Lost in the Movies: Avatar


Drifting momentarily out of consciousness he wakes up - with a jolt! - in a new body and, with it, a new life. Bursting out of the laboratory constraints and into the open air - for the first time in the whole movie - he weaves drunkenly through the tangles of exotic flora, wobbles on his legs (no longer broken by war, if now blue and elongated) and our own viewpoint swoons and stumbles alongside his. As in a liberating dream, our hero - and we as well - are intoxicated by the new sense of freedom; in three dimensions, in bright color, with a shimmering, unreal sheen, the new reality beckons and overwhelms. We are realizing the promise of virtual reality: not a return to our natural roots but an evocation and improvement of these roots through technology - a new world built to resemble, transcend, and perhaps replace the old.

During his medically-induced "sleep" Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), awkwardly inhabiting the blue body of an alien avatar, will find acceptance amongst a tribe of native Na'vi whose planet (Pandora) his own people have colonized. When Jake emerges from his slumber, the crippled Marine will find the transition between these two worlds (increasing freedom and knowledge with the Na'vi, physical constriction in an enclosed environment with the humans) jarring and disorienting. Writer/director James Cameron suggests these differences visually - while human and alien society alike are presented in 3D, the avatar scenes are fully computer-animated. Cameron also employs a richer visual scheme and texture in the lush jungle settings than in the colony interiors. As a spy for the hardbitten Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), an observer for the more purely curious biologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), and an individual experiencing life with the Na'vi, Jake begins to feel that his virtual avatar existence is more "real" than his stunted human "reality."

Yet do we? Not exactly. The Pandoran sequences are a rich escape, a visceral thrill ride, an exciting fantasy - yet somehow our hold on them is slippery. Emerging from Avatar, we recall snapshots, impressions, occasional souvenirs of the experience, nothing as lasting as Jake's own spiritual awakening. This fleeting quality is both good and bad - on the one hand, it suggests that Avatar is a singular experience (it is), hard to categorize amongst our usual trips to the movie theater. Yet the lack of a lingering power also means it's difficult to connect deeply with this brave new world, which exists uneasily (if more successfully than any other previous experiment) between animation and live-action, spectacle and story, gimmick and art. Ironically, the film seduces us into its completely fabricated reality with an ethos of naturalism and purity, and vice versa.

Cameron's aesthetic and storytelling decisions compound one another, adding to the tangle. Beneath its stunning veneer, Avatar is a very conventional action film, in both narrative and style. It follows a three-act structure complete with love story and streamlined villainy (narrowing its initially broad skepticism of human society to focus on one nasty individual and his minions); meanwhile the visual approach is saturated in close-ups, whirling camera, and fast cuts rather than long "takes" which would provide a deeper immersion into this imagined universe. Indeed the latter point is most unfortunate, as the film's technique actually could allow for less cuts if Cameron dared. Instead of soaring and swooping with the dragons in uninterrupted space and time, we are volleyed between different angles while Cameron unadventurously tries to juice the action along with traditional editing. Hence, the film's latent sense of natural and spiritual wonder is constantly short-circuited. As bedazzled as we are, we seldom forget we are watching a movie.

There are a few stunning exceptions to this rule. The early scenes in the Pandoran bush successfully evoke exuberance and curiosity. The final battle is a seamless set piece, though triumphant more as a thrill ride than a narrative event. Between curiosity and catharsis, the middle is less inspiring; however, the movie hits occasional high notes which allow us to momentarily forget the 3D glasses, scraping before convention, and punting on the storyline and dialogue. The highest of these is potentially the most New Age-y: a thick circle of Na'vi commune around an ethereal weeping willow in a grotto, attempting to transfer the dying Dr. Augustine's soul into an avatar body. From the initial images of the creatures shuddering and convulsing in unison, giving themselves over to the great spirit at the bleeding end of magic hour, through the unmistakably voodoo intonations and motions of the ceremony, to the melancholy conclusion (evoked through moody lighting as much as any other element) the interlude carries the charge of pure cinema - it's the film's greatest triumph.

That scene and its exotic enticement also indicate at least one of the many ideological hurdles Cameron sets up and trips over. Cameron wants to ingratiate us with the Na'vi, and yet they remain the perpetual "other": his affectionate gaze remains patronizing. What's more, he condemns the human race, yet sets as his protagonist a human who is able to transcend not only his own ethos but his own biology, in order to go native (meanwhile those who, like Cameron himself, are absorbed with problem-solving and technological know-how are forgiven their sins). Cameron proposes to attack militarism, war, and hubris. Yet he stupidly bypasses the overlords to set up soldiers as the enemy, resolves the tension with successful Na'vi violence, and gives us a hero whose hubris is so great he imagines it possible to re-invent himself entirely - and succeeds in doing so. Besides, why is the self-proclaimed "king of the world" offering lessons in humility?

As for the first point, the best condemnation of Cameron's blame-the-soldiers approach to Iraq allegory (a tone-deaf political formulation if ever there was one) comes from Bob Clark, a commentator on Wonders in the Dark:
It’s strange to see how in “Avatar” the military-commander is the big-bad of the bunch, with Giovanni Ribisi’s corporate weasel (the guy who’s causing all the genocidal rampage to begin with over his quest for MacGuffinite) gets to save face by aiding the good guys towards the end. It’s exactly the opposite moral-code that was present in “Aliens”, where Paul Reiser’s company-man was portrayed as a greedy little shit who’d sacrifice just about anybody for the sake of the bottom line, and received just comeuppance in the end. Why is it that Cameron, with all his blue-collar heroes, is suddenly turning the white-collar into a good guy, and the green-collars into monsters?
Indeed, isn't a bit suspicious when Cameron's blockbuster merely scolds Ribisi (though I don't recall him actively subverting the battle so much as appearing contrite), the uber-capitalist who put the boots on the ground in the first place? Reserving scorn for the military command and the thoughtless grunts (who are presented, not as mercenaries but, as Bob puts it, "the equivalent of the National Guard") makes narrative sense because the fighting men make better opponents than a CEO safe behind enemy lines - a problem that Cameron nonetheless resolved in Aliens. And yet this scapegoating also dovetails nicely with Cameron's ultimate moral, which is that we can have our cake and eat it too: blockbusters which preach anti-capitalism, expensive CGI films that are "green", lofty disdain for brutality with enough room for an action-packed finale.

Some have accepted this message at face-value. Here's Gilad Atzmon, in Adbusters (a publication which knows a thing or two about having it both ways). Asides are mine:
Avatar may well be the biggest antiwar film of all time. It stands against everything the West is identified with [including Coca-Cola? Or did Atzmon's screening not open with that Coke commercial in which consumption of the soft drinks miraculously results in the sprouting of a Pandora-like uber-green Eden?]. It is against greed and capitalism [to the tune of $2 billion worldwide, but who's counting?], it is against colonialism and imperialism, it is against technological orientation [???????!!!!!!!!!!!!!], it is against America and Britain. ... It sheds light on the true meaning of ethics as a dynamic judgemental process rather than fixed moral guidelines (such as the Ten Commandments or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) [I knew Moses was on the far Left's shit list, but who knew poor Eleanor Roosevelt was a closet reactionary?].
And so on. This rather naive celebration of "Hollywood paving the way to the victorious return of German [idealist and early Romanticist] philosophical thought" even includes the following observation: "It advises us all to integrate with our surrounding reality rather than to impose ourselves on it." Despite Atzmon's disarming sincerity, one only ends up wishing for the days when leftist cultural critics had formalist chops. What would Godard make of such a steadfast denial of the film's material reality in order to celebrate its surface "message"? In reality, Avatar is probably the single greatest movement away from "integrating with our surrounding reality" in the history of the movies. This is why, even with the kinetic charge of its visuals and the surprising warmth of many Na'vi, we can't quite hold on to the experience.

Yet in the end, despite the political hypocrisy, stylistic compromises, and screenwriting limitations, Avatar remains largely satisfying as entertainment and is - most importantly - an enticing endeavor. Doubts aside, we want to see more. Particularly this is true of the film's most singular creations, which I've saved till last: the Na'vi themselves. Wisely, Cameron and his collaborators do not attempt to create facsimiles of live-action expression and movement. CGI, however refined, always has a cartoonish quality and finally filmmakers have embraced this - the extraterrestrials' exotic excitement stems, in part, from the fact that they're so clearly animated. Even when Jake is inhabiting a Na'vi body, his avatar seems like a motion-captured physical performance, while the true Na'vi move with a sinuous grace which transcends the "uncanny valley effect" (by which simulated humans are so lifelike yet artificial that they become creepy). Watching the creatures in action, we don't feel we're watching people or even tangible, living beings; for all their talk of being connected to the earth, the Na'vi are not organic but virtual, ethereal, almost vaporous in their light presence and easy fluidity.

At the same time, their alien charms are not as fleeting as that of the Pandoran landscape and bestiary - in particular, Naytiri (Zoe Saldana), Jake's rescuer, guru, and ultimately lover has more charisma and screen presence than any of the actual people in the film. Other Na'vi don't register with quite as much strength, although Naytiri's father and mother make a dynamic impression, with their bearing and vocalization (by Wes Studi and CCH Pounder) meant to evoke Native American and African tribal culture, respectively. Forcefulness aside, Pandora remains an animated world, its freedom and appeal resting on that very fact; in both theme and style Avatar is essentially a more earnest version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Like Eddie Valiant crossing over into Toontown, Jack Sully unmistakably enters a new, unlimited physical universe; meanwhile, Naytiri emerges as the sexiest cartoon since Jessica Rabbit. (This animated heroine is initially less sultry than fierce, a wise warrior who must watch over Jake. The film slowly and subtly relegates her to subordinate status, but the near-final image of a gigantic Naytiri holding a baby-like human Jake in her arms is one of Avatar's most effective gestures, even, dare I say, a moving one.)

Without a light touch by which to defend itself, this mega-hit may eventually endure an audience backlash, much as viewers eventually soured towards Titanic. Once again Cameron unapologetically wears his romantic heart on his sleeve, and a dozen years down the line he's got the same tin ear for dialogue, simplistic good/bad social critique, and penchant for syrupy ballads (compared to Avatar's send-off, Celine Dion's was a model of restraint). However, a potential backlash of unmitigated scorn and mockery would be too extreme a reaction, just as an uncomplicated critical embrace of the film can lose too much sight of the longer view. The movie is entertaining and immersive; whatever its flaws, it's worth seeing - that is if you, like me, are one of the handful of people only now catching up with it. In the final analysis, Avatar resembles Jake Sully upon his first awakening: excited and awkward, genuinely curious but careful not to wander too far off the compound. How far will future films, different filmmakers take Cameron's breakthroughs? Can the slipperiness of virtual reality ever be overcome? Should it be overcome?

Just what kind of a box has Pandora opened anyway?

This review was originally published on the other Lost in the Movies site (and linked on The Sun's Not Yellow).


Sam Juliano said...

A fair and amazingly perceptive essay, that really leaves so much writing on this film in the dust, including my own. Yet, rather than accentuating a number of the early points I did make, i will say that I bought into this vision, and if the issues that you broach here like Cameron's "tin ear for dialogue" really bothered me all that much, I wouldn't have been so ravished by the film. it's a spectacular piece of entertainment, and it's atrip I certainly look forward to taking again. Under such circumstances, I take the issues and discard them. That the way I play this game.

MovieMan0283 said...

Fair enough, Sam. Out of curiosity, though, has your opinion of Titanic changed over the years or do you still like/dislike that one as much as you did in '97?

By the way, any readers who want to check out Sam's excellent, enthusiastic review can click on the "Wonders in the Dark" link embedded in the text and scroll up from Bob's comment.

Sam Juliano said...

Ha Joel! I NEVER, EVER liked TITANIC from the first time I saw it. I hated it then, and I still hate it now.

Thanks for that link mention Joel!

MovieMan0283 said...

Ha ha, interesting...for some reason I thought you would say that!

Just Another Film Buff said...

This is an excellent essay summing up the film after all the hype, admiration and dissent. The hypocrisy aside, I felt the film faltered on a cinematic level itself. None of teh action scenes worked for me. Remember the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Cameron disrupts the sense of spatial unity, with his incessant cutting, which is very important for action scenes. No immersive experience for me I'm afraid.

MovieMan0283 said...

The cutting was a problem for me too. It seemed skittish - why not swoop and soar with the dragons or sustain one of these supposedly "spiritual" moments so that we can be seduced by Pandora as well? But I'll admit the 3D novelty got ahold of me: it was a new experience, and I value it for that. The question is, when other movies take this and run with it, will Avatar be left like The Jazz Singer or Birth of a Nation (or, as I suspect, somethin in betweeen?).

Stephen said...

MovieMan, this is a very well written and riveting insight. A few points, if I may...

"Avatar is a very conventional action film, in both narrative and style. It follows a three-act structure complete with love story and streamlined villainy"

I've been thinking recently that Avatar, in its good guys/ bad guys dichotomy, its colour, its dialogue, its music, has the feel of a children's film. Maybe it could have done with more teeth.

"...whirling camera, and fast cuts rather than long "takes" which would provide a deeper immersion into this imagined universe."

For me longer takes don't necessarily equate with deeper immersion. Antonioni, Kiarostami, Tarr they've all had me quickly reaching for the off button. A compelling world to get lost in is what you need. I think it's only apt that the cutting is sometimes quick, like we turn our heads and open our eyes to try and take everything in.

I think Cameron wants to convey grand SCALE and individual IMMERSION at the same time.

"As bedazzled as we are, we seldom forget we are watching a movie."

I didn't actually feel the same way, MovieMan. I seldom forgot I was watching a PRESENTATION but that is different from the feeling that is one watching a fiction/illusion. I was sufficiently immersed.

"...his affectionate gaze remains patronizing."

Characters and people described as 'pure' are often depicted as lacking complexity, being more natural - more childlike, more animalic. It's as if intelligence and psychological nuance leads to corruption.

"As for the first point, the best condemnation of Cameron's blame-the-soldiers approach to Iraq allegory"

I don't know if Cameron really wants to 'blame the soldiers' (the good v bad soldiers/corporations is an age old trope that needn't be seen as statement) but of course it did annoy me that we never got to know what the soldiers and humans were really fighting for. I would have liked to have known more about the 'dying planet'. Also, the Na'avi are mighty hypocritical aren't they? Don't kill a dog, but if humanity is on its last legs, they send us packing (which is fine) but then they turn their backs on our suffering.

Jake is a goofy do-gooder who throws away his humanity and puts on his 'Na'aviness' like a new pair of jeans

This is an issue.

Stephen said...

Actually, I started to feel sorry for/ back the soldiers. I laughed at the (I paraphrase) 'you can't throw a stick around here without it landing on some sacred fern' bit. Everybody becomes so damned precious and its obvious the soldiers aren't given a fair crack of the whip to explain their desperation - beyond MONEY which is NOT a synonym for greed. Money keeps us alive in the same way the tree of souls keeps them spiritually alive.

"Even when Jake is inhabiting a Na'vi body, his avatar seems like a motion-captured physical performance, while the true Na'vi move with a sinuous grace which transcends the "uncanny valley effect""

I agree. Neytiri is a staggering creation. I think the others look too cartoony and plastic.

That's another problem I have with Avatar - the jerky sea-sick camera moves when following flying creatures or spaceships or...This is a problem in all CGI scenes. Very artificial it is too.

A very well written piece, MovieMan and good luck with the site.

Despite my comments I really enjoyed the film. I think we are hardest on the films we like because any blemishes can become grand disappointments. I would put it in the top 5 films of the year, with Antichrist clear at the top.

I don't know if you've read it or want to read it but I have a review of Avatar here:


MovieMan0283 said...

Stephen, thanks. It's not so much the use of cuts period so much as the use where they're not needed. Often Cameron will cut between two views of the same thing when one view is all that's necessary. To me, this was distracting. Editing can be wonderful when it's rhythmic. I didn't feel that here.

Great points on the soldiers/the Na'vi/Jake's identity crisis. Also, it reminded me of a quote from an Italian partisan in the 40s: "I hated Mussolini above all because he made me take up arms against my country." We never get that sense from Jake - or how about personal anguish in his or ESPECIALLY Michelle Rodriguez' part, taking up arms against those who have been their friends and compatriots? The cause may be just but wouldn't there be a bit of anguish, of discomfort there?

Not that I'm expecting Avatar to be "realistic" but that was a bit unconvincing.

I was definitely immersed but something in me resisted complete capitulation.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I’m not sure what to say here since you seem to look at Avatar with more piercing eyes than mine. It’s in my top 5 of the year (I prefer it to The Hurt Locker) and I didn’t see it in a normal 2D theatre so I can’t say that I was caught up in the hype or anything. I don’t know. It is conventional, but I don’t think it’s pedestrian. Of course, I think Titanic is Cameron’s greater achievement (a film I continue to love despite the obvious hatred). Admittedly Avatar’s screenplay is not the best but a film doesn’t need a perfect screenplay to be a great movie. That’s why prizes for Picture and Screenplay are not synonymous. Your article is thought provoking, but I can’t really answer your questions. I don’t see Avatar as being anti whatever but I don’t go to films for messages.

MovieMan0283 said...

Andrew, you & Sam see pretty much eye-to-eye on this one then; he named it his #1 of the year, and felt the screenplay was irrelevant to the appeal of the spectacle. I liked it but felt the need to take it to task for some of its hypocrisy. Plus, I'm still ambivalent about the heavy hand CGI has laid over the industry. No - strike that, I'm not ambivalent, I'm downright hostile, as a general rule. Where I AM ambivalent is in cases like this, where the computer animation is used so well. Yet even here there's something slick and fake about it and it doesn't resonate with me as deeply as something more handcrafted.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Hee. That should read I did see it in 2D. That typo sort of changes my entire comment. I don't know why I liked it, I don't usually go for this sort of stuff (not being condescending). I mean my The English Patient and Gosford Park are two of my favourite movies, and I'm not IN LOVE with Cameron's early sci fi work (as good as it is). I just sort of fell for this.

MovieMan0283 said...

I saw it in 3D, and would probably have liked it less in 2D - the spectacle was definitely part of the appeal to me. I think Terminator and Aliens are probably superior to anything Cameron's done since - maybe Terminator 2 is up there too, though I haven't seen it in a while.

Search This Blog