There’s nothing more exciting than a throw down between two cinematic juggernauts: in this instance, two of the most critically acclaimed (and financially successful) films of the last year. One, a revisionist look at a franchise thought to be on its last legs; the other, a return to film for mega-director James Cameron, utilizing “game changing” effects and technology. Both acclaimed around the world in post-release fervor, both setting records at the box office, and both destined for “classic” status just as soon as enough time passes. But which of the two sci-fi blockbusters of this year’s cavalcade lays the Smack better? Set your phasers to stun, grab hold of your giant blue pseudo-body, and settle in for the battle between 2009’s cinematic giants: Avatar and Star Trek.
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Self proclaimed “King of the World” James Cameron, after a 12-year sabbatical from post-Titanic euphoria, (man, what a hangover!) returns to the big screen with Avatar, his technically revolutionary 3D epic set to “revolutionize the way movies are made”. Avatar, set on the distant moon of Pandora, tells the story of a paralyzed war veteran who is asked to inhabit a cloned alien form to associate and infiltrate the local planetary populace. Filled with stunning imagery, amazing action, and a truly magnificent sense of scale, Avatar has again showed us that James Cameron is one of the pre-eminent directors working today. Using the still relatively new technology involving motion capture (or, as Robert Zemeckis calls it, Performance Capture) to insert his actors into the completely alien world, Cameron has successfully achieved what only a few directors have attempted before: creating a wholly believable environment that totally sucks you in. Peter Jackson did it with Lord Of The Rings, and now
Cameron has done the same. But is Avatar a better film than Star Trek? Although leagues apart in budget and expectation, can JJ and his revamped Kirk & Company outclass the technical wizardry of a
director at the peak of his powers?
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The Defending Champion
Reinventing a franchise for a modern audience is an exercise fraught with danger. The affection and attachment with which we regard our favorite films and franchises may interfere with our ability to accommodate tweaks and changes in modernized updates. George Lucas suffered the indignant wrath of diehard Star Wars fans for his recent prequel trilogy. JJ Abrams, who rewrote the fate of Tom Cruise with his incredibly exciting take on the Mission Impossible franchise, reboots the decades-old Star Trek saga from the ground up, managing to skirt controversy by producing a film that appeased both die-hard fans and non-fans alike. In recasting and reimagining the familiar and iconic Enterprise crew, Abrams broke the mold of what could be achieved with these once stagnant (and seemingly untouchable) characters.
May I just mention two salient points at this juncture? First, I am so glad Avatar, which features giant blue-skinned aliens running about, included no giant blue phalluses. Unlike Watchmen, the Zack Snyder effects-fest which featured a giant blue-hued individual parading about like a sci-fi porn flick, sans underwear, Avatar features a multitude of near-naked alien beings running about. Thankfully, Cameron has erred on the side of conservatism and covered up their “bits” from flopping about. Second, as has already been mentioned elsewhere on this site, Avatar borrows its storyline quite heavily from Dances With Wolves. So much so, at one point I had to check my ticket to make sure I was watching the right film. Cameron has all but carbon-copied Costner’s Oscar winning film in his narrative, as well as key plot and character elements. Taking that into account, we can now try and figure out whether that is enough of a negative to push Star Trek into first place.
By now, the entire world has been captured up in a bizarre Avatar frenzy. At the time I write this, the film has jumped to the number 2 earner of all time world wide, second only to Cameron’s previous film,
Titanic. Considering Avatar has only been in release for weeks, rather than months (like Titanic) to achieve this goal is quite astounding, and no doubt pundits will be discussing the relative merits of inflation and repeat business for years to come after the dust settles. That said, I’ll come out now and state that I don’t think Avatar is worthy of the attendant glory; the heralding praise and Holy Scripture style reviews I’ve read about the film are somewhat overblown. Sure, the effects are pretty much the best we’ve ever seen, the action sequences are exciting and genuinely enthralling, and technically, this film is a world-beater. But the story: ugh. As already mentioned, the film borrows plot point for plot point from Dances With Wolves, a fact that I cannot overlook. I find it annoying that Cameron’s been out of the game for so long, and upon returning he rehashes a previous Oscar winner in an attempt to win his own. I feel gypped. While everyone else seems bedazzled with the whirling sights and sounds of Pandora, for me, the film is bogged down by crippling story problems — namely, the fact that the story is not Cameron’s. This narrative similarity, intentional or not, is a fatal flaw. I am offended and disappointed that I am reminded of another film while watching this one.
Here are some of the staggeringly similar parallels to Dances With Wolves. Jake Sully, analogous with Costner’s central character Dunbar, is a soldier, albeit one haunted by several demons. He travels to a far-flung outpost (Dunbar finds himself on a rundown fort in America’s West), where he meets a new race indigenous to the area (Dunbar meets a local Indian tribe). He befriends the local tribe, learns their ways, and falls for the daughter of the tribal chief. When his own people arrive to discover that he’s “gone native”, he must make a choice: return to his old life, or embrace (and defend) the new one. You’ll notice that this description is interchangeable between the two films. Cue carnage, battle and destruction. Smaller plot twists in Avatar are slightly different, but the overarching framework of
the film is such that comparisons are inevitable.
Star Trek takes a different tack. Instead of rehashing the bulky, limiting Trek lore as we know it, JJ Abrams throws us all for a loop and completely changes history. Using a brilliantly simply story twist, he
effectively renders all the previous Trek films obsolete, giving future creators a clean slate to work with within the franchise’s mythos. Abrams gives us a young, pre-Original Series Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Uhura, Bones, Sulu, and Chekov, a deviously violent enemy, and several moments of cinema brilliance, to create a Trek film that breathes life into the series once more. Nero, a Romulan starship captain from the future, travels back in time in pursuit of a fleeing Ambassador Spock. In doing so, Nero inadvertently changes history (or, as the case may be, the future) and sets in motion a change for the Trek franchise that allows a freedom hitherto unknown to modern audiences. Regardless of the fact that Trek history is now in the process of being rewritten, Kirk and Spock still come to regard each other as first enemies and then friends, as they battle to uncover the plans of Nero and his quest for vengeance. We witness the destruction of Vulcan, the battle to save the Federation, and ultimately, the construction of the Enterprise crew we all know and love, albeit in their younger iterations.
Leading actor Chris Pine does a solid job as Kirk, leaving many of the mannerisms William Shatner encumbered the character with aside. Pine is an actor very much in the Shatner mold, the glint in his eye as he jabs his finger at authority, whistles Dixie in the face of danger, and bludgeons people into doing what he wants; he’s perfectly cast as the iconic space captain. Zachary Quinto, fresh
from the TV series Heroes, is pitch perfect as Spock, Kirk’s soon-to-be-friend; his battle with his mixed parentage and overly emotional behavior is believable and stoically in keeping with Vulcan tradition. Spock’s father is Vulcan, his mother human, and this interspecies breeding has Spock caught in a
futuristic racism row. It seems some human problems aren’t exclusive to our own planet, or species. Zoe Saldana does a great job as Uhura, as does Karl Urban as Bones McCoy, the Trek series’ most famous medical technician. Urban channels McCoy in such a way as to remain faithful to the character,
without being slavish to DeForrest Kelley’s performance. Throw in Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, and Terminator: Salvation star Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekov (complete with dialect difficulties), and the familiar characters are slowly but surely given new breadth and scope.
JJ Abrams gives us a frenetic, fast paced Trek film, lens flares and dynamic sound-scape in abundance. Whether you subscribe to the Paul Greengrass style of film-making or not, Abram’s deft handling of both action sequences and subtle dramatic moments is superb, his editing and use of cinematography is excellent.
James Cameron and JJ Abrams come from very different backgrounds as directors, and both Avatar and Star Trek offer new things to an audience. But the fundamental essence of each film, indeed, any film, is whether or not the audience is taken on a journey with the filmmaker, and what is achieved in the process. Star Trek, while catering to a built-in audience rivaled only by the Bond fans, and perhaps now Harry Potter (or, God forbid, Twilight) allows people unfamiliar with the franchise to watch without being bogged down in its own history or legend. Although Abrams tips his hat occasionally to the original versions of these characters, it’s not a slavish devotion to the mythos that he uses. The script is slick, filled with numerous quiet moments of subtle power, while the action sequences pulsate with an energy the series has badly needed since the much-lauded (perhaps detrimentally so) Wrath Of Kahn. A well filmed base-jump from orbiting starship to mining platform, accompanied with a hand-to-hand combat sequence, is indicative of the zippy, energetic facade the new Trek has unleashed; not to mention the climactic finale involving the entire crew of the Enterprise.
Cameron, however, ain’t no slouch with an action sequence. Although essentially told in the digital realm, Avatar‘s massive moments of explosiveness are realized at the hands of a master. The man who gave us Aliens and True Lies has again delivered a roller-coaster ride of action, effects, and sound. Avatar has a scope and breadth of detail that is simply staggering. The level of detail within the jungle of Pandora, in particular, is quite possibly one of the most exquisitely realized digital realms ever seen on film: trees, flowers, animals, bugs, vines; from the ground up, Pandora is amazing to see. To see the military machine smashing it’s way through the jungle is both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring, the scenery chewing Steven Lang encapsulates the violent, single-minded nature of mankind as he seeks to wipe the Na’vi off the planet. Worthington, as Jake, seems a little out of his depth, although his persona is probably spot on to what Cameron was aiming for. The Aussie actor has limited emotional range, which inhibits his expected carefree persona as an avatar.
Perhaps the single biggest problem with Avatar is the fact that we’re meant to side with the alien species here, the Na’vi. While I can see the point Cameron is trying to make with his quasi-environmental message, his reliance on the audience’s emotional connection with purely digital creations is where it begins to fall apart. Only on the rarest of occasions does a digital character create a strong bond with the audience. The most modern variation on this would be Gollum from
The Lord Of The Rings. Too often in this age of computer graphics, characters have felt the scorn and derision of modern audiences, Jar Jar Binks being the most grievous example. Here, the fact that the Na’vi aren’t human, only human-like, builds up an invisible emotional wall between us (as viewers) and the characters that is impossible to scale, even for the giant Na’vi. We are supposed to side with these characters (beyond the obvious fight for survival against an unjust invader storyline), this distance makes identification more difficult.
Scripting also remains one of Avatar‘s chief concerns. James Cameron, at least in his last few films, has a bit of a tin ear for dialogue. Some of the more emotional moments are badly written, cliché-ridden pap that would be second rate in a romance novel. The same writing problems associated with Titanic have recurred — namely, Cameron’s inability to generate realistic dialog when it counts. He can direct action, but he can’t manage emotion of a serious nature.
Star Trek, by comparison, is as smart a sci-fi script as you’d want. The characters are all well written, and the subtle nuances heighten the dramatic arc, rather than minimize it. The Star Trek script is grounded in realism, as much as a sci-fi film can be, and the characters come alive more than they ever did in Shatner’s day.
In conclusion, I’ll go on record as thinking the entire time I was watching Avatar, I kept thinking I was expected to be impressed with how clever it all was. While Star Trek just hammered the action and
amped up the tension like no other film this year, Avatar seemed content to blow me away with its own self-indulgent impressiveness. Now don’t take this the wrong way: Avatar is a genuinely entertaining film. It’s sci-fi of the highest order, a massive achievement in cinema and storytelling overall (with that one fatal flaw bringing it undone) that will remain unchallenged for years to come. But it seeks absolution for its own cleverness from the audience, rather than simply entertaining us. Star
Trek simply entertains.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that in the years to come, when the “biggest film in history” hysteria has subsided, Avatar‘s Wolf-clone storyline will consign it to history as simply another effects-heavy “event”
flick, while Star Trek will remain a genuine classic of the era. James Cameron has outdone himself technically on Avatar, but the lack of an emotional connection within the film will limit its re-watchability
and pop-culture impact. That, coupled with the blatant similarities with another Oscar winning film, will eventually deflate Cameron’s “masterpiece” status to merely average. I’ll give Abrams’ Star
Trek the win this time, a fresh and invigorating sci-fi opus that, while perhaps not carrying the technical pedigree its opponent brandishes, remains the more entertaining, complete film experience.