Wednesday, August 4, 2010

In Brief: AVATAR (2009)

Since it was released late last year, James Cameron's new wonder of the world has compelled people to read meanings into it, as if meaning must be in there somewhere. The simplicity of the characters and the familiarity of the basic story tempt many observers to presume that the whole thing must be symbolic somehow. Certainly the thing is riddled with archetypes, echoes and homages, but do these cohere into a meaningful philosophical or political statement? Hell, no. The story of the planet "Pandora" and the Na'vi is so singular that any attempt to interpret them as allegories for contemporary politics or recent history must fail. The only exception I'd make is for the twin-tower-like collapse of the World Tree under attack by human mercenaries, a bit that really only complicates further any attempt to identify the characters of the film with the antagonists of present conflicts.

At the heart of Avatar is a simple "What If?" scenario that has probably been done before in sci-fi pulps that Cameron may not even know about. What if future explorers found an aboriginal, superstitious population on a "new" world, but then found that their superstitions were based on irrefutable, inexorable truth? The concept could well be old but it is also new as in "New Age," at least in Cameron's holistic vision of an organic network of sentience linking humanoids with other animals and the entire ecosystem. The New Age-iness of it rubs some sci-fi fans the wrong way. Its vindication of religiosity and worshipfulness goes against the secular-humanist vision of someone like Gene Roddenberry, whose dream scenario was to have the Starship Enterprise fight God and win. Had Avatar been a Star Trek episode, the Eiwa that the Na'vi worship would be revealed as some malevolent parasite that had been holding back the blue folks' evolution for its own perverse reasons -- or, irony of ironies, a machine. And Kirk would destroy it. And that would be the Na'vis' liberation, the beginning of their necessary progress. That faith in progress isn't fashionable anymore, while we can more easily imagine, or desire, a utopia where people don't need to progress. But Cameron's planet is not a utopia. It isn't something we can imitate. It's just a big what-if designed for a big payoff when the Na'vi, their animal friends, and their renegade human buddy Jake Sully (driving a ten-foot blue meat puppet) defeat a futuristic invasion force that, for all its firepower, is still small enough to be overwhelmed by the blunt force of charging beasts. Why this defeat of the human invasion is presumed to be permanent I don't know, but it does make for a happy ending to a rock-em, sock-em adventure.

Perhaps because New Age-iness rubs me the wrong way, I waited these long months until a copy of Avatar turned up on the library's new-arrivals shelf. That means I didn't get to see the epic panorama at its ideal size, but I can easily imagine what the experience was like. As spectacle Cameron's film lives up to the hype, though the middle-section of Jake's immersion in the wonders of Pandora started to drag after a while. The familiarity of this part of the story and Cameron's failure to do anything really new with the trope made it tiresome until the Company and its mercenary army made their move. My sense of wonder is not limitless, and the CGI landscapes became merely decorative without any real drama in the foreground. In other areas Cameron's imagination failed or he didn't even try; nothing seems futuristic about the human characters, for instance. You'd be excused for believing that the movie takes place about ten years from now, technology aside. More importantly, though, Cameron can be excused for not intending to speculate on the evolution of human society and culture when he wanted to make a different film. And once we get to the real action toward which everything's been building, Cameron's skill as an action director did not fail him. The last hour of Avatar kicks ass on a pretty consistent basis as dragonriders (more or less) battled helicopter gunships and a guy in a mecha outfit with a big f'n knife dueled our dehumanized hero to the death. Once the basic archetype switched from Dances With Wolves to Dune, that is, I enjoyed the film much more. I'm not saying it was awful before. It was just too familiar to be especially compelling despite the purportedly unprecedented spectacle.

Like Star Wars, Avatar is a mosaic of myths. Along with the obvious influences, I caught a hint of The Ten Commandments, not just in the heroine's name (Neytiri) but in her relationship with a foreordained but not predestined mate who grows antagonistic toward the interloping hero. Unlike Rameses, though, his Na'vi counterpart proves more of a good sport and gets to go out like a hero himself. Cameron's film could work as a Rohrschach blot for movie buffs; what other films do you see in it? For my part, I thought I saw an homage to the finale of City Lights when Neytiri finally sees Jake's crippled human body and they repeat the traditional "I see you" greeting. On the other hand, I failed to see any influence of Cameron's alleged favorite film, The Wizard of Oz, even after reading Daniel Mendelssohn's extensive comments on that film's influence in The New York Review of Books. However derivative Avatar may be, it works in its own right as long as people don't try to read too much into it. A film like this almost has to be derivative to work on the fundamental level Cameron wants, and that's not a dishonorable aspiration.

Of course, watching the film in August 2010 allows me to see angles that couldn't have been imagined back at Christmastime. Seeing how the planet's world-mind worked, I realized that the Company and the army guys were taking the entirely wrong approach. All they really needed to win Pandora for themselves was a really good inception team....

21 comments:

Jason Marshall said...

Samuel, I think you are being too kind to this movie. You came to the same conclusion about this movie that I came to with Inception: it's fine so long as you don't pretend it has any deep meaning. But Avatar was pretty awful. This is how I broke it down. The first third was awful, the second third was bad to mediocre and the last third was pretty good.

You are completely right about Cameron's lack of imagination when it comes to the characters. He doesn't seem to have any interest in them here except as necessary screen filler. There is nothing to indicate they are people, let alone people from a future time. Theirs frames of reference are essentially the same as ours. The main character Sam is the worst of the bunch. I mean what do you know about him by the end except he wants to walk again and is an idiot?

I don't think my dislike for this movie has been increased by the popular adulation. My dislike for the movie comes from the simple fact that it has a terrible script with dialogue most middle school students could churn out. The visuals are fine, but so what? "The Apple" created a visually bizarre but interesting future world but the movie still stinks.

Wow, maybe all this venom is coming out because I never wrote a full review.

Sam Juliano said...

Well, James Marshall is my very good friend, but I am on the opposite end of the spectrum with him as far as AVATAR is concerned as it was my #2 film of less year, behind Jane Campion's BRIGHT STAR and a notch ahead of Claire Denis' 35 SHOTS OF RUM. Cameron's aim here was not at all to examine character, but rather to depict something else alltogether.

The narrative device is hardly original but it serves as a potent underpinning to the awesome spectacle that plays out here, culminating in a final hour of action-packed intensity that has the thrills of an endless roller coaster, filled with all the genre conventions, like hanging from the end of a cliff, falling in a canyon into a cascading river, or an all-out CGI battle, a la Return of the King. But Cameron and his technical staff have succeeded with some nifty digital deception that has raised the bar for such technology. Hence Avatar pulsates, almost breathing a life of its own in it’s conversion from movie to immersive experience. A dominant percentage of the film’s locations are quite apparently CGI too, inducing one to wonder if they should called this an “animated film with live-action” or a “live-action film with some animated aspects and sequences.”
Such is this seamless immersion of what is real and what is not to create an illuminative world of arresting images, swirling, incandescent colors and an awe-inspiring beauty that elevates one’s consciousness to a state of spirituality rarely aspired to, much less achieved in any film. There is an arresting naturalism that almost leaps off the screen which is populated by sumptuous images of day-glo vegetation and the exotic creatures controlled by the Na’Vi. The lengthy stretches of the movie that are sensory and wordless are as rapturous (very much in tone poem mode) as anything every seen on the screen, and this kind of visual cinema, where narrative is more of a hinderance than a benefit, is Avatar’s most extraordinary quality and it’s true selling point. It’s true that Cameron keeps insisting that the film needs to tie together plot strands, but this was unecessary, if not particularly harmful. In this sense, it’s to be noted here that some critics have taken issue with the pedestrian nature of a dialogue, a point I reject in the name of cinematic purity. Avatar is neither a satiric comedy nor a trenchant stage drama. Characters and words tell the story, but they are pawns to purvey cinematic expression. Those who are awed by and feel the film’s magic won’t feel the simplistic dialogue which seems to combine New Age expression and macho agression, is either abnormal or detrimental. That said, it’s abundantly clear that Cameron’s storytelling prowess widely trumps his talents as a writer of prose.

But it all comes down to the wonderment and astounding visual tapestries, accentuated by the metamorphosis of a character who sees the inherent beauty in a culture ravaged by war, internal strife and foreign invasion. This creates in the viewer an emotion so powerful that it defies description. It’s almost like you found some clues to the meaning of life. But short of those lofty aspersions, the film raises questions of mortality and existence (much in the style of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain- a giant willow tree holding the meaning of life for all living things echoes the Tree of Life in Aronofsky’s film) and with a ruminative flow that recalls Terrence Malick) that turn a futuristic planetary action thriller into a far more profound philosophical experience. The blend of mysticism and environmentalism evident in Avatar also suggests Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, whose influence might also be discerned in the scenes of awe and wonderment set in the centerpiece forest sequences.

(continued in next submission)

Sam Juliano said...

(continued from previous submission)

The film’s veteran composer James Horner, borrows heavily on the themes he wrote for his Civil War epic, Glory (1989), especially the flying sequences in the middle, but he still gains some rapturous mileage from the most lyrical passages which are musically altered. It’s at times thunderously bombastic, but it always seems to provide the perfect aural accompaniment with the scenes it underlines. Horner was never a subtle composer, but for Avatar his strengths are magnified, and while its not a candidate for one of the great scores, its at least the best he’s done for Cameron.

Sigourney Weaver, whose death scene is one of the film’s most poignant moments, brings her experience with Cameron in a confident, take-charge portrayal as Dr. Grace Augustine that serves as a foil to the shamelessly bigoted role of Quaritch, played by an all-too-human Stephen Lang. Givanni Ribisi, perhaps the least impressive of the fully live-action leads is basically a symbol. As Skully and as Neytiri, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana bring the vital contradictions to characters that must define so much more than just domestic conflicts but the fate of a race and of the world they inhabit. As such they give striking performances.
But in the end, it’s Cameron and his cinematographer, Mauro Fiore, that bring this phantasmogoric world of visual splendor to glorious fruition. The work is so consistently magnificent, so suggestive, so ruminative and simultaneously realistic and expressionistic that is raises the bar for what now can be created with technology, and makes Avatar a cinematic masterpiece.

Sam Juliano said...

Again I referred to "Jason" as "James." I am very sorry for this, I need some shock therapy.

Jason Marshall said...

Wow Sam, we ARE on opposite ends of the spectrum here. This is a thorough and detailed defense of the picture. I wish I could agree with you more. I'm the first to admit the animated stuff looks great, but that isn't enough to hook me for 3 hours. You talk about the metamorphosis of the character in the face of war destroying a beautiful culture, but none of that did anything for me because I never once bought the characters or, to be honest, the world. Of course we don't want to see whole civilizations slaughtered or repressed, that's the easy part to convey. What's harder is personalizing it. I wasn't moved by Sigourney Weaver's death; it felt perfunctory and manipulative. As you can see this whole movie just turned me off. The animation looks great, but that isn't enough for me.

Sam Juliano said...

Jason, that is fair enough. You have provided a compelling argument as to why the film failed to engaged you, and one couldn't ask for more.

Crhymethinc said...

Sam - if you need to be that longwinded in defense of a movie, I can't believe it's worth seeing to begin with.

Sam Juliano said...

Nobody is forcing you to read this.

It's called 'unbridled passion' from my end.

Sam Juliano said...

I just checked this pompous troll's blog and it defines 'long winded.' He has some severe anger management issues too as can be amply evidenced by the final sentences of one of his recent posts:

"And since I'm betting you're an egotistical asshole who googles your own name, FUCK YOU, KID ROCK! I hope you die real soon, you fucking douchebag."

Nice. Grow up!

Jason Marshall said...

Ignore it Sam. Some of us have attention spans that allow of for complete and well developed thought. Keep up the good work!

Crhymethinc said...
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Crhymethinc said...

"Some of us have attention spans that allow of for complete and well developed thought. "

Too bad your attention span doesn't "allow of for" actual grammatically correct writing.

Crhymethinc said...
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Crhymethinc said...
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Crhymethinc said...

So, Twink, did you read the entire post or just the part you cut and pasted? Typical of arrogant, opinionated twinks like you. To set the record straight, the post dealt with the fact that Kid Rock started a drunken brawl in a family-style waffle house, in front of children, broke a plate glass window and was arrested. His sentence was a few hours of community service, which he then tried to weasel out of by asking the judge to consider his paid concerts as "community service".

Now back to your cellar. I can see by your various blog posts that when you're not busy kissing ass trying to garner attention, you're little more than a back-stabbing twink with an overly high opinion of yourself and very low threshold for criticism.

Samuel Wilson said...

I had better step in here. As the author and moderator of this blog, my own view is that a comment can be as long as the writer pleases. Crhymethinc is entitled to his opinion, and everyone else is entitled to their opinion of his opinion. It's a silly topic for anyone to stoop to invective over, though. If you guys were arguing over the actual content or quality of a movie I might not feel a need to intervene. But if no one feels a need to do more than trade insults the thread may as well end here.

Sam Juliano said...

Twink?

I am 55 years old, the father of five kids, I weigh 265 pounds, and am a twenty-five year teacher in a school system with a principal wife. I don't really need any attention and do this as a hobby. Don't quite think I fit your profile as a twink. You went after me for no reason other than mean-spiritness, and I doubt you read anything I wrote there.

Why don't you go back now to your own basement and continue torturing the animals you have there in cages, cretin.

Sam Juliano said...

And Jason, thanks very much for the loyalty and support. It appears our angry friend here has little to come back on other than a typo.

Crhymethinc said...

You act more like you're 15, twink.
You weigh 265? What does that have to do with anything? You're still a twink.

Frank Gallo said...

Boy, what a sorry sack of shit this "Crhymethinc" is. If he said this to Sam's face he wouldn't have a tooth left in his mouth, that much I can be certain of.

Whew, this guy has some serious issues.

Frank Gallo said...

I am wondering if this jack ass has any idea of what a twink is. Apparently he hasn't a clue, and just uses it an an insult. I would bet he's a a yong, rating computer nerd with welts all over his body from beatings he sustained at the hands of his younger sister. His blogsite is a complete joke.