While it should come as news to absolutely no one that Sony is readying Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (IMDb) for the big screen (Would it surprise anyone if Dan Brown’s grocery list fetched an eight figure deal?), what might come as a shock is the price paid to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. That price, $4,000,000, is a new record for a “for hire” project, and ties the payday Shane Black received for “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (IMDb) for most money ever paid to a screenwriter for a single writer credit. Goldsman secured this filthy lucre despite tepid (read hostile) reviews of his adaptation of The Da Vinci Code (IMDb). With this record-setting paycheck, and kudos from the ever-fawning LA Times column “Scriptland,” does this signal a new golden age of screenwriting? Not according to this LA Weekly article “Screenwriters in the Shit“. It’s articles like this that make me want to move to the sticks and take up animal husbandry.
Maybe it's the romantic in me, but I've always been a sucker for films that offer glimpses, no matter how superficial, into the working life of a writer. When it's a real literary figure, say Truman Capote as embodied by Philip Seymour Hoffman, I marvel at how the actor, faced with the impossibly daunting task of portraying a known figure, pushes the role beyond imitation to suggest something deeper, all the while mindful of the expectations that a celebrity-savvy audience will have.When the protagonist is a fictional creation, the actor, I imagine, is freer to characterize from the get-go, without the anchor of audience expectation weighing him down.It's an interesting genre of film - writer as film protagonist. In Barton Fink, John Turturro paid back the Coen brothers for their creative brilliance by handing them a singular performance, taking his character - a writer struggling for words - down a wonderfully, sometimes nightmarishly, surreal path.It's a long list, and please feel free to offer your own examples, but off the top of my head there's Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, a professor tackling his own demons as he struggles to finish his novel in the film of Michael Chabon's The Wonder Boys.Then there's Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, in which Cage explores some sort of human duality as both the critically successful but blocked Charlie Kaufman, and his "brother," the gregarious, open and popular Donald.And then there's Woody Allen's Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry. Harry tries to conquer his writer's block, while we see excerpts from Harry's earlier thinly veiled autobiographical stories depicted, back-to-back, with related moments from Harry's personal life. So Woody, as Harry, fights with his ex, played by Judy Davis, and later we see a chapter from Harry's last novel, with Richard Benjamin as Harry's fictional alter ego, having the affair that would lead to the break-up.To this arbitrary list, I offer a new entrant: Leonard Schiller, the fictional author at the heart of the new film Starting Out In The Evening, based on the novel by Brian Morton.It's a curious film. A seventy-ish New York author, who was part of that mid-century New York literary crowd, Leonard Schiller's first two published novels, both somewhat youthful and confessional, had critical success, while his next two novels, which, for a number of reasons, looked out rather than in, were seen as disappointments by those who wanted him to effectively keep writing his early novels over and over again. All his novels are now out of print, his name barely registers in modern publishing circles, and he's in failing health. Yet he is quietly determined to complete his decade-long work-in-progress. Dignified and disciplined, Leonard seals himself off and plugs away.His routine is interrupted by Heather Wolfe, played by Lauren Ambrose (Claire on "Six Feet Under"). A grad student doing her thesis on Leonard Schiller, she's hell-bent on resurrecting his name and bringing his books back into print. Trouble is she suffers from the same myopia as his early fans. She only "gets" his first couple of novels, dismissing his subsequent work. Personal events may indeed have altered the tone of his later works, but her arrogant conclusions show a reader somewhat lacking in flexibility. She's also, to be frank, a bit of a head-case - at times insufferably fawning, at other times shrill in her certainty. But she's vibrant and articulate and forces Leonard into some psychological corners that he's been avoiding for decades.A sub-plot involving Leonard's daughter Ariel - approaching 40 and determined to have a baby - is interesting and strongly acted by Lili Taylor. (Bit of a Six Feet Under reunion here. I half-expected to see Nathaniel Sr. pop up in a dream). But as compelling as Taylor and Ambrose are, I must admit I often found myself simply wanting to see more of Leonard's quiet work at his typewriter, and a little less of the surrounding melodrama. It might not have been conventionally cinematic, and certainly human interaction sparks his character, but a bit more character, and a bit less plot might have struck a better balance. After all, Leonard is a hell of a central character.In a season of big, flashy performances, Frank Langella's Leonard Schiller is a quiet masterpiece. In a few, carefully chosen words, in his deportment and manner, Langella suggests doubt, uncertainty, longing and dogged determination. His Leonard is a human being with the whole mess of frailties that come with it.Who says there's no drama in an empty page in a lonely typewriter? Or, I suppose, in a blinking cursor on a back-lit screen. Put an actor of Langella's caliber in front of it, and you'll have a film character for the ages.
There are two new documentaries that add to the rising chorus – of filmmakers and journalists, writers and artists, even businessmen and politicians – who are proclaiming that the same old song about Detroit is played-out. It's time for a new tune, these people are saying, one that goes beyond the tired cliché that the Motor City is nothing but miles of abandoned factories, boarded-up houses, and empty prairie. The first of these documentaries, American Revolutionary, opens with a shot of a little white-haired lady pushing her walker up to the massive Packard plant in Detroit, an abandoned auto factory in a state of such rococo decay that it helped spawn a lurid genre of photography known as "ruin porn." "The devastation is so fabulous, so incredible," the woman says, gazing at the rotting factory with a mixture of awe and horror familiar to anyone who has been to Detroit in recent years. "This is a symbol of how great things fail. It's obvious that what used to work doesn't work anymore." The woman's name is Grace Lee Boggs, the documentary's 98-year-old title character, a Detroit-based activist and writer who lived through the city's glory years and its long decline and now, in the twilight of her life, is still busy nurturing and enjoying the undeniable signs of its rebirth. "American Revolutionary" is the work of Grace Lee, a Korean-American filmmaker who first met Boggs while making The Grace Lee Project, her 2005 documentary about women who share her oppressively common name. The Grace Lees of this world, according to Grace Lee the filmmaker, are "thousands of interchangeable drones." If so, Grace Lee the activist is the exception who proves the rule. Born into a middle-class Chinese American family, she first became aware of discrimination against African Americans while living in Chicago. Her urge to unite workers led her to Detroit, where she fell in love with and married a black autoworker from North Carolina named James Boggs. Together they began to agitate to revolutionize American society – pushing for workers' rights, civil rights, and, eventually, women's rights. And so Grace Lee Boggs became that rarest of insiders, an Asian American woman deeply involved in a movement dominated by black men. As the civil rights and Black Power movements gained momentum in the 1960s, she evolved from a hard-core Marxist into a hard-nosed pragmatist. She was initially partial to fiery Malcolm X over mellifluous Martin Luther King Jr., but, like so much of her thinking, this changed with time. One of the most telling shifts in her thought was her revelation about what the civil rights movement was all about. "I realized that black people did not want to become equal to whites," she says. "They wanted to become equal to their idea of themselves." Whether she was writing books, lecturing, forming political parties, or helping young people plant gardens and paint murals, Boggs, to her credit, never abandoned some of the core beliefs she shares with so many black Detroiters. On camera she tells a stunned Bill Moyers that by the 1960s the Detroit Police Department had become "a white occupation army." And what happened in Detroit in July of 1967 – a conflagration that scorched great swaths of the city and left 43 people dead – was not a race riot. It was, Boggs says, "a rebellion." That rebellion helped make Detroit the first black-controlled city in America In 1974 a former union organizer and state senator named Coleman A. Young was elected the city's first black mayor – or "Mayor Motherfucker," as he liked to be called. He would rule the city with an iron grip and a salty tongue for the next twenty years. Though it didn't ignite white flight – Detroiters had begun moving out to the suburbs in the early 1950s – there's no denying that the summer of 1967 accelerated the city's decline. Coleman Young, depending on your point of view, either greased the city's skids or did everything in his limited power to apply the brakes. Detroit's demise, as Boggs sees it, can't be pinned on any one event or any one man. It was a collective failure to change after the seizure of political power by blacks. Instead of coming together, people split into warring camps: blacks vs. whites, city vs. suburbs, management vs. organized labor. "A rebellion is an outburst of anger," Boggs says, "while a revolution is an evolution toward something greater. Just being angry and resentful does not constitute a revolution." She adds wistfully, "Changing was more trouble than not changing." That may be changing, at long last. People are discovering what Boggs has known for half a century – that there's more to Detroit than crime, ruin porn, racial strife, and economic woe. The city's music scene has always been unkillable, and now alongside it there is a proliferation of start-up businesses, urban gardens and farms, a growing creative class, a booming downtown and a healthy auto industry. Let's not forget abundant cheap real estate. As the city struggles to emerge from bankruptcy, everyone agrees that the good old days are not coming back. As Boggs puts it, "It's time for a new dream." Among the ashes, there are enough sprouts to suggest that the time just might be at hand. If it is, it will be because of groups like the Navin Field Grounds Crew, the subject of a new documentary called Stealing Home by Jason Roche, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. The film is an homage to a crew that could come together only in Detroit: people who took it upon themselves to maintain a vast patch of grass at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull near downtown – simply "The Corner," in local parlance – the field where the Detroit Tigers played baseball from the late 19th century until 1999, when they decamped to a shiny new ballyard downtown. The powers that be then went about demolishing the grandstands of the stadium – originally Bennett Park, then renamed Navin Field, Briggs Stadium, and, finally Tiger Stadium – one of the most cherished pieces of the city's soul. The Navin Field Grounds Crew is headed by Tom Derry, a native Detroiter who grew up going to ballgames at The Corner. After the demolition was complete, he cajoled a group of fellow Tigers fans to spend their weekends picking up trash, pulling weeds, raking the infield dirt, and mowing the outfield grass where Al Kaline and Willie Horton used to roam. "Something happens to you when you're here – a tingling," Derry says, trying to explain the allure of a place he regards as "sacred ground," but which the city sees as a nothing more than a parcel that might one day become the site of a big-box store. Despite the city's hostility to their cause, the Grounds Crew has gotten media attention from ESPN The Magazine, the New York Times, even Australian TV. In keeping with the If-you-mow-it-they-will-come mantra popularized by the movie Field of Dreams, tourists now come to The Corner from all over the world to play pickup games, snap pictures, and swap memories. Stealing Home is not flawless. Though I love baseball and have been a Tigers fan since I was in short pants, I have to admit that the sight of middle-aged guys riding sit-down lawnmowers doesn't always make for riveting viewing. And the documentary sometimes has a high quotient of gas, such as one guy likening baseball to Homer's Odyssey, and another, a "mythologist" no less, proclaiming that all humans share "an irresistible longing to connect to their roots." Fortunately, Roche has also woven in archival footage that takes us beyond the bromides and the outfield wall – images of bustling auto plants, civil rights marches, and the bloody summer of 1967. The last word belongs to a member of the Grounds Crew, who sums up the movie's message nicely: "This shows what Detroiters can do when we come together." Indeed it does. The Navin Field Grounds Crew is emblematic of what's happening in a broken city where a lot of people have come to the realization that the old ways are gone forever and the only way to get some things done is to do them yourself. And so Detroiters pamper an old ballfield, they spruce up parks the city can't afford to maintain, they patrol neighborhoods the city can't afford to police, they turn entire neighborhoods into works of art, they plant gardens, start businesses, renovate houses that haven't slid beyond salvation. In a word, they figure out a way to endure. The current DIY ethic was explained to me in 2012, when I was in Detroit on a newspaper assignment and wound up talking to George Royce, a waiter by day and a rock 'n' roll drummer by night, who had recently moved from upstate Michigan into a downtown loft. "There's a bizarre combination of things here in Detroit," Royce told me. "Exquisite grand architecture and other buildings that are broken down. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty right next to each other. The people who live here usually have something going on. They're artistic, they're handy, they're self-starters. People who are finicky don't come to Detroit You've got to have self-sufficiency." Yes, but why do they come here? "They come," Boggs says, "to be part of this new world." Only a true Pollyanna would try to minimize Detroit's staggering problems. But buying into the dreary old ruin-porn narrative is, in its way, as myopic as rosy optimism. Despite their many differences in approach, subject matter and tone, these two documentaries arrive at the same conclusion, one that may hold the key to the salvation of Detroit and countless other troubled American cities. The conclusion, in Boggs's words, is this: "The changes are not going to come from the top." No, the changes are not going to come from governments or corporations or philanthropists; the changes are going to come from the below, from the street, from individuals and small groups who believe that what they do can make a difference. Even if what they do is as humble as fixing up an abandoned house, or showing kids how to plant a garden, or taking care of a patch of sacred ground. Image via davescaglione/Flickr
There’s something sort of funny about listening to someone try to describe the structure of Cloud Atlas. Walking out of Symphony Space one evening last week -- David Mitchell was the shy and extraordinarily charming guest of honor at the opening night of PRI’s “Selected Shorts” -- I heard lots of people try to explain the book to their companions. “With the ship, and the Pacific, it feels like the last one,” a woman said as we shuffled towards the exits, referencing the first (and final) section of Cloud Atlas and Mitchell’s most recent novel, A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. “Ah, well.” Her friend leaned in and said in a knowing tone, “I can see that, but once you get to Sonmi...” The same phrases spilled out onto 72nd Street: “story-within-a-story;” “Russian dolls;” “a bunch of cliffhangers!” One man shouted at his date, “And that leads to the next section!” People were waving their hands in the air, evangelizing a book and its concepts that, at first glance, could strike the uninitiated as inventive or contrived. I’d gone to “Selected Shorts” alone that evening, but had I brought along someone to whom I could evangelize, I’d have described Cloud Atlas as a pyramid -- six different novellas set across six different points in time, building up chronologically. Each story is cut in half, and we must climb to the peak, to a dystopian far future (which is presented without pause) and climb back down to reach the conclusion of the other five stories. We begin and end in the mid-19th century. Narrative threads, from big themes to small gestures -- the act of drawing a map, for example, or certain words that crop up again and again -- extend and echo up and down the pyramid. One protagonist of the six, crotchety vanity publisher Timothy Cavendish, expresses disdain for “flashbacks, foreshadowing, and tricksy devices” (the same character -- he gets all the good lines -- says that a critic is, “One who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely...”). If you’re disinclined to appreciate tricksy devices, you might dislike the book outright; there are, as you can imagine, a lot of coincidences. Mitchell himself was surely aware of the risk: he references it in several self-conscious turns, like when Robert Frobisher, the troubled young composer at the center of the epistolary second (and then, the penultimate) novella, structures his masterwork, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” in a similar fashion: Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ’cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late… But by and large, Mitchell’s gamble paid off: Cloud Atlas has been widely acclaimed in the near-decade since its publication, not least of all here at The Millions, where it was retired from the Top Ten a few years back and voted #3 in a survey of the best books of the millennium so far. You’ve probably been seeing a whole lot of the book around recently, or of Mitchell himself, who’s been shuttling back and forth between New York and Los Angeles talking to the press. It’s all, of course, because of the film, the publicity for which has been hard to ignore, from the five-and-a-half-minute behemoth of a trailer released this past summer to the completely unhelpful teaser trailer that’s been running in heavy rotation on television (it’s 10 percent crazy sci-fi special effects and 90 percent Tom Hanks saying something folksy). The project is a collaboration between the Wachowski Siblings, Lana and Andy, of Matrix trilogy fame, and Tom Twyker, the German director of films like Run Lola Run. Much has been written about the filmmakers’ struggle to find financial backing for the project: six storylines set in wildly different time periods and genres -- it’s a hard sell however you spin it. And much, in turn, has been written about how they spun it: the process by which such a structurally unique book could be transferred to the screen, and if it could survive such a translation. Mitchell himself told Aleksandar Hemon, for a profile of the Wachowskis in The New Yorker last month, that, “As I was writing ‘Cloud Atlas,’ I thought, It’s a shame this is unfilmmable.” Some portions of the book -- most notably, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” a thriller set in the 1970s that’s the pulpiest of the bunch, complete with a ton of internal monologues -- are fairly cinematic to start with. But it’s one thing to ask a reader to stop and start six times, and then repeat it all over again on the way back. In a movie, everyone agreed, this structure would never work. But all three directors were so enamored of Cloud Atlas that they decided to give adaptation a go. They broke the book into plot points -- “hundreds of scenes,” Hemon writes. “[They] copied them onto colored index cards, and spread the cards on the floor, with each color representing a different character or time period.” They pulled out arcs, drew connections, and read the reconstructed stories aloud. Then the cards went back on the floor, and were reshuffled and rearranged. They found an initial way into the eventual restructure with Dr. Henry Goose, a major character from the first novella, which is set aboard a ship in the South Pacific in 1849, and Zachry, the protagonist of the far-future dystopia, set a good deal after “the Fall,” when modern civilization seems to have totally collapsed. Henry is morally weak, cowed easily by greed and violent urges; Zachry spends most of his story struggling to throw off these same human impulses, cloaked in ignorance and fear. Mitchell’s six main characters are loosely linked by destiny, physically manifested in comet-shaped birthmarks and half-found (well, half-lost) works of art; the directors wanted to draw links between major and minor characters across every era, linked by common ideals and struggles. And thus what Mitchell has characterized as the “‘transmigrating souls’ motif” was born: a single actor for multiple characters, certainly one of the most publicized elements of the film. Tom Hanks plays the two aforementioned characters, as well as a blackmailing manager at Frobisher’s hotel, conflicted nuclear engineer Isaac Sachs in the '70s, and in the modern era, Dermot “Duster” Hoggins, a thug who throws a book critic off a balcony (at a screening of film critics, this earned some seriously awkward laughs). If you’ve read the book, you’ll be able to line these characters up side by side: it’s easy to see the moral arc here, and as a reader, it’s an interesting exercise to re-cast the book, as it were. Some actors -- Hugo Weaving, as unwavering evil, and Hugh Grant, as an eternal sleazebag who always succumbs to it -- play stagnant foils. Others -- Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw -- dance around each other in delicate balances of power. But the repetitive casting, the filmmakers’ big tricksy device, is one that, with the movie’s release, has drawn more ire from critics than praise. Many early moviegoers were distracted by the frankly bizarre-looking prosthetics, particularly in 22nd-century Nea So Copros, re-named in the film world a more recognizable “Neo Seoul,” where genetically-engineered clones, or “fabricants,” are bred to do humanity’s dirty jobs without complaint. And some of the accents -- Tom Hanks is certainly the biggest culprit here -- are distractingly poor as well. There’s an obvious futility in comparing a book to the subsequent movie, but Cloud Atlas is no mere adaptation: it’s a big, ambitious structural overhaul, one that has been likened by Mitchell, amongst others, to a mosaic, all of his Russian dolls smashed to pieces and carefully reassembled. The plotlines are interspersed, with tight transitions between moments that often mirror each other in action or in theme. Sometimes that’s rewarding -- it’s easy to get mired in a single section of the novel, and the quick steps between eras feel freeing by comparison at times. But we lose a fair amount of breathing room in the process, and fans of the book may mourn that loss. Sonmi~451, the fabricant hero of the Nea So section, still gives her orison to the archivist, but many of the meditative qualities of the year-long storyline are gone, replaced by fast and loud action sequences that boil down the sharp edges of what is in the book a deeply complicated narrative. In fact, grey areas turn black and white all across the six stories, either altered or overshadowed by the movie’s broader themes, or shortened for time’s sake. And then there are the moments when Mitchell calls his own narratives’ truthfulness into question. Sonmi~451’s first words are, “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.” But Mitchell enjoys undercutting this idea, like early on, when Frobisher discovers half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the account of the first novella, and writes, “Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity -- seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t quite ring true -- but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?” The film is always pressing forward in time, and is largely, unflinchingly earnest -- there’s no halting for the novelist’s tricks, and the storylines seem shallower for it. Despite all this, Mitchell has given the alterations his blessing, telling The Times: None of the major changes the film made to my novel “threw me off” in the sense of sticking in my craw. I think that the changes are licensed by the spirit of the novel, and avoid traffic congestion in the film’s flow. Any adaptation is a translation, and there is such a thing as an unreadably faithful translation; and I believe a degree of reinterpretation for the new language may be not only inevitable but desirable...[The filmmakers] want to avoid melodrama and pap and cliché as much as I do, but a film’s payoff works differently to a novel’s payoff, and the unwritten contract between author and reader differs somewhat to the unwritten contract between filmmaker and viewer. Adaptations gloss over these differences at their peril. But the language of the adaptation -- and yes, it’s a little shameful to turn Mitchell’s well-crafted metaphor into something so literal, and I apologize for that -- does leave something to be desired. Mitchell is a brilliant linguistic shape-shifter. In the South Pacific, Ewing’s Victorian diary entries are both lively and endearingly stiff. In the 1930s, Frobisher’s sentences fly past like whip-cracks, and the lyricism is oftentimes so charming that we’re distracted from his prejudices and his flippancies. Some of the lines remain, but the narrative voices are mere echoes of their originals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Neo Seoul: in the book, in a world where people worship fast-food mascots and project advertisements onto the moon, language has been deviously corporatized -- citizens are consumers, fabricants like Sonmi~451 are servers, and they all read sonys and watch disneys and drive fords and remove their nikes at the door. I imagine legal complications kept these terms out of the film. But even the language that carries over loses its impact aloud: Xultation is much more strikingly written. And in the far future, where English has shriveled to a bastardized pidgin strain -- “Adam, my bro, an’ Pa’n’me was trekkin’ back from Honokaa Market on miry roads with a busted cart axle in draggly clothesies.” -- it’s often much harder to follow the words aurally, rushing so quickly out of the actors’ mouths, than it is to read and translate for yourself on the page. In the end, it’s a question of mosaics and Russian dolls -- of a set of stories, a pile of reshuffled index cards, and the new stories that emerge. If the film is the book distilled, its characters and their choices are sometimes easier to follow and appreciate. But the depths and complications of the novel must lie at the heart of why so many readers -- including the filmmakers themselves -- loved it to begin with. We are told, for the entire duration of the movie, that everything is connected. But Mitchell doesn’t have to tell us outright: the six stories are, at their hearts, the same. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
I've been writing a lot about film adaptations lately, so I was thrilled to stumble onto this very cool series at the Guardian which each week is turning a critical eye on a new famous film adaptation. The latest is on Jean-Jacques Annaud's 1986 version of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
Avatar tells the tale of injured soldier Jake Sully who travels to the forest moon Pandora and finds himself taken in by a race of primitive space furies called the Na’Vi. Unfortunately, the evil corporation he works for wants to bulldoze the sacred rainforest around the tribe’s Hometree and Sully—who has fallen in love with the chief’s daughter Netyiri—must become the sacred tribe’s greatest warrior, most brilliant strategist and most powerful spiritual leader in order to save the space natives from the powerful white/male/military/industrial/capitalist conglomeration of evil…and he only has three months to do it! Of course, I might just have easily said the injured soldier John Dunbar, the forest moon of Endor, the sacred forest of FernGully, and the princess Pocahontas. Avatar’s story has allegedly been kicking around James Cameron’s head since he made his last feature (1997’s Titanic) yet the plot is a stale composite of clichés and borrowed elements that feels as if it was cobbled together in a weekend’s time. The minute you are introduced to The Native Princess, The Evil Military Man, The Greedy Businessman and the rest of the cardboard cut-outs that populate Avatar, you know the entire plot. In fact, you even know the exact words they will say. A great battle is about to start? “Let’s dance.” A villain returns for a final fight? “Come get some!” A new world is introduced? “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” (Here I was hoping for some character to raise their hand and ask, “Uh, sir, what is a ‘Kansas’ exactly?” “Geez, I’m not sure. I think it was a province a century ago when earth was divided into nation states before the great unification war? Not sure why I just thought of it.”) I don’t mean to imply that Avatar is wholly unoriginal. Cameron does imbue his world with a New Agey environmental-mysticism that is capped by his aliens having USB cords in their ponytails. These fashionable cables can be plugged into various wild critters to brain-rape them into obedience. Surely a shrewd marketing move to capture the pre-teen female audience by letting them live out their fantasies of becoming one with a pony. But perhaps storytelling, dialogue, and acting are not what you go to a sci-fi blockbuster extravaganza for. You go for the visuals, the epic scope and, especially with Avatar, the awesome special effects. And they are awesome. As mediocre as Avatar is on most levels, the visuals alone make the film worth viewing once—at least in theaters with 3D capabilities (it is almost criminal that some theaters are showing this in 2D.). Avatar is not the first film to effectively use 3D technology, but it is the first blockbuster to do so. No more sticks pointing out of the screen or freaky inhuman CGI characters—yes, Robert Zemeckis, I’m looking at you—Avatar keeps the 3D unobtrusive yet totally immersive. The CGI for the Na’vi and the flora and fauna of Pandora are wonderful, using the same performance capture technology that brought Gollum to life in Lord of the Rings. A related area of success in the film is the world’s design. From the floating mountains to fireworks lizards and shrinking mushrooms, the world of Pandora is gorgeously designed and rendered. Indeed the Na’Vi themselves, with their glow-in-the-dark Smurf skin and necklaces that magically always cover their nipples to preserve a PG-13 rating, are the weakest element in a film that is otherwise flawlessly designed. If this was a screen saver, you’d have to say James Cameron did one heck of a job. Unfortunately, it is a film and all the other aspects feel glossed over. I could not help wondering where the James Cameron of the first two Terminators had gone, the man who could meld effects with imaginative storytelling and characters you could care about. Is there anything in Avatar that feels as fresh as the T2 liquid nitrogen scene? Any characters as kickass as Sarah Connor? Any one-liners that could hold up to “Hast la vista, baby”? For all of Avatar’s visual wonder, the film feels dreadfully lazy. Not just the plot and dialogue—which approach prequel George Lucas levels—but the staging, directing and world building as well. Yes, I know I just said the creatures are fantastically designed—a process Cameron apparently left largely up to his artists—but conceptually they are merely space versions of your local zoo population. The film does not succeed in transporting you to a truly alien world ala the Star Wars films. Couldn’t Cameron have made aliens that conjured aboriginal earth tribes without copying them wholesale? Why are these otherworldly beings wearing tribal beads and shooting arrows with feathered tails and rock tips? Is there nothing about their world that would provide unique weapons or clothing or at least alien-looking versions of earth items? Visually the 3D graphics are overwhelming, but the scenes themselves contain little of interest. The final battle in particular is epic fluff. The tactics are nonsense (the Na’vi aren’t smart enough to drop logs into the helicopter blades so instead attack them with bow and arrows?) and the scenes are lazily staged. The closest thing to a visually arresting moment in the film is when a bunch of flying seeds collectively give Sully a planet-spirit hug while he stands on a neon log. In short, we have the imagery but where is the imagination? Unlike many sci-fi films, I would not say that there are any gaping plot holes that ruin the story. That doesn’t mean it makes much sense. What is the point of the entire avatar program? According to the film, the genetically-engineered bodies—which are controlled remotely by humans—are there to work diplomacy with the Na’Vi and convince them to leave their magic tree so that the “unobtanium” mineral beneath it can be mined. But why does an evil corporation need to spend untold billions creating human-Na’Vi hybrid bio-robots just to do a little diplomacy? The Na’Vi are aware that the avatars are not authentic and indeed the humans have avatar-sized human clothing (Sigourney Weaver dances around in short-shorts and a Stanford tank top) so why not just send some people out in mech suits to negotiate? On that note, what kind of futuristic mercenary military outfits half its soldiers with powerful robot armor yet sticks Jake Sully in a 40 dollar wheelchair from Wal-Mart? They don’t even have some kind of Segway wheelchair in the year 2154? And then of course there is the film’s politics, which are muddier than some critics seem to think. In addition to the inherent silliness of spending several hundred million dollars and creating your own digital cameras to critique technologically-driven capitalism, the film’s cultural imperialism has rightly been widely derided. Building a film around the idea that a native population is too stupid to take care of itself and requires a white man to save them is a problematic premise to start from. And then again there is also the acting. Credit should go to Stephen Lang for pumping some life into the evil colonel, but Weaver is uncharacteristically stilted as the good scientist Dr. Augustine and Worthington is as animated as a mulch pile. Wooden acting is one thing when the characters are Terminator robots, but Sam Worthington’s Sully is supposed to be the character we relate to and his performance drags down the film whenever he is in human form or doing voiceovers (the latter of which are almost universally unbearable. Worthington lulls you to sleep with his dull monotone only to wake you with groan-inducing lines like “I hope this tree-hugging crap isn’t on the final exam.”) I don’t think anyone expects a popcorn blockbuster geared towards younger audiences to have the wit of a David Mamet script or the imaginative directing of a Fellini film. But when you are announcing yourself as the future of filmmaking, you should be able to stand tall against the great blockbusters of the past or at the very least of the present. Compared to the well-conceived, engaging and imaginative action and kids films of even the past two years (The Dark Knight, Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, District 9, Iron Man, etc.) Avatar feels like a colossal underachievement in filmmaking as much as a colossal success in visual effects. When those visual effects become commonplace, what are we left with? But one must give credit where credit is due. In making a film whose virtues are entirely wrapped up in the 3-D theater visuals, Cameron has succeeded in making the first film in some time which simply must be seen in theaters. You would get no enjoyment watching this film on your iPhone or bootlegging it on your laptop. (Remember how the visuals were mocked when the trailer was shown on TV and online?) So perhaps the hype about Avatar saving the industry is not entirely imaginary. Cameron has shown us that flashy special effects and marketing hype can still draw huge crowds to the theater. Here is to hoping those who follow in his technological footsteps bother to spend a little time on their scripts.