I went into this film with fairly low expectations. I’ve nothing against Hollywood blockbusters and feel no shame about admitting that Michael Ironside intoning “They sucked his brains out!” in Starship Troopers remains one of my favourite cinematic moments of all time. My tastes are quite eclectic; Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano is probably my favourite film-maker (in fact, I watched the glorious Hana-bi again recently. It really is one of the greatest films ever made… dreamlike, moving, violent, funny, hypnotic and as far from a Hollywood blockbuster as you’re likely to get), yet I’ve happily grinned my way through all four Die Hard movies.
Even so, I was quite sceptical about the latest James Cameron spectacular. I’d read some scathing reviews and pretty much convinced myself that the 3D technology wasn’t going to be effective.
That said, I wasn’t going to miss it either. Even the most negative review grudgingly admitted Avatar is visually spectacular. How could it not be, given the absurd amount of money spent ensuring it would be? Throw enough money at a cinema screen and some of it will stick. Plus, there was always a chance that the silly glasses would really work. So if I was going to see it at all, then it probably had to be on a big screen. It’s like being at a U2 concert or watching the space shuttle blast off… whatever you may feel about the content of the experience, if you’re close enough then the way it engages the senses is incredible. Our small monkey brains can’t help but be awed by the sheer scale of what’s happening.
And “awe” is not too hyperbolic a word to be bandying about when it comes to Avatar. The film didn’t just exceed my expectations, it blew them into a billion tiny glowing bits and sent them floating around me like a swarm of fireflies. The 3D effect was far better than I’d expected. It was genuinely magical at times. I’d never been to a 3D film before, but it’s safe to say I’m an instant convert. Thankfully it involved a good deal less “gratuitous objects flying towards your head” than I thought it would. In a movie low on subtlety, the use of 3D was immersive without being over-the-top. Credit to James Cameron for his restraint there, even if nowhere else.
Clearly he knew the visuals were breath-taking enough to generate plenty of “whoa!” moments all by themselves. The clever use of the 3D technology just draws the viewer that little bit further into the experience. So when one of the primary locations in the story is a tree that would dwarf the Burj Dubai, adding a convincing depth of field is more than enough to start the brain reeling. Forcing the viewer to duck as projectiles shot towards them every thirty seconds would merely serve to distract from the splendour.
Which isn’t to say that there’s none of that more obvious use of 3D. The plot of the film involves human colonists (in the form of a dastardly mining corporation backed by gung-ho space marines) trying to relocate, and eventually annihilate, the Na’vi (the indigenous culture on the ecologically pristine planet Pandora). The blue-skinned Na’vi fight with spears and bows-and-arrows. This, of course, allows the spectacular battle sequences to contain the requisite amount of “objects flying at your head” action.
In the reviews I’ve read, the primary criticisms of Avatar centre around the plot and the dialogue. With regards to the plot though, there’s a part of me that disagrees. Yes it’s simple. But, fantastical setting aside, it’s telling an archetypical tale that echoes back into history and is alive and well on our planet today. The destructive exploitation of our ecology at the expense of indigenous cultures — and ultimately ourselves — is not a tale that can be told too often. Nor too loudly. Especially now.
Having said that, I’m well aware that there’s an argument which says that particular story can’t be told in a Hollywood blockbuster. That the medium is the message. An argument convincingly put forward by Citizen S, with whom I went to see Avatar. She found the film entertaining and the 3D very impressive despite not being a fan of the Big Guns & Shiny Metal genre. But she looked upon me with something akin to pity when I started to praise “the message” of the film.
The essentially commercial nature of the enterprise undercuts and invalidates any anti-commercial message it tries to send. The calculated manipulative techniques used by the medium to generate the maximum audience, and then the businesses that have grown up to part that audience from their cash — from popcorn to action figures to… well, just think about that pictured tie-in, to the right, for a few seconds… these things are themselves precisely the kind of colonialism the film claims to decry. When the soundtrack swells with those “strings in minor key”, tugging your heart down proscribed pathways, and then shifts abruptly to major chords when the hero strides towards his destiny, you are being trained in a very specific way of looking at the world. And you’re being encouraged to have a hamburger and Coke while you do so. You just can’t dress up an anti-colonialist story about ecological sustainability in half a billion dollar’s worth of industrial light and magic part-sponsored by the McDonald’s Corporation.
I think that was the gist of her argument.
Certainly it began with: “it’s a Hollywood action film. Get a grip.”
And you know, despite the sensory delight and sheen of subversion, there’s certainly something to that.
Although I think perhaps it goes even deeper than that. When what is already the most successful film in history, turns out to be a thinly veiled attack on the very system that allows it to exist, it’s yet more evidence of our deep cultural crisis. Our collective schizophrenia.
Wouldn’t it be mind boggling to encounter a previously unknown Amazonian culture and discover that their most popular story-tellers regularly portrayed the tribe as cynical hypocrites filled with avarice and malice, always in the wrong? And yet the past few decades have been littered with fiction of precisely that nature. Whether it’s Dances With Wolves (of which Avatar is essentially a remake with an upbeat ending) or Cameron’s own Aliens (“You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage”) or the plethora of “apocalypse as thrilling entertainment” flicks. Besides our own, is there a single culture we’ve ever known, whose great stories and myths regularly portray themselves as the bad guys?
Whether or not we can take heart in the positive aspects of Avatar’s plot, it is clearly part of a body of work that suggests we are a culture in the grip of a nervous breakdown.
And how much hope can we take in the fact, that while the most popular film in history is not telling a story that celebrates unsustainability, its very existence does?
So to speak.