Saturday, December 19, 2009


(James Cameron, US, 2009)

Well, it has finally arrived, and I'm happy to say that despite no small amount of initial skepticism, I heartily enjoyed Avatar. It's hard to adequately judge this film at the moment, being as I'm still in the process of decompression from the experience, but this will be an "immediate reaction" kind of post. And my immediate reaction is: pretty freaking impressed. My expectations were met and mostly exceeded. I found myself easily forgiving all of the obvious foibles - cheesy dialogue, on-the-nose allusions, the resounding similarity of the plot with a dozen other similarly themed sci-fi adventure stories. (It's worth exploring those allusions, too - they're so on-the-nose that they almost manage to transform the film into some kind of spectacular polemic against American imperialism, but a discussion of all that will have to wait.) And that's usually a pretty good marker for the overall quality of a movie - how much can you bring yourself to love it, despite how bad some of it may be to your taste and sensibilities? It helps that I'm pretty much in the tank for Cameron's apparent politics, sure, but I'm not usually so swayed by such wide-eyed fantasy.

As of right now, I can say that Avatar has two very major points of interest - two things that Cameron does very well. One is technical, the other one is more formal. Technically, Avatar is a masterpiece. It is not uniformly beautiful - at times, it crosses over into opulence, and there is a kind of uniformity to the environment that feels, well, limited in the human-limitation way (imagine that.) But it is gorgeous enough to knock the pants off of any current contender to the throne of computer-generated visual splendor. Some of the best moments in the film occur when Jake is exploring Pandora for the first time - his first foray into the macro-sized rain forest, which begins in quiet wonder at the exotic lifeforms and culminates in a frantic exit-pursued-by a-hammerhead-alien-rhinoceros. Cameron and his mighty legion of animators, shaders, designers, colorists and so on ad infinitum even manage to top this when Sully (the protagonist), stranded in the forest at night, fashions a torch and then has to run like hell again, this time with a pack of alien jackal creatures nipping at his heels. The movement of the "camera" (here, as in much of the rest of the film, the camera is a computer-generated construct, and almost creepily accurate in its recreation of lens flares, shakiness, and shifting focus), combined with the eerie ambient light AND the light from Sully's torch, makes for pure cinematic gorgeousness. Cameron's shrewdness is especially apparent here in his allowing for the artificiality of CGI to work in his favor. Rather than marshsalling all of his mighty processing power to completely mimic the depth and detail of a real rain forest, he lets his animators make an environment that feels exotic, alien, dreamlike, in other words, appropriately un-real. It's a different kind of beauty, of course, than what you'll get in the cinematography of Nestor Almendros or Gordon Willis, but that's exactly the point. It's the first time I've actually felt somewhat congenial towards the idea of a totally virtual enviroment, and while there is an element of trepidation to such a sensation (a healthy reservation, I believe) it was nevertheless truly inspiring to see what wonders human minds are capable of creating.

The other big factor in Cameron's favor is his full embrace of the genre - in this case, action adventure of the kind pioneered by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Cameron is not a ground-breaker or even a rule-bender in this regard, and actually, on a genric level, he's pretty much breaking with his earlier work, which tended to be gritty and harsh and distinctly dystopian. In Avatar, he plays things very much by the book - carefully constructing a world that is fake enough for us to believe it. The embellished parable, as it might be called, is a form that film does very well. People who complain about the shallowness of the story (a shallowness that is worth noting, but not complaining about) are missing the point. It's a fable, a pageant. It's not interested in psychological depth or narrative twists and turns. It's simply presenting, as Cameron himself has noted, a straightforward account of the history of aggression in humanity - one group invades another because it wants the other's resources. This is a story that is not told often enough, contrary to what several critics have been harping on.
Yes, yes, of course, though: it could have been so much more. It could have had an interesting philosophical slant. But that wasn't what Cameron was after.

Then there's the theme. This is where things get a little more interesting. The notion of, essentially, rooting for the aliens, of favoring them over the humans, does make for an interesting sort of empathy experiment. What does it say about our connection to the earth, about our need for scientific veracity, about our desperation and seeming inability to know ourselves until it's too late -until we're ruined, mind and body, and in doing so have ruined the world that we were born in? More to come.

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