Like a gracious house guest, when the year 2010 arrived it brought with it two enormous gifts. Both of these shiny baubles are currently on display for public viewing. Both are modern-looking and in their way enormous. Both stir the blood and suggest possibilities, at least at the level of scope and size. And both of them are completely empty.
The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is, at 2,625 feet, the new tallest building in the world. As a kid, I would have thrilled to hear about such a thing. A sleek structure with 160 floors and an elevator that travels the greatest distance of any elevator in the world at speeds up to 40 miles per hour, the building should capture imaginations. Picture yourself standing on the highest outdoor observation deck in the world, the wind blowing in your face as you look out 80 kilometers in any direction. The Burj Khalifa should be a thing of wonder, and it is. The owners are wondering if anyone will ever occupy it.
At the moment, the world’s tallest building stands empty. Even the condos that have been purchased are without tenants. It’s not that they haven’t done their public relations homework. The Burj Khalifa was renamed (from Burj Dubai) to honor of the current President of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan. Abu Dhabi has loaned huge sums to Dubai and as you may have heard, Dubai is having money problems. Don’t snicker, don’t even giggle. At some point China will seek payment on their loans to us and suddenly the Empire State Building becomes The People’s Tower of New Beijing. By the way, the Burj Khalifa is more than twice the height of the Empire State Building. Nora Ephron is developing a screenplay where Tom Hanks meets Meg Ryan on New Year’s Eve at the top of the Burj Khalifa, then Ryan reveals to Hanks that she could be beheaded just for talking to him without her face covered. Comedy, in the United Arab Emirates, is hard but…
That gets us to films and 2010’s other empty monolith, the two and a half hour 3-D cartoon Avatar. Keep in mind that to some extent it is the job of columnists to be contentious, and I’ll back off further by saying that you may as well go see Avatar because not seeing it will leave you at a party chatter disadvantage. And if you later decide to rail against hollow corporate entertainments out to vacuum your wallet you’ll be better off having experienced the problem first hand.
Just as he did on Titanic, James Cameron has brilliantly converged existing technologies in such a grand way as to suggest that something really new and game-changing is happening. It’s not. Avatar isn’t much without its pre-sold perceived bigness. My guess is that, in plain old 2D, it’s barely a John Carpenter film. The story is pudding, and borrowed pudding at that. Dances with Wolves was one of the more recent times we’ve been down the road of Cameron’s simplistic narrative and I’m happy to concede I’m not the only one who’s observed that. Certainly Native American actor Wes Studi, who was hired to make a blue digital “appearance” in the film, has some thoughts about this.
Still, what’s my beef and who gets hurt, if anybody? Cameron may not be a director in the same way you’d talk about Alfred Hitchcock or John Huston, but he’s most certainly a technician. The film environment he’s created is involving at a sensory level because of constantly snowing seed pods in the 3-D foreground, and then later because flying war machines hover at various levels in the screen field as they spit bullets and rockets. But the film would be more enchanting and smarter if it’s hackneyed dialog was replaced with music and title cards like a silent film. The 3-D barely carries you through and past the stilted exchanges and the easy-for-global-audiences story.
Movies are for fun and you can argue that your kids will be properly bludgeoned by the environmental fantasy aspects, but Avatar does not bode well for cinema evolving upward. None of us got to vote on replacing intellectual engagement with candy-colored pinwheels. If they figured out how to make a soda that tastes like you’re drinking a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, would you now be excited about the future of food?
Avatar fails to convince one that bigger is better, just as you’d be dismayed to hear the echo of your own voice as you wandered the halls of the Burj Khalifa. As far as the Avatar storyline being ‘green’ in some Hollywood liberal way, check out the lobby of the theater right after the movie. You’ll see garbage cans overflowing to the floor with paper and cardboard snack refuse: Avatar may already be responsible for cutting down more trees than it can ever hope to save.
What it has done for sure is capture a spirit of the new and the bold, just as the builders of the Burj Khalifa did for almost one whole news cycle. Then you had to deal with the fact that it’s just a giant structure standing there, being big and pretty. It’s not doing anything for anyone, and it arguably does not ennoble us. Maybe that’s too much weight to take off a building and put on a movie, but you guys were asking for it by demanding an additional five bucks admission for your 3-D glimpse of the future. I would have learned more taking a 40 mile per hour elevator ride.
Contact Steve Stajich