Saturday, December 26, 2009

Avatar - A Review

This blog is mainly focused on social media. In that sense, a movie review is something of a departure. Then again, the new James Cameron filmstravanganza Avatar is by far the most talked-about flick on social networks. Proof of this: just about every one of my Twitter friends had already seen it by the time I checked in on Gowalla at the Metreon IMAX theater in downtown San Francisco Christmas Day. It could be argued, however, that this movie would be a hit no matter what. It was that spectacular.

Having said that, I came away from the movie with mixed feelings. What was right about it: it was Hollywood entertainment in the best sense of the word. I was carried away by the special effects, which, on the giant IMAX screen in 3-D were so masterful that there were times I forgot myself entirely. I can't recall being so absorbed in a movie since I saw Star Wars as a ten-year-old. The flying scenes were particularly wondrous.  

Avatar presents us with a complete world--a feat that few if any moviemakers can claim. Or really, two different worlds within the same planet. The aptly-named planet of Pandora is a treasure trove of natural wonders--a box that once opened, continues to marvel and entrance. Nature thrums with animal and plant life, shining a light on the often ignored beauty that surrounds us here on earth. It also contains secrets and danger that explode onto the screen in terrifying ways--monstrous animals with claws and teeth, plants that spiral down into nothingness. My suspension of disbelief held even when I encountered a few cliches, such as the flying, saurian beasts that were reminiscent of many a Hollywood blockbuster--a combo of Potterian Hippogriff and a pterodactyl.

The army base inhabited by the earthlings is so familiar and realistic I could smell the dust that rose up in the heat. The technology the humans use for daily life--from the tanks of fluid where the avatars are grown to the computer screens to the walking robots and warships--is just far enough ahead of our own time to feel futuristic, but not enough to feel alien or overly fanciful.

Here's the irony: the movie itself is clearly a triumph of 21st Century movie-making. Cameron has taken 3-D CGI effects to the next level, and truly the rest of the industry had better figure out how to keep up with him. A mind bending 11 special effects studios were employed to make this movie. However, the story itself paints technology in an intensely negative light. The people of earth have devolved, in this scenario, into war-mongering capitalists who have so completely destroyed their own planet that they must plunder others in order to keep going. As the main character clearly states, they have nothing to offer the Pandorans. They can only take.

This desolate view made me depressed and not a little frustrated.  Boiled down to its essence, the message of the movie is that there's absolutely nothing in our culture worth salvaging. This is what Cameron has to say to our children? All of our progress is for naught--and our only hope is to somehow recapture a lost Eden such as the indigenous people have? This isn't just a downer--it seems an odd point of view from someone who has so successfully used high technology in order to further his own creative vision.

As I watched the action unfold, I found myself wishing someone would walk onstage and offer the two opposing cultures a third, and sane middle option. Someone to point out that they really don't need to set at each other with all the weapons in their respective arsenals. Having watched quite a lot of "Doctor Who" recently, I began to fervently wish for David Tennant to land his TARDIS in the sacred tree and come stumbling out, pushing up his glasses and offering a completely different vision than the one being served up by the folks on the screen.

"What all of you need," I can hear him say in his sweet, reasonable voice, "Is to realize that in fact you do have quite a lot to offer one another. If you lay down your weapons, you'll start to see what that could look like. Pandorans, these earth people need you, because their planet is dying. And you need them to help you learn how to fly out into the stars and come into contact with other people--to expand your world and your vision."

Why not? There's something patronizing about the idea that there is nothing--absolutely nothing--that the Pandorans might want to know, see, do or have that's different from what they have now. There's also something bizarrely oversimplistic to say that the people of earth have not created anything worthwhile with their technology. They can create avatars of other beings, for chrissakes. Imagine the possiblities for medicine, for diplomacy, not to mention fun and adventure.

The Doctor always gives us earth folks due respect for our endless optimism and curiosity--even when it's clear that these qualities are getting us into trouble. The earthlings in Avatar are nothing if not survivors. Their planet has been laid to waste, but they don't give up. They get out there and try to find something that will work. You can call them colonial plunderers, and clearly they have a lot to learn from others about how to act humanely and fairly. But they're also doing their darndest to take care of those back on earth who are in trouble. Why paint them in such a terrible light?


Derek said...

That's an interesting angle on the movie's portrayal of technology and our culture. I found it a little more hopeful, since the technology laden scientists and their avatar lab were good forces within the movie, and the main human character goes all out to try and save the natives. Corporate greed and military over zealousness seem to be the more specific targets of the movie, and that's easy to get on board with.

Over the last decade, I have watched a lot of animation with my children, and so has James Cameron obviously. The plot line borrows heavily from Pocahontas, Fern Gully, and a lesser known movie called Battle for Terra (available on Hulu), and if I wasn't still so wowed by Avatar and it's own unique touches, I would be embarrassed by Cameron's outright story thievery.

In Battle for Terra, the giant, heavily armed ship full of humans has been floating in space for a long time and is on it's last legs, so the humans have to settle on the planet or die, which adds a nice moral twist. In Avatar, the humans just want a precious rock and have no desire to inhabit the planet, making them clear villains (except for the scientists). You would like the resolution in Battle for Terra better, although the big fight still happens and there sadly isn't a single TARDIS landing.

Sunshine said...

Thanks for the comment, Derek. I guess I'm coming in somewhat more cold as I haven't seen these other movies. You're right, the scientists in Avatar are portrayed in a more positive light, though they ultimately come off as weak, myopic and naive--no match for the guns and bombs of the military men. That particular Hollywood stereotype of scientists really hasn't changed in 50 years. I suppose you're right that there is some kind of dichotomy set up between them, but the overarching message is still the same--technology, progress, anything and everything we've done on earth is evil and bad and wrong, even when we have good intentions. I suppose I've become spoiled by the more subtle plotlines in Who, which recognize the dangers of progress, but also honor its potential. And this matches the real world more closely--right now in Silicon Valley, there is more money and effort going towards clean tech (including all manner green IT efforts) than to almost anything else. Clean tech isn't just about cleaning up the mess we've already made--it's actually about using technology to improve our lives without the cost we've paid thus far. This is where we are headed as a culture--towards a synergy of respect for the planet and a modern world that allows us to learn, prevent and cure disease, and broaden our horizons. That's the message I'd like our children to hear.

Rich said...

Great write up. You could do movie reviews for a living!

Seems that a lot of films about the future of Earth / Man I've seen recently cast a shadow on my outlook. Most recently, I was surprised when 2012 took the time to point out how superficial and selfless we are. Even Wall-E and Astroboy made points about humans being worthless. sigh ...

Still, I have to see Avatar ASAP .. and in 3D!