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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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It’s an alternate 1985 where God exists and he’s American, a retired hero must rescue people from a fire to get hard, and a vigilante screams out to be killed in a world that’s turned its back on justice. Watchmen is the most celebrated graphic novel from Alan Moore, the man who coined the term, and it remains, after all these years, an incredible story that weaves hard-hitting images with political, philosophical, and revisionist text. A sharp tale making an entire medium of entertainment take a look in the mirror – it’s small wonder Hollywood’s been scrambling for ages to get the film produced. But Watchmen is like The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t belong to Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, or DC Comics. No, no, no. It belongs to its fans, and they are many.

Fans claimed that Watchmen was unfilmable, just like the aforementioned Rings. Indeed it does feel like an unsavory prospect; we open these pages and see superheroes sharing panels with scenes of sex, superheroes behaving rather like Mad Max in the original Mad Max, superheroes who’d rather blame the blue guy in the room for shooting a pregnant Vietnamese woman than take the responsibility for himself. Aside from graphic content and themes, Watchmen is of course a 12-issue comic, and each issue is an episode. One episode jumps around in time – how do you do that in a movie and keep things moving forward? All too often filmmakers don’t appreciate the disparaties in mediums, and believe that translations will always work.

Perhaps that is what happened here, but the end result was a fantastic experience, a movie version of a great story that maintains the great story and embodies the spirit and feel of the comic’s panel-to-panel nature. Every shot is thoughtfully composed – no doubt these guys took the Rodriguez/Miller route and went to the comics for the storyboards – the lighting and colors create a hyperreal image that only stops moving when the slow-motion button is hit. Just like in 300, Snyder’s use of slow-motion is appropriate because it slows on actions that were originally read on the page with eyes that linger and focus. It also gives the action an unusual rhythm as we move through hard streets and cavernous corporate buildings.

There’s a simple joy that fills me when watching a good adaptation, but it isn’t unqualified. As much as I like to study what actors were chosen and how well the themes translate, there’s something almost uncanny about hearing dialogue you’re familiar with. This was a major issue for me with movies like Memoirs of a Geisha and other flicks where I read the book right before watching (that one was for school): it feels very artificial when actors are speaking dialogue that originates from somewhere that’s not a screenplay; it’s difficult to fool yourself that these words came from the character’s head.

There’s also the issue that Watchmen is actually unfilmable, but I don’t believe it’s in the way that the collective masses tend to say. The problem is that Watchmen was a post-modern comic, and to nail this home (as if opening with Captain America’s death wasn’t enough) we have a comic-within-a-comic, which is read by a minor character throughout the story. We get glimpses of the macabre tale, Tales of the Black Freighter, every now and then, and it serves a purpose. Unless you’re watching the Ultimate Cut, a version that’s over 3 hours (the Director’s Cut is 2 hours and 40 minutes), you don’t get to see the Gerard Butler-narrated comic-within-a-comic. I haven’t seen it as standalone nor in the Ultimate Cut, but it doesn’t matter – it wouldn’t have the same effect.

Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen the movie would have no purpose because Watchmen the movie isn’t a comic. A movie that’s revisionist towards comics doesn’t have the same effect as the source material – it’d be like if Once Upon a Time in the West or Pulp Fiction were novels, and we had movie references from Shane and High Noon written out on the page.

I do feel like the problem is mitigated somewhat by the filmmakers – we hear the Ride of the Valkyries as the Comedian rides into Vietnam on a helicopter, a song that might as well just be called the Apocalypse Now song. That’s what it reminds us of, and coupled with Vietnam War imagery, we’re in familiar movie territory. That’s one instance where Watchmen the movie takes advantage of the medium’s asset to make it uniquely a movie.

I suppose that the superhero genre in film by the year 2009 was also in need of a revision, but of course Watchmen the movie made very little impact and like the equally R-rated Punisher War Zone a year before, didn’t make a box office splash. At least, not for a Watchmen movie. Hollywood would go on to take little notice, making Captain America, Iron Man 2, Thor, Green Latern, The Green Hornet, The Dark Knight Rises, another Superman, another Spider-Man, Kick-Ass, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men First Class, Jonah Hex, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World from 2009-2012 (fingers crossed for Nelvedine/Taylor’s Ghost Rider). Aside from Scott Pilgrim, I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine and thought it was the dumbest crap ever, with precisely three seconds of gold (a wonderful reaction shot to a gazing Stryker during a ‘tense’ and ‘dramatic’ scene).

Without speaking for all of those above, X-Men Origins: Wolverine really captured what was wrong with the superhero genre. It’s stale, and it panders to a fan base. Instead of rich characters we have to fill out a quota of characters – alright we got steel man, invisible man, laser man, blue devil man, mega man, ultra man, woman man, cat man, Poke mans – and instead of a compelling premise from which to draw a decent story we have oh-my-gosh-let’s-pull-pages-from-this-this-this-and-this, ‘this’ referring of course to the bountiful source material in the case of X-Men.

Watchmen, to get back on topic, isn’t of course new, but is akin to Unbreakable and The Incredibles – yes we have superheroes, but we have a different type of superhero story. Many say, and I agree with this, that Watchmen is more a science-fiction story than a superhero one. It deals with cold war anxieties, experiments gone wrong, and at the end, alien invaders and outer limits – staples of the genre. Because we have a science-fiction structure with superheroes as the players in a greater tale rather than the center of the spotlight like the bat symbol, we open up so many narrative and thematic possibilities that modern filmmakers dare not tread. At the end of X-Men we’ve learned nothing – in fact nothing has changed for anybody. There is really no point except $300 million, or however much that particular movie made.

Maybe that’s cynical, but it did feel like a very, very commercial picture that didn’t go for the bar. Not that it was set high but anyhow Watchmen had aspirations, as a comic and as a film. As a movie, it had to hit upon what the fans wanted – an easy task, as everybody involved was a fan. It had to tell a cinematic story, not a simple adaptation. And most importantly it had to maintain what Watchmen was all about, asking questions about the measure of heroism and the morals of justice. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Watchmen treats every frame delicately, and the product is an extremely well-made film that looks amazing even during the most mundane bits. It’s violent, but not overly so where anything extreme, like sawing through arms or repeated strikes to the head with a cleaver, are very obviously CG and don’t look so great.

It’s a very nearly literal adaptation, but it’s a smart one. The filmmakers realized that 100% direct translation wouldn’t work – perhaps they heard the shouts – and went about constructing a slick, often disturbing, sometimes affecting, and always throught-provoking experience.

If you’re worried about the length of the Director’s Cut, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. I’m no good with long movies, and I watched this over the course of two nights. Personally I don’t see it as a problem because I like that as much of the comic was reproduced on screen as possible; this Watchmen is truly the definitive movie version – disregarding the Ultimate Cut, there will never be a more complete version, although the lack of the newstand guy and Black Freighter reader was noticeable.

Inception is the movie that, were it to be made five to ten years ago, would’ve been the one to inspire me to want to be a filmmaker. It’s the perfect blend of science-fiction ideas and dazzling action/adventure filmmaking.

I recall talking about this movie for Episode 7 of Dreck Fiction, the podcast whose creation was the origin of this blog. Back when Podcast Co-Host and I talked about Inception for that asshole podcast that sucks and I will do anything to disown for fear that it will act upon me as though libel, I wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about the film as everyone else was. We agreed that it was director Christopher Nolan’s best, edging out even one of the three superhero movies close to my heart, Batman Begins, but maintained that it was still just a blockbuster with a brain, which is doubtlessly derogatory. Smart, but not intelligent, was the quote I recall.

How foolish I was, because on my most recent reviewing of the movie, I’ve turned around entirely on it. This movie is great great. A great film. Not a movie I’d consider one of my personal favorites, but a film I can appreciate as special and monumental for the genre. The major factor from Inception I failed to note in that audio review was that element of exploration which is so dear to the genre.

Never once in The Matrix does Neo say quietly to Mouse aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, “If I was just woken from what I percieved as the real world, how do I know this is real? Just because Furious said it was? And don’t give me that crap about doubting the doubter…” The Matrix built up a classically SF world, brimming with laws to be applied later on in its breathtaking 90 minutes. It doesn’t frequently explore that world though, doesn’t really delve into the Matrix-as-Descartes-exercise (think evil demon) to give us something new to think about. So when the sequels went on to continue not exploring, and didn’t contain the sleeper hit surprise of the original, people jumped all over them. (Story for another day)

I don’t want to turn this into an Inception versus The Matrix Trilogy debate, because personally I have a bias that would hinder the argument of this post. However, Inception on the other hand sets up its world slowly and measuredly throughout the movie, and explores it, sometimes doing both concurrently.

What I’m speaking to specifically is the unique character exploration in Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, the oddly named Dom Cobb. As his backstory with the deceased wife unravels, all sorts of ideas bubble to the surface and have tragic depth. Suddenly we’ve found that the Inception world has startling, heartbreaking implications, where realities can be confused and have dire consequence.

Yes, we’ve seen this before, and that was what made me write it off initially, which was truly what effected my first opinion on the film. In Oshii’s Avalon (2001) does the confused reality take place, this time with virtual reality. The difference between Oshii’s movie and Nolan’s is what they were both striving to achieve. Though they both employed the same trope, Avalon was going for intellectual depth while Inception was more emotionally-driven, making the former a foreign curio and the latter the crowd-pleaser that it is.

Afterall, interspersed between the touching moments with Dom’s wife are totally kickass action scenes, often in escapist, James Bond locales.

Dom’s wife, let’s call her Moll, like Molly, I don’t know – they say her name constantly but I don’t know what it is – had become lost to the dream world, and as we discover, this was due to Dom’s interfering: the proof of concept for performing inceptions. Now he blames himself, and this emotional situation he’s in and keeps going back to pushes the action forward, gives us things to think about, and makes the film unique. This specific character conflict could only come about through Inception‘s world building; Nolan has accomplished here an exquisite embrace of science-fiction’s conventions.

He is also capable of continually driving the story forward, and the balance he maintains between world continuity and logic with sound plot structure and story beats is masterful, inspirational work. We’re constantly riveted, and it’s a mix of elements that keeps us on that cliche seat-edge.

Most prominently, the script keeps the stakes high. It’s a wonderful screenplay, not because of the dialogue necessarily, though there are a few brilliant character interactions, but because of the weave it maintains between the world and the plot, a heavy burden it pulls off with panache. For example, after the crew enters the first dream they’re ambushed and Saito is mortally wounded. They take refuge in some warehouse and Dom freaks out because he didn’t expect a militarized subconscious. What we discover in this scene sets the tension bar high, because if the characters are killed, they enter limbo, a theoretically infinite sprawl of the unknown.

In any other movie, this would be like having a scene where the characters sit around and explain that if they’re killed, they die. Of course, we know that already, so in some way we’re desensitized to the consequence the characters face. That’s when characterization must be employed to make us invest in the characters’ survivals. In this movie, the consequences are laid out in a way that couldn’t be in a movie existing in the non-Inception universe, and they’re damn scary. We can’t be desensitized to it because we’ve never heard it before, and this makes the threat of death more real than it was before, silly as that may sound.

For the rest of the movie, we don’t want these people to die because that would mean spending an eternity in some freaky-deaky – or stark white – mind world. Now I said that other movies need characterization to make us care about characters dying, and that sort implies that Inception doesn’t have that. Well, that’s kind of true, but it’s not unfortunate.

I heard from a guy who heard from a guy that there are characters who are compelling because they change, and characters who are compelling because they don’t, like the Man with No Name, James Bond, even guys like Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop and Nikita. The guys in Inception, Eaves, Arthur, Juno, even Saito, are just that. They’re here to do a job, not go on a personal journey like Dom. They are the optimal supporting characters for a 90 minute-long narrative with this style: interesting and easy to watch, particularly Arthur and Eaves, who are totally badass, and have entertaining interplay between them.

Also keeping us riveted, and this does deserve a special mention, is Hans Zimmer’s score. Once again, the first time I saw the flick, I wrote the music off as the typical invasive Zimmer score, but have since come around to really appreciate the effect it has on the movie. The action is heightened by the throbbing, intense music, adding a layer of suspense that gives Inception a dark, edgy feeling, like what we’re watching is more brutal than it actually is. There were moments in the music, particularly around the snow base area, that felt reminiscent of Clint Mansell’s work in The Fountain, one of the most powerful scores in recent memory.

Inception is a perfectly flawless movie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going gaga over it like I did with Scott Pilgrim. As much as I found more to enjoy in it than I did the last time I watched it, which was opening night last year, my inner sci-fan fan is still not satisfied fully, but never could be with this type of movie. Essentially the problem for me personally boils down to this: I much, much prefer Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell cycle to his Avalon, and I prefer Videodrome to eXistenZ. Virtual reality is for cyberpunk what time travel is for greater science-fiction: my least favorite trope. I find it to be a limiting foundation to build a story off of, and I found it hard to really latch onto what was going on in the film where I could with lesser fare like Terminator Salvation, as mentioned in the last post. The Matrix is, and always will be, the key exception.

Also, there is something on the – dare I say – meta level, that irks me. This movie is wildly popular. Not a bad thing, certainly, but almost… unfair. Does it deserve the popularity? Of damn course, if I can coin a phrase. But I do believe that its near-universal acclaim by critics and fans shields the movie with an armor that didn’t protect another movie I care about (somehow still, even after exorcising myself of the movie recently), Avatar.

Pardon my French, but Avatar got fucking shit on all the fucking time for being derivative. Ever hear of FernGully? I hadn’t, not before Avatar (though curiously I swear I’d seen the movie at a young age and liked it). What about Call Me Joe, Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and that one with the castles in the sky, where it was animated? No, not Castle in the Sky. Well, some of those we’ve heard before, but my point remains: those titles were dredged up from the past to taunt Avatar with for two different time periods. The first was when the trailer didn’t look so good, which it definitely didn’t, but even the executives at Fox agreed that Avatar wasn’t really a coventional trailer type of movie. The second time window was when the movie was released and blew the fuck up. The nerd minority in particular becomes hostile at popularity, like a feral cat – trust me, as a dedicated contrarian (read: dick), I know.

It’s easy for reviewers to use familiar terms when describing things, because the reader too can understand what’s going on. Peruse any online review of Dead Space and you’ll doubtless come across “Alien meets Resident Evil 4” boundless many times. Dead Space wasn’t, like Call of Duty or Fallout, an established triple-A franchise, though it tried to be right out of the gate. So it becamse easier to pidgeon-hole the game this way because it was only an alright game. And also, inconsequentially – just look at it. It really is Alien meets Resident Evil 4.

Avatar wasn’t nerd-popular because it was popular-popular. So nerds scrambled like the United States military in 1941 to come up with comparisons and point accusing, Cheeto-stained fingers at James Cameron. What about Inception? Don’t try to tell me that movies like Dark City, Strange Days, The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, Avalon, and The Matrix aren’t obscure, because – FernGully? Come on.

By his own admittance, Nolan was trying to strike back into that era in the 90’s where we had those reality-what movies where we were never really on solid ground, he even likened Memento to the group to some extent. He also found influence in Paprika, a recent animated movie from the late Satoshi Kon about dreams.

That Inception didn’t catch never as much flak – if it caught any – about its influences as Avatar did pisses me off. Now, I have no problem with it taking influence, though this argument implies that in nerd-crying fashion, I’m really just upset that nobody seems to notice. It’s like injustice, but really, if people started to bitch about Inception being unoriginal, I’d probably have a bigger headache than I do now with just Avatar alone.

My theory as to why nobody compares Inception to Strange Days, though they share similar themes of indulging in lost fantasy, or Inception to Dark City, which explores a fantastical world within a world, is that Inception is a movie taken out of nerds’ hands. When this movie came out, people had high expectations, and they were all satisfied, a rare happenstance that I can only imagine is moviegoing ecstasy, something I would’ve felt if Machete was actually good. It has wide-appeal, being a star-studded flick – stars being Leo and Nolan, at this point – and holdover between Batman sequels, which will undoubtedly add up to huge by next year with Rises. The wide demographic wouldn’t want their darling Inception to languish in the genre of science-fiction, which it shares with Battlefield Earth and Dune (1984).

It may seem assholistic that I’d actually be upset by a movie’s popularity, but I can’t help it because Inception is exactly what we sci-fi fans need right now – an original SF work in film that’s worked, take notes Battle: LA, ahem – and it’s almost too successful. It’s not Blade Runner, which revolutionized a genre by appealing to the filmmakers only. Inception appeals to everyone, and I doubt that anybody will try to follow those footsteps and do the same, it’s just a bar set too high.

Indeed, we will never see Inception 2.

Well, that’s certainly enough of my gripes. I don’t have a real reason to dislike Inception, as you’ve no doubt concluded. It’s implaceable, very difficult to pin down. Especially when, afterall, it’s an amazing movie. Absolutely incredible. So at the end of the day, this really was a movie that required two watches to understand.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

The Terminator movies had been about one thing: a robot assassin securing the future. It’s a novel idea that’s like many of the best in science-fiction – simple. So brilliantly simple in fact, that our messiah JC would come under fire for plagiarism. Yes, that is just as idiotic as the accusations of the very same thing he dealt with during the marketing for Avatar.

Unfortunately, the simplicity of the plot works well for just one movie, and would take a creative genius to repeat for a sequel. James Cameron has always had passion fuel his every project, whether that be the feature-length adaptation of a short story he wrote when he was sixteen or the various trips he took to the bottom of the ocean. When executives offered him Terminator 2, he wasn’t going to waste the next two years of his life during its production – he was going to own it. Very clearly, he did: not only is it a great film in its own right, it pushed the boundaries of special-effects technology, an act that would inspire him and Stan Winston to push ahead and open their very own effects house in 1993.

Pushing the envelope has always been Cameron’s thing, as seen most obviously with the most ambitious movie ever just two years ago. Jonathan Mostow’s movie on the other hand was a product of pure ‘corporate soulless filmmaking,’ as I feel I’ve heard it described before. They wanted to make a sequel to a franchise, not realizing how very little the franchise could accomplish as a franchise. It was so small, so contained. The first two Terminator movies really would feel like one movie split down the middle (and at one point they pretty much were) if they didn’t look so different, and weren’t so self-contained in themselves.

It’s not even that problematic that Mostow’s picture was born out of a money-hunger, because that’s forgivable and the Terminator series wasn’t going anywhere anyway. Couldn’t hurt it, on some level. The problem extends to the first two movies as not sequel-friendly. Yes, Terminator 2 remains one of the best sequels, and at the time was one of the most profitable sequels, despite its for-the-time massive budget (doubled for Salvation), but that doesn’t mean Terminator 3 has to be a thing.

Regardless, it clearly was, and in 2003 we were treated to a fun, light-weight, action-heavy, comical, and really stupid science-fiction spectacle called Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which was created by several Terminator regulars – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stan Winston, to name a few – but sans the key mind, James Cameron.

Cameron’s ideal Terminator 3 was a movie that doesn’t exist, which makes more sense on a narrative level for the series. Alternatively, it’s T2 3D: Battle Across Time, which is a theme-park ride and early 3D experiment for the director. Not much of a movie, but more of a sequel to T2 than T3 could ever be.

Mostow is, as movie-critic John Scalzi put it, competent but not all that interesting. He’s by this time made two cyberpunk movies that fall under that label – Rise of the Machines and Surrogates, the latter of which was partly filmed near my hometown. With Terminator 3, he tried to do what James Cameron did with Aliens – follow an incredible act. Like James Cameron, he also took quite the departure from the original works, and played up his greatest asset – Arnold Schwarzenegger – for the laughs this time around.

The Terminator is one of the only dramatic roles Schwarzenegger has ever had, and it’s his best without question. The other roles he’s had – John Matrix, Quaid/Hauser, Dutch – have been sometimes self-aware action heroes, echoing the iconic line about being back. The T-800 was the opportunity for the star to be serious, not that jokes weren’t to be had in the first two movies.

I wouldn’t be harping on it too much if the character in Terminator 3 wasn’t so damn stupid. The appropriately intense scene early in Terminator 2 at the biker bar is attempted again in the third outing, but with a much different tone. It’s the same purpose as we’ve come to expect – he needs clothes, NOW – so we expect Bill Paxton to get his stomach punched in or a guy thrown on a super hot stovetop. Instead, a male stripper gets his hand crunched after some ‘hilarious’ sassiness.

That example is telling of the rest of the movie relative to the original movies. It’s a comedy, and it came out of left field. There are good moments, like when the T-800 takes a bullet to the tooth, or when the machines rise, but these are surrounded by some of the most maddening sequences ever committed to film.

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.


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