In memoriam : DAN O'BANNON (Sep.30.46-Dec.17.09)
As a showcase for technical innovation, a celebration of ingenious gadgetry, a disgusted indictment of the US military-industrial complex and an eco-conscious paean to the purity of oppressed indigenous peoples' belief-systems, Avatar is perhaps a film that only a Scots-Canadian could have made.
Of course, we can be more specific than that: it's a film that only a Scots-Canadian named James Cameron* could have devised, got funded and executed. Given his track-record (Terminator, T2, Titanic, etc) writer-director Cameron had pretty much carte blanche to let his imagination run wild. The result of this is a gaudy mash-up of countless fantasy and science-fiction tropes from cinema, painting and literature (his Dune influence amusingly emerges via his protagonist enjoying what may be termed a messianic Muad'dib moment at a crucial juncture) - and a specific debt to Poul Anderson's 1957 story Call Me Joe has already been widely noted by eagle-eyed, elephant-memoried sci-fi buffs.
Like Avatar, Call Me Joe centers on a paraplegic €” Ed Anglesey €” who telepathically connects with an artificially created life form in order to explore a harsh planet (in this case, Jupiter). Anglesey, like Avatar's Jake Sully, revels in the freedom and strength of his artificial created body, battles predators on the surface of Jupiter, and gradually goes native as he spends more time connected to his artificial body.
Instead of Jupiter, we're on the fictional moon of Pandora in the year 2154, where a paraplegic, ordinary-joe marine (Sam Worthington, appealingly blokey) semi-inadvertently becomes part of the 'Avatar' programme designed to improve relations between human visitors, keen to mine a rare mineral from beneath the moon's thickly forested surface, and the humanoid inhabitants – ten foot tall, blue-skinned, feline-lithe hunter-gatherers known as the NA'Vi, who have a particularly intense relationship to their natural environment.
Under a complicated – and barely explained – system devised by scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a human's consciousness can be transferred to (and from) specially-grown NA'Vi bodies, allowing them to breathe the moon's toxic-to-humans air and interact with the locals. Jake's background and temperament prove a reasonable match for the warrior-like NAV'i – and his avatar soon strikes up a romantic relationship with skilled huntress Neytiri. The latter is "played" via motion-capture CGI by an appealing Zoe Saldana – only months after her turn as Lt Uhura in the Star Trek reboot – who deserves extra credit as the only one of the main performers who doesn't get to "appear" in human form.
As a size-does-matter-and-bigger-is-better 3-D spectacle of sheer eye-candy, Avatar delivers – but there's also quite a lot going on (not very far) beneath the sheeny surfaces of Cameron's screenplay, even if it lacks the rug-pullingly clever third-act twist that so redeemed Roland Emmerich's rather more "old-school" take on the sci-fi blockbuster genre, 2012.
The caustic depiction of casually brutal, gung-ho American military mercenaries – sorry, security consultants - will strike a particularly topical chord for many, and the dialogue certainly misses few chances to ram home parallels with post-2001 US activities in Afghanistan and Iraq. The NA'Vi/human frictions can also be compared with the colonial mistreatment of Native Americans, the conquistadors' arrival in South America, and many other similar happenings in Africa (and elsewhere) over the centuries.
Whether or not this all represents $300m+ truly well spent is quite another question. Because while one smart critic, discussing developments in digital motion-capture technology, aptly described Cameron as the Mozart to Robert Zemeckis's Salieri (making specific reference to Zemeckis's current Christmas Carol), Cameron's lumbering behemoth of a fantasia itself looks distinctly old-school when juxtaposed with Neill Blomkamp's District 9.
Both pictures are in-your-face political parables with protagonists who become alien-human hybrids, and feature climaxes in which one of the participants boosts his natural strength by means of a giant robotic exo-skeleton. But Blomkamp's exploration of science fiction's 21st century possibilities has an energy, wit and brio which Avatar only very occasionally manages to achieve – and its integration of live-action and animation is, if anything, smoother and more convincing than anything Cameron and company manage to pull off.
Indeed, so many of Avatar's sequences are entirely computer-generated that it might perhaps have been eligible for the 'Best Animated Feature' Oscar. As it is, Avatar must be reckoned a front-runner for Best Picture – it's no masterpiece, but is a skilled example of the bombastically dazzling, old-fashioned epic/war-movie/romance/drama of the type that Hollywood, and the paying public, has always embraced. And if Cameron's ex Kathryn Bigelow picks up Best Director for The Hurt Locker (another critique of US gung-ho militarism / paean to cross-cultural understanding / love-letter to the power of body-enhancing technology) a few minutes before, tant mieux.
20th December, 2009
AVATAR : [7/10] : USA 2009 : James CAMERON : 161m (BBFC) : seen 19.Dec.09 at Empire cinema, Sunderland – 3D projection (public show – paid £7.30). [18/28]
meanwhile…. Vern has excelled himself (again)
Cameron was born in 1954, in Kapuskasing, Ontario, a paper-mill town located within Canada's vast region of taiga or "boreal" forest. Known as Macpherson until 1917, Kapuskasing's name comes from the language spoken by the Cree tribes which formerly inhabited the area. Cameron was brought up in Chippawa, just north of Niagara Falls, before moving to California in 1971. Chippawa's name derives from the language of the so-called 'Neutral Nation', a tribe distinct from the more war-like Huron to the north and Iroquois to the south:
The Neutrals' name for themselves was Chonnonton, or "people of the deer", or more precisely, 'the people who tend or manage deer'. They were called Attawandaron by the Hurons, meaning "people whose speech is awry or a little different".
The French called the people "Neutral" (French: la Nation neutre) because they tried to remain neutral between the warring Huron and Iroquois peoples. A plausible reason for their neutrality during the Huron-Iroquois war was the presence of flint grounds within their territory near the eastern end of Lake Erie. Because the Attawandaron possessed this important resource, used for spearheads and arrowheads, they could maintain their neutrality. Once neighbouring nations began to receive firearms from the European powers, however, the possession of the flint grounds lost its advantage.
The chief of the Neutrals in their last years was named Tsouharissen ("Child of the Sun") who led several raids against the Mascouten who lived in territory in present-day Michigan and Ohio. Tsouharissen died around 1646.
Around 1650, during a period now loosely referred to as the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois declared war on the Attawandaron; by 1653, the people were practically annihilated, and their villages were wiped out, including Kandoucho. The last mention of the Neutrals in French records is in 1671.
The navvies (shortened from 'navigators', the canal-builders of the eighteenth century) building the railways came from across the British Isles. One third were Irish, seeking escape from famine. The railway-building boom of the 1840s coincided closely with an agricultural crisis in Ireland, and navvying provided a means of subsistence that would otherwise have been lacking. Many Irish navvies sent their earnings home while the Scottish and English lavished their wages on alcohol.
Having travelled to England seeking work, the Irish navvies were treated with contempt. The Presbyterian Scots navvies hated them, while the English had a reputation for fighting anyone but particularly the Irish. Religious differences were accentuated by the Irish being prepared to work for less money, thereby lowering wages generally.
Events reached a climax in early 1846, when an industrial dispute involving thousands of navvies spread across the north of England. The results were rioting, murder, confrontations with troops and widespread destruction. The experience of the Irish navvies is a graphic demonstration of the hostility that can be directed against
migrant workers working on new technologies.
Kerouac's editor at the time Robert Giroux rejected the scroll, and the author would spend the next six years revising it, writing new work, including several novels, and looking for another publisher. Partly with the help of legendary critic Malcolm Cowley, On the Road was finally published by Viking in September of 1957. On the day it was published it was feted in a New York Times review by Gilbert Millstein, who called it "the most beautifully executed, the clearest, and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat,' and whose principal avatar he is."