Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Avatar (20th Century-Fox, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

James Cameron’s Avatar is a movie that’s as great as everyone (or almost everyone) has been saying it is; especially viewed under optimum circumstances — in 3-D (through polarized glasses, praise be, not the red-and-blue kind that don’t work with a color film because they tone down the color severely) and on a curved IMAX-format screen — it is an awesome experience, a “thrill ride” in the best sense of that overused (especially by studio marketing departments) movie term. Its basic plot, as just about everyone within eyeshot (or earshot) of the U.S. mainstream media knows by now, is about disabled ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who in the year 2154 finds himself on a planet called Pandora. He was enlisted for a mission there sponsored by the Corporation — an enterprise carefully unnamed in the film but one which seems to combine the worst aspects of Halliburton and Blackwater — who have tapped veterans for a mission protecting the Corporation’s mining operations on Pandora from the resistance movement of Pandora’s indigenous population, the Na’vi, who resemble human beings except they’re seven feet tall, have bluish skins (some of them come with dark blue tiger-style striping on a light-blue base color) and long tails and hair braids. The tails are non-functional but the braids are the key method by which the Na’vi communicate with all the other life forms on their planet; by plugging them into sockets on various animals or plants they are able to gain information as well as use the larger animals — including six-legged horses and dragon-like flying creatures — for transportation.

As what appears to be a P.R. move, the Corporation has also allowed a scientific research team on Pandora, headed by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, who strictly speaking isn’t reprising her role in the Alien movies — one of which was directed by Cameron — though her past interstellar role certainly boosts her credibility in her present one), while the more important military task force is headed by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), whose white hair and grizzled, weatherbeaten face — complete with a big scar across his head which a Na’vi resistance fighter inflicted on him — make him the perfect stereotype of a modern military commander, cheerily willing to accept “collateral damage” in order to secure the Corporation’s mining operations and therefore its quarterly profits. The Corporation is on Pandora to mine a substance called “unobtanium” — an old engineer’s joke; when a design seems to rely on the use of a raw material that can’t possibly exist in the real world, it’s said to need “unobtanium” — and while Cameron clearly regards this as nothing more than a Hitchcock-style McGuffin (we’re never told what this stuff does or why it’s so incredibly valuable), there are a couple of shots of it floating in mid-air above a dish that suggests some of the properties that might make it useful.

The tension between Grace and Col. Quaritch is a major issue driving the film, especially since part of her research project involves infiltrating humans into the Na’vi to see if they can be reasoned with and given a chance to cooperate with the people colonizing their planet and extracting their precious resource. There’s a problem with doing that — and also with conducting military operations on the surface of Pandora: the planet’s air is severely toxic to earthlings, and there are only three ways people can get around this. One is to wear oxygen masks; one is to get into what are called Amplified Mobility Platforms (AMP’s), armored robots which are about twice the size of a person and look like something out of the Transformers movies; and the third is to use avatars, which are artificial bodies created out of a combination of human and Na’vi DNA. (I was amused that Cameron’s script assumed that life on this faraway planet, like life on ours, would be based on the chemistry of deoxyribonucleic acid; I’ve argued on occasion that the structure of the DNA molecule, with its incredible molecular complexity and elegantly simple method of replication, might be the best real evidence for the whole idea of “intelligent design.” Even an old atheist like me might be willing to accept the idea of a deist-style god who created the DNA molecule and the first one-celled organism using it, planted it on earth and then let life evolve from there.)

Anyway, to operate your avatar you get into a white box that looks like the hibernation coffins the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey were sealed in for their flight to Jupiter (and ultimately murdered in by HAL the rogue computer), which has a foam-like substance inside that registers your movements so that the avatar moves with you and goes where and does what you want. The avatars have to be keyed to the DNA of the specific individuals who are going to use them — which is how a cripple like Jake Sully ends up on Pandora in the first place: Dr. Augustine had originally hired his identical twin brother, a scientist, for her team, but he was killed by a robber who mugged him (“just for a few pieces of green paper,” she sniffs — apparently in Cameron’s vision of the future paper money is still in use even though one would think that in 144 years all financial transactions would be electronic), and rather than let his avatar go to waste, Jake is tapped for the mission because as an identical twin his DNA is exactly the same as his dead brother’s and therefore he can operate the brother’s avatar. Jake is recruited for the mission by Col. Quaritch as well, with the promise that if he completes it successfully he’ll be O.K.’d for an operation that can restore the use of his legs. (Apparently 144 years from now we still won’t have universal access to health care in the U.S.)

Col. Quaritch wants Jake to spy on the Na’vi and learn how to defeat their insurgency once and for all; Dr. Augustine wants him — well, she really doesn’t want him (she thought she was getting a scientist, not a jarhead), but as long as he’s there she wants him to learn about Na’vi culture so the humans can figure out a way to negotiate a peaceful coexistence with them. Once Jake is plugged into his avatar for the first time, he can’t wait to get out of the building where his first contact with the avatar was made; in a scene whose exuberance recalls the sequence in the first Spider-Man movie in which Peter Parker tries out his super-powers for the first time, Jake can’t wait to get his avatar out on the surface of Pandora because he’s finally experiencing the thrill of walking and full mobility for the first time since whatever happened that disabled him. He also starts bonding with the Na’vi, and with one Na’vi in particular: Naytiri (Zoe Saldana), who rescues him from a couple of native Pandoran animals (a dinosaur with the head of a hammerhead shark and a black cat-like predator) and starts to train him in the Na’vi culture, initiation rights and language. (Cameron actually hired a linguist, Dr. Paul R. Frommer, to create a Na’vi language, including about 500 words of vocabulary as well as rules for its grammar and sentence structure — and it wouldn’t be surprising if at future Comic-cons and other science-fiction conventions people are enthusiastically speaking Na’vi with each other the way the most demented fans of Star Trek speak Klingon.)

Jake finds that the Na’vi are nature-worshiping pantheists who not only pray to the giant trees that dominate their landscape, but believe the trees hold the souls of their ancestors — which they do, as Dr. Augustine learns when she monitors the signals from them and finds that the Na’vi’s beliefs are based on actual biological processes going on in the trees which she can understand. Meanwhile, Jake is out in the forest learning to be a Na’vi, including riding their horses and flying creatures — he’s told by Naytiri that any Na’vi can ride any horse but the creatures bond to their riders so that only one Na’vi can ride each flyer, a plot gimmick I suspect both Cameron and the makers of Dinotopia (which is what it reminded Charles of) ripped off from Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books — and we learn that not only is Jake torn between two worlds, he’s really torn between three: his past as a U.S. Marine, his present as part of the scientific team, and what appears to be his future as a Na’vi — though we’re all too aware throughout the film that his very ability to look Na’vi and try to adapt to their culture is contingent on a highly elaborate technological infrastructure developed by earthlings and operated at their discretion.

Eventually the conflicts get to be too much; Col. Quaritch orders an attack on one of the Na’vi’s most sacred sites, the Hometree, because it happens to be sitting on top of the planet’s biggest deposit of unobtanium, He gets authorization for the attack from the base’s rather ineffectual commander, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), and carries it out despite the opposition of Dr. Augustine, the attempts of Jake to sabotage it — and the outright disobedence of helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), who says she didn’t sign on with the Corporation to commit genocide and helps keep Jake’s Na’vi self alive by airlifting an avatar tank into the Pandoran interior where she and Dr. Augustine can continue their research.

Avatar is basically a pro-Indian Western — obviously indebted to such films as Little Big Man and Dances with Wolves in its depiction of a military man who comes in contact with representatives of the native culture he’s supposed to be fighting and, impressed by the peace, love and harmony with which the natives live, switches sides and joins the resistance. The Los Angeles Times has published a column and a couple of blog entries about Right-wing opposition to this film — John Nolte of the Right-wing culture site called it “a sanctimonious thud of a movie so infested with one-dimensional characters and P.C. clichés that not a single plot turn, large or small, surprises,” and neoconservative crown prince John Podhoretz wrote in the Weekly Standard that Avatar was “blitheringly stupid” and said, “The conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism — kind of. … It’s more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now.”

Patrick Goldstein, whose “Big Picture” column and blog is the Times’ main source of writing about the politics of Avatar, agreed that the film hit three big Right-wing hot buttons: it’s pro-environment, pro-paganism (and hence, by inference, anti-Christian) and anti-military, though he suggests (and I agree) that the film is making as much money as it is despite, not because of, its politics. James Cameron would probably have just as big a success on his hands if he’d made the plot about a bunch of sinister Na’vi terrorists trying to destroy the earthling presence on their planet once and for all and Jake Sully heroically infiltrating the Na’vi to stop them — maybe we wouldn’t have liked it as much if it had been a science-fiction Rambo instead of a science-fiction Little Big Man, but the mass audience probably would have, because I don’t think people are going to see this film because of its politics. (And, of course, if Avatar were a recycling of Rambo instead of a recycling of Dances with Wolves, it would be the Left-wing critics who’d be writing snippy — and irrelevant — articles attacking it.)

They’re going to see it because of the incredibly cool special effects and, if you get into a suitably equipped showing, the absolutely stunning 3-D (even though Cameron and his camera crews haven’t solved one of the enduring problems with 3-D photography of all stripes: the people and foreground objects tend to look like cut-outs against the background — yes, they can create the illusion of depth, but not of the infinite gradations of depth with which we actually see the world, and one of the bizarre ironies of 3-D, at least as used here, is that the illusion of forward dimensionality is achieved at the cost of virtually any sense of depth of field; the focal length of Cameron’s 3-D lenses is surprisingly narrow). At the same time, the people on the Right who are criticizing the politics of Avatar are absolutely right: the heroes of the piece are the pacifist, nature-worshiping Na’vi and the earth people who take their side, and the villains are the military people and the unseen but omnipresent representatives of the Corporation. (There’s a stronger than usual hint of an anti-capitalist as well as an anti-war message here, even though it’s hard to take sincerely anti-capitalist sentiments in so capital-intensive an art form as major-studio commercial film.)

The scenes showing the attack on the Na’vi can’t help but evoke comparisons to the war in Viet Nam — both as it was shown on TV while it was actually happening and as it’s been dramatized in films like Apocalypse Now (if the Na’vi had a beach one would expect Col. Quaritch to leap from his helicopter with a surfboard and yell, “Na’vi don’t surf!”) — and the Na’vi religion is quite close to Native American traditions, particularly their sense that they are permanently attached to specific pieces of land and therefore to be moved off of them constitutes an offense against God and their death as a people. Avatar also evokes — and condemns — America’s more recent conflicts (not only is the conflict between Quaritch and Augustine presented much the way the run-up to the war in Iraq was — strike now or give the negotiations time to work — but Col. Quaritch actually uses the phrase “shock and awe” before he launches one of his sorties against the Hometree).

Embrace of a pantheistic religious view is nothing new for Cameron — The Abyss, an extraordinarily moving film and probably his best work until Avatar, also featured a clash between military men and scientists over an alien life form living a pantheist spirituality and trying to enlighten humanity about it — and perhaps it is the extent to which Cameron put his own views into this highly personal movie (he directed, wrote and co-produced it — this is not a committee-made studio blockbuster by any stretch of the imagination!) is responsible for the extraordinary emotional intensity with which the characters are depicted. The villains tend to turn into cardboard (had he given Col. Quaritch a few hints of self-doubt Avatar would be an even stronger and richer work than it is) but the sympathetic characters are people (or beings) you genuinely feel for, a rarity in any modern movie in an era in which all too many directors and screenwriters seem to equate noninvolvement with “cool.”

James Cameron obviously intended Avatar to be many things, including an enormous commercial success (as it had to be to have a prayer of recouping the $280 million of Rupert Murdoch’s shareholders’ money he reportedly spent on it) but also a highly personal statement and a worthy follow-up worth the wait for his first fully directed feature film since Titanic 12 years ago. Perhaps a re-seeing of Avatar should be on a normal 2-D screen — or even on TV when the inevitable DVD is finally released — because I can’t help thinking that the sheer size and weight of the spectacle takes away from Cameron’s moral lessons. In reviewing 2001: A Space Odyssey a second time when it was released in conventional 35 mm instead of the original Super Cinerama, Variety said (I’m quoting from memory here), “Cinerama emphasized the film’s complexity, 35 mm its fable-like simplicity. 2001 is a big enough film to accommodate both.” So, I suspect, is Avatar.