Sunday, December 20, 2009


Avatar was discussed before its release primarily in the context of it being a ‘game changer’ for 3-D and CG world construction, with very little discussion of the story itself. As I walked into the theater, I’d read some advance reviews, but wasn’t sure what to expect from the film. Leaving the theater, I knew I’d seen a film that was at times extremely powerful, but also didn’t quite work on all fronts. Let me address briefly first the technology outside of the context of the story itself, then delve into a more thorough discussion of the film as a whole.

I’ve never actually seen a regular 3-D film in the theater before this one, so I’m probably not the best to assess this film as a jump beyond what’s come before. What I will say is that the 3-D functions differently than in something like Disneyland’s Muppets 3-D, which is obviously not typical, but featured a 3-D that was largely about stuff sticking out the screen, but not really a use of 3-D as a storytelling device. In this film, the 3-D is used in a way analogous to depth of field in 2-D films, drawing your attention to certain elements within the frame by popping them out towards the audience.

For the first 15 minutes or so of the film, I was in awe of the way that the 3-D worked to subtly direct your attention to elements within the frame, and worked to build the world of the film. The spaceship environments seemed much more expansive and fully realized than anything I’ve seen before, specifically because of that use of 3-D. The subtlely of the effects work was most notable during simple shots like Jake waking up in zero gravity with several crew members floating around him.

As the film went on, you start to just accept the 3-D elements. I’m not sure if it was used less dynamically or if I just became accustomed to it, but as the film went on, the 3-D became less key to my understanding of the film. Perhaps that’s a sign that I became wrapped up in the story and stopped caring about the technical aspects, or it might be more that I started to focus on different technical aspects.

I’ve spoken recently about the idea that CG that is used to depict things that can never exist in real life is going to be inherently unbelievable because our minds aren’t awed by the impossibility, they instantly assume that it’s CG and write it off in that respect. But, at the same time, there are things that just can’t be realized by current technology, and some of the coolest aspects of this film were the fact that the Na’Vi weren’t just blue people, they were on a totally different scale than humans, and the shots where Na’Vi and humans interacted were some of the most surprising and exciting in the film.

Who’s to say that aliens are going to be 5-6 feet tall, aliens might have already landed and been so small we can’t even detect them, or an alien race could be so big, we can’t even comprehend it as a lifeform. Either way, it was very cool to see Jake wake up and find himself in a body that doesn’t just look different, but seems out of scale with the world around him. The Na’Vi are some of the most convincing alien creatures rendered via CGI yet.

But, the question is, are they convincing enough? In the best moments of the film, I got wrapped up in the story and didn’t worry that I was watching CG stuff, but I’m not sure that the CG was good enough to be timeless and enduring.

While the Na’Vi are pretty solid throughout, the environments are the real photorealistic spectacle. The planet feels fully realized and logical in a way that most constructed worlds don’t. And on a purely aesthetic level, I love the bioluminescent feel of the life on the planet.

But, what of the film in general? It’s clear from the start that this is very much a James Cameron film. Cameron is almost totally unique among major filmmakers in that he’s been able to develop a very specific set of thematic concerns and character archetypes within blockbuster big budget films, and has been consistently rewarded at the box office as well as critically for his work. Cameron is analogous to a Spielberg who never “grew out of” blockbusters, or a Lucas who continued to make new and different kinds of films.

This film has echoes of a lot of past Cameron films, and expands on the humanist warrior character types seen in Aliens and Terminator 2 in interesting ways. Both Aliens and Terminator 2 position strong mother types fighting to protect their children from an all encompassing, consuming inhuman threat. It was that disparity between the innocent spirit of the children they’re defending and the coldness of the threat that made it so emotionally affecting.

Here, Cameron flips the dynamic by making the Na’vi the most ‘human’ characters in the film, and stripping the human characters of virtually all sympathy. It creates a very binary morality, one that’s sharply critical of the military industrial complex and a populace that’s complicit in the sins of its leaders. It’s by no means a subtle critique of the Iraq war or American imperialism, but it’s effective precisely because it’s cased in such simple fairy tale terms. You could argue that the military characters are not at all subtle in their approach to the war, but was Bush nuanced in his fight to invade Iraq? Does Dick Cheney have a sympathetic side? Maybe, but it’s not in what you’d see on the job.

So, the film is essentially about a marine recognizing the failure of the military industrial complex and deciding to forsake it for a different approach to the world, to try and protect an unclaimed world from people out to exploit and destroy its paradisial environments. In that sense, it’s a very Malick film, connecting to elements from both The Thin Red Line and particularly The New World. You could argue that the entire film is Cameron’s riff on The New World, substituting the dreamy meanderings of that film for a variety of action feats, befitting Cameron’s own means of personal expression in his films. In a Cameron film, characters fight together as a means of showing their love, and it’s appropriate that Jake and Neytiri would find love as she shows him how to fight like a man.

Most Cameron females have a strange mix of mother and warrior attributes, and Neytiri is no exception. In educating Jake in the Na’vi ways, she is acting like a mother and teaching him how to walk in the world and be a man. But, there’s also the sexual component of their relationship, which is equally valid. In Cameron’s worldview, the role of nurturer and warrior are one and the same. To teach someone to fight is to teach them to live.

And yet, this film comes down decidedly against war. I suppose his idea here is that you need to be able to fight to maintain peace. Only by showing the warriors that you can beat them on their own terms can you succeed in gaining a lasting peace.

Where the film falters for me is the fact that a lot of the story beats within the tribe feel like things we’ve seen before. Cameron is great at making all the sequences pop and flow in dynamic ways, but the core story of the film contains few surprises, and is definitely something we’re all familiar with. While the world of the Na’vi is decidedly alien, the way they behave feels very typical of the way native people are depicted in films.

What I did find really interesting was the notion of the planet itself as a means of transferring information, the idea that our existence echoes in the Earth long after we’re gone. It’s not that far removed from Grant Morrison’s idea that because all life comes from the same source, it’s all connected and we’ve just forgotten that. If we could become connected in dynamic ways, we could potentially look back in time up the life tree to our ancestors, or transfer our consciousness through other life forms. And, in general I really like the religious feel the work had at times, it was a very spiritual film, and even though all those elements didn’t work, enough did to make an emotional impact.

The finale of the film was extremely effective. Thanks to the time spent within the society, the destruction of Hometree has a very real impact, and provides the emotional catalyst for our engagement in the final battle. People knock this film for drawing on classic story telling archetypes, but so many blockbusters today just pile action sequence on top of action sequence, it’s refreshing to have a buildup and impetus for emotional engagement with what’s happening.

And, the payoff was fantastic, on both a narrative and thematic level. It’s cool to see birds fighting helicopters, or to look at the giant blue guys throwing people around. Similarly, the final Jake/Neytiri vs. Quaritch fight was extremely satisfying. I also love small touches like the way that Trudy’s helicopter and face are painted with the tribal markings, giving her a Bat For Lashes look as she goes into battle.

But, the thing I loved most about the ending battle was the uncompromised nature of the fight. Rarely have I seen humans, particularly those clearly identified as analogues of Americans get killed as we cheer. Virtually every film about the Iraq war or 9/11 to date has been so neutered and apolitical that it becomes amoral. The Iraq war was a terrible violation of human rights, and this film treats it that way. It takes the remove of genre to allow someone to finally vent the rage about what our nation has become. People can say that Giovanni Ribisi’s character is a cartoon villain, but if that’s the case, why are people like him controlling the health care debate? Why are banks getting all the money they want with no regulation? The individuals may not be as obnoxious as he is, but as an analogue of the military industrial complex, he’s spot on.

It’s cathartic to see the adventuresome, greedy American military get its comeuppance, and I think there’s something very subversive about putting that message in a blockbuster film designed to target the widest audience. Kids will see this film, and the morality will help shape their perception of what’s right and wrong, and instill a spirit of defiance against the terrible things our government has done, and continues to do. This isn’t just a Bush/Cheney problem, it’s a problem that persists today as we prepare to send more troops to Afghanistan in the hopes that will make them love us and not want to attack us anymore.

This is one of the few socially responsible films that really addresses the issues of post 9/11 America. Some of the comments might have been a bit on the nose, but with issues like this, maybe it’s best to remind people that this isn’t just a movie, we’re doing this in reality. That the most expensive movie ever made is an attack on corporate largesse may be ironic, but it’s an example of what Cameron is able to do as an auteur.

It’s also interesting to consider the film in light of what Lucas did with Revenge of the Sith. Both films struggle with some basic competency issues and could have used another script pass, but I also like that they’re both Trojan Horse critiques of the Bush administration. Sith in particular is underappreciated as a film that attacked the grievous sins our government committed. With filmmakers so scared of making a film that’s ‘anti-military’ or ‘un-American,’ the sci-fi blockbuster has become a place to voice those feelings in a way that’s not as loaded as setting them in the present day.

So, ultimately one’s point of view on the film comes down to what you focus on. I could just as easily savage the film for its very real flaws and ignore what worked, or praise it unjustly for what did work. The truth of the film is somewhere in the middle, but in general I’m very positive about it. It was a great viewing experience, and though I don’t know that it’s totally cohesive or timeless, I was wowed and emotionally engaged throughout, and left with plenty to think about. That’s what a film should do.


suncore598 said...

I just saw the movie yesterday. It was VERY GOOD. Way more than I expected it to be which was a mediocre movie with cool special effects but stereotypical characters and a thin storyline. I'm happy to be proved wrong. I agree with you about the emotional impact of the destruction of the Hometree and how the buildup to that and the following finale helped with the story. I loved Sigourney Weaver's character, hated the military commander with a passion, and thought the guy playing the Marine was a decent actor. James Cameron is the Man.

Anonymous said...


Patrick said...

Definitely, hopefully it won't take 12 years for him to make another movie!