‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ – James Cameron Wows Us Yet Again

It is surreal that “Avatar: The Way of Water” has finally arrived in movie theaters after having its release delayed so many times. The original “Avatar” came out in 2009, and since then we have been promised a number of sequels which never quite made it to the silver screen regardless of what James Cameron promised us. This got to be aggravating for everyone including myself as I kept rolling my eyes whenever Cameron said the sequels would be coming out soon. Like many, I wanted to just yell out, “release them already!” But while so much has happened between 2009 and 2022, it suddenly feels like it was just yesterday when we first visited Pandora and all those blue people, and I was reminded about how wowed I was by everything Cameron put on display.

Well, I can certainly see why Cameron kept us waiting for years and years as he wanted to break new cinematic ground, and he has done so with again with this long awaited sequel. While “Avatar: The Way of Water” may not have the most complex of stories or characters, and his films rarely do, he succeeds in giving us one hell of a cinematic experience as he spends a lot of the 192 minutes wowing us in ways I thought he was no longer capable of. Like “Top Gun: Maverick,” I cannot wait to see it again.

Over a decade has passed since the Na’vi repelled the human invasion of Pandora, and Jake Sully is now the leader of the Omaticaya tribe. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are now parents to four children; two adventurous sons and two girls who are so fascinated by the world and creatures constantly surrounding them. But like all happily ever after endings, this fairy tale eventually comes crashing down in a nightmarish fashion.

The Resources Development Administration (RDA) has now returned to Pandora, but instead of obtaining that brilliantly named mineral called unobtanium, they are this time intent on inhabiting the planet as Earth is now in its death throes because there were never enough people there who realized climate change was real. And in this futuristic time Cameron has thrust us into, manifest destiny has taken humanity from conquering planets to taking over galaxies because, you know, heaven forbid adults get given the same kind of boundaries children are and eventually benefit from. Once again, humans are out to, as George Carlin once said, free the people and whip a little industry on them.

Fearing the worst, Jake and Neytiri flee the Omaticaya tribe along with their children and take refuge with the Metkayina reef people in hopes they will never be found by the RDA. The family, however, has trouble fitting in as they are tree people while Metkayinas are water people. This leads to a lot of awkward situations between everyone as the kids hate being uprooted and are not sure how to act around those who know the water more than what is above it.

It is when “Avatar: The Way of Water” goes into the waters of Pandora that it really takes off. The underwater footage is nothing short of amazing as we are taken through the many depths of the planet and are introduced to various aquatic creatures who must be seen to be believed. A good portion of the footage was shot in a higher frame rate (HFR) which gives the visuals a clarity which makes them look even more astonishing than they already are. I have not always been a big fan of HFR as it can make things look a little too crystal clear, and Cameron knew not shoot the whole movie in this format as the audience could have been easily alienated, but he makes HFR work to not just his advantage, but the audience’s as well.

Now much has been said about this sequel’s making and of how the actors spent many minutes underwater. As the Na’vi children are made to experience the underwater realm, “The Way of Water” could almost be seen as an advertisement for free-diving. Spend just a minute or two in the shallows or the depths is not enough to take in the last frontier left to explore on Earth or any other planet, but we are also reminded of the dangers of staying underwater for too long, and Cameron knows we know this, so he squeezes ever last ounce of tension to make this clear.

Cameron also gets to deal with themes which have been prevalent throughout his movies and documentaries to where I am quickly reminded of a line from “Aliens” uttered by Sigourney Weaver where she pointed out the difference between humans and certain extraterrestrials:

“You know, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other for a goddamn percentage.”

 Indeed, we are given plenty of proof here of how marine life can be far more intelligent than humanity, and it makes the humans decimation of such sea creatures in scenes which reminded me of similar ones in “Jaws” even more painful. Clearly, these fish hunters never took the time to watch “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” at least once, and the fluid they remove from these creatures is treated as being even more profitable than unobtanium. All I can say about this fluid is that it’s the kind which would just fly off the shelves in Beverly Hills. I mean, heaven forbid anyone allows themselves to age gracefully, you know?

The inhabitants of Pandora also get to talk to whales in this movie, something which I am sure would make Doctor Doolittle infinitely envious. Now on paper this may have looked incredibly silly, but I never found myself laughing at those scenes where the characters could talk to the animals. That, and maybe I just want to believe deep down that we can do this for real someday if we haven’t already.

As complex as the visual effects are, the same cannot be said about the movie’s story or screenplay. Even with several other credited writers, nothing here sounds like it could have come out of a David Mamet play. Then again, Cameron has not always been known for giving such complexities when it comes to his screenplays. What you see is what you get, and it is up to the actors to bring to life even if the dialogue is not particularly great.

Speaking of the actors, their performances are mostly excellent, and the best ones come from those who will not simply let the effects teams do all the work for them. This is especially the case with Zoe Saldana who puts every single ounce of her energy into Neytiri to where the motion capture, visual effects and her performance all combine to create one big passionate fireball of energy. The same goes for Kate Winslet, reuniting with Cameron for the first time since “Titanic,” who portrays the pregnant Metkayina free diver Ronal with a passion to where it took me forever to realize it was the Oscar winning actress of “The Reader” who was playing this character.

I also have to say how envious I was of Sigourney Weaver here. Not only does she reprise her role of Dr. Grace Augustine, but she also portrays the daughter of her Na’vi avatar, Kiri. Weaver portrays Kiri with all the innocence a child could have as she comes into contact with things she is ever so quick to learn from and use to her advantage.

But my favorite performance of all comes from Stephen Lang who returns as the nefarious Colonel Miles Quaritch, albeit in Na’vi form as he died in the last movie. With his mind implanted in this avatar with memories of his past life, Miles has not changed one bit as he seeks bloody revenge on Jake Sully for what he sees as betraying his own kind. But thanks to Lang, he gives us an antagonist who is never one-dimensional as his goals are led by a patriotic duty which, while misguided, fuels his heart in ways nothing else can. Still, he lets us see another dimension hiding within Miles as he comes to meet the son he left behind on Pandora, Spider (Jack Champion), who has long since become accustomed to the environment he has been living in.

Everything in “Avatar: The Way of Water” leads to an adrenaline-fueled climax which echoes the most intense moments from one of Cameron’s more underrated works, “The Abyss,” as Jake and company are forced to literally keep their heads above water as they fight off those who exploit their planet for their own greedy purposes. When it comes to Cameron, he never lets us down when it comes to infinitely exciting third acts.

No, this is not a perfect movie, and it does not surprise how many detractors out there are quick to point this out. But still, Cameron still knows how to create a cinematic spectacle which is best experienced at a theater near you. Furthermore, no other filmmaker out there can make 3D seem like much more than a mere gimmick than he can. Regardless of how annoying it was to wait this long for an “Avatar” sequel, I think it was worth the wait. But more importantly, I am relieved we will not have to wait all that long for the next installment, and I cannot wait to see where these characters will go next.

Just remember this quote when you come out of “Avatar; The Way of Water:”

“They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains the hottest blood of all.”

That quote is from “Whales Weep Not” by D.H. Lawrence. And yes, I got that quote from a pivotal scene in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Revisiting ‘Avatar’ in its IMAX Special Edition

Avatar-rerelease-movie-poster-limited

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2010.

I really did mean to see “Avatar” in IMAX while it was still playing in theaters, but I never got around to it, unfortunately. After a bit, all the hoopla surrounding the movie was met with people deriding it and calling it a remake of “Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest” or “Dances with Wolves,” and I got worn out from hearing all the complaints. I knew “Avatar” was not going to have an original storyline, so there was no way I could have been disappointed. But after watching it on a regular screen in 3D, I was really eager to see how it played on in IMAX. With Cameron, you can always count on seeing his movies being made with the utmost technical precision. If there is a technological glitch anywhere, it’s someone else’s fault, not his.

At the end of August 2010, “Avatar” got re-released specifically in IMAX theaters around the country, and it had been extended to include scenes that were not in the original theatrical version. There is a total of 9 minutes of extra footage here, and Cameron succeeded in blending these new scenes into the film seamlessly. The new footage includes the following additions:

  • There are more of the Stingbat and Sturmbeat creatures which had their own standout scenes in the first version. The Stingbats look even more wonderful than they did previously, and that’s saying quite a bit.
  • You get more hunting sequences including one in which Jake and Neytiri fly up in the sky and shoot at the animals down below with arrows. This adds more to how Jake interacts and learns from the Na’vi, and how he becomes more open to being taken in by them.
  • There’s an additional sequence where Jake, Grace, and Norm visit a school where Grace taught which has since been turned into a storage space (and not a carefully looked after one). The moment when Jake spots bullet holes in the chalkboard says a lot about how the military infrastructure on the planet is causing more harm than doing any good for the people. It’s a haunting image that filled me with things I did not want to think about as school violence appears to be rising.
  • We get to see a Na’vi counterattack after the bulldozers have laid waste to some of the most sacred parts of Pandora. It is a foreshadowing of the devastating battle the humans will soon bring to the planet’s inhabitants, and of how fighting fire with fire does not always work to one’s advantage. This is especially the case when the other side has more firepower.
  • The sex scene between Jake and Neytiri is longer, but don’t get too excited about it. There’s no insertion of anything or any penetration on display (this is a PG-13 movie after all!), just more hugging and cuddling. We still have yet to see how the Na’vi makes out with one another. I guess we’ll have to wait for the “unrated” edition to see that (lol).
  • There’s a strong emotional scene towards the end between Jake and the Na’vi which reminded me of the final moment between Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe in “The Last Samurai.” However familiar or similar this scene may seem, it still adds much to the story as it makes Jake’s destiny on Pandora all the more important.

Basically, all the scenes don’t ever feel extraneous, and each adds much to what we had previously seen in theaters back in 2009. Say whatever you want about Cameron’s dialogue or lack of original storylines, but he remains one hell of a storyteller. Clearly, this whole movie was in his head for years and years, and he got every last detail down perfectly. Considering how long he worked on “Avatar,” it’s safe to say he waited extremely patiently until technology finally met up with him so he could tell this tale properly.

Now I’m not going into another long-winded review of “Avatar” as many of my thoughts on the movie have not changed. I do have to say, however, that it was worth the $20 bucks (yes, it was that much) to see it in IMAX. The movie didn’t fill the entire screen, more like three-quarters of it actually, but that was fine. Witnessing Cameron’s film in this format made the experience of watching it all the more immersive. I got serious vertigo watching this special edition at times as it felt like I was moving along with the characters at certain points. I had this same experience when I watched “The Dark Knight” in IMAX, and there were a number of scenes that were shot in the actual IMAX format in that one. I felt like I was floating along with the camera and wherever it went, and it is a feeling I never get enough of at the movies.

I noticed even more that the 3D really brings you into the movie more without calling too much attention to itself with scenes featuring ash falling through the air after the humans wipe out certain parts of Pandora, it started to feel like the debris was coming right off the screen.

Also, it should be clearer than ever that “Avatar” is a powerful anti-imperialist movie, and that it is not a fan of Americans invading other countries. There’s no respect for the rights of the indigenous population on Pandora, and we keep seeing this going on right here on Earth. It makes me wonder if history will ever stop repeating itself.

Seeing “Avatar” on the average-sized movie screen at your local theater is quite something, but watching it in IMAX is a whole other thing. No wonder this has been such an enormous hit around the world. Cameron sucks you visually and emotionally in ways most filmmakers only think they can. Most people I know of these days would prefer to wait until a movie comes out on DVD so they can watch it at home, but this is the kind of motion picture which was made to be seen in a cinema, let alone in IMAX.

* * * * out of * * * *

James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ – A Cinematic Spectacle Like Few Others

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2009.

“That is our (USA) job around the world; run in, free some people, and whip a little industry on them. So they can enjoy the benefits of industry that we have come to enjoy (cough).”

-George Carlin from “Class Clown”

“Some of the darkest chapters in the history of my world involve the forced relocation of a small group of people to satisfy the demands of a large one. I’d hoped that we had learned from our mistakes but it seems that some of us haven’t.”

“Jean-Luc, we’re only moving 600 people.”

“How many people does it take, Admiral before it becomes wrong? A thousand? Fifty thousand? A million? HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES IT TAKE, ADMIRAL?!”

-Patrick Stewart and Anthony Zerbe from “Star Trek: Insurrection”

We waited for this one almost as long as we waited for the release of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy,” and now it is here. James Cameron has been at it again, making the most expensive movie ever, but this is nothing new and I am so burned out from hearing all the gossip about his movie budgets. The naysayers were out in full force proclaiming this would be a disaster as its release was delayed a number of times. But “Avatar” once again shows there is no one more equipped than Cameron to change the way we look at movies. With his latest epic, he has achieved the impossible and completely blurred the line between what is real and what is a special effect, and I could never tell the difference from start to finish.

You have to give a lot of credit to this ambitious director for being ever so patient. Cameron waited years for the technology to catch up to where he could tell this story most effectively, and he even invented a new camera with his brother to make the most convincing 3D movie we could ever hope to see. So many others would be in a hurry to get a movie up on the screen to where nothing but shortcuts are taken, but “Avatar” had a two year post production period (the longest ever) to get every little detail covered. This movie needs to be seen on the big screen as it was made for it. Waiting for a physical or digital release to watch it on would be tragic.

“Avatar” stars Sam Worthington as Jake Sully. Jake is a former marine who is now paralyzed from the waist down, and he does not ask for sympathy or pity. He ends up being recruited for a mission on Pandora, a moon on the far reaches of space. This mission was originally meant for his brother, but he passed away before he could take it on. Pandora is inhabited by very tall blue creatures called the Na’vi, and avatars of them have been created so that humans can walk among them undetected so they can be studied more closely.

Of course, these avatars are also being closely observed by the military as they plan to infiltrate the Na’vi and force them off their sacred land. For what reason? So that the greedy corporation (is there any other kind these days?) can get at the mineral called unobtanium (nice play on words). This mineral represents an enormous cash cow for soulless investors back on Earth, and it also serves as a much-needed source of energy it desperately needs. In the future, it appears humanity has extended the manifest destiny policy from other countries to the far reaches of space. I mean, heaven forbid we allow other cultures to handle their precious resources without our unsolicited advice! Do we ever learn?

Anyway, the story of “Avatar” has been told many times before; a disillusioned military officer comes face to face with people he has been fighting, and soon he becomes enamored with their lifestyle and code of honor to where he is integrated into their society. This has been the basis for “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last Samurai” and even “The Emerald Forest.”. We know the setup and how it’s all going to go, but Cameron still makes it work by having us invest emotionally in these characters. By doing so, all the action and the visuals presented to us become all the more enthralling.

Seriously, Cameron has been one of the very best storytellers in movies for decades now. This at times gets lost on people because his dialogue can be quite cringe inducing. You want to go up to him and make him realize people don’t talk to each other the way he thinks they do. It constantly reminds me of what Harrison Ford told George Lucas about his script for “Star Wars”:

“You can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it!”

For what’s it worth, however, Lucas makes Cameron sound like David Mamet.

Regardless, the strength of the story he has concocted makes the visuals on display all the more exhilarating. My big issue with most effects driven movies is you can tell when you are watching a CGI effect. All this does is completely take me out of the movie to where I roll my eyes and wonder why Hollywood regularly underestimates audiences.

Now at the start of “Avatar,” when Jake is looking at the creature he will be, you can definitely tell what is real and what is computer generated. But as the movie goes on, I honestly couldn’t figure out which was which. I tried, believe me I tried to see the difference, but there was just no way. Plus, the motion capture they used on the actors is astonishing. The avatars are made to look like the actors playing them, and the movements are so amazingly lifelike to where it makes every other 2009 movie see, like it was made back in 1987. That description may be stretching it a bit, but I couldn’t resist.

The art direction in this movie is incredible, and the color blue (my favorite) is used quite a lot. There are other astonishingly breathtaking visuals like the floating mountains which looked quite real…. Damn it! I am running out of words to describe what I saw. You have to see it for yourself.

As Jake Sully, Worthington keeps him from being a complete cliché and infuses him with a nobility which has served him well in life. But one of the most welcome actors here is Sigourney Weaver who is appearing in her first Cameron movie since “Aliens.” Weaver plays Dr. Grace Augustine, the head of the Avatar program. While the military wants to use her work for their own manipulative methods, she uses them to help gain the trust of the Na’vi and study their world for peaceful and scientific purposes. She is the classic Cameron female character; tough as nails, controlling, and never ever a pushover Apparently, Weaver based her character on Cameron to an extent. To steal a line from “Up in The Air,” Dr. Grace Augustine may very well be James Cameron with a vagina.

Another classic Cameron female is played by Michelle Rodriguez, still looking as hot as she did in “Fast & Furious.” Her character of helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon is somewhat similar to Jeanette Goldstein’s character of Vasquez from “Aliens”; a badass soldier who is as tough as the men, maybe even tougher. She’s certainly a lot more morally conscious than the majority of the marines in the film, and Rodriguez makes sure you never forget that.

You also have Giovanni Ribisi playing Parker Selfridge (yes, his last name rhymes with selfish), the corporate manager in charge of the mining operation on Pandora. Like Paul Reiser’s character from “Aliens,” he is only interested in making a gigantic profit which will set him up for life. I love how Ribisi plays Parker as a pragmatic ass with absolutely no moral scruples whatsoever as this character is ever so gleeful about what is in store for him once this mineral is sufficiently mined. The way he sees it, what’s the big deal?

But one of the best performances comes from Stephen Lang who plays the brutal Colonel Miles Quaritch. Despite some of the ridiculous dialogue which comes out of his mouth, Lang completely makes Miles into a soldier you would be incredibly foolish to mess with. Like Tom Berenger in “Platoon,” his face is deeply scarred, and he does nothing to hide that. Miles simply sees it as an illustration of how nasty the moon of Pandora is. His flaw, however, is that he cannot see who the Na’vi really as his anger against them has long since powered by an everlasting fear which he cannot overcome.

Now let’s talk about the Na’vi, those big blue creatures who are tall enough to play for the Los Angeles Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs. They could have made or have broken “Avatar.” Cameron has said he thought about the story long before he began working on “Titanic,” and that he even thought about these characters when he was a kid. Now having an original race of people who speak their own language may work well on “Star Trek,” but in other shows and movies, it looks more comical and ridiculous than was originally intended. This is not the case here.

This brings me to the performance of Zoë Saldaña, who you may remember as Uhura in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.” She plays Neytiri, Princess of the Na’vi tribe Omaticaya. Neytiri is the first real Na’vi to come in contact with Jake Sully, and she later falls in love with him. In essence, a lot of “Avatar” rests on her performance, and she succeeds in making you believe in this race of beings to where you see them as more than just an amazing series of special effects. This ends up making it easier for other actors like Wes Studi and CCH Pounder to portray their characters without having to expend too much effort in helping you buy into these extra-terrestrials. Saldana sets up the groundwork, and everyone follows her from there.

“Avatar” deals with many of the same themes Cameron has dealt with throughout his career: military intervention into a foreign land, machines versus nature, love found between beings from different worlds or societies, how scientists and those with curious minds seek to understand the aliens and make peace with them, and how corporations will do anything for a profit. The parallels between what the military forces are doing in Pandora and our wars in Vietnam and Iraq, not to mention our current escalation in Afghanistan, are clear as day, and it does make the movie feel timely.

But one of the especially interesting things here is how Cameron utilizes a lot of the technology which was on display in his previous films. Those armed walkers Colonel Quaritch uses look to be an upgrade of the driver Weaver used in the climax of “Aliens” (which the Wachowski brothers all but ripped off for “The Matrix” sequels). The mind devices used to control the avatars looks a lot like the head pieces used in “Strange Days.” The scenes of humans interacting with otherworldly creatures bring to mind similar scenes from “The Abyss.” And you have characters who go from being antagonists to becoming the good guys (“Terminator 2” was a classic example of this). With all this in mind, I thought Cameron was running out of new ideas, but I love how he combines them all up to good use in “Avatar.”

But enough of me babbling about “Avatar.” Whatever weaknesses this movie may have are undone by its well-earned achievements. Once again, see this movie in a theater! I don’t care if you hate going to the movies. “Avatar” is a great and reinvigorating reminder of how sitting in a darkened movie theater can be so thrilling.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to find an IMAX theater playing this movie that is not sold out for weeks in advance. Seeing something like this on the silver screen once is never enough, ever.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘WALL-E’ Remains one of Pixar’s Greatest Masterpieces

Wall E poster

WALL-E” was directed by Andrew Stanton who directed one of the very best Pixar movies, “Finding Nemo.” It takes place in the very distant future when Earth is no longer inhabitable due to uncontrollable pollution, and everyone lives in spaceships. In the midst of all this pollution and garbage is WALL-E whose name is an acronym which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-Class. There are many like him, but this particular load lifter has long since developed a quirky personality. While he compacts waste into squares, he also collects things like Zippo lighters, Rubik’s Cubes, and parts from similar models which he can use as replacement parts on his body if anything falls apart. He lives a very lonely life with no one to converse with except a cockroach whom he lets wander around his home aboard a broken-down construction vehicle, and he is always watching scenes from the movie musical “Hello Dolly.”

Then one day, he is visited by a large spaceship which a makes a very loud landing on the barren planet. Released from it is a probe named EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), and after some dangerous close encounters, WALL-E earns her trust and friendship. Things between them, however, gets tested when EVE’s mothership comes back, and WALL-E hangs on for dear life as the ship heads into space and towards a ship where what is left of humanity inhabits. What happens when these two board the ship will eventually change the course of everyone’s lives and the way they live.

Just when I thought Pixar couldn’t top itself, it succeeds in doing so yet again. The animation in “WALL-E” is predictably brilliant, but now it’s getting to where I can’t tell what’s animated and what’s real. The Rubik’s cube WALL-E and EVE play with looks very much like the real thing, and the attention to detail in these is almost frightening in its precision.

But the one thing that really makes Pixar movies so damn good is the stories filmmakers come up with, and the characters they create are ever so memorable. WALL-E’s design does remind me of Number 5, a.k.a. Johnny 5, from “Short Circuit,” as he is every bit as quirky as this character from the 1980’s. Pixar also takes a lot of risks by having this movie be devoid of dialogue for the first half hour. I imagine this would freak out other studios, but not Pixar. The fact there is no dialogue shows how good Stanton is in showing things without spelling them out to us.

“What are words for when no one listens anymore?”

“Do you hear me? Do you care?”

-Missing Persons

“WALL-E” is undeniably cute without having to become incredibly manipulative, and this is quite an accomplishment considering how many movies for kids can easily fall into such a trap. Pixar is the equivalent these days of what the Muppets were to me in 1980’s. Their movies appeal to both kids and adults, and it is great to see anyone in Hollywood making motion pictures which succeed in doing just that.

When “WALL-E” moves to the spaceship hovering just outside of the Milky Way galaxy, the movie becomes even more amazing on a visual level. The moment where we see WALL-E hanging on for dear life outside of the spaceship and touching the rings of Saturn is a beautiful moment in a movie full of them. The spaceship he and EVE end up on is called the Axiom, and all its passengers are obese people who sit and move all day long in chairs because being in space for so long has robbed them of their bone density. Now this is a movie which doesn’t hide from the horrors of being a coach potato.

WALL-E and EVE are machines, but you end up caring for them regardless of this fact. They make the perfect couple even if one is more advanced than the other. The heart of the movie is how they come together and of the changes they inadvertently make in the realm of humanity.

WALL-E is voiced by Ben Burtt, and he is responsible for some of the most well-known sound effects in movie history like the lightsabers from “Star Wars” as well as the sound of that gigantic boulder in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Burtt can now add this character to his great volume of work with pride. The character itself manages to convey so much through the use of sound and gestures. Whenever WALL-E tilts his mechanical eyes, he can easily go from emotion to emotion, and his voice adds to this as well.

EVE is the perfect match for WALL-E as they are an example of how the old and the more advanced can make the saying of opposites attract all the more valid. Beautiful in her sleekness and with two blue eyes to make her emotions all the more real, EVE is a brilliantly thought out character (and a little too trigger happy for her own good). The moments when these two machines connect are beautiful, and it gets you right in the heart in a way which does not feel the least bit manipulative (thank god for that).

When “WALL-E” gets on board the Axiom, it is a wonderful jab at how we humans have allowed ourselves to let technology overwhelm us to where it does all the work we should be doing ourselves. Laziness and complacency are far too easy to achieve when you have someone or something else doing everything for you. As a result, everyone on the Axiom is always in a chair. Exercise is not a priority, and being in outer space for so long has resulted in their bones almost disappearing. This is something NASA has to think about before they even think about sending astronauts to Mars. When the people of the ship rise against the technology holding them back, it’s a fantastic moment which cannot be easily forgotten.

I’m not sure what else I can say about “WALL-E” other than it’s another home run for the folks at Pixar. I look forward to whatever they do next year and the year after that. It is far and away one of the best movies of 2008, and it is now the one to beat in the summer movie season. For those attempting to do so, I wish you the best of luck because you are going to need it.

* * * * out of * * * *

David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ Proves to Be More Than the Average Gross-Out Movie

The Fly 1986 movie poster

David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” was released in 1986, a year filled with everlasting cinematic classics like “Aliens,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” “Platoon,” and “Top Gun.” More importantly, it came out during a time where remakes were very rare compared to today, and also when remakes were actually worth watching. Whereas remakes these days serve to capitalize on a known quantity or are being exploited for the sake of some potential franchise, “The Fly” is one where the director took what came before and made it completely his own.

You should all know the story by now. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a brilliant and eccentric scientist who has invented a set of telepods which allow objects to travel instantaneously from one pod to another. Seth shares the story of his invention with science journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) as he attempts to test teleportation on living subjects. Eventually, Seth decides to test it on himself, but he doesn’t realize a common housefly has entered the telepod with him, and the computer gets confused and ends up merging the two lifeforms at a molecular-genetic level. Seth believes the teleportation has purified his body as he discovers a strength he didn’t previously have, but it’s all a build up for a transformation which becomes all the more horrifying as “The Fly” reaches its gruesome climax.

What I love about “The Fly” is its slow build as Cronenberg makes Seth’s transformation into “Brundlefly” all the more unnerving by taking it one step at a time. We first see him engaging in an extraordinary set of gymnastics we would all love to be capable of, and then we watch as he puts an enormous amount of sugar into his coffee at a local diner. This leads Veronica to ask him, “Do you normally take coffee with your sugar?” While I expected a reply along the lines of Christian Slater’s in “True Romance” where he said, “I’m not satisfied until the spoon is standing straight up,” it is immediately clear that Seth is too involved in his own process to see the damage it is doing to his body.

Seth’s face comes to look like it is riddled with severe acne scars, and this brought about a number of PTSD flashbacks for me of when I dealt with my own acne outbreaks back in high school. But the key moment doesn’t come when Seth snaps a guy’s arm in half during an arm wrestle contest (it’s always painful to see a bone sticking out of a person’s body), but instead when he finds himself pulling out his own fingernails. Just the idea of pulling out your own fingernails is painful in itself, but seeing Seth pulling his out to where a great deal of puss explodes from his fingers proves to be even more painful than watching George Clooney getting his fingernails pulled out with a pair of plyers in “Syriana.”

At this point, I want to point out one of “The Fly’s” biggest stars which is Chris Walas. Walas won an Academy Award for Best Makeup for his work here, and it should go without saying just how much he deserved it. As Seth’s body continues to deteriorate in the midst of an unwanted, let alone unexpected, transformation, Walas makes each moment sting with a thankfulness we are not going through what this misguided scientist is. He also gives you the assurance that he and his colleagues have researched all there is to know about this kind of metamorphosis, and this makes Seth’s transformation all the more horrifying. Walas makes you believe something like this could actually happen to where you cannot help but react strongly to everything unfolding before you.

1986 was a big year in science fiction as Sigourney Weaver not only had the lead role in “Aliens,” back when it was rare for an actress to have such a role in a movie, but she also scored an Oscar nomination for her performance which was well-deserved. It’s a shame Goldblum didn’t get the same respect from the Academy as his performance is truly brilliant and wholly original. Just as Weaver dominated all those special effects in “Aliens,” Goldblum makes it clear the makeup is not doing all the acting for him as he fully inhabits Seth Brundle at every stage of his transformation. For the actor, the makeup becomes a costume which comes to inform his character throughout, and Goldblum is fearless in portraying this scientist’s descent into an unwanted fate.

Scientists in movies tend to be either over the top or exceedingly modest and timid, but Goldblum gives us one whose eccentricities make him more alluring than the average one. The actor even sells us on a wonderful moment where he explains why he wears the same suit, shirt and tie each day, and seeing his closet reminded me of a number of movie spoofs where this same situation was used for sheer comedic effect. Even as Seth becomes increasingly unpredictable, let alone unlikable, to be around, Goldblum seduces us deeply into his strange plight which brings about a change he never saw coming.

But let’s not leave out Geena Davis who shares a strong chemistry with Goldblum throughout, and this only makes sense as they were a couple at the time and were briefly married. As Veronica Quaife, Davis creates a complex character whom is eager to take advantage of Seth’s invention for the story of the century, but she soon finds herself falling for him to where she cannot tear herself away from his hideous transformation. The scene where she hugs him after getting her first glimpse at the horrific changes his body is going through brought about a loud gasp of disgust from the audience I watched this movie with at New Beverly Cinema, but it shows just how powerful her performance is. Veronica is at once mortified at how bad things are getting for Seth, and yet she can’t tear herself away from him because she is too emotionally involved to just give up on him. Davis’ commitment to her performance shows the range which would eventually earn her an Academy Award for her work in “The Accidental Tourist.”

Many see Cronenberg as a filmmaker who makes nothing more than gross-out horror movies, but they neglect to see the intelligence and thought he puts into each movie he makes. Whether it’s “The Fly” or “Rabid” or “Scanners” or “Dead Ringers” or “eXistenZ,” Cronenberg has fearlessly explored the phobias we all have of bodily transformation and disease to unforgettable effect. His movies are not designed to make you throw up, but instead to confront how our bodies deteriorate in one way or another. His remake of “The Fly” is one of his most unforgettable motion pictures as we can’t take our eyes off the screen even as Seth Brundle’s transformation becomes all the more disgusting. Its power comes from how it draws you in emotionally more than anything else, and we have as much luck at disconnecting ourselves from Seth’s unnerving plight as Veronica does.

Watching “The Fly” again, it is clearer than ever that this movie is about a tragic romance more than anything else. Heck, Shakespeare would have been proud to have written a tragedy like the one presented here. While much of the attention on this remake is forever directed at the makeup design which still grosses audiences out to this very day, it is the romance between Seth and Veronica which drives the story more than anything else. The two of them want to tear themselves away from one another, but deep down neither of them can truly bare to do so, and they are the kind of couple U2 sang their song “With or Without You” about.

If there’s anything wrong with “The Fly,” it’s the ending as things are resolved in a way which is not altogether satisfying. We are left with questions which would not be answered until “The Fly II,” and while that sequel had its moments, it’s no surprise how it paled in comparison to Cronenberg’s remake.

Horror movie remakes are a dime a dozen these days, but Cronenberg’s “The Fly” remains one of the best and most visceral. It is still the director’s biggest commercial hit to date, and I prefer to see this as proof of how his unique style of filmmaking can reach a wider audience than we typically realize. All these years later, Cronenberg remains one of the most original filmmakers working today, and we eagerly await his next cinematic opus with great anticipation.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ Remains an Exceptionally Intense Experience

Alien movie poster

In regards to horror movies, “John Carpenter’s The Thing” ranks highest on the list of my all-time favorite movies in general. However, if you were to ask me what I consider to be the scariest movie ever, the first that quickly comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Now considered a classic haunted house kind of movie, it freaked me out far more than I had expected it to. These days, if I come across someone who hasn’t seen “Alien,” I would be desperate to take the time and watch it with them just to see the look on their face. What may seem like a harmless old science fiction movie still has the power to unnerve and creep up on its audience when they least expect it.

Now when I say that this movie freaked me out more than I expected it to, there are a number of reasons why: I ended up seeing James Cameron’s sequel “Aliens” beforehand, so I already knew Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) was the sole survivor from the original. When I watched “Alien” for the very first time, it was back in the days of VCR’s and VHS tapes, and the one I obtained from my favorite video store was a fairly old copy which showed a bit of wear and tear. When it came to watching it, I got consigned to my parents’ bedroom as they had already called dibs on the big television in the family room which was connected to a “super cool” stereo system. The TV set in their bedroom was tiny by today’s standards. As I remember, it was a 13-inch set which was already on its last legs after years of use. This one didn’t have any surround sound system to enhance the experience, so I just tried to be happy I had a TV to view it on at all.

Having said all this, “Alien” still had my hairs standing on end throughout. Even though I knew who would live and die, the suspense and tension were extreme throughout, and you never ever felt safe on board the spaceship Nostromo. I can still remember hiding my eyes and would be turning the volume down at certain points because my heart threatened to stop beating a few times. Imagine if I had watched it for the first time on a big screen TV with surround system, or better yet, in a movie theater when it originally came out! I wouldn’t have slept for days! Some movies play better on the silver screen than on your television, but “Alien” appears to work on either format with the same degree of success.

There are many different reasons why Scott’s film remains such an effective sci-fi horror classic to this day. For me, it starts with the characters and how down to earth they are. While other outer space movies have characters who revel in the wonder of what’s out there, all the workers on the Nostromo treat their dark habitat as just another office job they take to get by. When we meet up with them, they are on their way back to Earth and just want to be home already. The writers also gave the actors dialogue which was never too heavy on the technobabble and hearing the characters talk about how they deserve full shares for the work they did defines them as blue collar workers. These are not brilliant scientists looking to discover new planets; they’re just people working for the man. The time Scott takes in introducing all these individuals pays off by the time we are given a visceral introduction to the alien of the movie’s title.

Now let’s talk about this alien which was designed by H.R. Geiger, a Swiss surrealist artist. I can’t really compare it to other movie creatures I’ve seen in the slightest because it looks so frighteningly unique in its construction. Its mouth hides an additional set of jaws that lunges out at unsuspecting victims as if they are “faster than a speeding bullet.” Furthermore, there is something quite phallic about that jaw in how it juts out at you without warning or of any thought of the damage it is about to inflict. Its lethal penetration is highly unnerving in how it reminds the viewer of what we all agree constitutes a serious and unconscionable violation to the human body.

But one of Ridley’s most brilliant moves with “Alien” was in not showing the creature fully. We only got glimpses of it throughout the film until the end, and even then we weren’t entirely sure of all that we saw. It was all up to our imaginations to figure out what kind of a threat this creature is. This added immeasurably to the film’s infinite suspense and unending tension. Plus, with the spaceship Nostromo designed to look all dark and shabby with not much light to be found in certain sections, this made it easier for the creature to hide. When it leaped up at the cast member about to meet his maker, it was completely unexpected and defined the jump out of your seat moment for me.

As the movie goes on, we get to an even more frightening aspect; of how corporations can put profits above their workers so coldly. When Ripley discovers the Nostromo crew was made to pick up an alien organism to bring back for further study and that they were expendable, it only further demonstrates just how much alone everyone is on the ship. To realize the company which has employed you couldn’t care less about your existence makes you fully aware of your immediate surroundings, and the instinct to survive becomes stronger than ever. Of course, are cynicism today has us expecting this from any corporation we work with, so we’re more prepared for this than the Nostromo crew was.

A lot of credit also goes to the late Jerry Goldsmith for creating a music score which adds subtly to the action, or at least until the film’s last half hour when the realm of outer space feels even smaller than before. His music touches on the tension inherent in each character without becoming melodramatic, and at times it sounds like invisible ghosts hovering over the unprepared crew waiting to strike. Also, the use of silence in certain scenes makes it even more frightening as we are reminded of how unsettling things can be when our surroundings become far too quiet for comfort.

All of this leads to one of the most intense climaxes in cinema history as we are fully aware of time running out. Just when you think the movie’s over, there’s still another horrendous challenge to overcome. It’s in the movie’s last minute where you can finally breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even if you know how of this movie will end, it is still an intensely riveting experience that never lets up for a second. The look in Ripley’s eyes as she makes her way to the escape shuttle perfectly mirrors our own emotions as she is forced into a situation which leaves her with no other options to consider.

I still have very vivid memories of seeing this movie on that unspectacular little television set in my parents’ bedroom while they enjoyed something on Masterpiece Theater with more advanced technology. As the beginning credits began to roll, I was convinced that sitting through this would be a piece of cake. Coincidentally, I also felt the same way about the original version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when I rented it through Netflix. “Alien” remains one of the most truly terrifying experiences I have ever had watching a movie either on the big screen or the small one. To this day, it remains an effectively scary movie which has lost none of its power. Now if 20th Century Fox had fully realized how all these elements had added to make such a great movie, those hopelessly pathetic “Alien vs. Predator” films might have actually been worth watching.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Veronica Cartwright Looks Back at the Chestburster Scene from ‘Alien’

Veronica Cartwright in Alien

While Veronica Cartwright was at New Beverly Cinema to talk about “The Right Stuff,” filmmaker Brian McQuery couldn’t help but ask her a question about another famous movie she starred in, “Alien.” Specifically, he wanted to know more about the “chestburster” scene which is one of the film’s most horrifying moments. The story behind this scene has been told over and over again throughout the years, but Cartwright was still willing to talk and clear up a few things about it.

Legend has it neither Cartwright nor the other actors in “Alien” had any idea of what exactly was going to erupt from John Hurt’s chest. Cartwright, however, said the actors had read the script and knew something was supposed to come out of there. Also, she and Sigourney Weaver had a scene where they were supposed to know what it looked like, but they had no clue what they were going to be talking about. As a result, they visited the studio where the infant alien was being built.

“A few weeks earlier we had gone down and seen the little mockup of that little penis guy with the tail, but it wasn’t working at that point,” Cartwright said of the alien. “It was sort of a gray thing and the artists were saying ‘oh his teeth will be like this and he breathes…’ It was just like a little puppet thing that came out.”

Then came the day when the chestburster scene was shot, and Cartwright described it as though she had just filmed it yesterday.

“We’re all upstairs in the dressing room and they take John (Hurt) down, and for four hours we never saw John. John was having his false chest made,” Cartwright said. “When we were told that we could come down to the set, the entire set was dressed in plastic, everybody’s wearing raincoats, and there were big buckets of this awful stuff that smelled like formaldehyde. It stank and you gagged when you first went in there.”

“So, here’s John packed in this thing, and they had four cameras so that they would get everybody’s reaction,” Cartwright continued. “What happens is that they cut the t-shirt so that the puppeteer could push the thing through, so we all start leaning forward because you’re just fascinated to see what’s going to happen. One of the effects guys told me, ‘oh you’ll be getting a little blood on you,’ and I said, ‘oh okay.’ Not thinking, I leaned right into it. I had a jet pointed at my face, and it just shot me square in the face. It was unbelievable, and then I backed up and (in the dailies, it’s the most hysterical thing) my knees hit the back of a set piece and I flipped upside down to where you can see my cowboy boots sticking up above. I did not expect to get shot with a full blast of blood.

Veronica gets sprayed in Alien

Cartwright pointed out that the scene was done in just one take, and McQuery replied how her reaction looked “really real!” The audience at the New Beverly laughed loudly in agreement with him.

“Years later I worked with that same guy and he said, ‘sorry about that!’ How rude,” Cartwright said.

Looking back, Cartwright described “Alien” as being a very “sweaty” movie because the cast would come on the set in the morning and get covered in glycerin from a pumper. She described this as being “so gross,” but that in the end it was an experience.

While she was primarily at New Beverly Cinema to talk about “The Right Stuff,” the audience was glad McQuery asked Cartwright about the making of Ridley Scott’s classic 1979 film. Just when you think you have heard the definitive story about a classic movie scene, one of its participants comes around to inform you of one or two details you might have missed.

Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox