Catch-up: Avatar, Sherlock

FILM: Avatar: Honestly, I’m not sure what to say about this one that hasn’t been said better by countless other sources. It’s visually amazing, the story is trite, the sense of white guilt is suffocating, blah blah blah. James Cameron tends to aim high on spectacle and low on story, and his attempt to create a new sci-fi universe has clearly struck a chord with $1 billion worth of people around the world, which is a feat I can in no way take away from. It’s easily the most ambitious movie to come out in my lifetime that is neither a sequel nor a book adaptation.

But I don’t know that it’s a game-changer, in the parlance of our times. Yes, the visuals are incredibly impressive. For all the fantastic creatures and soaring dragon-battles, though, the only scene that really struck me as unique was near the beginning, when the ship’s passengers are being taken out of cryo-stasis. It takes place in a massive structure, with dozens of workers releasing hundreds of passengers into a zero-gravity environment, and it’s absolutely, 100 per cent believable. For that moment, I could feel the potential of the technology that Cameron assembled. The scene would be as mundane to the characters in it as a warehouse with a forklift is to us, but it’s that mundanity that makes it stand out — it makes you sit up and think “of course that’s how things would be in the future.”

Once things get further into the fantasy, a lot of that impressive technology just becomes noise. Well, not noise, exactly, but easier to ignore. No matter how well-animated the creatures in Avatar’s world are, they are immediately foreign — it’s impossible not to see them as creatures of fantasy. And once the imagination gets involved, realism doesn’t matter nearly as much. I don’t know that the world of Avatar is any more real to me than the world of Spirited Away or Coraline, and certainly not more than Wall-E. Yes, it’s rendered more sharply, but I still need to suspend my disbelief in the same way I would at any fantasy movie (I’d argue that Avatar is far more of a fantasy movie than sci-fi), so that extra detail almost becomes extraneous, and sometimes even distracting. At least Cameron’s use of 3-D is surprisingly tasteful and restrained (though I don’t think it’s actually more immersive on the whole); it might actually be the first 3-D movie I’ve seen that doesn’t self-consciously acknowledge that it’s a 3-D movie.

When I think of a truly revolutionary change in filmmaking, I pretty much just think of colour and sound — and even colour is a stretch, when you get right down to it. The introduction of sound entirely changed not just how movies were made, but how they were percieved. Before that, they were abstractions of reality; the lack of sound reinforced the artifice of the medium. The same could be argued with colour. Motion capture and CGI will allow movies to get a whole lot prettier, but I can’t figure out how they’re meant to change the fundimentals of film — it’s a refinement, not a revolution.

In all this, I haven’t mentioned what I actually thought of the movie. It’s pretty much exactly what I expected — a spectacle that deals in archetypes over nuance and relies on extended action sequences and pretty pictures to win over the crowd. And you know what? That’s all it’s meant to be. It’s a blockbuster through and through, strictly adhering to the big-budget template that’s been firmly entrenched for a few decades. Even with all its explosions and sexy aliens, though, it’s not particularly engrossing — I have no urge to rewatch it. If I’m going to see a Cameron action blockbuster again, it’ll probably be Terminator 2.

Sherlock Holmes FILM: Sherlock Holmes: Nothing in Guy Ritchie’s stylistic repertoire — as impressively introduced in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, perfected in Snatch and adequately re-hashed in Rock ‘n’ Rolla — screams out Victorian detective. His rapid cuts, playful use of film speed and fondness for colourful characters with even more colourful names dug him into either a niche or a rut, depending how generous you were feeling (I’ll confess to not seeing Swept Away or Revolver, a choice I in no way regret). So, when I saw the first trailer for Sherlock Holmes, I shuddered. I love Robert Downey Jr., enjoy Jude Law and think Ritchie’s been responsible for some top-shelf entertainment, but Holmes as an action hero was not something I wanted to see.

So chalk me up as pleasantly surprised, because Sherlock is genuinely enjoyable. Downey Jr. once again proves himself to be an ideal action star, comfortable with the action scenes and bringing wit and charm to the rest. His Holmes doesn’t stray as far from the literary one as the trailers make out, though I don’t recall Conan Doyle’s character indulging in much bare-knuckle boxing during his down time. And Ritchie’s stylistic tics are kept under control — there’s no overbearing narration, no rapid-cut punchlines. In a way, it’s like a more successful version of Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm: it’s a studio flick that gains character from its auteur of a director. Where Grimm felt like a compromise, though, Sherlock is a well-oiled machine.

Rachel McAdams’ clunker of a performance aside, there’s little to complain about in Ritchie’s Holmes. It doesn’t quite hit Iron Man levels of action-movie grandeur, but it’s several steps above serviceable. The obvious plug for a sequel is a bit presumptuous, but given that there’s no such thing as one-offs right now, I guess it’s inevitable. It’s a heck of a lot better than it could’ve been, in any case.

Coming soon: Season One of The Shield, Jackie Chan’s awful-looking new comedy The Spy Next Door, and why Godfather II didn’t blow me away.

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