So I have to admit being pretty stoked about the new James Cameron film, AVATAR, which by now everyone has seen, except for me. It's hard not to get excited by this movie, if you're even slightly interested in sci-fi or fantasy fare.
Cameron's record is pretty solid. For film fans less familiar with his track record and those oblivious to Hollywood action hits since 1984, he is responsible for spectacular screen gems such as Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Aliens and The Abyss. I even loved Steven Soderbergh's remake of Tarkovsky's classic, Solaris, which Cameron produced. However, Cameron is also responsible for lessor works including True Lies, Piranha Part 2: The Spawning, and something about a big sinking boat with Billy Zane.
So as excited as I am about Avatar, I have some misgivings. I can't really trust my sci-fi intuition anymore. What happened in 1999 is the reason why. Being a fan of science fiction movies means being a fan of Star Wars, and by Star Wars, I mean three movies that came out between 1977 and 1983. The summer of 1999 was pretty exciting because George Lucas was finally returning to his beloved trilogy to tell the story of Obi-Wan as a young swashbuckler and Darth Vader as a child actor who stops by Tatooine to play big-screen Mario-Kart and whine a little between diaper ads and cookie commercial shoots.
Early that summer, anticipation for the new Star Wars film was high, though nay-sayers were knocking the computerized graphics and predicting a stinker. I would not listen. The early 1999 me thought "come on, people, this is George Lucas! This is Star Wars! How could anyone doubt that it will be fantastic?" I chose to ignore those who cited the
Star Wars Holiday Special, the Ewok television movies with Wilford Brimley, Lucas' stint as executive producer on Howard The Duck, or even this as evidence that the new Star Wars trilogy would suck. I just thought it was too special and beloved a series to even have the slightest chance of turning into a big shiny digital ball of suck.
Obviously I was so very wrong about the prequels, but I still love the old Star Wars trilogy as much as anyone and ended up making a pretty great Obi-Wan costume one year, but enough about expectations and how they can ruin everything. Let's get back to Avatar.
Adrian McKinty, one of my favorite authors, who has a fantastic blog, by the way, said it here first, and yes, Avatar does look like Dances With Wolves in space; I couldn't have said it better myself, though I liked Dances With Wolves a lot and can admit it here.
I would add one caveat: There are a bunch of digital blue folks running around who look like cousins of a certain mouthy green abomination in the Star Wars prequels, and this may not bode well for Avatar. The plot appears to be as thin as the average science fiction effects vehicle: Racism is bad, mmm--kay?
Centralized power structures are often corrupt. The only way the human race will survive is if we unite in desperation against an external, non-human threat, mmm--kay? If we survive, then we can all go back to hating each other and splinter into warring factions, but for now, we need to embrace our diversity and cooperate in order to survive, mmm--kay?
Yet the best sci-fi looks closely at what it really means to be human, and that often involves some sort of doppelganger that teaches us, usually after great conflict and loss, that we are not that much different than The Other. One recent example of this well-worn plot device coating an otherwise spectacularly awesome movie is District 9, a movie I really loved that may have not broken much new ground, plot-wise.
The Star Wars prequel trilogy inhabited a lessor galaxy nowhere near that of the first trilogy or even that of THX 1138, a worth-watching but relatively unknown relic from Lucas's film school days. Though I will always be grateful for the original trilogy, George will need quite a grand slam to win back my respect.
I guess the point is that after enduring the prequel cringe-fest, I have to admit that the greats are not necessarily going to remain great. Cameron too is human, so it is with these cautionary notes that I remain, well, cautiously optimistic about Avatar.
Sam Worthington was stoic but decent in T4, which was at least a little better than the very disappointing T3, and now I see that Cameron is in talks to return to the series with T5, which could be great, but Mr. Cameron, please return to The Terminator series and make it great again!
So maybe Avatar won't break much new ground plot-wise. Maybe humans won't ever stop killing each other over our petty nationalism, religions and world-views, but man, those Avatar trailers look pretty cool.
Maybe it's time to stop speculating and actually go see this thing.