script.
A wonderful irony here is that the screenwriters didn’t take any risks. My guess is that they had only the gall for one risk, and that was adapting something by this author whose popularity was only beginning to show, and was kind of weird. The script isn’t wholly reflective of ‘weird,’ for example the PreCogs are just psychics rather than deformed and mentally challenged mutants, but this I believe actually works in the movie’s favor. In the end it’s really just bland dialogue that doesn’t allow the movie to get deep with either emotion or judicial philosophy and morals.
To go back to the PreCog thing – I remember hearing one complaint about Inception, and at first I took it as a legitimate criticism, but quickly realized why the movie was the way it was. Essentially the moviegoer was hoping to see more dream stuff, as assumedly inside someone’s dream anything is possible, so why is it that the craziest thing to happen was the buildings folded over? We could’ve had robot unicorns eating the sun but instead we had some pretty cool gun fights – what gives?
That’s an issue that comes to production and art design. Christopher Nolan was going for a specific look as he did with the very Blade Runner-inspired Batman Begins and the period piece The Prestige. Inception was meant to be something of a neo-noir, and it was science-fiction but not embarassingly so. It had to have consistent art design, and therefore couldn’t have superfluous robot unicorns.
This is analogous somewhat to the world of Minority Report, which is one originally created by Philip K. Dick. The author made a habit of writing stories where time travel and space travel often co-exist, where off-world colonies hide ESPers and where androids see the future.
Because of the limited scope of the screen, filmmakers like Spielberg and like Nolan need to streamline. Some elements that some viewers may find distracting of what’s most important in the narrative (like deformed mutants) need to be altered, or adapted, to fit with the Minority Report look and feel. It’s a movie about cops in the future, and it works pretty well, looks really cool, moves forward most of the time.
In this case and in the case of Blade Runner, we actually benefitted by less Dick. Odd, but certainly not every filmmaker is capable of such a thing.