December 22, 2009

Avatar: The good, the bad and ugly

Great science fiction films are few and far between, so it was with great anticipation that I went to see Avatar on opening night.

I had been looking forward to this film since 2006 when James Cameron began working on the script. My expectations were significantly heightened after learning that Cameron, the director of Aliens, the first two Terminator movies and Titantic, was drawing inspiration from Japan -- namely through such directors as Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away).

I was particularly interested to see if Cameron could pull of the Miyazaki. As fans of his films know, there's nothing quite like a Miyazaki picture; they are as delightful, provocative and as imaginative as they come. Not since the early days of Disney have animated films been so good. Miyazaki weaves a magical touch that has eluded Hollywood since their Golden Age (think Pinocchio and Snow White).

After watching Avatar, I can honestly say that Cameron gave it a good shot. The Pandoran jungle was as atmospheric and alive as anything that Miyazaki has ever produced. The 3D element added an immersive and visceral component that was particularly powerful; there were times when I truly felt lost in the jungle alongside Jake and Neytiri. The bioluminescent forest was truly jaw dropping.

Further, the tastefulness and care with which Cameron added the CG elements is unparalleled (with a tip of the hat to Lord of the Rings). This is the kind of film that George Lucas could watch but not have the slightest clue as to why Cameron's CG works and his does not. Cameron, unlike Lucas, has learned to weave the fabric of all on-screen elements into context such that nothing is superfluous and everything adds to the entire composition and story. Where Lucas works to bash viewers over the head with a 'look what I can do!' approach to movie making, Cameron has taken a more thoughtful and artistic course.

Take, for example, the floating seeds that land on Jake when he first meets Neytiri. I was genuinely moved by the delicacy and beauty of each tiny seedling as it floated through the air. Moreover, my feelings were heightened after learning about the sacred status of the seeds and the implication to the story. This is exactly the kind of aesthetic moment I imagined when I thought about the potential for CGI back when it was first introduced so many years ago.

Spoilers follow.

In addition to the visual elements borrowed from Japan, Cameron also dipped heavily into one of Miyazaki's most famous films, Princess Mononoke. Indeed, one could say that he borrowed perhaps a bit too greedily. Rarely does imitation of this sort lead to anything deeper or superior than what was provided by the original.

Specifically, both films feature a majestic and beautiful forest teeming with a life that's intimately interconnected with itself and an ethereal spiritual realm. And both feature a nature that is under threat. The balance of the natural worlds are in jeopardy from greedy miners who are consuming its resources at an alarming rate. The miners are in turn threatened by an outsider who, after learning the ways of the forest, has come to protect and preserve it at all costs. Ultimately, the creatures of the natural world are forced to band together and deal directly with the parasitic elements. Even the character of Neytiri is a close parallel to San; both are deeply connected to the natural world, borderline feral and ride on the backs of wolves.

Interestingly, Princess Mononoke was Japan's top grossing movie until Cameron's Titanic usurped it from that position in 1999. This certainly looks like a case where if you can beat them, you should still join them.

Princess Mononoke wasn't the only story co-opted by Cameron; aside from the Miyazaki touches (both graphically and narratively), Avatar closely resembles another classic story, Frank Herbert's Dune. In fact, Avatar is essentially Dune -- Cameron simply replaced the desert planet with a jungle and removed all the depth, complexity and profundity that made Dune the classic science fiction story that it is.

Again, the comparisons: A young man arrives on a strange and inhospitable planet occupied by hostile natives -- natives who are perfectly adapted to the planet and live in harmony with it. The young man's civilization is there to exploit the planet for a precious resource and at the expense of the planet's ecological balance. Our hero, awkward at first, learns the ways of the locals and eventually 'goes native.' He finds a girlfriend among his new clan and is accepted and revered by the natives on account of signs that point to his unique purpose and status. The hero-messiah then starts to exceed the abilities of his new comrades -- there's even a test of manhood involving the taming and riding of a dangerous animal. In the end, the hero leads a charge against the outsiders by banding together natural resources and the local population. They eventually win and drive the outsiders out.

Now, while this certainly describes the general plot of both stories, Herbert's universe is filled with intelligent and provocative commentary that touches upon such themes as ecology, evolution, commerce, politics, religion, technological advancement and even social Darwinism. The best that can be said of Cameron's adaptation is that he got the environmental message across. But where Herbert's discourse on the environment was treated with subtly and complexity (including the issue of terraforming), Cameron chose to bang his audience over the head with a blatantly overt, simplistic and ridiculously biased sledge hammer.

In Avatar, Cameron rekindled the tired and cliched "noble savage" myth and set it in space. It was an effort that seemingly attempted to romanticize Stone Age culture and promote a Gaianist agenda. The film was anti-technology, anti-corporatist, anti-progress, and dare I say anti-human.

Gaianism in space? Really, Cameron? That was the best story you could come up with on a $237,000,000 budget?

Okay, some credit where credit is due. Given that the story is, whether I liked it or not, a Gaianist treatise, I did appreciate how Cameron achieved the sense of interconnectedness between the characters and Pandora. The ability of the Na'vi to link with other animals in a symbiotic fusion was very cool, as was the ability to upload conscious thought through the very fabric of the planet (a nice interplay on the high-tech/lo-tech theme knowing that the humans were also dabbling in mind transfer). I also liked how the humans could not breath the air of the planet, a strong hint that they truly had no business being on Pandora. The natives, on the other hand, were at complete peace with their environment.

So, overall some very mixed feelings about Avatar. The graphical and aesthetic achievements were certainly impressive, and for that it's a must-see film. And for those with a pronounced environmentalist bent, you will likely swoon over this movie. But if you're looking for a story with depth, complex characters and some challenging commentary, you're going to have to look elsewhere. And in this sense, the movie is a significant let down. One that I'll gladly watch over and over again.


Briana Franco said...

I also thought of Disney's Pocahontas...a bit on the lamer side but Grandmother Willow was awesome.

ZarPaulus said...

I haven't seen it yet, but I've heard it called "Dances With Wolves Recycled In Space".

And I think it's spelled "Gaianism" not "Gainism" (seriously, try pronouncing it).

Aleksandar Matijaca said...

First hour was ok, the rest of it was a cross between Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves. The story line was really weak... What would have been really crappy was if the "evil corporation" would have realized the error of their ways, and worked in harmony to mine that metal... Kind of sucked really.. The aesthetic was great, and it was a "realistic" portrayal of what an alien world could look like.

Nato said...

Why can't someone employ beautiful aesthetics to draw audiences along the thread of a difficult, sophisticated, challenging story? The trailer was more than sufficient for audiences to recapitulate this tired, worn theme. Heck, Dances With Wolves was probably more fair and more nuanced.

In a sense, the whole movie is a travesty.

George said...

@ZarPaulus tx fixed typo

Gordon Angelino said...

A great movie visually but the man against nature theme was simplistic and politically VERY lopsided. The films message is simply garbage. Primitive cultures that simply do not want to advance are just marking time until an environmental discontinuity or more progressive culture wipes them out.

For instance had the Americans stayed within the original 13 colonies, the Indians of North America would have been wiped out by the Russians instead! (the Russians holding far fewer regrets and being more heavy handed, about suppressing the Siberian "natives" then the U.S. Government was averaged over the last 300 years.

Always remember that Human life is native only to the Claw Rift in Africa and we all colonized the rest, with fur coats and primitive shelters from the extreme cold and heat.

Failing to advance is a deep and awful and avoidable failure indeed.

Athena Andreadis said...

A disaster in all but F/X -- and even that not as cutting-edge as touted. In short, another case of The Emperor's New Clothes.

Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

(also at HuffPo, text-only)

Nate said...

i don't disagree with any of your points (except for calling what neytiri rides a "wolf") but i would point out that what avatar is cribbing from is more an established genre, the story of the "noble savage" and the "cultured hero" who gets in touch with these spiritualistic roots. there are lots and lots of examples of this genre, the most prominent movie of which have already been named (dances with wolves), but there are many more examples, such as "the last samurai." it's hard to say that any one of these movies or stories is specifically ripping off one another, aside from the basic idea that modern society has somehow lost it's way and that we should turn to earlier, more spiritualistic and "in-tune" societies for answers to this problem. as to how one is going to feel about the story, well... everyone i saw it with was incredibly moved by nearly every facet of the story. we could all agree that cameron's dialogue was sometimes downright awful (the marines in particular. one more "get some" or "let's dance" would have had me tearing out my eardrums) but in general, we all tended to agree with the message so forcefully that we were willing to overlook these weaknesses. we also all recognized that certain types of people would never enjoy this movie. one nearby patron at our showing loudly asked why the marines had to be the bad guys, and it's a valid question. as to what gordon angelino said, above, i agree with your sentiment entirely, but i would be willing to argue that the story is not about throwbacks, but is instead about rampant capitalism gone wrong. the weakness of these stories does tend to be their reliance on "earlier times were better times" mentalities, but what they caution against, the blatant disconnect of modern man from any kind of understanding of balanced living in their daily lives, is a genuine threat.

Unknown said...

With Avatar, a cinematic revolution doesn't begin so much as proceed into its next phase.

r4i software

Unknown said...

I thought the movie looked amazing. I really did like it despite it's flaws. But wow those flaws were many.

We only have one example of an inhabited planet. It may be we're typical. But it seems more likely an alien world wouldn't have so many direct parallels to earth. Pandora had the basic division of plants and animals, predator and prey. PZ Myers said if a planet like this were ever found he would have to start believing in intelligent design. Every species had six limbs and four eyes while the humanoids had four and two. They also kiss and have tear ducts.

Another thing that always bothers me is disparity in technology. The humans not only have the ability to find and get to an alien solar system but had to use helicopters once there. They had detailed real-time satellite imagery but had to fight face to face rather than from space. They could combine whatever passes for alien dna with human dna but they couldn't figure out how to breath the air. They could transfer human consciousness but couldn't distribute some kind of nanotech to do the mining. They had interstellar relativistic travel, the ability to profoundly manipulate biology, they had a deep understanding of consciousness including how to transfer it. There's no way the aliens would even be able to detect a civilization that advanced if they didn't want them to.

And that's before you get to the simplistic black and white plot. The good guys are always good. The bad guys are always bad. Beauty is good while ugliness is bad. They should have taken a page from District 9. There were just no shades of gray. If the corporate guy had only agonized a little more. If only they were there for some other reason than greed. Like the earth was hit by a comet or something and the human race was struggling to survive on the moon.

Duff said...

"And in this sense, the movie is a significant let down. One that I'll gladly watch over and over again."

My sentiments as well. Great review!

Maxwell Defiance Landbeck said...

alffastar said...

I agree with this review - my feelings exactly!
I tried to support this view here before I read this review:

"Cameron also dipped heavily into one of Miyazaki's most famous films, Princess Mononoke. Indeed, one could say that he borrowed perhaps a bit too greedily." - I agree with the bit too greedily part :)

alffastar said...

As far as I am concerned the sci-fi movie of the year as a whole, including story, is District 9. The most spectacular is Avatar. Actually, I do not consider Avatar to be a sci-fi movie - it is an adventure movie. As such it is a great, great movie. And for me an adventure movie strength is not its story, as in Avatar, it is the spirit of the movie, although it is taken from Princess Mononoke...