Saturday, January 02, 2010

View from the Tank: AVATAR (2009)

This movie, is, in a way, James Cameron's avatar: it's a multimillion dollar product made with the latest technology, funded by huge corporations, which product Cameron uses to (ostensibly) turn against huge corporations and technology. But what is the purpose of Cameron's AVATAR? To advance his interests or the interests of his corporate backers? Their interests are intertwined: it's symbiosis. Here, the corporate interests profit by coopting protest against corporate interests. All resistance is ultimately incorporated and marketed back to the masses. And here, it's the same old shit, but in a fancy new 3-D package.

As most people on the planet know by now, AVATAR is about, in part, an alien race called the Na'vi, who live on a moon called Pandora. The Na'vi are ten feet tall and blue-skinned. Humans want a mineral ("Unobtanium") available on Pandora. As part of its attempts to convince the Na'vi to cooperate, the corporation that seeks to extract the Unobtanium finances a hugely expensive research project that grows Na'vi bodies from a hybrid of human and Na'vi DNA. Human "drivers" then "link" to these laboratory-grown Na'vi bodies and control them, like a puppetmaster manipulating a puppet. Think MATRIX, but here, the users aren't jacking into a computer grid, but into flesh -- but the concept is largely the same.

I've been fascinated to see so many smart people twist themselves into contortions in their attempts to redeem AVATAR's story and have been wondering if these people have taken leave of their senses. The story is straight cheese. There's nothing remarkable about it -- other than its slavish obedience to predictable cliches and standard genre tropes.

A lot of virtual ink has already been spilled regarding this story, so I'll try to be concise [I would say SPOILER ALERT, but really, is anyone surprised by anything that happens in this movie?]: Jake Sully, disabled former marine ends up becoming an Na'vi avatar "driver" for the corporation planning to mine Pandora; he meets a Na'vi princess and impresses her; they develop a special bond and fall in love and have sex in a magical glowing forest to an Adult Contemporary soundtrack; the princess's father is killed when the corporation attacks; Jake becomes a great Na'vi warrior, perhaps their greatest warrior (see also THE LAST SAMURAI) and decides he must help save the Na'vi from the rapacious evil corporation he works for, so he turns against the corporation and leads the Na'vi (and all of its animals, which he has summoned) into battle against the corporation and its Blackwater-style military forces; the corporation is ultimately defeated, and Pandora saved; in the end, Jake is able, through the magic of the Na'vi's Magic Tree/Great Spirit/Mother Pandora, to transfer permanently from his human body to his bioengineered, laboratory-produced Avatar body.

Sound familiar?

Yes, the world of Pandora is richly imagined, and the technology is impressive (though the power of the 3-D effects wore off on me after about twenty minutes or so), but the story is nothing better than you'd get in a decent anime film (a genre from which this film seems to have borrowed heavily), or a standard sci-fi flick.

I think what's most fascinating is how, even given this technology that allows the rendering of an alien world in minute detail, with extraordinary 3-D depth -- that is, given the ability to imagine and depict almost anything -- Cameron's alien race are ten-foot tall humanoids with blue skin, who ride horses, thank the animals they kill, shoot bows and arrows (complete with feathers), wear loincloths and headdresses, use warpaint, emit war cries, believe in the Great Spirit, etc. AVATAR displays at once both the potential of imagination, and the very real limits of imagination.

Is this movie so new and radical in its sympathetic view of the Na'vi and its cartoonish depiction of a super-evil corporation bent on devastation and plunder?

Is it so radical and bracing to come out against "shock and awe" and fighting "terror with terror" years after the administration that used these terms and tactics is out of power and national opinion has turned firmly against the preemptive war in Iraq?

Is it so radical and bracing to put out a "green" message when Exxon-Mobil, G.E., et al. are all about being "green" these days (complete with a hip soundtrack from The Postal Service)?

In a word, No. (It's funny how proponents of AVATAR's story will blithely dismiss the comparisons to DANCES WITH WOLVES. One wonders, have they seen that film recently? Do they remember its plot? But that's not really the only parallel, of course.)

It's not really new for a film to present a hero who rebels against his own civilization, or who sides with the natives against encroaching imperialists, etc.

The visual effects were impressive, and the film is undoubtedly a breakthrough in computer-generated effects and 3-D. That doesn't really excite me that much. Regardless of the technology, film will live on or die based on story, writing, and concept. Today's mind-blowing effects will soon become standard and expected, just as we got used to the once mind-blowing developments of sound, color, Smell-o-Rama, etc.

As the story goes, when one of the first motion pictures was publicly screened -- the Lumiere Brothers' 1895 short film of a train pulling into a station -- the audience screamed and fled in panic. I feel like the puzzling attempts to find great meaning in the relatively meaningless AVATAR are a higher-order version of that panic in the face of a terrifying new technology of representation. The technology is powerful, strange, and new, sure -- but we'll get used to it soon enough. Probably by next summer. No need to take leave of our senses.

OG Grade: B-


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