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Avatar in Black and White

Posted on Dec 19, 2009 by billsimmon in Digital Culture, filmmaking, movies, SF, the nerd life | 8 Comments

What follows are my next-day thoughts on Avatar. Minor spoilers abound.

Somewhere near the middle of James Cameron’s three-hour long sci-fi spectacle, Avatar, I had to pee. The “medium” Diet Pepsi I’d been nursing was making its presence known in my bladder and the matter was just becoming too urgent to ignore. So I waited until I perceived a relative lull in the narrative, took off my 3-D glasses and exited the theater for the men’s room. In the fluorescent glare of the bathroom it occurred to me that I was experiencing a little meta-moment at the movies. The film is in large part about a guy (our hero) who uses fancy technology to enter a different world and experience things unlike the things he’s used to experiencing. In the course of the film he goes into and out of that new world by connecting to or being disconnected from that technology. And here I was, under the bright men’s room light, having been disconnected from my own fantastic world by disconnecting from technology — my 3-D glasses. The real world (while also technically in 3-D) was vastly less exciting and exotic than the one playing out in the room down the hall from me at that moment. After relieving myself, I went back and reconnected myself to the technology and hence to the virtual experience of the film, making a mental note about this insight so I could blog about it later in yet another virtual world.

This insight about the various layers of reality at play in the modern cinema-going experience may be about as deep an analysis as it’s possible to get out of Avatar. For while the film is at heart a morality play with political and moral messages central to its plot, the politics are overly simplistic and the morals are black and white.

Indeed, this is the primary criticism I’ve seen of the film so far — that it’s messages are trite and it’s characters and politics are simplistic. This is true, but so what? Compare the morality play in Avatar to the one at work in, say, Star Wars. Compare Avatar’s political messages to the ones at work in District 9. Does Avatar fare better or worse in those comparisons? Then look at the rest of Cameron’s oeuvre. The Terminator films, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies, Titanic. We should know what to expect from this guy by now and it’s not deep, meaningful message-films.

Let’s be honest. Cameron isn’t Lars Von Trier. He’s a director of big budget, Hollywood action-adventure sci-fi films, but of course he’s much more than that too.

I’m reminded of that scene at the end of Die Hard when Holly Gennaro McClane realizes that the “terrorists” were really just in it for the money and she says to Hans Gruber, “you’re nothing but a common thief,” and Gruber crawls over to her and spitefully hisses, “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane!”

Well James Cameron isn’t just your common director of big budget, Hollywood action-adventure sci-fi films, he’s an exceptional director of big budget, Hollywood action-adventure sci-fi films.

On the level of storytelling, narrative exposition, yarn spinning, whatever you want to all it, Avatar is quite simply a masterpiece. Cameron has built a complete world — the moon of Pandora — and populated it with a dense and deeply interconnected system of flora and fauna and an indigenous culture that seems real (if a pastiche of various tribal Earth-born cultures). He’s also introduced human characters in a sci-fi setting with backstories and a world of their own (a world, it’s worth noting, that seems almost indistinguishable from the one that the Aliens characters inhabited in terms of technology and corporate/military relationships). A lesser filmmaker could not have gotten the audience hooked into the story of the film without a metric ton of clunky exposition and information-dumps. That Cameron was able to get us to care about the characters and stakes and still spend the last act on a giant action set-piece is simply amazing in this light. Leaving Avatar, I had learned a tremendous amount of information about a completely alien world and I never once became awkwardly aware of story exposition.

In hindsight I can see that Cameron took all of the standard expository shortcuts – he told the story of Avatar through the eyes of an untrained n00b so the audience learned about the world along with the main character (both the world of the human science/military project and the world of Pandora). He used voiceover narration in the form of a video log that said n00b was required to keep, thereby allowing Cameron to tell us things about the world rather than having to show us, which takes more time. He used a time-compressing montage during which we understand our hero to be developing his skills as a Na’vi hunter as well as developing his relationship with Neytiri. Again, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, these tropes would have seemed obvious and clichéd. But Cameron is a master storyteller, and as a result, we audience members don’t even notice the enormous amount of exposition going on constantly throughout the film.

Cameron also lets his actors really inhabit their roles. As stated earlier, the material in Avatar is pretty two-dimensional. The only moral ambiguity present in any of the characters exists in space of their waffling over whether to choose the just and moral path or the craven and evil one. There is no middle road for any of these characters to tread. Some are unambiguously good (Jake, the scientists, and pretty much all of the Na’vi), some are unambiguously evil (Col. Quaritch) and some just need to make up their minds about it (company man Selfridge, marine pilot Chacon). Given such limited constraints on the characters, it’s impressive how real they seem for the most part. Giovanni Ribisi, for example, does a great job of playing the role of the Half Ted company man. Without many lines, he’s able to convey his moral quandary admirably well.

There are a couple of sour notes that are worth noting because they’re just so bad. The mineral that the humans are looking to obtain from Pandora (the mining of which is the cause of the central conflict in Avatar) is called… wait for it… “unobtainium.” Unobtainium is a word historically used “for any extremely rare, costly, or physically impossible material needed to fulfill a given design for a given application.” Okay, so why not just call it “Macguffinite?” Seriously, why not just make Pandora rich in gold? Why make up a mineral?

And while Avatar is much closer to Aliens than it is to Titanic in form, Cameron decided to use a James Horner-composed theme song (ala My Heart Will Go On from Titanic), crooned by Celine Dion imposter Leona Lewis, for the end credits. The Celine Dion song was easily the worst thing about Titanic but at least it sort of fit the material a bit. Here such a song is totally out of place.

It’s too bad that Cameron needs to reinvent filmmaking and outspend the GDPs of most of the world’s nations in order to come out with a film. He’s quite skilled at making these sci-fi adventures. It would be nice to see him do it more often.



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  1. Haven’t seen it yet. Did any of that hidden, voluminous exposition explain why mountainous chunks of jungle and rock can float in the air on Pandora?

  2. On December 21, 2009, billsimmon said:

    er, no. Neither are some suspicious evolutionary processes explained. But given the density of the information that *is* there, I figure these oversights are somewhere on the cutting room floor.

  3. I argue in my review that the sheer impossibility of an evolutionary explanation is part and parcel of the “war of genres” that structures the film…


    I too cringed at “unobtainium,” and in a faint echo of Bill, I remarked to my mom on the walk to the car, “They may as well have called it Kryptonite.” That and the occasional line of hackneyed cartoon dialogue (“Noooooo…!”, “Git it done,” etc.) were my second and third biggest problems with the film, and when they occurred it temporarily severed my suspension of disbelief, snapping me back to the harsh, dark, sticky-floored reality of Majestic Ten Cinemas.

    My biggest problem was the glaring plot hole of the humans’ tactics. I mean, really: _Aliens_ was the film that put “I say we nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure” into the popular lexicon; has Cameron ever seen that film? Even assuming the forward base had no big armaments, the thrilling conclusion has bought the Blueskins six years, maybe twelve at the most, before the Company sends a fleet in to annihilate the entire ecosystem from 100,000 klicks away and build a radiation-shielded mining base in the glowing crater. I would have appreciated a bit of throwaway closing dialogue about how the Gaiacomputer is working on evolving an orbital defense grid or something along those lines.

    I really liked the technological continuity. Many sci-fi films will take a mechanism like Avatar’s mind control and then plaster on some implausible side effects to make it more consistent with the author’s mystical idea of astral projection. (Cf. The Matrix: “The body cannot live without the mind.” Uh, yeah, what medical school did *you* go to, Dr. Morpheus? Ever heard of a vegetative state? Well, just watch the Matrix sequels and you’ll enter one.) But Cameron actually took the stipulated technical details and used them to emphasize a dramatic moment (the bulldozer scene; the colonel grabbing a deep breath or a mask before combat) rather than treating them as an inconvenience. And evolutionary implausibility aside, Cameron’s Gaia-As-Supercomputer conceit worked *so* much better than Lucas’ Force-As-Mitochondria one.

    Along those lines there was a missed scifi opportunity with the tech of the Gaia version of mind transfer: after someone’s consciousness is copied, why would the original body die? Or rather, why wouldn’t it stay alive? Maybe just for long enough to see the New Blue You wake up and stride away, leaving you behind with a dwindling air supply and gimp legs…

    Oh, and just in case nobody else has made this joke, let me rechristen Avatar:

    Dances With Elves (3D)

  5. On January 5, 2010, billsimmon said:

    The joke I’ve seen most often is “Dances With Smurfs.”

  6. Meh. Smurfs are not just blue, they’re tiny and plump, not ten feet tall with 8″ waists; and elves rhymes with wolves. I declare memetic victory!

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