Wrapped up in (the Furthest Thing from) Books

Two current blockbusters, plus one from this summer that I just got around to. 

Avatar - The “Dances with Smurfs” joke is pretty fair, but totally misses just how fascinating a piece of twenty-first century Hollywood liberal wish fulfilment this post-postcolonial ecofantasy actually is. The movie exploits a genre swap—historical drama to sci-fi adventure—in order to pull a Quantum Leap on the familiar doomed-natives storyline, setting right what once went wrong by making all the Indians ten feet tall and giving them dragons to ride into battle. But it also goes further, turning New Age pantheistic mythology into a literal reality that’s one part cognitive science, one part MMPORPG. The mystical web of life becomes a biological version of the worldwide web, while cultural immersion becomes the immersive experience of a VR simulation—allowing the white hero of Dances with Wolves and countless other Euro-American fantasies to finally make his transcultural migration total, physical, and permanent.

Judged objectively for its politics, Avatar is well-intentioned but unforgivable. Judged as a pure piece of blockbuster cinema, it’s intelligently constructed, surprisingly imaginative, and undeniably dramatic. Judged as a cultural artifact, it’s the finest piece of Žižek bait since The Matrix.

Sherlock Holmes - A solidly constructed, if somewhat slight, action-adventure with just enough deduction tossed in to give it a Holmesian flavor. Director Guy Ritchie and star Robert Downey Jr. reimagine Holmes as kind of a cross between Dr. House and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, a man driven by his tortured genius to engage in shirtless pit-fighting and experiment on adorable British bulldogs. Holmes diehards (are there any?) will probably find this unforgivable, but Downey is just the actor to pull it off, and Ritchie actually benefits from the restraints imposed by a PG-13 rating, which prevent him from dishing up another attempt at Reservoir Dogs in London. Jude Law makes a fine comic foil for Downey, and the rest of the cast mostly keeps pace—with the serious exception of a wooden and anachronistic-feeling Rachel McAdams as Holmes’s love interest, a woman who we know is Holmes’s perfect equal mostly because the other characters say so a lot.

It would’ve been nice if the story had been an actual mystery in which the viewer could participate, but at least the movie does play fair in showing us how Holmes collects the data that lead to his deductions. Anything more would probably be too much to ask from a big dumb blockbuster that’s already significantly smarter than it had to be.

Star Trek - Director J. J. Abrahams attempts to revive the moribund Trek franchise with young actors, hip retro-mod styling, and a return to the original series characters. He largely succeeds in freshening up the Enterprise and her crew; but unfortunately, the script calls for a time-traveling, older-than-ever Leonard Nimoy to crash the party, dragging along a villain (Eric Bana) who seems like a refugee from one of the later Next Generation flicks that this movie was supposed to make us forget. Bana tries his best to make the character credible with a kind of off-handed brutality, but he can’t carry the weight of yet another gothy space-Nosferatu tooling around in another boring, how-do-we-stop-that-thing monster spaceship.

Meanwhile, Abrahams’s roller coaster–style direction tries to cover for a script with little heart and less brains, but only succeeds in creating a thrill ride that blows its load on the first big hill. And, while Spock, McCoy, and even Checkov seem more engaging than ever with their youthful new faces, Chris Pine’s Kirk is too much of a jackass to be remotely believable as someone who could take command of an entire starship. Shatner’s Kirk may have been a cowboy, but he was always an adult; the comparison with this movie’s borderline Labeouvian revamp makes a sad case for the infantilization of American ideals of masculinity.

Now that the reboot has been accomplished, however clumsily, maybe the franchise can thrive in sequels—but only if Abrahams discovers as much interest in his story and its characters as he seems to have in their uniforms or the IKEA lighting on the Enterprise bridge.