I must stand by my initial response to Avatar, which was that it was visually exciting, but dramatically leaden. It also fades from memory quite quickly, and sours a bit in the recollection. James Cameron’s film has, however, excited quite a lot of debate – despite mostly favourable, if qualified reviews (mine was very much in line with the majority, I think), there is already a backlash that shows how quickly cultural products can be mined for the subtexts and counter-readings that will be exercising students on film-studies courses in years to come. I can see it being used as a prompt for discussions of Hollywood’s myths of hegemony, race and history very soon, even though there are unlikely to be any campus lecture theatres to show it in 3D as intended. These post-hype analyses will not be dazzled by the arc lamps of spectacular, IMAX-sized action, which might make them more clear-minded and less likely to be swayed by special effects, but this is not necessarily a fair fight if one believes that visual spectacle is a part of a film’s lexicon rather than the fig leaf for an under-endowed plot.
[Published 26 June 2009; Updated 28th October 2009]
One of my favourite ever film reviews was in Photoplay. I forget who the critic was (I was about twelve), but it was for Friday XIII Part V. It read: “Not since Citizen Kane has there been a film so … just kidding.” And that was it. Puerile, dismissive, haughty and daft, but there’s something delicious about bad film reviews. I have no intention of seeing Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Filler; I don’t want to be judgmental about a film I haven’t seen, but having spent valuable time on his other films and been infuriated every time, I feel confident that I’ll be better off gving this one a miss. It’s time to stop blithely accepting this crud as “just a bit of fun”. I know, it’s not supposed to be Bergman. But it might at least aspire to being Simon West. I’ve spent a good portion of what passes for my academic career defending spectacular cinema from charges of simplistic numbskullery. Spectacle has an important cultural role to play in exercising the physical, visceral aspects of spectatorship. But the wow factor is always multiplied when it’s packaged in a thought-provoking way. Whatever you think of the Matrix films, you can see how their visual effects compliment the themes and philosophical issues they want you to mull over, probably on a repeat viewing. Glorious eye candy sweetens the bitter pill of even the grimmest dystopia or challenges preconceptions of what it means to be a human in a human body. Or it can make big robots hit each other.