Pushing Avatar off a Red Cliff

December 20, 2009
Avatar the Film

Zoe Saldana in Avatar

Hype for film technological breakthroughs is apparently still what leads us into the cinema these days… next to word-of-mouth, of course.  Fortunately for Avatar (2009), it has both – its opening weekend has easily smashed all existing box office records for a 3D film, and has its eyes on taking the top spot overall.  A strong opening weekend is perhaps to be expected, however, for a film that reputedly cost half a billion dollars to make and distribute.  Lumbering James Cameron behemoths like Terminator 2 (1991) or Titanic (1997) were also very profitable gambles in this respect – the former was effectively one long chase scene that demonstrated how the latest CGI could be mobilized to tap into white American male emotion, the latter a five-act tragedy that tapped into white American female emotion.  Cameron’s films are the kinds of films people see more than once:  they tug on enough emotional strings to produce occasional vertiginous feelings while keeping the visual effects rolling to catch your heart at the next turn in the plot.  His films are effective because they are affective, his plots predictable but oh-so “classic,” his high concepts putting even Steven Spielberg’s successes with Jaws (1975) and E.T. (1982) to shame.  Avatar is no exception.

So why didn’t this latest film, which was up my alley in terms of its sci-fi premise, colonial struggles and gratuitous deployment of mecha, bowl me over as it did countless cinema-goers?

Because I saw John Woo’s Red Cliff (2009) first.

******THE SPOILER BOUNDARY — YOU’VE BEEN WARNED ******

Chiling Lin in Red Cliff

“What?!” you exclaim. “But Avatar was so awesome!  All the special effects majors (save Pixar) put their heart and soul into it:  Digital Domain, Industrial Light and Magic, and Weta Digital.  It’s in 3D and looks gorgeous.  Sure, the plot is clichéd, but what plot isn’t?  It totally has a subversive message against colonialism and the exploitation of our Earth.  This is the future of filmaking.  You’re living in the past, man.”

Gentle reader, Avatar itself is definitively a construct of the past:  James Cameron actually wrote the treatment back in 1994, but shelved it until 2006 out of film-technological concerns.  This means that those who are making Dances of Wolves (1993), Pocahontas (1995) and *ahem* FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992, see also 20th Century Fox, Avatar’s distributor) comparisons with the film hit the nail on the head:  Avatar has much more to do with those “going native” narratives than, say, the postcolonial violence depicted in District 9 (2009).  It lives and breathes the multiculturalism of the early 90s, rather than the stale air of globalization and colonial legacies of asymmetrical exploitation in places like South Africa, Israel/Palestine or Pakistan.  As an “adult fairytale,” it offers an almost suffocating sense of nostalgia for the days when we audiences were just starting to think about things like the environment and social inequalities of race/class/gender in terms of mainstream action.

Despite the principal emphasis of all reviewers on the film as an “effects achievement,” I find its major successes to be located in its subtext rather than its revolutionary 3D stereoscopic cameras, etc.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as a believably stubborn handicapped marine.  Three strong women characters – Saldana’s Neytiri, Sigourney Weaver’s Grace and Michelle Rodriguez’ Trudy – give the viewers a variety of models of positive femininity.  Neytiri even manages to save our hero protagonist’s life twice at the end, though the other two women have to die in “exchange.”  The map the Colonel (Stephen Lang) puts on the wall of the gathering tribes reminded me of the animated map at the beginning of Fritz Hippler’s Nazi propaganda film Feldzug in Polen (1940), in which the gathering Nav’i armies seem like a bacteria or disease encroaching on the borders of “civilization.”  The implication that the neural network established throughout Pandora was in many ways more advanced than the artificial networks generated by man is a pleasant and original fantasy in our Internet era.

All of this subtlety (which I assume emerged because there were many intelligent people working on this project) proved fragile, however, against the blubber-filled weight of the film’s Hollywood exportable aesthetics and the Campbellian three-act screenplay.  Complex institutions such as colonizing empires are reduced to simplistic, one-dimensional characters: the greedy project organizer (Giovanni Ribisi — capitalism/corporations), the bloodthirsty colonel (military) and the aloof xenologist (science).  The viewers are delivered the biotopia with the exotic landscapes and species without being in the dubious position of conqueror/explorer (since Jake Sully feels bad and changes sides).  And most importantly, the resistance strategies offered by the film are reduced to A) global solidarity among the Nav’i tribes, B) heroic sacrifice by noble savages with their bows and arrows, C) the hero happens to be *sigh* the Chosen One and D) Pandora puts nature itself as a weapon at the heroes’ disposal.  Aptly put, we are given the feeling of resistance to imperialism without being given any of the methods, beyond the magic of Hollywood.

Why Red Cliff is Better

Red Cliff is a better film than Avatar because it is a bountiful wealth of said resistance methods (though – fear not! – John Woo loved Avatar).  Woo’s first directorial effort in China since Hard Boiled (1992) tells the famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms historical epic through the eyes of two of its master strategist heroes – Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) – as they lead a desperate battle against the invading armies of the fearless Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang).  At a fifth of Avatar‘s reported price-tag ($80 million), the film was nevertheless the most expensive Asian film to date and not the least bit short (runtime 238 min., cut down to 148 min. for international release) to boot.  Budget spent in Avatar on obscenely high-tech effects was deployed toward armies of hundreds of extras and several expensive-looking fight sequences.  Nevertheless, Red Cliff‘s visuals in 2D look equally stunning as Avatar‘s in 3D.  This is to say – using Peter Wuss’ PKS model – the films stand toe-to-toe with each other in terms of perception-leading structures, which leave us with narrative-leading and stereotype-leading structures to differentiate the films (Don’t get me started on stereotypes in Avatar).  Whereas Avatar insists on narrative-leading structures that produce affect against the backdrop of unreflected war imagery (i.e., destruction of home-tree, the final air battle sequence, etc.), Red Cliff seeks narrative-leading structures that both engage the intellect and produce affect against war itself.

Yes, Red Cliff is an anti-war movie in a way that Avatar cannot possibly be.  Significant screen-time is spent discussing strategy for many decisive battles, and such discussions lead directly into intellectual engagement with the battle sequences:  how does one beat an overwhelming enemy?  What formations are to be used?  Why will atmospheric conditions shift the conflict one way and not another?  Like Howard Hawks before him, Woo concentrates his films on professionals who are forced into the greatest professional challenge of their lives.  Whereas Avatar persists with visually articulated moralizing discourses about native populations and environmental exploitation, Red Cliff takes discourse of oppressor/oppressed as a given and instead preoccupies itself with the material waging of war.  The anti-war message is imparted by Tony Leung’s beautifully tragic facial expressions as he watches his strategies work.  Rather than reducing all characters to multi-dimensional heroes and one-dimensional villains who are justified in killing each other over their respective moral principles, all of the violence crossing the screen in Red Cliff comes with a moral price tag.  Clashes of civilizations transform into precisely the relationship of symbiotic violence portrayed in the hunting rituals of the Nav’i (that is then abandoned in favor of the action movie/revenge motif).  Resistance is not mythical and leap-of-faith efforts, but intellectual work.

All of this ranting and raving is, of course, intended to get you to see Red Cliff, or at least think about it as you fork over $14 for your 3D ticket.  If you’re seeing Avatar for its fantastic visuals, then by all means go and enjoy the colors.  But if you’re looking for a solid story that offers a moral perspective on current events, China has beaten the USA/UK/New Zealand conglomerate at a fifth the price.

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Is Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse the Most Intellectually Engaging Series on American Television?

October 10, 2009

Do you believe you have a soul?

Season 2 Promo

Dollhouse Starring Eliza Dushku

Forget for a moment whether that soul continues to exist after you die; I’m not asking what color your religion is. Instead, I’d like to know whether you believe there’s something more to being human than mere material subsistence: consciousness, the capacity for rational thought, the emotional, intellectual, and logical processes that in some important way set us apart from our animal friends.

Do you believe that part of your existence is prospectively separable from your physical existence, intellectually, mechanically, digitally, or spiritually? That’s what I mean when I ask whether you believe you have a soul – is your essence distinct from your substance?

From militantly devout atheists to eagerly martyred Islamic extremists, almost all of us believe in this kind of a soul, an intellectual consciousness somehow divisible from our skin and bones, our axons and dendrites, a soul which is the source of our notion of justice and our capacities for abstract reasoning. We are logical and emotional and not merely biological beings, or so we believe.

But what do these beliefs imply? What if we could literally separate our consciousness from our body while that body continued to live? Would we want to? What is the moral status of our body while we are separated from it? Are we still connected to it, or has it somehow taken on a moral existence of its own?

And what if we could watch a television series that engaged these questions, and each week explored further the questions generated by that scenario? Fox’s Dollhouse, created by Joss Whedon (Firefly, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and starring Eliza Dushku (Bring it On, True Lies) and Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica), does just this, and may be the most intellectually engaging television series in the history of American television.

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Star TrekWarsThulhu

May 11, 2009
Zachary Quinto's Spock turns on the geek sex appeal.

Zachary Quinto's Spock turns on the geek sex appeal.

If you haven’t yet seen the new Star Trek movie, then you obviously weren’t contributing to its staggering $148 million box-office weekend worldwide. Reaching out to old fans and new recruits alike, the film offers not only a fascinating insight into how one resumes control over a powerful franchise on the big screen, but also how saturated with dedicated generic references such franchise films have become. Star Trek (2009) is, according to a close friend of mine who runs a comic book shop, unabashed “geek porn:” an astonishing array of references, insinuations, cool gadgets and eye candy made specifically for geeks to feel, well, awesomely sexy. I am more of the opinion that it’s “geek foreplay” – here’s why:

****SPOILERS ALERT!! SEE THE MOVIE OR BE… UM, SPOILED?***

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The apparent difficulty of genre classification

December 9, 2008

Or: The utility of occasionally judging books by their covers

My nearest local library recently closed for an 18-month renovation project, leaving me with a sudden distressing lack of access to fiction I hadn’t already read. (Not that I’m averse to rereading books, since my policy is not to buy it if I don’t want to read it more than once, but sometimes I do want something new.) The solution was obvious: place an Amazon order.

I was quite pleased with my Amazon order. I ended up with books from 3 new fantasy/sci-fi/speculative fiction series, all of which turned out to be good. Two of them had similar themes: a female main character mediating between members of different supernatural races. This would seem to put them definitively in the fantasy category, urban fantasy if you want to be even more specific. One series, the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, has three books so far that all follow a murder mystery storyline, which the main character ends up needing to solve for the werewolf, vampire, and fae communities respectively. The other series, the Negotiator Trilogy by CE Murphy, is more like Law & Order meets the supernatural realm, because the main character is a lawyer with a strong tie to the police detective who inevitably ends up investigating all the crimes involving the gargoyles, vampires, and so forth that the lawyer is trying to negotiate with.

But this post is not actually meant to be a book review. This post is meant to be a rant. Because what did purchasing these books from Amazon cause to happen? It caused me to get an Amazon ad in my email telling me that based on my purchasing habits, they think it is clear that I would enjoy the following titles on the vampire romance theme. Their algorithm tells them that I am now a woman who reads vampire romances. And I object.

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History Needs More Dinosaurs

November 14, 2008

Via my fabulous friend Jeremy Tolbert, I received the following most awesome link:

Roadside Attraction: The Alternative History Theme Park Where Dinosaurs Fought in the Civil War

As the article says:

Most speculative fiction surrounding the American Civil War imagines how the world would be different had the Confederacy won its independence. But roadside attraction creator Mark Cline has imagined an entirely different kind of Civil War science fiction. His fiberglass creations tell the tale of a group of Union soldiers who discover a lost valley of dinosaurs in Virginia and plot to use them as weapons against the South.

You absolutely must click over there to see all the fantastic photos of the recreated dino vs. soldier battles. As you may notice in the first photo, things don’t appear to have gone exactly as the Yankees had planned. Given that I live in North Carolina and the museum is in Virginia, I’m definitely starting to feel the need to take a road trip.

What other ideas can you think of for alternative history theme parks you’d like to see?

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Making a Supernatural Living

July 30, 2008

Ah, capitalism! Someone sees a market for something and then acts to fill that need at a healthy profit for themselves. It works so well (on paper)! A personal hobby horse of mine is what often seems to be a failure of otherwise fascinating and detailed fictional worlds with meticulously developed supernatural or pseudoscientific powers failing to take the profit motive into account.

My most often cited example of this is the long suffering Peter Parker. The poor guy barely covers rent in a thankless job doing freelance work for a borderline yellow journalist. The psychological reasons for why he continues to punish himself year after grueling year have been well-documented, but still, I’ve occasionally wondered why a man of such scientific skills doesn’t get himself a better job. This is a guy who over what was essentially a long-weekend invented an incredibly compact liquid substance which when exposed to air would instantly harden into a powerful adhesive which would furthermore dissolve all by itself after a few hours. Consider the potential non-lethal uses of such a weapon in the hands of law-enforcement agencies as a legacy for poor martyred Uncle Ben. If you were willing to be a bit more mercenary, consider the industrial applications. I recognize that he has a deep need to do personal hero work, but it just seems that having a decent financial base to fund your vigilante efforts above the poverty line might make your life a little more bearable (not that it seems to help Batman much).

Still, an example of a well-thought out economic plan in an unusual setting always makes my day. Here are a few examples, though I’m hoping other people will share a few more.

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Yet Another Immortal Detective

March 5, 2008

As if the television sprites were reading this blog last week and decided to grant my wish, Fox has finally actually started airing episodes of New Amsterdam. As I said in a comment on my last post, I found it very interesting this summer when they started advertising both this show and Moonlight at the same time. Immortals have become trendy again.

Last night was the first episode of the show, and if it seems like I’m writing about it awfully early in the game, well, it is a Fox show, so I’d better talk about it now before it gets cancelled, eh? It is definitely a show that fits in well with the “angsty immortals with relationship issues” genre. Which, I should emphasize, is not to say that it’s a bad show in any way; I actually quite liked it. But it was amusing to me that, even though this show is not about a vampire, it neatly sets the stage for a hefty focus on relationships quite early.

It turns out, you see, that John Amsterdam was made immortal by a Native American shaman back in the early colonial days, so that he would remain alive until he found “the one, and your souls are bound together.” So for the last 400 years, he’s been living in New York, looking for his true love, which, as his friend puts it, really means that he’s looking for his death. Amsterdam seems very tired of living forever, and when he ends up having a heart attack near the beginning of the episode and technically dies for a little while, his friend says he looks actually happy for the first time in a long time. This is apparently supposed to mean that his true love was nearby for the first time, presumably to get the overarching plot rolling.

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