Zoom into an action scene close enough, and the fun turns into torture. The Hurt Locker is action film-making in real-time close-up. The camera follows every bead of sweat, catches every panicked flicker of its protagonists’ eyes. We register every distant cry, hear the crunch of sand under every footstep, wince at the roar of jets overhead. At this level of intimacy and immersion, action isn’t exciting, it’s terrifying. It’s somewhere you don’t want to be.

Especially in its standout set-pieces – the opening, the car bomb – there is a sharp, tactile quality to the film. The ruined streets of Baghdad could almost be an alien planet, the suited-up soldiers of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit treading its fraught surface like astronauts. Each scene is enveloped in a dizzyingly vivid sense of place and mapped out in a clear geography – a surprisingly rare skill among action directors. The verite-style camerawork, frame-perfect editing, flawless spatial construction, exceptional sound design and minimal score combine to make every scene tense, visceral: The Hurt Locker is a remarkable technical achievement for Kathryn Bigelow and her crew.

Everything that is inessential to the action is pared away. Politics, or even much of a narrative, are conspicuously absent – we follow a bomb disposal team’s tour of duty, during which they engage in routine operations, where any momentary sense of safety is relative at best. The film never leaves a soldier’s-eye-view. This is about nothing other than the thrill and fear of constant danger, each moment pregnant with the possibility of instant, unforseeable death.

It’s now been overshadowed by its Academy Awards success, Bigelow’s historic win in particular. It’s a more modest film (in intent, not in quality) than this hype might suggest, which has already led to an undeserved backlash. It doesn’t set out to be a Big Statement film, and it’s all the better for it. As a study of men’s responses to death and mortal peril  (and this is a very masculine film), as a riveting, unforgiving piece of action cinema, The Hurt Locker marks itself indeliby in the mind.

Advertisements

Even if we could dissociate it, at this point, from the monolithic cultural status it has gained as the Most Successful Film Of All Time, Avatar is an extremely difficult film to review. I can’t help but feel frustrated at its crippling, fundamental issues, its roll-call of cliches, the frustratingly missed opportunities at every turn. It’s not, strictly speaking, a great film. And yet I watched it in wide-eyed wonder, feeling like I was eight again and going to the cinema for the first time to see Jurassic Park. Which, in retrospect, wasn’t really a great movie, either. Still – that effortless, childlike joy has to count for something.

Let’s agree, straight off, that this is no Aliens or Terminator (though, on the other hand, it’s no Titanic, either). To be fair, it isn’t trying to be – where James Cameron’s 1980s masterpieces were taut, claustrophobic thrillers, Avatar shoots for the sweeping epic. It’s certainly the approach that fits the story best, and it’s in keeping with Cameron’s status as King of the World. But if only it could have been done with a little more vision. I don’t need to point out that the plot is – ahem – not exactly new; others have already done so eloquently. Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem – the story of “people A oppress people B, people B fight back” is an archetypal one, and, as Terrence Malick proved masterfully with The New World (2005), it can still lead to magnificent results. Sure, it’s an unfair comparison, but given Cameron’s evident ambition to make the Na’vi culture come to life, there’s none of Malick’s subtletly or intelligence here – the plot is drawn in broad strokes, and it’s very much a case of the noble savage versus the evil American military-industrial complex (which is all we see of humanity here). Apart from a handful of dissenting good guys, the humans in Avatar are glowering, pantomime villains – the corporate executives’ profit motive is clear enough, but what is it, exactly, that drives Colonel Quaritch’s psychotic hatred of every living thing on Pandora?

Perhaps a more relevant comparison that The New World is Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997), which shares Avatar‘s action-epic structure, its nature-versus-industry dynamic and its pantheistic mysticisim. And yet, despite all those similarities, what a different film it is: with neither side being entirely good or entirely, cartoonishly evil, both sides of the conflict seem equally valid. No easy identification is possible, and the viewer is forced to actually consider the merits of both sides and imagine what sort of compromise might be achieved. Compare this to Cameron’s film – there is no room for shades of grey in Avatar‘s black-and-white world, and – both dramatically and thematically – it suffers for it.

Equally disappointing is Cameron’s baffling lack of interest in the film’s central conceit. The idea of the avatar is an interesting and timely one, and yet, despite the titular prominence granted to the concept and the central role it plays in the opening scenes, it becomes little more than a plot device once we get to the action. There’s no development of the relationship between a person and their avatar. No hint of the physical toll that being essentially always awake must take. Not even the merest suggestion of the existential dilemmas brought up by inhabiting a second body. Okay, it’s an action film, but if you’re going to call your film Avatar and bring the idea up at all, for God’s sake, do something with it.

And yet, how much of this really matters? I’m still not sure. What I do know is that, as soon as the film left the confines of the military compound and ventured out into the lush jungles of Pandora, I remembered how I felt being eight and watching Jurassic Park on my second ever outing to the cinema, or being eleven and watching Independence Day. The word – and I don’t want to use it lightly – is wonder, and in its best moments Avatar made me feel that again. I don’t think that’s an unimportant achievement.

Many critic speak of the film’s astonishing visual sequences as if Cameron pushed a button on a computer and all these breathtaking images and masterful sequences came out automatically. There is vivid imagination, painstaking craft and remarkable technical achievements in every frame of Avatar – more than enough to remind us that, in terms of visceral, spectacular blockbuster entertainment, few film-makers come even close to Cameron at the top of his game.

There’s definitely a feeling that, given its investment in presenting a functional world and inviting the viewer to inhabit it, Avatar might have made for a better game than film – I’m not the first to point this out – but, having said that, the sheer sensual power of the world presented here is jaw-dropping, and the simple, archetypal narrative does a good job of leading the viewer on a whistle-stop tour of Pandora. The point, though, says a lot about the film: its flimsy narrative elements serve only as an excuse for the presentation of its remarkably-wrought world; whether or not that’s a valid approach for a film – I’m not sure.

So where does that leave me? I’m uneasy when people proclaim Avatar‘s greatness, and feel obliged to note its severe shortcomings; and yet the backlash is equally irritating. I have a feeling that viewed at home, without the benefits of its truly groundbreaking 3D techniques, its flaws will come more forcefully to the foreground, and it’ll be that much more difficult to be swept away by its simplistic narrative. Still, there’ll always be the memory of that glorious first viewing.