Avatar: The Way of Water

You have probably already heard some of the comments, “Never doubt James Cameron”, ” Cameron delivered “, and  “the most amazing cinematic journey” by James Cameron to date. When it comes to visual splendor and technical excellence, Cameron is “The King of the World”.  Now when it comes to the narrative, that may be another thing entirely. The director is sometimes criticized for simplistic story telling and cringe worthy dialogue.   I don’t think those are always true faults but they will certainly not be swept away by this film, which continues to wear it’s heart on it’s sleeve, and go for the most direct approach to your emotions possible. 

“The Way of Water” is set a decade after the events of the first film, still on Pandora, so maybe the delay in arriving is appropriate. The lead characters played by Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana are in the story, but the main protagonists, especially in the second act of the film, are their children,  Neteyam and Lo’ak; their biological daughter, Tuk; and adopted daughter; Kiri. They are forced to flee into hiding in a new environment with the distant tribe of  Metkayina reef people. This creates a new cross cultural story, with adolescents acting more human than you might expect from the Na’vi. This is the section that will probably give critics of Cameron’s storytelling, the ammunition they need to launch their attacks. Teens get jealous and act capriciously to prove themselves. Kids get alienated from peers that they don’t see as like themselves, I guess growing up is the same all over.

Relocating from the forest to a seaside location gives Cameron the chance to invent more creatures and environmental twists and he runs with that opportunity. Tulkun, an intelligent and pacifistic cetacean species, is the most interesting of the new inventions. I do think this is a place where Cameron can use alien species in a non-human form, to make the future stories more creative. Like the connection with the planet itself in both films, the relationship between the tulkun and the Na’vi gives a moral center to the actions of our heroes. The “skypeople” are the hunters, the tulkun are the buffalo, being hunted only for one thing, and physically cast away once that has been acquired and the Metkayina are the Indians, shaking their heads at the horrible waste. Unlike the buffalo however, our game here is sentient and understands the threat and conveys the fears that go along with it. Cameron’s allegory is not very subtle. 

Once again, the visuals are the thing that can most sell a James Cameron story. The tech weapons used by the invaders are inventive upgrades from the earlier film. The adaption of the mech suits to a water environment is clever and you will see the creatures it is based on immediately. The characters move in an underwater environment because the motion capture was done underwater. The actors and director should get all the praise they deserve for the innovation and hard work that this took. I saw the movie in 3-D and I think it was screened at the 48 fps for some sequences. I did not have any of the reservations that I experienced when looking at the Hobbit movies of a decade ago, but this is a hyper-stylized world with very few human characters, so the images my slip by a bit more easily. The 3-D effect is well worth the effort, and I don’t always think that is true. 

This movie looks amazing and you should see it on the biggest screen you can find, in 3-D. In the long run, this is the kind of film that may save cinemas, but only for the epic quality of their visuals. Traditional dramas may get relegated to streaming if these are the only kinds of movies that people will go out to see in a theater. The basic war adventure parts of the movie create some terrific action beats, and Cameron tops himself as well as cribbing from himself in a couple of spots. James Cameron should always be respected when it comes to the visualization of his stories, but the stories 
continue to be the least innovative part of his film-making.

Alien/Aliens Screening at the Egyptian Theater

The power of these two films is impossible to deny. Both films have been out for more nearly thirty plus years, both have extensive home video formats available. In fact, earlier in the day on Friday, as I walked through Sam’s Club, I saw the two films being sold in stand alone packages for a very moderate price. Last night, I ended up in the Stand-by line, hoping to get a seat to a screening of the films at the American Cinematique program at the Egyptian Theater. The program had sold out and the theater holds almost eight hundred people. Not bad for a couple of films that are older than my kids.

I have met my daughter after work for screenings in Hollywood, several times before. She works in Venice and we live in Glendora. Those of you not familiar with Southern California topography simply need to know these are opposite sides of L.A. County and Hollywood is somewhere in between. Usually, I drive down to the Egyptian Theater but since I was free in the afternoon yesterday, I availed myself of public transportation. I took the train to Union Station and then the subway to Hollywood and Highland, where I walked the two blocks to the theater. My phone rang as I entered the courtyard and it was Amanda, asking where I was. When I told her she asked if I was inside, because she did not see me, …for the two extra seconds that it took me to come around the corner. We had managed to simultaneously reach the box office from opposite ends of the world. Timing is everything. It was then that we discovered the movie was sold out and we waited in the Stand-by line. There were about thirty of us and several people bought tickets from others who had extras. That is finally how we got in, and ended up a little closer than we might have chosen otherwise but still in seats that were very workable.

The films were introduced by a guy from an effects based organization, I was negligent in getting his name or remembering the name of the group. Several seats were up front and it turns out that at the break we would be treated to a behind the scenes slide show of photos from the production of “Aliens” by some of the effects wizards behind the movie magic. So it was definitely something to look forward to. Our host asked the audience how many were seeing these films on the big screen for the first time, and I was surprised to see the hands of nearly two thirds of the audience go up. He shook his head and wondered out loud where all these people have been for the last thirty years. Anyway the films then began.

http://kirkhamclass.blogspot.com/2010/06/alien-1979-movie-day-day-11.htmlIt is a great experience to be able to contrast the styles and moods of the two films from a single screening. “Alien” is atmospheric and moody and builds a sense of tension slowly. It is a horror film, but one that is smart and creates suspense deliberately and with a dark style. This is the same theater where I first experienced the movie back in 1979 and it was fun to tease Amanda with that information, she gets tired of my nostalgic ramblings sometimes so it is a dad’s privilege to annoy a child with useless personal trivia from time to time. If you click on the image of the poster, it will take you to the original post I did from the Movie A Day project back in 2010.

The guests presenting the slide show between the film were quickly introduced, and I got only two names for sure. They were the Academy Award winning brothers Robert and Dennis Skotak, and they  shared several personal memories about the making of “Aliens”. Digital computer work was mostly new when they made the film with James Cameron. They had honed their craft working on Roger Corman films like “Battle Beyond the Stars” and “Galaxy of Terror”. Several of the pictures they shared showed them and young Mr. Cameron behind the scenes of those very modestly budgeted films. It was their experience on those pictures that allowed Cameron to make the film on the scale he envisioned for a budget almost half of what Fox thought it would need to be. In fact, that is why he got the job.

This shot taken from my seat shows how some of the props and sets were destroyed after the filming, because Pinewood Studios would charge a storage fee if they were left on the lot and sending them all back to Hollywood would have been too expensive. Film geeks everywhere will mourn the fact that the sleep pods from this film are not collectibles that they could buy on ebay and then put in their own bedrooms.

Like the special features programs on the home video versions of the films, last night’s discussion was filled with little details about the techniques used and the problems solved during filming. The secrets I heard about the loader that Ripley uses to battle the alien Queen at the end of the movie were really cool. The fact that Cameron himself designed the Alien Queen because they could not afford to hire H.R. Giger to do the job was also interesting.

The presentation went on for a good thirty or forty minutes. There were some other tech guys speaking as well and I am so sorry that I was not taking notes and can’t give them the credit they deserve for the work they did on the film and the kindness they showed for coming out lat night.

“Aliens” is a different creature than the first film. It has horror elements but it is basically an action film set on a different planet. The scenario and the look of the weapons are probably responsible for much of the design of modern video games like Halo. This is a shootum up in outer space. It does have a wonderful central spine concerning the relationship between Ripley and the young survivor Newt.

http://kirkhamamovieaday.blogspot.com/2013/03/aliens.htmlThe pacing and the music are two ways that the films are distinct. “Alien” unfolds slowly with a ethereal electronic score by my favorite film composer Jerry Goldsmith. James Horner’s much more bellicose, Academy nominated score, is a perfect fit for the action beats of the film and the G.I. based plot. The humor in the film is often provided by the Marine mentality of the troops versus the corporate thinking of Paul Reiser’s Burke. Bill Paxton provides fantastic comic relief and if you look at the mashup I included in my post on an “Aliens” screening from a couple of years ago, you will find it a great contrast to his character in “Edge of Tomorrow“.Again, if you click on the poster to the left, it will take you to the Vlogpost that I did on this film, if you have twelve minutes , I think you will enjoy.

One final note, Sigourney Weaver became a star with her role as Ripley in these films. She is the strong foundation on which these stories are built. She deserves all the credit she can get for making these two films favorites of movie fans from around the world. Pretend the other films in this series don’t exist and you will have a perfect pair of bookends with these two movies.