Monday, January 04, 2010

So, Avatar was OK, I guess.

So now that everybody's gone primate poo over Avatar, I've gotta say a few things, too.

I've seen it three times now... so I guess you'd have to say I'm strongly in the "liked it" camp.

First: here are the plain facts, sir. If you paid money to see Transformers 2 (I did - Craptacles are one of my guilty pleasures) then you're morally obligated to go see Avatar in the cinema as well. Morally obligated, sirs and madams.

See, if those money-grubbing filmmakers are willing to insult us with their complacent storytelling, their clumsy directing, their filling the screen with crappy actors who are basically good-looking set-pieces that lead the audience from one big explosion to the next... that's one thing. And you know, I'm not going to judge you for spending money to see junk like that in the theater... you better see it there, because anywhere else, and it's horrible, but at least in the cinema, with digital sound and everything, it'll clean out your ear wax.

But here's the other thing: if we're saps enough to give money to the cynical sputum-suckers who make movies like that, apparently out of sheer contempt for their audiences, then we owe it to ourselves, and to the film industry at large, to also give our money to people who are trying to make something that will actually chock us up full with wonder. So if movie spectacle doesn't do it for you anyway, if you didn't bother seeing Transformers 2 in the Cinema, don't bother seeing Avatar either... I guess. But if you did see Transformers 2, because you DO like movies that ought to be seen on the big screen, that are impressive and awesome and make you say "wow," then go see Avatar, too. It's the movie of the decade, and indeed an incredibly powerful expression of regret for humanity, and especially America's vainglory, and specifically the Bush administration.

It's also the movie of the decade: the last decade. And what I mean by that is that there are echoes in the imagery and content of this film that sum up a big part of the major headline news of the decade...

The first way this works is looking at the reason the humans are in Pandora: the indescribably precious and rather obviously named "unobtainium" - a macguffin, perhaps, and also a pretty good stand-in for oil. The language the soldiers use to go to war with the "Navi" (which sounds like Nabi, the Korean word for butterfly) echoes the Bush White House's: pre-emptive strike, shock and awe, fight terror with terror. There's even a scene ... I don't want to give any spoilers here, but there's a certain scene where something starts falling, and one of the shots is totally evocative of the cloud of dust that billowed out when the twin towers fell, and during htat same scene, something is fluttering down in a way that totally evoked all the looseleaf paper floating around the World Trade Center when the office buildings crashed.

It's also a movie that encapsulates the issue that has swollen from small potatoes to big cojones during the decade: the 2000s will be remembered as the decade that the world finally really became aware of the precarious state of the environment. One of the very first images in the film is of a disgusting strip-mine -- an even bigger blight when one sees the beauty of the forest that must have been cleared to make way for that mine. The Navi live in a world of ridiculously rich foliage, of every imaginable color and shape of life-form; the forest flares up with phosphorescence at night, to create one of the loveliest imaginary worlds ever seen on film. Show me a nicer one. The "Aiua" - the life force of the planet, is a direct echo of the Gaia myth - earth's environmental life force, and the idea that all living things are connected. The contrast between the grey, ugly industrial compound the humans built, and the breathtaking foliage of Pandora is startling.

So Avatar is the movie of the naughty oughties, in its political undertones as well as its environmental ones. Another is in its technological concepts. The name Avatar, as we internet people know, is what we call the character I create in an online game, and that character acts out my actions inside the computer game. The idea of acting through a created body is straight out of computer gaming... but then, the Navi people on the alien planet have their own technological correlative: all the Navi have long braids coming out of the back of their heads, which they can use to connect to a similar organ on some of the creatures on pandora, and even to communicate with certain trees. That organ looks a eerily like a fiber-optic cable, as do the strands of the trees which communicate with the Navi. That idea of connecting with a universally compatible port is remarkably similar to those USB ports that every computer has, which you can use to plug into just about anything. Not to mention the way the cords go into the base of your skull, not unlike the Matrix, which was actually 1999, but a series which found its cultural niche (and had a few sequels) in the 2000s. Think again about the difference between those two movies - Matrix, in 1999, introducing you to a world through virtual reality, a movie of violence, of grey, drab design, lots of guns, and a really bleak, dystopian future, and then think about Avatar, where you can plug an entire world into your brain, rather than interacting with a world that has been taken over by ruthless robots. Interesting change indeed. While I'm not one to go in depth into what this might reveal about changing attitudes toward technology and connectivity, it's an interesting idea to bat around, if you happen to get a few nerds in the same room.

See, this is why I love science fiction. The way a person conceptualizes his/her futuristic world reveals so clearly what a person sees in the world around them: that's WHY we use science fiction: as a mirror that is different enough from our world that we can recognize stuff, while still agreeing silently with each other to continue pretending it's a story. It's also interesting seeing James Cameron make connectivity, using fiber optic cables, no less, an integral part of his amazing alien race, especially given the unease with technology he earlier demonstrates in his Terminator movies.

Finally, one must also note that, right down to the bow-and-arrows and long braids, the Navi most resemble some band of First Nations North Americans, crossed with a blue cat - the long ponytale and bald sides to the male warriors heads, a race of people living close to nature: say whatever else you want, but yeah, this is also the noble savage myth retold... but then again, James Cameron's films have always been that way: his Terminator films were straightforward action films - down to the formula, but excellently done. Terminator 2 was the most nuanced film he ever made, thematically, and that had a kid shouting "You can't kill people!" and a narrator saying, "if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too" - way to go for subtle. Titanic was also a pretty typical love vs. money, poor kid vs. rich jerk love story - thematic nuance isn't something James Cameron does... but then, when he can create a world as beautiful as Pandora, who cares if he doesn't?

So go see it. Take off your irony glasses, take a "gee-whiz" pill, and let him blow you away with a real treat for the eyes. Plus, if you paid money for Transformers 2, you'll be thrilled by this one: the action sequences make visual sense, the story is coherent, the characters are likeable, and there actually ARE themes, rather than just running gags and racist stereotypes!


조안나 said...

I agree. It was well worth seeing, especially in 3D. I don't have the highest criteria for movies, but I don't see why so many people complain about this movie.

Unknown said...

I didn't know anything about Avatar before I saw it last night, and I thought it was pretty good. I usually don't like movies that have been built up so much, not to mention movies that aren't so realistic, but I thought it was intelligent and the 3D version was quite entertaining.

John from Daejeon said...

The best movie of the year also dealt with complicated themes without all the fanfare. If you get a chance, watch "The Hurt Locker." It will literally "blow you away."