Avatar (2009): The Best Space Western Since 1977’s Star Wars

Cover of "Avatar (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Co...
Cover via Amazon

After a jokey morning with my daughter where she informed me that she and a mate had decided that I was battle-scarred enough to be Colonel Quaritch in Avatar, a viewpoint I laughingly agreed with, I started thinking about the film itself.

We went to see Avatar at the cinema. In all its 3D glory the film was stunning. The computer generated Na’vi looked real and the SFX looked brilliant. As the movie progressed I found myself becoming more protective of the native residents in the film. When the company destroys the symbol of their culture and a large number of Na’vi I suddenly realised that this was a western and the Na’vi were the cinematic representation of my Native American ancestors.

I was entranced.

I had not seen a science fiction film that so clearly showed its western roots since the original Star Wars. A film that also entranced  and excited me at the same time.

Luke Skywalker in his search for his father, his finding Obi-Wan Kenobe and learning the power and skills of a Jedi were just an updated fancy named scenario of a young man learning to be a gunfighter and leading the fight against a powerful enemy. It felt like a cross between The Magnificent Seven and Shane and any other western you could name.

Avatar was once described on Twitter by Kevin Sorbo as “Dances with Wolves in space.” I laughed and then immediately realised that he was right. The character of Jake Sully does study the Na’vi and becomes so enamoured of their way of life (not to mention the use of his legs again) that he actively defends them when Quaritch and his paid killers try to wipe them out.

James Cameron came up with the idea of the movie way back in 1994. He then sat back and waited for technology to catch up with his idea. I’m glad he did. The film in 3D was breath-taking if not a little headache inducing. The blu-ray was no less impressive and a lot easier on the eyes.

The plot is about a planetthat has vast supplies of a new element or mineral known as unobtanium (how’s that for a macguffin type name!) that humans are in desperate need of. A company (RDA) is trying to break down the resistance of the native people who call the planet home, the Na’vi. When all peaceful means fail the company sends their profession mercenary security force to annihilate the Na’vi.

On a side note, I wonder if anyone will ever invent a 3D system that doesn’t make you feel like a lifetime migraine suffer after watching it?

That Avatar is a western is beyond dispute. The planet with its rich deposits of unobtanium are just the Dakota’s and the black hills et al full of the gold that the white man so eagerly pursued. The resultant Indian wars that followed also mirror the Na’vi’s attempt to protect their home world.

Jake's avatar and Neytiri. One of the inspirat...
Jake’s avatar and Neytiri. One of the inspirations for the look of the Na’vi came from a dream that Cameron’s mother had told him about. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will openly admit that the cast (and crew) did such a good job in the making of this movie that I got swept away by the story. My brother actually got so swept away that when he watched the film in the cinema he got incredibly angry at the destruction of the tribe’s tree. He had to go into the lobby and cool down.

I was too busy being blown away by the performances and how the film looked. The 3D was so much better than any of the old-fashioned 3D that I almost felt  like I was in the film or at the very least surrounded by it. That combined with the incredibly talented cast made the movie an overwhelming experience.

*SPOILERS*

Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Stephan Lang, Zoe Saldana (who made me fall in love with the first ever blue graphically created woman in cinema) and of course  Michelle Rodriguez playing the usual hard-ass tough fighter she’s known for. High words of praise are also reserved to the cameo of Wes Studi, the one real link between Dances with Wolves and Avatar. He really sells the part of the clan chief and his death crushed me.

Cameron is working on a sequel that will be out in 2015. Assuming we all survive the end of the world in December, I’ll definitely be watching it. I want to see how the Na’vi have grown since their screen debut.

I can’t wait. Of course the question does have to be asked. When so few people can make a decent modern western why is that James Cameron can make one that is so spot on, but in space?

It will also be interesting to see what the plot is this time around. The original film did indeed parallel Dances with Wolves to a large degree. Let’s hope that the new adventures of the Na’vi don’t turn into a parallel version of F Troop.

Cover of "Dances with Wolves"
Cover of Dances with Wolves

Near Dark (1987): Cowboys and Vampires

Cover of "Near Dark (1987)"
Cover of Near Dark (1987)

I re-watched this 1980’s film today and marvelled at how beautiful it looked. Which is just as well as the pace of the film is almost snail-like.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (who also co-wrote the film with Eric Red) the future Mrs James Cameron (now ex-Mrs Cameron) does a pretty good job at setting the scene for this slow moving and slow paced ‘genre-bender’ and it is easy to see why it has built up such a huge cult following.

At the time of it’s release, it was following a current 80’s trend of vampire movies that were sweeping the box office. Fright Night (vampire comedy), The Lost Boys (teen vampire action) and The Hunger (vampire noir) had all done very well with the general public. A lot of other vampire films were released in the 80’s but only the vampire western Near Dark falls into the same calibre of the previous three films mentioned.

Unfortunately when the film initially opened it’s box office receipts were poor and the film did not even earn it’s budget back. The film has gone on to become a cult favourite (I know that I’ve loved the film for years) and was going to be remade until Twilight opened in theatres and now is on indefinite hold. Although why the emergence of Twilight could have any sort of impact on this film is completely beyond me.

Starring relative newcomers Adrian Pasdar, and Jenny Wright the rest of the cast was made up of Hollywood workhorses of a wide variety and talent. Lance Henriksen, Bill PaxtonJenette Goldstein and Tim Thomerson as Adrian Pasdar’s character’s Dad. Worthy of note was the decision to cast the young Joshua John Miller as the pudgy, creepy pre-pubescent vampire Homer. Miller’s portrayal of the chain smoking childish vampire who evoked a feeling of being a paedophilia  ‘wanna-be’ was clearly the most disturbing of the vampire clan in the film.

I felt at the time, and still do, that the vampires in the film headed by Henriksen and Goldstein were the vampire equivalent of the small time gangsters Bonnie and Clyde Barrows who terrorized small backwoods towns, banks and gas stations of the rural mid-west. You got the feeling that this group of killers had slid just under the radar through most of the places they moved through in their quest for blood and games.

The only problem with the film were the two romantic leads. Pasdar and Wright are just too bland as the country kids who fall in love, one a vampire, the other a cowboy. Personality did not seem to exist in either of them. Of course to be fair, when you have actors of the ilk of Henriksen, Paxton, Goldstein and Thomerson to share the screen with, unless you are very special, you’re going to  be blown off the screen. Which is precisely what happened in this film.

Ya wanna be in my gang?

The plot is pretty straight forward, Caleb Colton (Pasdar) goes into town and meets Mae (Wright). Instantly smitten he spends the night with her and she bites him. In this world a vampires bite is instantly viral and starts turning the recipient into one of the undead. As Caleb flees the rising sun (which does not make you twinkle, but instead causes you to catch fire and explode if you don’t get out of it quick enough) Mae’s vampire clan snatch Caleb up and they head for shelter.

Most of the film is then split up into Papa Colton trying to find Caleb, Caleb learning about how crazy and unforgiving this vampire clan is, and Caleb’s attempts to flee the group.

Despite its slow pacing, the film is stunning to look at and brilliant in its depiction of the vampires as a sort of social deviants. You also get the feeling   that they were the  same when they were alive.  The  character information is given out in ‘dribs and drabs’ and it adds to the feel of the story. We learn that Jesse Hooker (Henriksen) has been around since the American Civil War at least and that Paxton is his protégée. We learn how Diamondback (Goldstein) was found while changing a flat tire.

Nothing is ever revealed about Homer’s turning and this helps build the natural revulsion of his character.

I  give big points to the writers for coming up with a unique way to ‘cure’ the infected people in the film. It is certainly one that I’ve never seen before or since, come to think of it.  It is a real shame that this film didn’t do better on release and that it’s taken so long for it to reach cult status. I am relieved to hear that they will not be doing a remake as it sounds, by the press release at any rate, that it was going to have a lot in common with Twilight.

I can’t think of a more disturbing idea. Vampires who had bucket loads of personality (mostly bad) suddenly turned into brooding emo type characters who don’t burn in the sun, but twinkle in it. Whoever in the world thought that was a good idea?

I’m so full of angst!

The Thing (2011)- A Prequel? Only at the End.

After putting it off far too long, I finally watched the “prequel re-make” of John Carpenter’s The Thing. At the end of the film I found myself asking only one question.

Why?

Now I will be the first to admit that Carpenter’s The Thing is itself a re-make. Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks first brought the film to the big screen in 1951. It featured James Arness (who does indeed look like a giant carrot as suggested by author Stephen King) heavily made up and very unfriendly. The creature is dispatched at the end of the film via an electric sidewalk.

John Carpenter re-imagined the film in 1982 and it became a classic. Brooding, suspenseful and menacing, it set the standard for economically telling a story and creating characters you could form a bond with. It was suitably scary with moments of genuine humour. In fact I would go as far as to suggest that Carpenter’s The Thing should be used as a template on how to make a good film. *I would also add  James Cameron’s Terminator 2 to that very short list*

Now we have the “prequel” The Thing 2011.  I will say that the special effects were beyond spectacular. Sadly, that is the  only good thing I can bring myself to say about the film. Despite the fact that the director and the producers set the pacing of the film at breakneck speed, I did not care about any of it.

The characters were not even two dimensional creations. They all appeared to be one dimensional filler. No one, apart from Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character, had a clear cut “job” in the film.  Winstead was supposed to be the “heroine,” yet her character was so lacklustre and flat that I found myself not really caring whether she lived, died, or defeated the alien.

Every other character in the film seemed to be used to fill one or two functions. I can envision the director saying, “Right we need a large cast that an alien needs to chew through. We also need enough people that we can group one bunch as victims and one bunch as aliens. Since that really is all they are going to be doing, we won’t bother with giving them specific things to do in the film.”

Yes, the film did zoom along. Like a runaway train it sped to the conclusion, to it’s detriment.  The script had so many holes, gaps and glaring omissions that I am actually amazed that it managed to run for an entire 103 minutes. But, having said that, the film felt much longer.

I will say that the last bit of the film – the “teaser-like” flashes we the audience got intermixed with the end credits – did indeed fill the bill as a prequel. Sadly, it was really the only part of the film that I got anywhere near excited about.

So my final verdict about the film? Great FX! Mediocre characters and performances with the only real prequel being at the end of the film. I am so glad I did not see this at the cinema.

I would have asked for my money back.