Avatar: Seeing is Disbelieving

Avatar has been hailed not as a film but a cinematic experience which was going to change the way we went to the movies. There was every reason to be excited. Number one, it was the first fiction film from the obscenely talented James Cameron since Titanic. During the past decade, he had been experimenting with the 3D IMAX format. Cameron was presumably looking for a way to make an even bigger movie instead.

The so-called King of the World was desperately needed. The Lord of the Rings aside, it was hard to think of a movie which had used computer effects in a convincing way. There were still glitches of movement and reflection to be worked out. Computer-generated characters seemed curiously weightless. More importantly, Cameron had demonstrated not only action chops but, in Titanic, a command of epic narrative. His scenes were expert demonstrations of a classical style of storytelling. This art was in danger of becoming extinct in an era of fast cuts and short attention spans. Cameron’s planet needed him. Alas, with Avatar he’s delivered his messiest film, one that’s ultimately more barnstorming stunt than coherent statement.

Cameron never intends to bore. But here he has journeyed out to the frontier of tech and gone native. The horror, the horror! At first, the rapidfire strike of story beats feels like it might be making an ambiguous atmosphere. Having lost the use of his legs in some Venezuelan war, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has been sent to the planet of Pandorum. It’s the year 2154. An unnamed corporation is mining the planet for a precious mineral called unobtainium. The business is accompanied by a military unit who is protecting them from indigenous beasties and the warrior tribe of the Na’vi.

The Na’vi are large, lithe blue-skinned bipeds who represent a variety of ethnic cultures. Characteristic features have been attached to the powerful form of a Nuba as photographed by Leni Reifenstahl. On the one hand, their flat noses, large eyes and glowing freckles give them an otherworldly kind of beauty. On the other, they resemble the emaciated body types found in the pages of Vogue or MTV taken to an elongated extreme.

Completing the military-industrial complex is a team of scientists led by cigarette-puffing Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). Augustine has created an avatar program that allows andidates to mentally control a Na’vi. One of those candidates is Jake, an impetuous self-described “jarhead” who qualifies for the program because he shares the DNA of his late scientist twin. The device of the avatar is latest incarnation of Cameron’s interest in surrogate bodies. His sucess is founded on the Terminator series, where a malevolent computer uses android bodies to exterminate the human population. In Avatar, Cameron smash cuts between Jake’s human form and his avatar one. The editing strategy suggests that the world Jake enters in his Na’vi cloak isn’t entirely real. For one, it’s completely generated by the production’s effects team, who have polished the planet until it’s a spit-shined version of, as has been indicated elsewhere, one of Roger Dean’s album covers.

For the crippled Jake, now capable of movement, this world is also a playground. His first reaction to waking up with a Na’vi’s body is to climb out of his crib and wander onto a basketball court. When he becomes stranded in the jungle, Jake amuses himself by fondling responsive flora and leaving glow-in-the-dark footprints. After a Na’vi tribe adopts him, ake learns how to run from tree to tree like a parkour enthusiast at Disney. (20th Century Fox, as far as I know, do not own any amusement parks.)

Cameron has plenty that he wants to “say.” The antagonistic relationship between an exploitative America and indigenous peoples has its parallels with both Vietnam–whose jungle terrain Pandroum most resembles–and Iraq. The term “jarhead” doesn’t just suggest the emptiness of Jake’s avatar skull, but the Gulf War-set memoir/film of the same name. As the gung-ho Colonel Quaritch, Stephen Lang is called upon to play a Bush-like decider who resembles Jean-Claude Van Damme after several tours of duty. Preparing to strike at the heart of what he calls the “fly-bitten savages,” Quaritch explains “When people are sitting on shit that you want, you make them the enemy.” Keith Olbermann couldn’t have explained it better. In return, the Na’vi proclaim that “We will fight terror with terror.” It may be the 22nd century, but not a damn thing has changed.

The Na’vi aren’t just a primitive tribal society. They’re eco-warriors as well. Jake (and us) hear plenty about a great chain of energy that needs to be replenished. Any kill is immediately followed by the hunter making a prayer of apology. The Na’vi even live in a giant tree that makes our redwoods look like crabgrass. In short, gas guzzling industry bad, hunter/gatherers good–a slightly reactionary theme which Cameron has been banging home since Terminator. Pol Pot might dig the sentiment if he wasn’t too busy killing anybody wearing a pair of glasses.

That Cameron advocates going back to nature while geeking out on the latest tech is just one of his interesting contradictions. For while Cameron concocts the glossiest version possible of Western Union to deliver his messages, his tricked-out movies are really about the special effects. Titanic was an elegaic farewell to an old way of making movies, building one of the largest free-standing sets sine Intolerance only to destroy it. That wasn’t no iceberg that sank Cameron’s Titanic, but the advent of computer wizardry.

So Jake’s journey from jarhead to a Braveheart-like leader of the Na’vi is also Cameron’s journey from a student of the new technology to a purported master of it. On first discovering Jake in his alien avatar form, the beautiful alien Neytiri (played by gorgeous human being Zoe Saldana) dismisses him as “a baby.” There is certainly something infantile about his early, heavy-footed flailing about through the pastoral scene. He manages to destroy or antagonize elements of the natural world, but that is the way with these Dances With Wolves-style fables of assimilation, which reach back as far as Tarzan and The Jungle Book and even Melville’s Typee. Jake is educated in a series of trials. He learns how to ride a horse, how to ride a dragon and finally how to ride his Na’vi protectoress. Watching their al fresco fumbling, I was reminded that for such a geeky filmmaker, Cameron has created at least two indelible images of onscreen sex–Terminator‘s clasped hands and Titanic‘s hand thumping on a coach’s steamy window, as if trapped within the movie screen).

Soon even Jake, who is a bit of a dim bulb, begins to see that he’s learning how to navigate this new world. With time, he stops being distracted by flowers that light up when you touch them. Jake, however, has an uncertain status in the world outside his compound. His Na’vi pals call him a “dreamwalker.” He’s like the audience in the way he is immersed in an entirely imaginary world as seen in 3D/IMAX. For two-and-a-half hours, though, he’s only a temporary visitor. (Jake awakens in his human form whenever his Na’vi avatar falls unconscious.) Cameron’s abrupt transitions between human Jake getting involved in colonial intrigues with Quaritch and his alien form learning the Na’vi ways encourage this sense of dream. How do we know that what happens to Jake in his avatar form is actually happening to him? While Pandorum is impressively rendered by the effects team, it’s never quite real–just compare this pixel-ated paradise with the one torn apart in Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, for example.

Jake himself seems confused by the whole notion. Soon he doesn’t know which way is up. “Everything out there is real and here it’s the dream,” he tells his video log. His reality begins to disintegrate, leading him to claim, “I don’t know who I am anymore.” If Jake is getting lost inside his Na’vi role, though, Cameron is chasing the implications of virtual reality technology to the end of the rainbow. He’s seeing the increasing sophistication of imagined visual environments as a possibility to make the dead live. Neytiri introduces Jake to a vast tree that resounds wioth the voices of alien ancestors. On Pandorum, the dead can still communicate with the living. The question of what this means for our bodies is a little more ambiguous.

From the off, Avatar is about bodies. The Na’vi, in their vanity, are not beyond body modification. Neytiri wears hoops inside her elongated earlobes like any Silverlake tattoo artist might. Cameron is also fascinated by the world of the physically over-developed marine–and his mixed-up sexuality. The soldiers coo over the new human arrivals on Pandorum as “fresh meat.” The beefy marines refer to themselves “ladies.” Their leader Quarich’s body is pumped up to bursting point. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore photographs the very real Lang’s pectorals with the same ravishment as Cameron manufactures Pandorum’s lush jungle mountains. Lang’s very corporeality makes him one of the film’s most appealing characters, in spite of an unredeemable villainy straight out of Third World cinema. One of the pleasures of his performance is how he nods to Cameron’s previous onscreen avatar, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Cameron reaches back to his filmography to make Avatar a kind of summary statement of his adventures in filmmaking. The human compound is manned by marines wearing robotic exoskeletons–their own clunky kind of avatars. These, along with Weaver’s presence, hint that Avatar is part of the same universe as Aliens (which itself played with notions of cloning and reproduction). Although the alien forms are more athletic than the brick-like marines, they use the giant exoskeletons for combat purposes, though Cameron can’t resist reflexively drawing attention to the bloodline shared by these machines from a 1988 sequel and his brave new computer-generated species. When Lang, encased in his armor, faces off against a giant panther straight from someone’s hard drive, he taunts it with the line, “Come to papa.”

The other advantage the agile aliens have over their clunkier human counterparts is beauty. Not only do the Na’vi boast ideal dimensions–there are no obese aliens on Pandorum–but they are proud enough of the fact to walk around undressed, as if featuring in an intergalactic National Geographic spread. The women are at times franly topless, while the men wear loincloths. (The audience I saw the film with laughed when Na’vi Jake first traded in his shorts for a thong.) Cameron’s sensuality is all shimmering surface. Sex is conducted through “bonding,” where the tendrils found in the Na’vi’s ponytails embrace. The delicacy of the CGI animation aside, it’s about as erotic as sticking a lipstick drive into the computer. Perhaps more important are the sweet nothings traded between this John Smith and his virtual blue Pocahontas–“I see you”–an acknowledgement that the fantasy is indeed real.

Colonialism, body fetishism, environmentalism in a digital world, new modes of virtual/online existence, learning how to fly a dragon … this is a lot to cram into popcorn entertainment, and Cameron deserves a standing ovation for ambition in a world content with watching horror remakes while waiting for the next Bourne sequel. The writer-director does not appear, though, to have actually resolved his thoughts on such issues. If Titanic had the relentless progression of a great novel (or even a trashy one), Avatar‘s narrative method resembles the floating touch screens and pop-up used by the human population. Cameron never settles on an argument, scene or even shot. The editing is frisky and even the most dazzling panorama doesn’t linger on the screen long enough to be fully appreciated. For the first time, Cameron’s cinema of attractions trumps his story. Jake’s trials allows Cameron the license to linger on sequences of flying and movement without actually letting it move his narrative along.

For this viewer, the combination of 3D and IMAX was also insufficient to sustain interest in these cosmic hippie dullards. The eye adjusts to the 3D effect after the film’s first five minutes. At no time during the dragon flying sequence does there feel like there’s a sense of depth. I got more of a dizzying sense of vertigo from the forced perspectives of Black Narcissus than this film. Nor did I feel like I was absorbed by the IMAX screen. If one believes in these flying sequences, then it may be possible to get caught up in the movie’s visionary thrall. But Cameron’s action sequences eel limpid, partly due to the escalated cutting, and his battle scenes are shamed by those in Starship Troopers and The Matrix Revolutions. Considering Avatar‘s excess, it’s never once as involving as the more intimate Hurt Locker, a different kind of look at colonialism and parallel worlds directed by Cameron’s ex-wife. The movie also betrays traces of trimming, suggesting an uncertainty on Cameron’s part which matches the incoherence of his thinking on biotechnology. The director was so immersed in his world, he couldn’t see what was actually in front of him.

Other elements of Avatar are just plain embarrassing: an alien doing what can only be described as “ninja shit” in spite of being many light years away from Japan. Jake challenges an opponent with the line “Let’s dance,” which by Avatar‘s timeline hasn’t been uttered by a sentient being in about 175 years. With his wandering accent, Worthington is a poor stand-in for Cameron heroes of yore, and the director feels a little loss without his stock company (no part for Lance Henrickson or Michael Biehn, Jim?) Weaver’s presence is reassuring–she’s also the only human female to get naked during a failed attempt to be reborn in an alien form. (Another hint by Cameron that the combination of computer graphics and 3D can be the key to eternal life.)

Finally, Cameron’s aliens may be noble as hell, but they’re fucking boring to be around. Their ode of natural exchange seems pretty lax when they finally face off against the marines in a battle that’s too long in coming. Some writers have applauded Cameron for the completeness of his universe, but I never figured out where the animals fit in the great chain of being. For all their hunting, I never saw a Na’vi actually eat anything–accounting for their waspy waistlines–or plant a seed. The movie was maybe half-over when when it dawned on me that Cameron has fatally decided that aliens are more interesting than humans. They aren’t. From Klaatu to E.T., aliens are tedious. It’s the human reaction to them that’s interesting. It’s one of Avatar‘s fatal flaws that nothing on screen is quite as physically impressive as Lang’s Colonel or Michelle Rodriguez’s helicopter pilot.

Something about the technological nuances seems to have ultimately hobbled Cameron rather than making him take flight. His compositions are functional–and at times he attempts to suggest documentary immediacy with a simulated handheld framing. The set pieces, however, like the felling of a tree the size of the World Trade Center, contains none of the suspense or the grandeur of Titanic‘s sinking. At times, Cameron seems wistful for his earlier films. The Marines are called “The Sky People,” making them cousins to Terminator‘s genocidal computer Skynet. When Jake dives into a waterfall, it’s as if Cameron were yearning for the days of Rambo scripts. This nostalgia is one hopeful sign that the kinder, gentler Cameron hasn’t completely gone to mush. Immediately after their love-making, Jake and Neytiri witness the razing of their home. It’s an apocalyptic flourish Jack and Rose would be familiar with, and a sign that maybe, off on his private digital Pandorum, Cameron might yet tear this brave new world down to start all over again.

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