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A man like Neil Marshall makes Doomsday because he thought a futuristic soldier facing down a knight would be cool. A man like Neil Marshall makes two critically acclaimed horror movies and then obliterates expectations with his third.

A man like Neil Marshall is one the last great champions of genre cinema.

Though he’s in a league with Edgar Wright and Robert Rodriguez — the modern day John Carpenters of our world — he fell down with Doomsday, such that his next film, Centurion, went seemingly unnoticed, leaving his future in uncertain terms. It’s hard to believe, really, because the philosophy behind Doomsday was so genuine, though some might say naive. He wanted to make a movie so absurd you’d be compelled to laugh, but also find yourself enjoying some of the best R-rated sci-fi action in years — nobody makes movies quite like this anymore.

Dog Soldiers

I don’t think this is technically his feature debut, but it’s a strong start for a career nonetheless. Making use of minimalist settings and a creepy atmosphere, Marshall managed to make one of the few cool werewolf movies in existence. And certainly the last, though I’m sure a few movies made in direct answer to Twilight will challenge Dog Soldiers.

As one critic put it so well, this is like Alien, Predator, and Jaws all rolled up into one — but with werewolves. It feels derivative, but in that good way. It’s familiarity done with enough style and care that it feels fresh. There’s some gore, some ooh-rah soldier stuff, way too much foreshadowing, and a lame twist at the end. A formula for success, often necessary with such formulaic subject matter.

Right, there’s a lot of dog and wolf jokes/puns at the start of the movie. It feels like a beginner’s screenplay in that regard, but it isn’t quite enough to push it over the edge, into absurdity. Leave that for the one after next…

The Descent

I don’t care for this movie. It’s drawn out and the monsters are not scary or that well-designed. Visually, that is. In other regards, there’s implied history to them, and it’s pretty creepy, but I actually prefer the nonsense lizards from The Cave, or whatever the fuck. The Descent was white-knuckling in its first half, with these women being claustrophobic in caves, and getting stuck and running high tension. I can’t imagine a better place to set a horror movie. Cave-diving is not escapism, James Cameron.

The flaws of this movie, like the aloof narrative and out-of-the-blue moments could at the time be excused, or even appreciated, as horror movie unpredictableness, but the next movie would paint them in a new light.

Doomsday

When Doomsday was announced and the trailer was released, people whined. They said, “It’s 28 Days Later meets Mad Max meets Escape from New York.” Now, I don’t know what fucking planet these people live on, because no way does the combination of Mad Max and Escape from New York equal anything but Yeah. Was it just the derivative nature of the project that got people so frazzled? Perhaps it was an insult to their intelligence, because they perceived the movie to think it was being original, on the grounds that, well, most movies tend to do that. But of course the rip-offs were so glaring that it seemed to taunt the audience.

Doomsday, rather, the reaction to Doomsday, is proof that we live in a cynical movie-watching world. As soon as one watches the film, they’ll realize that the director was not only paying homage to these earlier movies, but having a complete blast with them. It’s the same principle, but on a much different level, as what Peter Jackson did with King Kong. Marshall wanted to introduce this genre to a wider audience, though he may not realize just how inventive the film actually is.

Yes, it uses the structure of Escape from New York as a base, but that’s fine because just like how Waterworld is a perfect Mad Max 3, this is a great sequel to Escape from L.A., following in the same conventions that that film set up — that being, this premise of crazy people clustered together is going to breed some batshit insane obstacles for the hero to meet. This post-apocalypse movie isn’t just about zombies or cannibals or viruses — Rhona Mitra’s character Maj. Eden Sinclair (awesome name) is going to fight medieval knights in an arena and get into car chases with barbarians who tape their beheaded girlfriends to one piece so they can drive together.

Doomsday in this regard recalls Total Recall, another gory 80s movie that didn’t come out in the 1980s. And much like Total Recall, Doomsday in its day was not well understood. There’s a joy in novelty and invention in Doomsday, and a lot of these scenarios and things are born out of sources we’ve all enjoyed, but kicked up to a new extreme. It’s not only one of the best sci-fi movies of the decade, but one of the goriest and most fun action movies too. This rabbit will be blown up by sentry turrets for — well, for absolutely no reason.

Marshall also introduces two things here that carry over into his next picture: a strong female character, and an impressive ability to have the audience invest in characters they know nothing about. For the latter, we have these two soldiers who survive by Sinclair’s side longer than they have any right to. I assumed they’d die at every encounter, because truly this is her show, and these guys have no characterization. What they do have, and this was seen in Dog Soldiers, is solid chemistry. Despite the carnage and the macabre setting, these two have a laugh as they take out cannibals with axes, and by goofing around — and even just surviving up to a late point — I didn’t want to see them die. For an action movie, this is a preferable, on-the-fly alternative to actual characterization. Good on you, Neil.

Then of course we have the tough girl, played by the woman who looks like a tough girl despite the beauty — Rhona Mitra. While she may not be as compelling to watch as the next female character to be discussed, Maj. Eden Sinclair is one cool chick, with a fake eye and a knack for killing gladiators. She’s a badass, but she’s a believable badass. Not only does Rhona Mitra look like an athletically capable woman (rather than Milly from Hard Revenge Milly, to use a recent example, who looks like a pretty normal person you’d see walking around), she isn’t the action hero god that trounces everyone. She gets beat up and tossed around, and this puts her on an equal playing field with the villains.

Last post I lamented the fact that Milly wasn’t the action hero god. That’s because I want a movie like hers to be a slasher flick, but with Doomsday, it’s more appropriate that Sinclair is a realistic badass. It heightens her moments of victory, and adds tension to hand-to-hand fight scenes with spears in swords… in the future.

Doomsday will keep you guessing, and Neil Marshall leaves you in good hands with Eden Sinclair, who’s got the tacit nature of her most obvious inspiration — Snake Plissken — with an all-soldier, no fucking around attitude that’s pretty rare, even for dude action heroes. It’s confidence without the one-liners, and the badassery to back it up.

Neil Marshall is also ballsy enough to take an unbelievably beautiful South African stunt woman and paint her face beyond recognition, and then behead her… and then reattach the head in vain. I am so ashamed that I skipped this movie when it came out in theatres. It’s right up there with Slither and so many others…

Centurion

Doomsday was a sci-fi movie that wanted to be a sword-and-sandals movie, so let’s just make a sword-and-sandals movie. While this one lacks the wacky nature and imagination of its predecessor, it has the same level of bloodshed and action. If you’re in town for a straightforward, bruising actioner, Marshall is your man. Centurion stars Michael Fassbender and Jimmy McNulty himself as soldiers of the Ninth Legion, which went missing during the expansion into Pict territory. This is that story, though historical accuracy is not something we come to a movie like this for.

We come because we know it’s going to be a ride, one with plenty of blood and running around in beautiful Scotland scenery. There’s also a lovely Olga Kurylenko all done up to look like a barbarian, whose Etain is savage as hell but still manages to look sexy. Indeed she is the greatest draw, and plays a great part in the film. Centurion, despite the violence and overall intensity (“I AM A SOLDIER OF ROME! I WILL NOT YAAYLD!”), borders on generic, and requires that iconic image of deadly Etain with her facepaint to stand out.

There was a moment in Centurion where I felt the story could’ve capitalized on the L.L. Cool J mentality from Deep Blue Sea, that of having two stories interwoven, where one is basically irrelevant and all the better for it, but the two soldier who get separated don’t have much screentime as such, and leads to an anti-climax within the narrative. I really thought that dude was gonna kill those wolves and make it back, which would’ve made no sense and been more Marshallian.

There’s kid killing and CG blood explosions — that which we adore from Doomsday, but none of the same elements that make you say ‘wow’ and sit up, save for a particularly nasty eye-trauma. Good, but not great. Memorable certainly for Etain, a performance that’s subtely animal, though we get the feeling that a great deal is blasting through that bloodthirsty brain of hers, maybe even some humanity.

Conclusion

Neil Marshall is a complicated thing. We’re not used to filmmakers who make movies because that’s their interest, and they want to make movies. Odd as it is to say. He’s not interested in the business or in making money, but having fun, which produces some of the most unpredictable and lively entertainment in movies today. Whatever his next movie will be, I can’t guess at subject matter, certainly, I can only hope that it arrives soon.

In this year 2011, over a decade after The Matrix hit theatres and I was but a boy, I never thought I could ever be such a thing as a Matrix apologist. Of course, the sequels were poorly recieved so I had to defend those, but the original Matrix is one of science-fiction film’s proudest moments – from what I understood of critical consensus. Why then do I find that people can be so critical of it when it’s – on the level that they criticize it for – essentially Star Wars, operating on the same principle of gracefully synthesizing old tropes. Where Star Wars had Kurosawa and Flash Gordon, The Matrix had Gibson and Ghost in the Shell. It also, and this is something that Star Wars most certainly did not have, had a year that was appropriately surrounded by a bevy of cyberpunk and existential movies. We had, from 1995 to 1999, Strange Days, Dark City, Johnny Mnemonic, eXistenZ, and The Thirteenth Floor, and as Christopher Nolan will tell us, Memento. I can agree with that, though it lacks cyber and it has no punk.

If one day The Matrix actually came into your office and ripped you off, just jacked all your belongings and was seen only on the security feed, you couldn’t say a goddamn thing – it’d be crying wolf, as a legion of creatives has already beat you to it. It’s a fundamental problem the Wachowski brothers had with their universe. It’s hugely popular as a franchise in terms of finance, akin to Star Wars but obviously not as galactic (*laughs*), but have you ever really heard of a Matrix fan? As a devout science-fiction nerd, this is indeed something I’ve turned over in my mind not once but a frequently many times before.

A Star Wars fan has a Boba Fett T-shirt, a Phantom Menace poster – because I don’t know he’s a hipster – a Chewbacca bobble-head, and a preorder for Star Wars: The Old Republic, or KOTOR III-VI, if marketing jargon has been effective. The fan has a lot of universe to pick from, it’s so expansive and conducive to fandom. Same with Star Trek and Doctor Who and Buffy, I guess, though they might just say “Whedonverse,” which might as well just be Buffy for various reasons*. The Matrix on the other hand has something of a flawed universe if we’re speaking to fan-friendly terms.

The heroes in The Matrix universe are actively working to undo the universe. As a result it sort of feels temporary, and personally that’s something that doesn’t jibe with me. It’s definitely one of those weirdnerd things, but out of all the sci-fi universes I’d want to live in – where the Sprawl universe or Mass Effect ties for the top – The Matrix would be down near Ghost in the Shell, which is at the bottom because you can get real fucked up in that world. Being in The Matrix would just be no fun, and it does reflect on the movies, which are all very, very serious.

Despite some flashes of humor, all three movies and the one anime anthology, take themselves very seriously, and tonally that doesn’t always click with people. Not to harp on Nolan again but that’s one of the reasons why I can’t say without qualification that I like his movies, where even the jokes in something like The Dark Knight feel like they’re taking themselves seriously. At the same time though The Matrix always works for me, even if all the parts in Zion that don’t involve sexy robot-on-robot action come off something like… The Chronicles of Riddick.

I’ve said this before but The Matrix is not only exemplary in modern filmmaking (indeed such a general term), I’d also consider it to be the second best science-fiction film ever made, above Star Wars and 2001 and all the others. It fills out exactly what movies of this type aspire to – being hugely entertaining and taking the time out to allow the audience to think about what’s going on. Not even Blade Runner does that because not everyone can find it as entertaining. That being said, The Matrix doesn’t quite operate on the same intellectual plane as Blade Runner, where it’s existentialist questions and themes were upstaged a year earlier with Dark City.

It’s just a damn good movie that talked about all the things people have been talking about for centuries – Allegory of the Cave but the difference here is that the Cave is the Net, which I suppose makes it stretch only as far back as certain episodes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but it never gets old and had two not-as-good sequels and a universe that nerds can’t get behind. Hmm.

*Well I didn’t want to get into it above because I thought it was just a funny throwaway joke but didn’t want to bog down the already needlessly joke-heavy post; a gamble, of course. But it occured to me as I typed the word “Buffy,” up there that Joss Whedon has Buffy, a huge series spanning like seven or twelve seasons or something, and then Angel, which is a spin-off and occupies the same universe, a little later on he had Firefly, which was so short it doesn’t count, and then Dollhouse which was about four times as long but nobody liked it.

 

We’ve had one feature film and two television series about it, and fan response has been lukewarm as the franchise’s relevance begins to decline. Star Trek is possibly getting popular again, Battlestar Galactica was huge – there are seemingly better options nowadays for space opera. George Lucas has been known to hold out on his fans, not quite on the level of Harlan Ellison perhaps, but by not delivering on promising projects, for example a live-action television show, he’s being frustrating again. Just like in 2002 when Attack of the Clones was released to only moderate critical success, a movie that should have washed the sour taste of Phantom Menace out of the fanbase’s collective mouth, but instead kicked off a brand new storyline, a saga within a saga that would become the face of Star Wars for nearly a decade, spanning video-games and books and yes, even a whole Star Wars movie. Episode 7? No. The Clone Wars.

So not only does the Clone Wars provide a face for the series in this modern time where fans scratch their heads, it also feels like a huge waste of time. Remember in The Empire Strikes Back, when Darth Vader tells Luke that he’s his father? I sure do, and it’s those major plot points that kept the series going back in the late seventies and early eighties, kept the fans interested and invested in what mattered in the long term for the narrative – the characters. While having not seen any of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (not to be confused with Star Wars: Clone Wars, which was actually kind of good), I can’t say anything for certain, but I just can’t imagine they add anythng to the series canon when we already have Episode II and Episode III. Assumedly they all lead up to Anakin turning to evil, so I suppose the best the show can offer you is original characters and scenarios and what comes of those.

But then, why bother placing it in the Clone Wars? Not only do we know the outcome, this is easily the most uninteresting aspect of the Star Wars universe, one that contains such things as retroactively inserted dancing CG aliens in 1983 and Jar-Jar Binks. There’s so many problems with the idea of a the clone wars, and I think they’re analogous to why the films that contained them didn’t really connect with the audience.

We have Clone Troopers being made, an infinite army serving the Republic, which will eventually fall and become the Empire. These clonetroopers obviously become the Storm Troopers, the inept soldiers who are constant laser fodder in the original trilogy. So if they’re going to be evil, are we supposed to root for them now? Certainly we never get to know any of their characters, but if they’re good I suppose we cheer for their team. The only problem is we know they’re going to be evil. They’re only temporary heroes, and so watching Clone Wars battles between clones and droids is like watching two sports teams go at it who aren’t from your local area. I have no stake in either, and the main heroes aren’t as personally invested in the clonetroopers’ plight as the heroes were with the Rebel Alliance in the original movies.

It kind of leaves you cold, when you’re indifferent to such a piece of what’s going on. That’s exactly how I felt about the prequel movies – disregarding entirely the fact that I don’t care much for the series as a whole – cold and distant. No sense of gravity to anything that was going on; truly the writers fell into the easy prequel trap, where yes we know the ending, so we should have something to combat that fact which minimizes drama and suspense, but nothing was done.

Also, the entirety of the Clone Wars occur in the Star Wars universe to serve a singular, tiny purpose, and this is something that a long time ago I brought up in conversation with a friend who’s a Star Wars fan. I said “It’s kind of dumb that we have this huge war that’s orchestrated just so that the Chancellor can control the clone army, on a narrative level anyway. It really makes the Clone Wars feel useless.” His response was “Isn’t that what war is in real life? Useless?” Fine, you can make that argument, but not with any evidence gathered from Episode I-III. The themes of those movies were corruption and the fall of republics. This segues nicely into the original trilogy, which was about redemption and the fall of empires. Assuming that Lucas is following the mold set by space opera in literature, we can say that after Episode VI the Rebel Alliance too becomes an Empire and somebody must stop them.

It’s a series that would then be about cycles throughout the ages, and it would be about history. It’s not so much that war is pointless in history, but that it’s a constant. Even if you disagree with that, and you feel that the Clone Wars were useless by necessity, the product of that uselessness is still a major negative on the series. We have clones and androids, two of the most expendable creatures in all of science-fiction, being pumped out on a galactic scale to do battle with each other. Sound epic? No, that sounds like you could kill one thousand clones and do no better than when you killed three hundred thousand droids last week. There is no weight to the conflict, which can’t be said of the rebels and empire war.

I guess in the end we’re not supposed to be invested in the clones at all, but the Jedi. And all the clone wars do is just serve that one plot point of the Chancellor becomes the evil emperor of the new Empire. That’s fine, but why do we have to have so much of it? Star Wars could and should be a series of over a dozen movies by now, but it’s like pulling teeth with the guy to make another movie – what exactly is he doing up there in his Skywalker Ranch? Doesn’t matter. If we don’t have more Star Wars movies, that’s just fine by me, but why out of all the possible films to make set in this universe do we get one about the clone wars? And it was animated! With animation you could have done anything; the continuation of Luke’s story maybe, or whatever happened to Boba Fett, which I know is a point of much interest on the Internet. Anything could have been done, and it would’ve been eaten up because Star Wars is and always will be the biggest and most popular franchise in science-fiction history, eclipsing Star Trek by a margin.

The clone wars is just one insignificant dot in it, starting from one throwaway line in Star Wars and all the way up to modern times with I don’t know three seasons of the second animated TV series?

Shit does look pretty rad though, especially in Episode II at the end. As much as I’ve complained about it, the clone wars bits of the movies are probably for me the most memorable. But they’re so stupid… I need a science-fiction movie with that level of fantastical visuals and the burden of something ticking under its creators’ skulls. Too much to ask for?

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.

 

A look back on the various movies that recall why I like movies any. This week, it’s yet another Chan-Wook Park movie

Introducing the Chan-Wook Park film Oldboy (2005) to an unsuspecting filmgoer is an experience in itself, almost rivalling in personal satisfaction the first time watching. You’re watching the person next to you just as much as the screen, anticipating the reaction. Essentially, Oldboy operates in this way like a horror movie, but with only one big scare at the end.

It’s not easy to forget how powerful an experience this is. The twist is shocking and will be shocking even to someone who’s read too many times how shocking it is because it appeals to a universal horror that not only grates your soul, but pierces it with the unwavering power of social taboo and general human distaste. The ending will kick your ass, unless you guess it, which I’ve heard is a reality, but I don’t believe it. I can’t imagine sitting through the whole movie anticipating the reveal but knowing it – I wouldn’t believe the creators to be that crazy, but then again, that tooth did just get pulled out, that hallway fight scene was without cut…

The movie has such a solid story that it is a joy to see it play out and knowing in advance the beats and when certain actions are going down, just like its predecessor. Repeated viewings are recommended, though I was more than hesitant to do so myself, because the sex scenes in the movie rival in straight disturbing the movie Irreversible. In fact, the first sex scene, knowing already what’s actually going on, is incredibly intense. The editing, the lighting, the music, and the acting all work to create something very unsettling.

But that of course is true of all the movie. The editing I think is a far cry from the very slow, deliberately shot and paced Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Sure, there are still moments like the editless hallway fight, but the first fight scene is more conventional, and it works, where he’s seeing if 15 years of imaginary training can be put to use. Apparently it can, and the scene is shot with the shakycam practice that is a staple of American action cinema in the post-90s eras. But it’s done with the careful attention to product that is consistent with every scene, and doesn’t lose focus of the action or try to involve the audience members themselves by dizzying or naueseating them.

Clever editing also comes into play much later, when we’re cutting back and forth between the leadup to the final showdown and the good-bye between tragic lovers. As the action ramps up the cutting increases, and the highlight here is the toothbrush fatalities. “Grab him!” *grabs brush, hotel* *snaps brush, penthouse* *stabs guy, penthouse*

The ending of the movie is a beatiful demonstration of the power of cinema. We’re already on edge because of the reveal, and everything that happens after – the fighting and death of Mr. Han, the begging of forgiveness, the tongue cutting, the last futile revenge of Oh Dae Su, the reminiscing and death of Woo-Jin – would be hard-hitting enough, but brings the film to a deafening peak that ends with the snap of a gunshot. It’s a technical tour de force, to recycle words I think used by a critic to describe this very movie; every technical aspect dovetails magnificently.

I’m not even going to mention what happens after Woo-Jin’s suicide. It works as a good break to exhale with, but creates an unnecesary ambiguous scenario. As a huge anti-fan of the ambiguous ending, I justify it to myself by noting that in reality, it doesn’t matter whether or not they can ever love each other again, at least, in the entire scope of the narrative. Is this a fault? Possibly, but it’s one that is embarassingly minimized by everything else in the movie. In my opinion, Oldboy is the greatest movie that came out this decade. Not my favorite, though my favorite was by the same director. It’s a two hour display of sheer talent and ingenuity, an artist’s demo reel with a Shakespearean tragedy narrative. Well, a Shakespearean tragedy with a low bodycount. Oh Dae Su might as well be dead though, based on what ending you choose for him.

In terms of lasting impressions, Oldboy will stick with you, and not just because of the gut punch twist that is revealed so beautifully, but because of some of the images on display here. The violence is shocking but real, recalling Scorsese or Tarantino – Woo-Jin killing Dae-Su’s friend with a broken CD is a brilliant character moment that’s punctuated by extreme violence. I wouldn’t say that it ever reaches the brutal heights of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but it doesn’t have to. The psychological terrorism extends to the audience perhaps more than any cinema violence could – this is truly the evolution of a great director.

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