02 January 2010

White Shame in 3-D -- Film Review: Avatar

I'm no expert on science fiction films, and although I don't consider myself an ardent aficionado whatsoever, there exist a handful of films for which I have a great affection.  It has occurred to me that reduced to core principles, the genre of science fiction consists of two basic archetypes:  a.  advanced human society engenders inanimate objects (i.e. robots) with artificial intelligence to improve their lives only for the sentient computers to spiral diabolically out of control and attempt to enslave or exterminate humans; or b. advanced human society encountering advanced alien lifeforms, whether they come to us or we go to them is left to the descretion of the filmmaker, but a semi-apocalyptic battle for superiority is inevitable.  Naturally, there are many instances of these archetypes overlapping and the preeminent science fiction film of them all, the one that really defined the genre, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey synthesizes them with such profoundly bizarre virtuosity that all subsequent forays into science fiction are relegated to its shadow.

There is also the fantasy subcategory, where the filmmaker creates an entirely original world that is only faintly recognizable to our own.  With Avatar, writer and director James Cameron embraces archetype B, heavily imbuing it with CGI phantasmagoria, simultaneously adapting colonialist excursions Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas

First let me address the highly touted technological aspects of the film, and then I'll deconstruct its themes.  Effects wise, Avatar has no equal.  Cameron's vision of an alternate Earthlike planet, Pandora, complete with incandescent plantlife, hexapod animalia, and 10 feet tall humanoids is impressive not only in its conception but more so in the execution.  Imagine the Amazon rainforest on steroids and then imagine explaining that vision to graphic artists so that it'll actually look cool.

The version I saw claimed to be 3-D IMAX, however, it seemed to me to simply be a converted theatre with a slightly larger screen hauled in a week before.  I would think that seeing Avatar at a screen solely dedicated to IMAX would have made the visual experience even more satisfying.  I am skeptical regarding the 3-D part as well.  Certainly there were moments in the film where objects felt like they were coming out of the screen, and perhaps in a 164 minute film the 3-D novelty wears off quickly, but it seemed like 3-D IMAX in reality means Super High Definition.  (Quick note to James Cameron:  3 hours of wearing uncomfortable and unsightly glasses is too much) 

As I state in my opening remarks, the plotting is nothing new.  In the year 2154, a human mercenary is recruited by a corporate mining company to the planet Pandora, in the Alpha Centauri star system, to inhabit the bluish 10 foot tall body of the genetically engineered native Pandoran humanoid lifeforms, the Na'vi -- hence the title Avatar.  His mission is to infiltrate their society, learn their ways, and convince them to abandon their home, a collossal tree called appropriately, HomeTree, so that the corporation can mirthfully mine the element "unobtainium" which goes for $20 million per kilo on the Earthly market.  A middle schooler can see where this is going.  

The allegory is so thinly veiled that it hardly qualifies being called an allegory.  Besides being blue and accessorizing tails, the Na'vi conspicuously resemble the American Indian, and their manner of social interaction is a goofy synthesis of Apaches on the warpath in old Westerns and tribalist histrionics of the animated Pocahontas.  The heavy-handed subtext is clearer than the 3-D resolution:  the white man perpetuating imperialism upon an unsuspecting and defenseless native population for the purpose of exploiting natural resources.  Pandora could have just as easily been called Iraq, or Vietnam, or Dakota.  It is no coincidence that all the antagonists reek WASPish, and in fact I didn't notice a minority on the mercenary (bad guys) side until the final 15 minutes.

James Cameron is the modern day Cecil B. DeMille, a pure epic storyteller.  Like most epic storytellers, the draw is in the spectacle, not the narrative.  No one went to see The Ten Commandments to be ecumenically educated, and thirteen year old girls didn't return to the cinemas six weekends in a row to follow the labyrinthian plot twists of TitanicAvatar is a good movie, a servicable movie, with above-average action sequences and superior CGI effects, unfortunately it disavows the audience's inherent sophistication, or rather, discredits it in favour of iridiscent 10 foot tall perkiness.