Art Vs Commerce: Trilogies! Of Terror? (2000s)

2009

So, the rules had changed. The Academy widened the Best Picture category in the hopes that maybe one or two movies anyone had seen might make the list, get people invested in the Oscars more than they had been. (I feel like the ratings for the ceremony have been in a steady slide since 2004, can’t imagine COVID is gonna help with that.)

And did it work?

Um… yep, in year one, it very much did work. Pixar got on the list with Up. Quentin Tarantino got his first Oscar nominations in 15 years for Inglourious Basterds. Even some sci-fi made the not-as-short list, and yes, a few people certainly saw one of them. Quite a few. So you know what, let’s break protocol and talk about that one first.

The Box Office Champ

After years of just directing deep sea documentaries… and the series finale of Dark Angel? What the what?… James Cameron returned to the big screen with an epic he’d clearly spent most of the time since Titanic developing the idea, world, funding, and necessary evolutionary leap in technology for, Avatar. A friend joked that James Cameron got the gross of his last movie to make his next movie, so he kept getting bigger, and for his last movie he made a scale replica of the Titanic and then put it in a scale model of the ocean, so what was left but make a planet?

So for anyone who doesn’t know, or more likely forgot, Avatar sees paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, who was almost a big thing back then, remember? Of course you don’t.) is sent to the alien world of Pandora, where some mega-corporation is trying to push aside the native Na’vi to strip mine the super-valuable orb unobtanium (Jesus, James, might as well have called it “Maguffin-ite”). Jake is taking his deceased twin brother’s place in the Avatar program, where human minds are plugged into half-human half-Na’vi bodies to ingratiate humanity on the locals.

Which is a dumb plan if you think about it even medium-hard. Imagine if the aliens from Independence Day showed up in human-looking bodies that smelled alien saying, in Borat-style broken English, “Hey! Look! We human now! Look at this human body I’m working like a puppet, ignore all those other aliens trying to kill you and take your stuff, we can be cool because I’m so human!” Would we trust them? No. And obviously the Na’vi don’t buy it either thanks to Colonel Miles Quartich (Tombstone’s Stephen Lang) and head corporate jackass Parker Selfridge (an entertaining Giovanni Ribisi) shooting up the place and bulldozing sacred groves.

Anyway Jake is a natural at Avataring because it’s that kind of movie, some magic forest jellyfish mark him as the Chosen One so the Na’vi take him in to teach him their ways… it’s all boilerplate white saviour nonsense, where the white man is the best at all the ancient native traditions and he has to choose between the spiritual indigenous population and the greedy-ass white people trying to pillage the landscape, you do the math. It’s Dances With Wolves but the big fight between the natives and colonizers is between Thundercats and Robotech. Which… is a definite value-add, to be fair.

James Cameron obviously has deep passion for this world, given that aside from producing the best Terminator movie since 1991, all he’s done for the past… damn time is a bitch… 12 years is lay groundwork for four sequels, which might actually come out soon. And every inch of that passion is on display in the visuals. I remember being amazed at the beauty of Pandora, struck by the revolutionary 3D… I also remember thinking that when the military shows up to blow up the Na’vi’s sacred hometree, this was a perfectly fine place for Jake to inspire the locals to fight back and wrap up the movie, then despairing that we still had a whole act left.

Or as I used to say… you can see every cent of the $200 million Cameron spent on the effects, and all ten dollars he spent on the script.

It’s no longer new or interesting to comment on how quickly people moved on from Avatar, how you almost never see a Na’vi at a convention, how there’s no lasting fandom. (Utterly delightful YouTuber Jenny Nicholson claims to be a leading Avatar superfan but according to Lindsay Ellis, even her actual friends can’t tell if it’s sincere or just a bit she’s done since being let down by Rise of Skywalker.) Personally I blame the fact that the movie kind of needed a massive screen and 3D glasses to properly appreciate. For most of the decade and change since, even top-end high-def TVs made the movie look like a Playstation cutscene. I’ve only recently acquired a TV that does it justice. And so, as I’ve often put it, the western world all saw it exactly once and then forgot about it.

But the entire western world did show up for it. Studios don’t greenlight four sequels because a movie did kind of okay. People flocked to Avatar for months on end, its worldwide gross tripled its nearest competitor (Harry Potter and the One Where Dumbledore Dies Half-Blood Prince, naturally), and it eclipsed Titanic to become the new highest-grossing film of all time.

…………

….Unless you factor in inflation in which case it’s still Gone With the Wind, but this one came closest to changing that.

(There’s no cute Variety ad, as Cameron beat Cameron.)

It mostly moves along okay, there are almost always gorgeous visuals happening, the middle drags and the whole story feels paint-by-numbers but it’s… okay. Even if I get why pop culture found it a little disposable.

Do I have any idea where the four (Jesus) sequels will go? Not really, but… never bet against James Cameron.

(Except in your 2010 Oscar pool. Definitely bet against him there.)

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 82% from critics and audiences. Respectable scores.

Avatar managed to snag the Golden Globe for Best Drama (despite being the sort of movie the Globes would later get righteously mocked for nominating under Comedy/Musical), but overall, award season was pointing another direction. In a move that almost felt scripted, it pointed to something directed by Cameron’s ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow. Something a little more grounded, but no less… explosive I’m sorry it was right there I couldn’t help it anyway

And The Oscar Goes To…

In the depths of the Iraq war, after the death of their previous team leader, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony “Falcon” Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) get a new team leader: Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy “Hawkeye” Renner). Sanborn and Eldridge just want to stay alive for the last month and a bit they have left in their rotation, but James is a little too fond of defusing bombs, defusing where the previous team lead would have safely detonated, staying engaged rather than letting army engineers take over. James is too hooked on adrenaline, and this causes problems in the team. And the question becomes… can he ever walk away? With cameos from Guy Pearce as the previous team lead, David Morse as an officer amused by James’ love of bomb work, Ralph Fiennes as a contractor they encounter out in the desert, Evangeline “Wasp” Lilly as James’ maybe-wife back home, and Better Off Ted/Preacher’s Malcom Barrett as a solider. Okay he probably wasn’t meant as a notable cameo but he was to me.

The tension is palpable in this movie, thanks to the opening sequence demonstrating just how high the stakes are by blowing up Guy Pearce. Every wire or pile of detritus could be a bomb, every civilian watching could be an insurgent, every cell phone could be a remote detonator, death rarely feels far away. Sanborn’s fears over James’ risk-taking feel very real and relatable. Even James waving a removed detonator at the man he’s (correctly) pretty sure planted the bomb he just defused isn’t a cool enough moment to completely overcome the fact that his need to beat each bomb personally is putting two other men in mortal peril on a frequent basis. Each time the team rolls out feels incredibly tense, even though there are no explosions that aren’t at least a little telegraphed. They’re very well shot, yes, but not hard to see coming.

And then in the end, Bigelow infuses James’ life back home with such oppressive mundanity. Something in how she shoots James trying to pick out a cereal or clean leaves out of his gutter sells how being in Iraq defusing bombs truly is his one great love and life at home can’t compare. I understood how this life, even with a loving partner and baby waiting, just wasn’t enough next to his combat life.

I mean… I understood it in a cautionary-tale-way, the way Bigelow intended if the opening text “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug” suggests anything. Not in a “Yeah, you go James, you’re making positive life choices” kind of way. It may be that the only thing between James and ending up a monster like Sgt. Barnes from Platoon is that James’ enemy of choice is IEDs, not people.

It’s the best and most effective anti-war movie I’ve seen since All Quiet on the Western Front, with little moments like “If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he is now” and “Aren’t you glad the Army has all these tanks parked here? Just in case the Russians come and we have to have a big tank battle?” selling the futility of the Iraq war. It also drills into how compassion is not rewarded on the battlefront, as the only soldier to be friendly to the locals is… not rewarded for it, and James’ fondness for a kid that sells DVDs on the base drives him off the reservation late in the movie.

Which also somehow leads to the funniest moment, but that’s neither here nor there.

This was Jeremy Renner’s transition from the excellent but short-lived cop show The Unusuals (I could do a whole post about that show… no time to unpack it here) to a weird and specific A-list film stardom… for a chunk of the 2010s, it felt like everybody was trying to pivot their franchises to Jeremy Renner. I dunno, I like him in movies. He’s good, Mackie’s good, their less-famous co-star is good, the cameos don’t pull you out of the movie as much as 1917, this one’s really effective, wonderfully shot, top two among the movies about war combat we’ve discussed, putting it over Saving Private Ryan, I am not sorry.

(Schindler’s List wasn’t about war, just atrocities, the Jewish ghetto wasn’t fighting back.)

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s pretty high, all the way up at #17, over the much more problematic Annie Hall and under Lawrence of Arabia. I mean I get it, I get putting Larry Arabia higher, I see the logic. Hurt Locker is much shorter, though, that’s a plus.

Which Fellowship Member Are You? The little movie that took on the mighty, seemingly unstoppable empire of JamCam, but still triumphed. The Hurt Locker is Frodo.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Superheroes: Zack Snyder releases the seemingly unfilmable Watchmen, in which Superheroes Are Bad, Actually. He nails the visuals of the classic graphic novel but misses all the deconstruction, though in fairness, it’s very hard to do both in a different medium. I’m sure Alan Moore’s unflattering depiction of superheroes won’t rub off on anything else he does in the genre. Meanwhile X-Men Origins: Wolverine is perhaps the worst X-Men movie? Definitely the worst Wolverine solo movie, and it killed the idea of doing multiple X-Men Origins movies.
  • Fast? Furious? The original cast (well, four of them) find their careers aren’t where they expected and all return for Fast & Furious, which felt like a mulligan for 2 Fast 2 Furious. Tokyo Drift’s Han’s connection to Dom Toretto is established, and also Gal Gadot’s Gisele makes her debut. This one is very dumb but revived interest in the franchise.
  • Disney’s last stab at traditional, hand-drawn animation is The Princess and the Frog, featuring the third BIPOC protagonist turned into an animal. After this, they say “screw it, CGI from here.”
  • J.J. Abrams reboots Star Trek, recasting the original Enterprise crew, putting heady, philosophical sci-fi aside in the name of more action, and I’m sorry, I dug it hard. I want more of this reboot cast.
  • Terminator Salvation is the only Terminator movie I haven’t even seen part of, because it was a dumb idea and they shouldn’t have made it, the Terminator franchise was about robots from the future trying to kill people in the present, where we don’t have weapons that can kill them. Adult John Connor kills a terminator with a conventional assault rifle. Did the writers even watch other Terminator movies? Oh also Christian Bale yells at a light tech if that matters to you.
  • Some people have tried to turn on (500) Days of Summer, but I’m not having it, that movie was great.
  • The Hangover is a such a big hit that it a) elevates Ed Helms’ role in The Office, and b) wins the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical, which actual comedies rarely manage.
  • I didn’t watch or care about Twilight, so Jason Reitman’s low-key wonderful Up in the Air introduced me to the absolutely delightful Anna Kendrick.
  • If you want a movie about how God or the universe does not owe you and will not give you concrete answers and satisfactory resolutions, the Coen brothers made A Serious Man just for you! If you prefer plots that build to an ending, maybe not so much.
  • Lots of movies are based on books. Ben-Hur was a book, Gone With the Wind was a book, I think minimum two Die Hards were based on books, The Ten Commandments was based on like three books. It’s a thing that happens. So I will absolutely die mad at whoever decided that the title needed to make clear that Precious was “based on the novel Push by Sapphire.” It’s not like Sapphire was a character in the movie like Lemony Snicket, Jesus Christ, just call it Precious.
  • James Cameron did not care for the next movie to use his highly advanced 3D cameras being My Bloody Valentine 3D, one of the “Put the Supernatural stars in a horror movie” releases.
  • The other “Winchester Brother in a horror movie” is an attempted reboot of Friday the 13th, which did not do well, but had a better cast than it deserved.
  • Paul Blart: Mall Cop is Die Hard with fat jokes, and apparently that’s all it takes to be a box office hit. I don’t get people sometimes.
  • Liam Neeson makes his jump from drama to being an action star with Taken, which begins a genre of action movie aimed specifically at middle-aged dads. Taken, The Equalizer, Nobody, anything that makes dads feel like “Yeah, I could take out the entire Russian mafia to protect my family.”
  • The actual director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, who was not Tim Burton, adapts Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.
  • Fanboys is about nerds on a road trip to see The Phantom Menace and finds an excuse to put Kristen Bell in a Slave Leia bikini and is filled with Star Wars stuff and yes it is from the author of Ready Player One, how did you know?
  • Sweden doesn’t just release The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, they crank out the entire trilogy, releasing The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by the end of the year.
  • In the Loop is… sort of a feature film adaptation of British TV series The Thick of It, but despite being written and directed by the show’s creator (the always worthwhile Armando Iannucci) and featuring most of the show’s cast, it’s not a The Thick of It movie? Only Peter Capaldi is playing the same character. Anyway watch it if you haven’t.
  • We don’t have time to do it, and it doesn’t fit the mandate of this series… but man I want to unpack G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, further proof that the writer/director of 1999’s The Mummy had precisely one great movie in him.
  • District 9 is a better story about apartheid than the movie with Nelson Mandela as a character from the same year.
  • With The Blind Side and All About Steve, Sandra Bullock manages to win both an Oscar and a Razzie in one year. Well, at least she didn’t get nominated for both awards for the same role.
  • Black Dynamite is an homage to and send-up of low-budget blaxploitation movies, and it’s absolutely hilarious, should have won the Oscar.
  • Wes Anderson’s (with help from Noah Baumbach) stop-motion The Fantastic Mr. Fox is an absolute delight, and exactly what you need if you just watched the ultra-bleak The Road thinking it might get a Best Picture nomination.
  • Guy Richie, Robert Downey Jr., and Jude Law team up for the surprisingly effective Sherlock Holmes, taking a character based in calm, clever resolutions to mysteries and making him an action hero. I guess, like Star Trek, if you wanted to make a tentpole movie in the 2000s, you had precious (based on the novel Push by Sapphire) little option but go big.
  • 2009 had movies called The Informers and The Informant? Weird.

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