From spaceship to underwater maze to Belle Epoque vessel, James Cameron has made the areas where humanity and technology meet his ongoing theme. Odd that his most interesting treatment of that theme should be his screenplay for Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, which presents a deeply unsettling portrait of techno-immersion. Odder still that in Avatar, the much-hyped Return of the King following a 12-year hiatus from the screen, he would fumble the one sure-fire intersection of emotion and machinery: The paraplegic protagonist (Sam Worthington) waking up inside the body of a 10-feet tall, azure-skinned feline warrior as part of an experimental program. You’d think the dude would be thrilled to trade his wheelchair for legs, yet, amid the merciless avalanche of Plot, the moment barely registers. The rollercoaster must keep moving. The year is 2154, Earth has run out of natural resources, and an über-corporation is harvesting the distant planet Pandora for priceless minerals. Armed mercenaries can only go so far in conquering the hearts and minds of the planet’s indigenous population (known as Na’vi or, per racist earthlings, "blue monkeys"), so an infiltration scheme is hatched: Specialized Marines climb into sleeping chambers and in their slumber control genetically engineered alien replicas. Under the tutelage of a gruff biologist (Sigourney Weaver), Worthington dons braids and stripes and goes exploring in the phosphorescent jungle below. The new world offers its own fauna and flora, flaunting such retooled Jurassic specimens as crimson pterodactyluses, hammerhead triceratopses and saber-tooth tigers with psychedelic plumage. Most eye-catching to the hero are the Na’vi themselves, a tribe of peace-loving space aborigines with elongated torsos, yellow-gemstone eyes, and leonine tails. The undercover soldier is duly awed by their solemn bond to the "flow of the forest," and by the inevitable Na’vi Pocahontas (Zoë Saldana) who stands by his side, bow and arrow and all, as he grows from impostor to savior.
Avatar alternates between a slurry of Franz Marc expressionism and the most elaborate Thundercats episode ever made. As a hi-tech achievement, it’s a jaw-dropper: The symphonic play of iridescent hues, digital dervishes and motion-capture humanoids makes the demolitions of 2012 and the CGI pirouettes of A Christmas Carol look mossy indeed. Unfortunately, Cameron’s imperial prowess is at the service of his eco-mystic side, which has mushroomed quite a bit since The Abyss -- the Na’vi are an amalgam of noble-savage clichés, Lost Horizon rejects who gallop like Sioux across the Great Plains and do faux-Polynesian seated dances around the sacred "Tree of Souls." Capitalism is a tepidly conflicted weasel (Giovanni Ribisi), General Custer is a bellicose weightlifter (Stephen Lang) who orders the carpet-bombing of Eden with Cheneyisms like "Well well well, I’d say diplomacy has failed." Would a decade of hibernation also make a flower-child out of Michael Bay? Skewering Cameron’s dialogue has become a tradition among reviewers, though he certainly hands them the knives himself by peppering his characters’ humorless bubbles with thrift-shop New Age soundbites ("One life ends... another begins") and sub-Revenge of the Sith stabs at relevance ("A preemptive attack to fight terror with terror"). (Not that he’s particularly concerned: "No one’s listening," the violin players say as the Titanic goes under.) Pitting imperialist, mustache-twirling humans against pious extraterrestrial rebels is a promising reversal of the Aliens template, but you’d need Paul Verhoeven’s heightened comic-book ferocity to push the switcheroo into genuine subversion; done here with jejune paternalism, it’s just Reagan-era belligerence transmuted into weary, nostra-culpa outrage. What’s left is the pulverizing spectacle of computer graphics on parade, a visceral thrill to behold and an emotional void to contemplate. If Avatar marks the beginning of a new cinematic era, as some have claimed, then I hope its glittering toy chest doesn’t turn out to be a Pandora’s Box of sterile glow and virtual fakery.
Another CGI extravaganza, another Oscar-anointed "visionary" refrying Spielberg’s beans. Cameron supplies the aliens in Avatar, Peter Jackson does the threatened-suburbia bit in The Lovely Bones. "I was fourteen years old when I was murdered on December 6th, 1973. I wasn’t gone. I was alive in my own perfect world." How can he get people to mourn wizards, and still fail to squeeze poignancy out of a slaughtered teen? That’s the only real mystery in this misbegotten adaptation of the Alice Sebold bestseller, as the young shutterbug (celestial-eyed Saoirse Ronan) has her snow-globe existence shattered by a fateful brush with the pedophile serial killer next door (Stanley Tucci, who couldn’t be a more obvious Chester the Molester if he skulked around humming "Thank Heavens for Little Girls"). At one point, Jackson cuts back and forth between the villain drooling over the doomed heroine and her family setting up the dinner table at home -- did M stand for "maladroit"? The girl’s soul watches her parents (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz) and her killer from an "In-Between" cosmic gazebo, which shifts colors and settings like an illustrated five-stages-of-death chart (shock, giddiness, revenge, acceptance, etc.). It’s an indication of the director’s interests that most of his creative energies are spent on this kitschy DayGlo purgatory, which allows a sequence of Wahlberg’s distraught paterfamilias smashing his set of bottled model ships to balloon into a digital fantasy of huge glassy galleons crashing into a shore. Back among the living, a nightmarishly frenetic panoply of hopped-up camera movements, shock cuts, blanched fades, musical montages with a never-worse Susan Sarandon, and pointless suspense set-pieces scrambles to cover up the fact that Jackson apparently has no clue how to deal with human-sized grief and horror. Years ago he brilliantly balanced adolescent hysteria with disturbing special-effects, but now that spectacle has taken over, his heavenly creatures have become infernal shells.
Some more time-traveling: Sherlock Holmes envisions the adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective as an action-bromance franchise-setter, which, after the overwrought fairy-tale absurdities of The Lovely Bones, makes for intermittently snazzy entertainment. Guy Ritchie is at the helm, which means there will be at least a couple of scenes of forward-rewind pummeling to jazz up that fusty deductive reasoning stuff -- Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is a man of logic and a swashbuckler, knocking around in underground arenas when not strumming his violin or testing elixirs on his pet bulldog. For a quasi-superhero in a wannabe blockbuster, Downey’s Victorian shamus is gratifyingly weird, something of a half-blithe, half-crabby libertine who can’t even sit in a restaurant without vacuuming up the sensory clues swirling around him. Downey’s great when he munches on his pipe as if to still a twitch in the corner of his mouth or when he widens his eyes and flares his nostrils at the scene of a crime ("Aaaah, putrefaction!"), and he’s nicely matched with Jude Law’s laddish Dr. Watson, whose engagement Holmes is trying his best to impair (shades of The Front Page). And Ritchie’s 1800s London is a sometimes clever blend of mystical dungeons and steam-punk laboratories, where even the Thames seems to be covered with a layer of soot. A shame that the supporting cast (monotonously glowering Mark Strong, colorlessly ornamental Rachel McAdams) is so drab, and the plot, which combines the kind of subterranean skullduggery that ushered in the 20th-century with the kind of hero-jumping-in-slow-motion-before-fireball hokeshit that ushered in the 1980s action flick, is so stale. For all of its ripping deviltries, Sherlock Holmes remains a frustrating affair, smart enough to note that "The game is afoot" is part of a Henry V soliloquy but stupid enough to shrink shadowy Dr. Moriarty, that great proto-Mabuse, into a sequel-ready bad guy.
Hunched over with doubt and guilt, Daniel Day-Lewis does a pretty good Bergman. Sadly, in Nine he’s supposed to be playing Fellini, and the satyr’s raffish sensuality is not part of his repertoire. The pall hangs over this tortuous screen adaptation of the 8½-based stage musical, with a roster of pricey Weinstein Company pets stomping around a cardboard Cinecittà with "Dat’s a spicy meatball!" accents. Day-Lewis plays frazzled maestro Guido, pondering a cinematic blank page through an ocean of grasping female flesh -- there are wives (Marion Cotillard, the only one who pulls off the acting-while-singing trick), mistresses (Penelope Cruz), mothers (Sophia Loren), muses (Nicole Kidman), whores (Fergie), suck-ups (Kate Hudson) and confidantes (Judi Dench), all of them voicing their concerns via haphazardly edited tunes in a poorly lit soundstage. The faux-Fosse proscenium may have worked when it played inside the cranium of Renee Zellweger’s Roaring Twenties dimwit in Chicago, but when it stands in for the imagination of a purportedly heralded auteur, it just proves once and for all that director Rob Marshall has no gift for staging, rhythm or movement. (Fellini’s reveries are constantly vibrating, undulating, and humming; Marshall’s are canned Broadway pizzazz.) 8½ used a filmmaker's creative block as a stylistic launching pad. Karaoke night at Victoria's Secret, Nine simply and limply embodies that directorial barrenness.
Reviewed January 10, 2010.