James Cameron and his massive ego take technology where it didn’t need to go in service of what can only be described as the most expensive animated film ever, while the woke take aim at yet another entirely fictional world not populated with actual people.
James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water is struggling at the box office despite earning almost half a billion globally in two weeks of release, but that should not be a surprise considering it is widely reported the film would need to be among the highest grossing in history merely to break even. Estimates put the total budget at somewhere around $500 million, for what looks to me at least like an over three hour Pixar movie: Impressive visuals in some respects, but nothing close to real or compelling in any way. A film that literally shouts at you: This is very, very expensive Computer Generated Imagery, be amazed at our technological wizardry. To be sure, I have not seen it and likely won’t for some time. Call me a cynic if you will, but at this point in my life, I find myself more interested in the absurdities surrounding the film than the actual film itself. Anything from a director as famous and influential as James Cameron is a cultural event and the latest Avatar has proven no different, bringing with it completely unnecessary new technologies and criticism from the woke community. Of course, Mr. Cameron is no stranger to pushing the limits of movie-making technology. He began his career in the film industry as a special effects director and model maker before transitioning to the role of director in the early 1980’s where he would earn billions of dollars and international acclaim. He was, rightly, credited with exploring the limits of nascent computer generated imagery in The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. He went on to pioneer new motion capture technology for Titanic and the first Avatar, both films that changed the way other movies were made and helped bring the modern era of seamless, increasingly inexpensive computer graphics into existence.
In that sense, it was only natural for Mr. Cameron to assume he’d do the same again with his next passion project, but the times have changed drastically since the first Avatar. In the intervening decade, computer generated special effects have exploded, becoming so mainstream as to be boring and banal. The lowest budget television show features effects that would have been inconceivable in a big budget movie twenty years ago. Even our phones come packed with the power to remove objects from the background, apply real time filters, recognized faces and people, and more. More adventurous filmmakers are increasingly turning to practical effects and out-of-this-world stunts to wow audiences, as evidenced by the success of Top Gun: Maverick. Instead of accepting this reality and focusing his creative energy on the traditional elements of moviemaking including a memorable story and characters, Mr. Cameron chose to invest in technology no one needs, wants, or cares about: Underwater motion capture. Previously, motion capture technology relied on infrared light to capture an actor’s facial expressions and body language. The actors wear a special suit that is tagged in key areas of their body, and while the camera rolls, their motions are also recorded for a computer to replace later with animated imagery. Infrared, however, does not work underwater and so a new technology based on ultraviolet light needed to be invented expressly for the purposes of the movie. In addition, there are challenges with capturing eye movements underwater, as well as the noise created by bubbles from the camera crews’ scuba gear. Of course, the actors interact with a variety of animals and other objects while underwater, requiring the creation of expensive models and apparatus to round out the experience.
The result is a $500 million movie filmed in a giant fish tank holding some 900,000 gallons of water. Comparisons to Kevin Costner’s legendary flop Waterworld certainly come to mind, but there is a distinct difference: Waterwold spent most of its exorbitant-for-the-time budget on massive sets, actually filming real scenes on the ocean that could not have been created with special effects. Avatar: The Way of Water, on the other hand, goes through all of the expense of filming underwater only to replace literally everything you see with a computer animation. Putting this another way, there is no actual water in the movie. There is only the motion of the actors underwater, all replaced by computer graphics after the fact. All you actually see is the animation. Mr. Cameron claims the point of all this is authenticity, whatever that means in this context. They considered shooting the actors on dry land, potentially slowed down with wires, but that didn’t look real enough for a film that isn’t real. Apparently, neither Mr. Cameron nor anyone on his team has ever heard of an “animator,” as in the entire class of skilled people that create motion that doesn’t really exist in the first place. Instead, they identified a problem no one needed them to solve, spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours solving it, bragged about solving it, and then recreated everything in a computer anyway. There is a metaphor in their somewhere, I am sure of it.
Technology isn’t the only thing that has changed since the original movie. Woke culture follows its own version of Moore’s famous law, doubling in pace and insanity seemingly every single year to the point where, these days the woke can’t even stand the woke. To be sure, Mr. Cameron certainly considers himself a progressive and desperately wants to fit in with that crowd even as the times have passed him by. The Avatar series itself is something of a manifesto against imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and climate change. There is no doubt that his intention was to raise awareness of these issues, and to slam the free market system he believes created these problems. The entire focus of the first film was how a militaristic, capitalist invader was willing to destroy both the environment and the native people that lived there to obtain “unobtanium.” The invaders are clearly the antagonists, willing to do anything to ravage the land to support their presumably lavish lifestyle and without ethical constraints beyond the imperative to acquire new resources. This backstory hangs oppressively over the entire original movie; the kind of in-your-face political statement that so obviously cannot be missed because the director feels it’s incredibly important. Avatar: The Way of Water doubles down on these premises: Earth can no longer support life thanks to the horrors of capitalism and the invaders now need to colonize rather than simply rape the planet. This is a progressive fantasy if ever there was one, but not all progressives are enthused. As CNN put it before Christmas, “The ‘Avatar’ franchise isn’t subtle in its anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and environmentalist themes – Cameron has said as much, previously referring to the first film as ‘a science fiction retelling of the history of North and South America in the early colonial period.’ But despite the director’s intentions, critics of ‘Avatar’ feel the films fall short in their execution.”
Perhaps needless to say, the complaints are many and all-too-familiar, largely recycled from those that accompanied the release of Dune last year. There is a “white savior” narrative because the protagonist Jake Sully originated with the invaders and then joined the Na’vi. “(Cameron) might be telling that story of colonization, but he’s telling it through the lens of a White male,” explained Crystal Echo-Hawk, president and CEO of IllumiNative to CNN. Of course, this could have been avoided if the proper minority groups were more involved. “It’s a level of arrogance once again that a White filmmaker can just somehow tell a story that’s based on Indigenous peoples better than Indigenous peoples ever could,” she added. Others believe there is a lack of Indigenous representation over all. There are too many white voice actors, you see. Adam Piron, a filmmaker and director of the Indigenous program at Sundance Institute, believes “Cameron’s sci-fi epic [is] part of a long history of White filmmakers projecting their own ideas of Indigeneity onscreen, rather than involving Indigenous people themselves,” according to CNN. “All that’s left anymore with those films is the non-Indigenous desire to be Indigenous or to have some sort of connection to Indigenous people,” Mr. Piron added. Cultural appropriation is another ever present concern. “It’s based on what James Cameron’s notion is of what he thinks Indigenous history is, what he thinks Indigenous culture is,” Ms. Echo-Hawk said. “Everyone thinks that we’re a monolith. What it does is flatten who Indigenous peoples are, what Indigenous cultures, language, practices are.”
One has to wonder: If that’s the case, then what is the point of an Indigenous people label in the first place? Putting this another way: If there is no definition of Indigenous people that includes cultures, languages, and practices, what does the word mean except as another intersectional cudgel to club those you disagree with? Because no good deed goes unpunished in woke-world, Mr. Cameron’s comments from over a decade earlier are resurfacing. At the time, he joined the Xingu people in the Amazon to prevent the construction of a dam. He believes this prompted him to consider the plight of other native peoples in North America. “I felt like I was 130 years back in time watching what the Lakota Sioux might have been saying at a point when they were being pushed and they were being killed and they were being asked to displace and they were being given some form of compensation,” he said at the time. “This was a driving force for me in the writing of Avatar – I couldn’t help but think that if (the Lakota Sioux) had had a time-window and they could see the future… and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation… because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society – which is what is happening now – they would have fought a lot harder.” Rhonda Lucy, founder of the Toronto Indigenous Filmmakers Collective and the media production company Sun Raven Arts, noted, “I live that reality. My community lives this reality. Why would I want to pay the small amount of money I make to hand over to a massive money making machine to pay them to show me heartache and pain that’s just glazed over?” In her view, part of the problem is there aren’t enough Indigenous science fiction projects. “We have a whole bunch of nerds in our community who love writing and creative writing and doing so much sci-fi. I want to see our people leave all of this stuff in the dust, and say, ‘We made our own.’”
For his part, Mr. Cameron appears to realize he is on uncomfortably shaky ground dealing with a political movement that never stops changing their standards and never ceases to find things to criticize. “It’s not up to me, speaking from a perspective of White privilege, if you will, to tell them that they’re wrong,” he said of the criticism. “It has validity. It’s pointless for me to say, ‘Well, that was never my intention.’” In my opinion at least, it would have been far better to point out the obvious: The Na’vi do not exist. They are not indigenous people, assuming you can define them for me in the first place. They are not people at all. They are fictional creations with bright blue skin coloring. If you cannot understand the difference between what’s real and what’s fantasy, I do not know what to tell you. Sadly, Mr. Cameron is as much a victim of his own political statements and aspirations for the film as he is of the rapid advance of technology: He cannot say that because he desperately wants the approval from the woke community, not for creating a masterful film above and beyond politics, but entirely for the politics. Their denial of his progressive bonafides obviously hurts and they know it. Hence, Mr. Cameron is the absurd victim of his own absurdities this holiday season. A part of me thinks his massive ego deserves it, but another wonders where this really ends in a world where truth is stranger than fiction.
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