A reviewer from the Chicago Reader has compared the impact of Avatar's Hollywood “movie magic” to that of audiences seeing King Kong for the first time in 1933. In terms of visuals and special effects, I'd have to agree full-heartedly. Aside from the fact that I was sitting far too close to the 6 story Imax screen with funny goggles on my head – I was blown away by the decadent eye candy. Planet Pandora is detailed, rich and often mesmerizing, particularly when we are flying around floating mountains on a huge pterodactyl-like creatures. The one complaint (re: Kendall) about the visuals is that The Na'vi (10 foot tall blue aboriginals) look too fake. In my opinion this comes down to the fact that no one has figured out how to make skin look authentic, particularly when the camera is at close quarters. So the Na'vi look like they are wearing skin tight blue wet suits on their lanky frames. This doesn't bother me that much, maybe because it gets as close to real as CGI can possibly come to bringing to life blue aliens. At the heart of the story is a cheesy romance between Jake Sully, a wheel-chair bound ex-marine who controls a Na'vi/Humanoid avatar and a real Na'vi princess (Hollywood's first BLUE princess! Hey diversity!). They bond while she teaches Sully the Na'vi way of life – which consists of hunting, tracking, killing and riding other animals, despite the sentimental environmentalism written into the film. This romance lends to the sweeping, epic tone of the film, again reminding us of the King Kong effect.

Both films try to highlight the brutality of Humans when confronted with what they don't understand (i.e. Alien lifeforms). King Kong makes this claim with far better accuracy than Avatar, however. There is a very conflicted, very human, way people deal with the imax screen-sized ape in King Kong. It is viewed with awe and fear and respected for its awesome presence, but is ultimately exploited by the entrepreneurial spirit of Americans. Of course, it cannot be contained any easier than a hurricane can, and in the end must be destroyed. King Kong is an animal, it acts on instinct and when defending himself is capable of destruction on a Godzilla-like scale. But it is also an ape, and thus smarter than most creatures, only a step or two below human consciousness – the proof being that it is capable of something in the arena of love. Kong's death is sad – humanity killed the ape. But there is also the sense that we acted not on entirely evil pretences, but that we wanted to show the world something spectacular. In my opinion the quest to show Kong to the world was not done purely in terms of crass commercialism (although I can't deny there is traces of that), but rather that seeing Kong produced a humbling, almost reverential reaction in audiences.

In Avatar, the Na'vi are very similar to aboriginal, hunter-gatherer cultures. They are flawless – a spiritual, ritualistic, proud and united people. Humanity is represented by the colonial forces of a thuggish military and a few tree-hugging scientists. The military wants access to a mineral deposit that sits below the Na'vi city – the Na'vi refuse to leave their homes, and so the military pledges to wipe them out if the scientists and their avatar-program cannot find a 'diplomatic solution'. The cartoon-like colonel refers to the Na'vi as savages and tree-monkeys – basically the same racist attitudes that plagued European settlers in North America. The environmentalist scientists view the Na'vi with a naive and sentimental attitude – idealizing them as perfect organisms at peace with the world around them. We are expected to think the same. I digress; All in all it is a very 2-D plot and script, pasted together with politically-correct environmentalist rhetoric. Avatar would have been far better off as a simple showcase for Pandora – think a Planet Earth type feature of an imagined world.

Cameron put all his effort, craft and film-making experience in creating the world of Pandora, while hiring the script writers of Wall-E, 9, and Fern Gully. It seems that every fantasy picture these days has to show that humanity on the whole is completely blind to their ongoing rape of the natural world – to serve as biting political wake-up calls to the general public. Please. You guys are wearing dull dentures. The story is much more complicated than that. The solution is not to become a hunter-gatherer population along the Amazon or someplace 'exotic'. BUT! Aside from the films underlying 'message', it is a blast to watch. It is one of the few pictures where i have sat slack-jawed and at the edge of my seat, revelling in 'movie magic'. Go see it to feel like I did as a kid watching dinosaurs come to life in Jurassic Park, or how my scrappy 1933 Brooklyn child avatar would have watched King Kong almost 80 years ago.


Dropkick said...

great review, can't wait to see it.

I have heard and read that Avatar is actually best viewed in non-imax. When viewed in reald 3d, what it was filmed for apparently the film is much more breathtaking.
This is because since Avatar was not filmed on imax cameras the film has been stretched to fit the screen making it difficult to view much of the high definition that Cameron was going for.

Its good to read a review that focuses on the story rather then go on about how it looked.

La Sporgenza said...

Interesting review that got me thinking about the “message” dilemma in film (and other media) today. I completely understand the feeling of guilt-fatigue, the sense that we're perpetually inundated with simplistic Amish-lifestyle solutions to complex world problems, but wonder how someone might articulate the apparent immediacy of the problem without falling into the same Fern Gully that Cameron might have in Avatar. The lost art of subtlety and story complexity that might appeal at a fundamental level to the likes of some would completely miss the mainstream audience. I wonder whether Cameron might have chosen a Pixar-like story-telling convention, but instead of tossing out a few “adult” jokes and wisecracks to keep the parents occupied, opted to pitch the story at two levels of “adult” - one who might through osmosis might connect the simplistic environmental allegory and the other who might pick up on the political metaphor represented in the film. This is an interesting read re: the later - http://kunstler.com/blog/2009/12/blue-christmas.html