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To begin discussing Avatar, the most successful movie of all time, one is obliged to acknowledge that, when it comes to technical innovation and a keen awareness of the mass audience, James Cameron has no present-day equal. The director earned the enmity of film scholars everywhere thirteen years ago when he publicly took critic Kenneth Turan to task for daring to assert that his billion-dollar hit Titanic was anything less than superlative. In Cameron's opinion he was King and the critics' duty was to respect the taste of the ticket-paying public (no matter how rancid).
Cameron is certainly not some kind of sub-fascist filmmaker but instead a canny businessman-filmmaker well aware that he has nothing to lose by swinging his weight around. He's actually far less hubristic than the average filmic self-promoter with nothing to trumpet but his own arrogance. Cameron can back up his attitude with impressive accomplishments, and not just the box-office kind. While the rest of the industry noodles along trying to get somebody else to bankroll the risks of developing new technology, Cameron puts his career on the line. When he spends vast millions it's because he's already calculated that his film will return the investment tenfold. Avatar took eight years to get going, and a lot of that time was spent waiting for digital technology to catch up with Cameron's technical needs. Cameron and Fox knew that the digital 3D trend (craze? revolution?) would have just enough theaters in operation to make Avatar available to a wide audience. He was ready with "something the public had never seen before" -- a description that has only come along three or four times in the short history of the movies: sound, color, big-format widescreen. 1
Audiences amused by Pixar's 3D animation films were bowled over by Cameron's masterful 3D illusions. Not only does the filmmaker know how to put together exciting sequences, he used digital cinema's "directing in post-production" capability to maximize every shot. We're told that only about 30% of the film is live-action footage more or less as it comes out of a camera. Almost every scene set in the wilds of the planetoid Pandora is a full digital creation in three dimensions, a virtual "stage" in which Cameron can choose (and change) his camera angles long after the performances have been recorded. The director can stick with simple over-the shoulder dialogue scenes or launch into whatever fanciful camera movements he wishes when his characters sprint through fantastic forests or ride on flying dragons through bizarre sky-scapes where islands of rock float like clouds. Cameron's an experienced visual master. The film doesn't contain a single dumb shot, nor one that works against his intended mood. When he films a flying monster his camera reframes the shot on the fly, as if the impossible beast were being filmed by a documentary cameraman. Cameron knows which buttons to push to suggest that his fantastic visuals are real.
James Cameron's onslaught of technical wonders compensates for his overly familiar storyline. Our ever-questing Earth consortiums have decided that they must possess an element called Unobtanimum (not a dumb name at all, as it turns out) found only on the planet Pandora. The problem is that the indigenous "savages" called Na'vi are in the way. The Na'vi are ten-foot blue cat-like humanoids with unusually strong limbs and prodigious physical strength. Their religion and their physical bodies are bound up in a globe-embracing natural web formed by intelligent plant life. Any disturbance from the outside to their planetary biosphere, threatens their physical and spiritual welfare.
While "Sgt. Rock"-style space marines led by the guts 'n' gristle Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang, 99 & 44/100% testosterone) prepare a massive weapons armada to forcibly evict the Na'vi from their most sacred places, scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has been charged with researching a diplomatic solution. Because the Na'vi are so forbidding to outsiders, Grace's bio labs have engineered amazingly perfect Nav'i clone bodies (using a mix of Na'vi and human DNA). A perfected "Avatar" process allows the human researchers to remotely control / inhabit these lab-grown bodies. Paraplegic soldier Jake Scully (Sam Worthington, in a finely tuned performance) is put into a sleep trance and his mental consciousness is projected into his personal "blank" Na'vi clone. While Jake sleeps, his Na'vi self is awake, and vice versa. Jake 'becomes' a Na'vi to learn the aliens' ways and hopefully communicate to them the imperative to give a little territory so that the Earth monopoly can mine their Unobtanium in peace.
Slimy bureaucrat Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) knows that the Avatar Program is public relations BS intended to fail. Colonel Quaritch uses Jake as a military spy. In exchange for handing over strategic info to be used against the Na'vi, Quaritch will reward Jake with the medical funding to repair his useless legs. Jake thinks this is fine until he falls in love with his Na'vi companion Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Their idyllic life in the nurturing forest seems a far better alternative than Jake's servitude to his military masters. When the Corporation decides to shut down the Avatar program and take Pandora by force, Jake switches allegiances and prepares to help the Na'vi defend their turf.
James Cameron's competence as a basic storyteller is undeniable. He establishes his complex central concept with ease. Whereas the average big-budget movie dumbs down technology, the Avatar- transference idea challenges audiences to fill in the gaps. Yes, there's plenty of lame expository dialogue -- Cameron only gets a pass on his dialogue skills -- but once the film's Big Idea is established, audiences have no trouble leaping to new ideas on their own. For instance, when Colonel Quaritch threatens to smash Jake Scully in his sleep-pod, viewers from Thailand to Santiago immediately understand that Jake's Na'vi clone will be rendered insensible as well. That's good science fiction plotting.
Although the Avatar idea initially sounds like a cheap way to transport the audience into an alien experience (as in, say, Tron, where video game players become immersed in their computer games), it's a clever expression of a basic human longing. None of us know where we go when we dream. That riddle has been the subject of storytelling art in all cultures.
Avatar's intoxicating visuals knocked viewers for a loop. More than just eye candy, the in-depth flora and fauna on the fantastic world of Pandora enchant at every turn. The film's look has been likened to the dreamy cover illustrations of classic Sci-Fi pocketbooks, only rendered in minute detail and (for theatrical viewers) in 3D depth. The "you are there" quality of good 3D transported millions of viewers to a "new place", no mean achievement in an entertainment landscape where nothing seems to impress anybody anymore. Screenwriter Cameron puts his audience into highly desired fantasies, whether fighting six-legged, four-eyed monsters or swooping through the skies on the backs of bat-winged aerial steeds. Every square inch of Pandora is another kind of garden, with exotic plants that empathize with the Na'vi, and little bugs that fly like helicopters.
Some critics wasted no time going after Cameron's less-than-original concept of the noble Na'vi. It's funny that they should mostly limit their story comparisons to Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, because Avatar swallows the entire noble savage subgenre of adventure films, from Bird of Paradise to A Man Called Horse. Dances with Wolves is itself a re-run of Sam Fuller's Run of the Arrow, and nobody complained. Newer movies always want to assert that native cultures, especially the native American culture, are superior because they are tied to the rhythms of nature, and abhor the artificial and destructive societies of Western civilization. Although there's plenty of truth to the destructive nature of dominant cultures with higher technology (smallpox-infected blankets, anyone?), this approach ignores the barbarism, pointless bloody wars and fixed social rules of primitive cultures.
Cameron's Na'vi are a squeaky-clean pack of sleek creatures living more or less in Peter Pan's NeverNeverland, a place where all creatures live in harmony under a planet-wide deity residing in an enormous ecological Internet. The sacred trees are sentient because their myriad botanical connections form an enormous nervous system. Of course, the Na'vi are near the top of the spiritual chain, and are allowed to slay for food as long as they dedicate their kills to the Great Spirit; six-legged horses and flying dragons are their natural servants. Neytiri's tribe is the usual theocracy, with four or five chiefs and innumerable followers. Neytiri isn't called a princess but she's definitely a Na'vi VIP -- just like (sigh) Debra Paget back in the breakthrough Indians-are-swell western Broken Arrow (yet another western with an Avatar- like plot).
In the westerns we had to take native pantheism at face value -- James Stewart, Rod Steiger and Kevin Costner find Indian ways an admirable alternative to the White Man's value system. Come the post- Wounded Knee minority empowerment movement of the 1970s, and the Indians were transformed into helpless victims of American aggression. Some film directors were eager to be first with social revelations (mostly all revealed twenty years before in less pushy western fare) and some wanted to equate the historical Native American genocide with Vietnam. Audiences were wary about this politicizing, even when the auteurs had a sense of humor, as in Arthur Penn's Little Big Man. After an hour of hearing about Great Spirits and the like, we were amused when Little Big Man's big chief sighs, "Well, some times the magic works and some time it doesn't".
Audiences aren't as sophisticated now and James Cameron knows it. Avatar has a basic sense of humor but takes itself very seriously. The Na'vi's religion isn't a religion, really, as faith really isn't needed. The planet constantly affirms the reality of its spiritual magic. There's nothing abstract about soul-connecting with one's ride for the day (jokes abounded about Jake having a USB connection in his hair-tentacle). The giant tree of life and grotto of souls or whatever are 100% real. Jake can listen to the voices of the dead in a sparkly corridor of self-illuminated moss, and watch as hundreds of sacred Tinkerbelle air-jellyfish tickle his skin to welcome him to the Na'vi neighborhood. At its most trite, the superduper tree of life flashes light to a disco beat to back up the Na'vi chants. Who wouldn't believe in God, if God made a personal appearance every week in church? I'm polishing up my shoes for that!
Cameron's Na'vi are a highly attractive fantasy. I'll bet that kids watching the Na'vi warriors sprint through the jungle and climb insane vine-cables up to floating islands, get the same charge I got watching James MacArthur's Mohawk'ed white warrior race through the New England woods in Walt Disney's The Light in the Forest. Everybody wants to be Tarzan -- Cameron is tapping into primal fantasies. 2
The militaristic future world of Avatar could be the same 'world' of Cameron's Aliens, where space marines conquer new planets for expansionist earth corporations: see the groundbreaking, if difficult to watch, Der große Verhau. The older westerns that Cameron references often used their "military bad guys" to comment on Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Avatar leaps whole hog into anti- Neo-con mode, pegging its story on the current assumption that the American presence in the Middle East is a cynical geo-strategy to control oil. Depending on one's political slant this is either liberal gospel or vicious propaganda; the truth is presumably much more complicated than either extreme. But to Cameron and Avatar there's no question that cultures everywhere are threatened by the greed of developed nations, and that the native cultures have the right to fight back. Avatar is therefore pro- Third World rights; the folks back home would label its heroes "terrorists".
When Paul Verhoeven had the nerve to suggest nearly this exact same thing thirteen years ago in his ironic, misunderstood Starship Troopers, he was considered crazy and his film incoherent. The only protest against Cameron's apparent endorsement of "evil terrorism" comes from a few right-wing pundits powerless to make headway against the multitudes that ignore politics when there's such a great thrill ride to appreciate. Just the same, I'd love to see Avatar with an audience in a Third World country, where the locals might identify the 'bad guys' as any outsider nation seeking to dominate them economically or militarily.
Avatar's most disturbing sight is the destruction of an enormous Na'vi tree, that might be a mile or two in height. This bald terrorist switcheroo is very much like the horrible 9/11 attack, only the other way around. James Cameron's idiotic plot turns in Titanic really griped this reviewer, but for this particular subversive move I've got to hand him the grand prize. Avatar's setup may be a superficial re-tread of older movies, but I find this nose-thumb to the global 'war on terror' to be daring in the extreme.
Cameron knows how to get his military rocks off. He doesn't take the commercial path of his non-hit The Abyss and try to end this film with a non-violent message of Peace & Love. Avatar's last third is the OFOAB that every action blockbuster needs to win over an audience these days. 3 Cameron puts a new / old spin on his battle by trotting out the oldest trick in the book, taken right from the classic Tarzan movies. Since the ecosystem of Pandora is all one happy symbiotic alliance (do Pandoran germs sing in harmony, too?), the Mother Nature deity unleashes giant hammerhead monsters and an armada of alien pterodactyls to stomp Colonel Quaritch's mechanical horde into the dust. I didn't need the extended "let's get personal" knife fight that follows, but the combat in Avatar is never repetitive or boring.
Perhaps the sinister pods of Invasion of the Body Snatchers came from Pandora, as the spiritual transference by which Jake Sully migrates from his crippled human body to his new Na'vi body looks a lot like the same kind of process: fall asleep, and you wake up twice as big, with blue skin and yellow cat's eyes. And it's not a hangover. Got $500 million dollars to spend? No doubt James Cameron's Avatar sequel will involve some new technical wonder. Now that everybody's saying that the future of movies is all 3D -- a statement that's at least 50% thumping for inflated admission ticket pricing -- we're bound to see more of these high-ticket superdupercolossal extravaganzas. Come to the matinee! Financing available!
The bait 'n' switch experts of the movie industry have already trotted out cheapie fake 3D to justify big ticket prices for Clash of the Titans. But, put out a genuine gee-whiz show like Avatar and the theater seats will magically fill up. Heck, cheapskate Savant paid to see Avatar first-run. I was fascinated by the visuals and somewhat bored by the lightweight storyline. But there's no denying that the film delivers on its promises, big-time.
Fox's Blu-ray of Avatar isn't in 3D. Although high-end home theater stores are now displaying exotic 3D-HD equipment for the deep-pocketed early adopters, James Cameron and Fox are clearly waiting until more than a few thousand (hundred?) sets are out there before launching the film in a home video 3D format.
But his movie looks great in Blu-ray HD, even without the dimension of depth -- which I'm not sure I even want as a regular diet at home. The movie's designs are just as impressive and the imagery almost as beautiful in 2D: there's nothing to complain about. The release comes with a selection of audio track configurations, as one would expect with a Cameron disc. The BD comes with a second DVD disc, a gambit that will definitely help sell Blu-ray TVs and players, as the HD image really blows away the standard-def encoding. The images are so detailed that we readily believe the publicity claims of intensive man-hours expended on each frame of this show -- nothing in the picture looks like a visual or technical compromise. I'll choose some other movie if I want dramatic depth, historical relevance or emotional uplift. But there's a definite place for knock-me-down visual fireworks for their own sake, and Avatar is a major wonder movie.
The disc has no extras and they're not missed ...it's as if Avatar and James Cameron are so far ahead of the curve, we don't need the instant feedback on how every floating pixie and glowing freckle on Neytiri's face was accomplished.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Avatar Blu-ray rates:
1. 3D, of course, reached craze status in the early 1950s and has returned once or twice for brief revivals. But it was tripped up each time by inconsistencies of presentation ("Eyestrain-Are-Us") and cheap productions. Will the new wave of 3D persevere?
2. This "let's run like a savage" idea is probably older than the ancient Leatherstocking Tales books. But I filmically link this primal exhilaration back to Clarence Brown's The Yearling. A Florida swamp kid races through the woods with a herd of deer to the stirring accompaniment of classical music. The kid's half a savage himself, but he's reached a pre-puberty Nirvana where he wants to stop being human and merge with nature. That's the appeal of the "go native" segments of Avatar.
3. OFOAB: One ____ Of A Battle.
4. Okay, this isn't meant to be snide, but Cameron's oddball Na'vi people bring to mind a more benign version of the terrific Roy Ashton makeup job on Jacqueline Pearce in Hammer's 1965 The Reptile: the fat reptilian nose bridge, the eyes, even the fangs (a bit). What do you think? (image above.) Either that, or the Na'vi are refugees from the Broadway show Cats, dipped in blue ink. Meeow - hisss!
May 17, 2010
Nce reviews of Avatar and Spartacus. Like yourself I found my mind wandering in regards to the plot of Avatar but was wowed by the visual. I did find the depiction of the military as maniacs (emotional or physical cripples) heavy-handed but what seems to have escaped most reviewers is that Cameron has a "New Age" mentality. The original meaning of the word Avatar is of a being who has evolved to such a degree they are no longer bound by the laws of time and space, have transcended death and the need for a physical body. Supposedly an Avatar could materialise and dematerialize at will and skip from one dimension to another likewise. Whether Sam Worthington's character is the "Avatar" or Cameron is using the term because he feels he is one (another characteristic of such a being is that they can create worlds at will by sheer mental and will power alone)... is beyond me to answer. In any event he has put out into the mass consciousness a download of spiritual/new-age base concepts and made them accessible to more people on this planet than at any time in history. Usually the critics pounce on anything that smells of that and ridicule the hell out of it because they don't want to appear naïve in the eyes of the public or their peers. Cameron almost pulled it off with The Abyss and with Avatar did it. Another meaning of the word is to progenate a collective shift in human perceptions about layers of meaning as to what constitutes reality and what does not. As someone who has been an ardent meditator/yogi/Gurdjieff freak since 1967 I find it rather amusing that Cameron has slipped a Micky into the mass consciousness.
Perhaps the best descriptions of what Constitutes an Avatar can be found in Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yoganandagananda. The book hugely influenced George Harrison and the Beatles to the point where the faces of five of the gurus in that book are mixed up with the collage of famous faces on the cover of Sgt Pepper. Have a great week -- John Maxwell Taylor
Hi Glenn. Thanks for giving us Savant's take on Avatar, an experience I'm still trying to come to grips with. Cameron obviously has filmmaking chops and is a pioneer of sorts but should not be allowed to write his own scripts. Perhaps his dialog would come off better in Serbo-Croatian. Regardless of the squirm factor of the film, the scene that got most under my skin was when Neytiri cradles Jake's battered human body in her lap after his mano a mano battle with the nutsoid Marine. The image references any number of Pietas in Western art, perhaps most directly Michelangelo's, in which the sculptor shrank the scale of Christ's body on Mary's lap, so that the Madonna looms over it as a mother over a child. Cameron's appropriation certainly worked for me; I found it very moving. -- Gordon A. Thomas
1. I love James Cameron's movies;
2. James Cameron steals from the best.
About, oh, 3 minutes into Avatar I thought to myself, "Whoa, if Harlan Ellison calls up Harry Harrison with some legal advice, this is gonna cost Cameron more than the Linda Hamilton divorce." (Meeow - hisss!, reprise)
Plotwise and conceptually, Avatar is Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World* meets Harry Harrison's Deathworld series. Just in case you aren't familiar with the latter, prepare for a jaw-dropping synopsis:
'Jason now reveals all. Although all life on Pyrrus competes for survival individually, it reacts collectively to natural disasters. The grubbers, with the assistance of their talkers, have integrated themselves peacefully into the planet's ecosystem, killing only for food or in self-defense'
I believe you and I and Mr. Cameron are of a similar age, and there are a number of Boomers with excellent recall keeping a low rumble about this going on science fiction literary blogs...
Now if Cameron would just do a film of Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero, hell, I'd even contribute to the Avatar legal defense fund.... -- Ed Sullivan
*Notice how much of Pandora's flora & fauna resemble (healthy) coral reef habitat biota, and how much the human breathing apparatus resembles high-end diving equipment? -- Ed
May 20, 2010
Hi Glenn, excellent review of Cameron's monster hit. You nailed the reasons for its broad appeal although you neglected the love story which I think has great appeal. I think there's at least one more big reason for its success: it's the greatest super-hero movie ever made. It's basically Captain Marvel in outer space. In (the original) Captain Marvel, crippled kid Billy Batson says SHAZAM and becomes a 6-foot Fred-MacMurray superman in red tights. In Avatar, disabled Jake Sully takes a nap and becomes a 10-foot blue superman who bounds across flying fortresses leaving death and destruction in his wake. You're absolutely right that Cameron's nose-thumb to the 'war on terror' is daringly subversive, especially in a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, something few reviewers have noticed. His environmental-Eden fable, with trees serving as a global neural net, is also a subversive idea in what is really an action-adventure movie and may do more to inspire the next generation of environmental activists than any books or documentaries. Interestingly, Cameron may be on to something. Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a Phd-level researcher at the University of Ottawa school of medicine, writes about trees in ways that sound almost Pandoran.
I've seen Avatar 6 or 7 times -- in 3D, 3D IMAX and 2D -- and been blown away by it each time. I'll probably go again. Hope you are keeping well. Cheers, Brad Caslor
Hi Glenn -- Appreciated your thoughtful review of Avatar. It pretty much reflects my own response to the movie -- which I was prepared to dislike on the strength of my abhorrence of Titanic and the original trailers which made the film look overblown and cartoonish ... almost against my will, Cameron swept me away and convinced me of the narrative reality of his invented world.
What I find interesting is that no one I've come across has pointed out the enormous debt Cameron seems to owe to Hayao Miyazaki. All the references are to Dances with Wolves, but the storyline and the concepts of Pandora are very similar to a lot of the master's work: Princess Mononoke for the interconnections of the sentient population with the spirits of nature, and visually the flying mountains are straight out of Castle In the Sky.
I also wonder whether Cameron read at some time or other Brian Aldiss's early '60s novel Hothouse, in which the (in that case small green) remnants of humanity inhabit a vast tree which covers the world, and have to survive amongst all manner of strange, threatening flora and fauna ... Cheers, George Godwin
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