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A Cinematic Game Changer?

A Cinematic Game Changer? December 22, 2009

Unless you’ve been in a coma for over a year, you are probably familiar with James Cameron‘s latest film, Avatar.  Touted as the most expensive film ever made, it has received rave reviews for its 3D special effects and stunning other-world scenery.  Unfortunately, the plot is as thin and heavy-handed as its effects are beautiful.

In the not-too-distant future, Earthlings have yet again ruined their home planet and dispatched a group of military experts and scientists to a distant planet, Pandora, to mine for a precious mineral, Unobtanium, that will serve as a power source for their energy-depleted planet.  Instead of leading with a simple shock-and-awe campaign to retrieve the mineral, they try some sort of thinly veiled diplomacy by allowing a select group of individuals to become avatars, Earthlings who assume the body of a Na’vi, the indigenous people of Pandora, in an attempt to understand, and win thereby win the hearts and minds of, the roadblacks to power.  The program is lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), and one of its main participants, and the lead character of the film, is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed combat veteran who is promised fresh legs if he succeeds.  (Un)Fortunately, Jake has a conscience and gains respect for and clear understanding of the Na’vi and their ways, particularly through his budding romantic relationship with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).  He leads a revolt against his own people which results in all-out-war between the two parties.

If the story sounds familiar to you, then you’ve no doubt seen Ferngully:  The Last Rainforest (1992), a parallel that I’m not the first or last to draw.  Avatar retains its predecessors’ pro-environmental, anti-capitalist, anti-industrialist stance but replaces the oily villain and rainforest clear-cutting, here the Earthlings simply want the mineral which is unfortunately available in spades underneath the Na’vi’s sacred tree.  As I previously mentioned, there’s not much narrative meat to Avatar.  Global waste and destruction are simply assumed as a future reality for Earth because Cameron leaves out any explanation for how or why they have come to need this precious resource from Pandora.

On the other hand, Cameron’s religio-environmentalism at play here is, on one level, interesting.  I appreciate Cameron’s emphasis on the interconnectedness of all beings in Pandora.  He does a good job of showing how harm to the “least of these,” can have dangerous consequences for other beings as well.  Unfortunately, this connected awareness is, at times, a bit too saccharine.  I disagree with the Hollywood Jesus review of the film which cites this pseudo-religious element as a “safe” response to more traditional notions of divinity.  The reviewer writes, “Now I ask you, what would have happened if it had even been suggested that the deity the Na’vi worshiped was the same as the God of the Bible? Instead of profound it would be ridiculous. Instead of spiritual it would have been proselytizing. In short, it would not have been accepted as a “serious” part of the story.”  I think he assumes too much in anticipating that viewers are looking at this element of the story as “profound” and “serious.”  The spirituality of the Na’vi is as caricatured as the apparent godlessness of the invading Earthlings.

Speaking of those pesky Earthlings, we have an impressive one in Col. Miles Quartich (Stephen Lang), the leader of the military invasion.  He has a vision of Pandora that makes viewers wonder if he has actually ever set foot on the planet.  He tells his troops that “if there is a hell, you might want to go there for R & R,” after being on Pandora.  While Pandora does have its dangers, they’re probably not much different…only slightly more intense…than the natural dangers of earth before it was brought to ruin.  Quartich’s view of Pandora seems to parallel many of our socio-political perceptions of “the other” in contemporary American culture which often negatively influence our foreign policy.  I find it hard to distinguish between the Na’vi’s “natural aggressiveness” as a people and their vigilance required to resist an invading force.

With Avatar, James Cameron has come a long…long…way since his low-budget days with Roger Corman and films like Piranha Part Two:  The Spawning (1981) and The Terminator (1984).  The technical virtuosity that he showed in films like Terminator Two:  Judgment Day (1991) and The Abyss (1989) has come to full fruition with his latest film.  His original ability to do a lot with a little in his earlier films has evolved in a willingness and patience to wait for technology to catch up to his vision, rather than settling for less.  I find it hard to argue with the critics who view this as a cinematic game changer.  The 3D special effects work perfectly, forgoing any of the in-your-face childishness that plagued much of the effect throughout its history.  Here, Cameron seems to understand and grasp its true potential to immerse us further into the world that he has created, if only there was more in the way of narrative to keep us interested in sticking around.  While it won’t be impossible to sit through other non-3D films, it appears that, at least, all sci-fi films will feel lacking without it.

Avatar (162 mins.) is rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, and language and is currently in theaters everywhere.  If you go, it better be to a 3D version.


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