Avatar (a review)

As cute as the Ewoks are, they introduced me to oppression and loss as a kid.  The Empire’s robots scar Endor’s jungle whilst the natives launch every head-sized rock they can put their paws on.  Amongst the battle comes the first sign of Ewok fragility.  Before this point the action was fun and appeared evenly matched – but then this singular Ewok is brought down by enemy fire, a child kneeling and pining by its side.

I watched this many times as a kid, me being young – where one can watch the same film a seemingly infinite amount of times –  and it being Star Wars.  It was so easy to sympathise with the furry guys.  They were fun.  They were the underdogs.  The emotional investment in their victory made that lonely Ewok’s death so difficult to digest.  Empathy stretching to the stomach’s lowest hollows.

The Na’vi, however, are annoying.  Really, really fucking annoying.

Choose your favourite!  There’s a wide selection of supporting CGI ones completely indistinguishable from one another, or you can opt for a more central character in the tribe.  Take your pick – love interest one, angry warrior one, leader one, mother one.  The scope is painful.

Such a primitive treatment of characters in a film, characters, might I add, whom your sympathies are meant to lie with unequivocally, is problematic.

Tribal drums in a soundtrack; African-esque dialect – to portray a ‘native’ race with such cinematic cliché patronises the spectator to indifference.  The film’s ‘evil’ characters (so two dimensionally evil that…STOP, I promised myself no three-dimensional jokes) even refer to them as “blue monkeys”.

I read a quote the other day about how the liberal fears mentioning ‘race’ as it then makes them a ‘racist’.  This is, of course, in their own neurotic minds and I try not to adhere to it, but the representation of the Na’vi made me deeply uncomfortable.  I’m not saying Avatar is a racist film, but it is a stupid film.

There are particular scenes which make the Na’vi look overwhelmingly ridiculous.  When one can hear sniggers from those beside you, and to then join in, during the film’s most ’emotional’ moment is testament to how without irony Avatar is.

It’s odd that I developed absolutely no interest in the Na’vi as Avatar has such a classically perfect structure for this sort of film.

1. Introduction to down-and-out protagonist

2. Learns, at surface level, what is going on between the bad and good guys

3. Integrates with Na’vi with hidden motive

4. Falls in love with Na’vi race, and one in particular…oooooh…colonise that bitch…

5. Hidden motive comes back to haunt all, and send everyone to lowest point (which should have gone on for so much longer)

6. Plot revenge

7. Battle (actually brilliant, complete with Cameron’s “insignificant man has awesome death” auteur trait – see: bloke hitting a rail when falling off the top of the Titanic)

8. End

There’s more than ample room to develop relationships with the characters, especially with point 5 being about a minute long, but Cameron instead flips between either set-pieces or choppy montages.

However, I have never seen anything so spectacular.  The last film to impress me so much visually was Cuaron’s ‘Children of Men’.

Indeed, seeing it in the iMAX meant I could turn around, to look behind at everyone with their specs on, and recreate the front cover of Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’.  I must have looked even more absurd, carefully balancing my 3D glasses on top of my own prescription ones.

Avatar works in a way that I have not yet seen 3D films do.  Instead of ‘objects’ popping out at you, the screen operates more as a window, in that you’re looking through into another world where reality can be edited and perspectives can be God-like.

It’s like looking into a puppet box, which is also the most apt term for the actors in this film.  They never embrace the whole ‘three-dimensi…NO, NO, NO 3D JOKES – but it’s so easy.

The landscape of Pandora is what you would expect, absolutely glorious.  The floating mountains with waterfalls that evaporate off their sides, turning into the foggy clouds which haze the sky.  The jungles themselves, full of weird and fantastical creatures and plants.  However, it never escapes cartoon aesthetics.  I both look forward to and fear the day when I take a CGI film as real rather than saying it looks real.

Where the film’s real beauty resides, and also much of its emotional depth, is in the human world.  Seeing our reality transformed by 3D, things like tables or computers or chairs or people, seeing those in 3D is like experiencing them with eyes anew.  The technology hasn’t perfected itself yet.  Some parts will still give you a head-ache, and others will simply look at fault, but the images themselves are breathtaking nonetheless.

The frustrating thing about Avatar is how it occasionally uses 3D for emotional weight and not aesthetic beauty (frustrating in that it hardly ever happens).  Every time Jake Sully is ripped from his avatar body and placed back into his own broken one, there are about two or three seconds of sunken moments.  The contrast from the world of Pandora to whichever science station maintains Sully’s reality is so enormous visually that the latter has the lashings of something blunt, and aimed at the chest.

For if colours and action and skies and movement can be made as spectacular as they evidently can be by 3D, then why can’t it be used to show the desolate, the empty, the lonely and the damaged?  Cameron comes so close every so often to this cinematic ideal – to achieve such physical depth in melancholy – like a stone skipping a pond that will never sink.  Only when that pebble plunges so deep into the ocean’s depths that the darkness envelopes it completely will I consider 3D artistically viable.

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