A Window into Life in the Suburbs

"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Was Showing: Avatar

As a novelty filmic experience, Avatar certainly lives up to the hype. It is aesthetically pleasing and visually arresting in 3D. Better still it was my first full length feature film in 3D and for two and a half hours, I was a child again, all agog at the visual effects. Like all first timers, I predictably did the whole hand-swatting-the screen routine in the first few minutes and took the o'l glasses off several times throughout to satisfy my scientific curiosity about the mechanics of 3D. But not being either scientifically or mechanically minded, everything was was a blur to me. Still, it was mostly good fun and the highlight of this roller coaster ride was watching these exhilarating flight scenes... which left me quite awestruck.

Prior to watching it myself, I had read all kinds of philosophical objections to the film -- Gaia worship,  a naive environmentalism, while many conservative commentators noted the the usual anti-corporate, anti-colonial, anti-military bashing rhetoric common to such films. Those elements were certainly present in small doses but I went away not completely convinced that Cameron told a sufficiently sophisticated story to  make any of those themes linger after the entire blue "noble savage" people in 3D experience is over.

My beef is with the rather commonplace story. Lately, I've been sounding like a broken record but I'm getting the feeling that there aren't too many compelling stories coming out of the Hollywood production line. Quite likely I'm turning into a jaded movie goer. In the case of Avatar, I'm not convinced that it services Cameron's environmentalist agenda to the extent that he would like. It reminds me of the annual Earth Hour campaign which to my mind is more a token gesture of environmental activism which has very little effect on how people actually live from day to day. Once you take away the pretty pictures, the all-too-familiar plot line fails to hammer home the film's so-called environmental message.
One early review I read labelled Avatar "Dances with Smurfs" which is not far off the money. It did remind me very much of Dances with Wolves, which was fun twenty years ago (gosh, has it been that long?) despite its heavy anti-colonial emphasis. Furthermore, it also reminded me of The Last Samurai which incidentally, when I saw it 7 years ago, thought it more or less a kind of Dances with Wolves with lots of Japanese and katanas. And even worse... distant echoes of Titanic... a film my husband was pleading for me to walk out on after the first 45 minutes.

While Cameron may claim to be engaging his audiences politically, my sense is that he found a well-used romantic, action adventure template to sell his 3D experience. Call me cynical. But it was clear from minute 10 how this was going to end up. Not least, the hackneyed romance between the local girl and the clumsy stranger turned hero. This is the stuff of Disney animated features. (I've read that somewhere on the internet there's a shot by shot comparison with Pocahontas)

Perhaps for young uns, that isn't such big a deal... many of them may not have seen  Dances or The Last Samurai...but I doubt that the 3D experience of Avatar is going to convince them that living in so-called idyllic primitive conditions without their iPods or X boxes is going to "save the planet".

The premise of cross cultural engagement in this film using avatars was an intriguing one and I think the film could have been so much more interesting... much more nuanced if Cameron wasn't itchying to turn this into a cowboys and Indians shoot out half way through the piece.

To give him his due, Cameron excels in science fiction thrillers. I loved his 2 Terminator films, The Abyss and the second Aliens film. The "Dark Angel" tv series, which he produced, was also good. Avatar is a well-made film but take away the visual gimmickry, one is left with the feeling that there's not a lot that hasn't be done before.

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