Friday, February 05, 2010

Avatar (a film)

"I thought that was very good," said Andrew at the end of Avatar.

"I thought that was very good," replied Louise.

"I thought that was very good," added Jonathan.

"Bugger," said Andrew "What are we going to talk about for the rest of the weekend?"

Avatar is a gripping, involving, but not particularly original Cowboys and Indians movie; transposed to a well-drawn and convincing science fiction setting. Jake, our hero, has his mind transferred into the body of a member of a tribe of blue aliens called the Navee so he can learn their ways and help the Human Colonists negotiate with them. But – astonishingly – he Goes Native and sides with the Navee against the Humans when the shooting starts.

Jonathan, who reads Empire, tells me that all the alien planet sequences were constructed entirely on a computer: since I'd assumed that it was doing the Peter Jackson thing of recording footage in New Zealand and using a computer to enhance the scenery, this must count as an unequivocal success.

Some of the plot devices were a little clunky, but they were all either the kind of clunky plot device that is part and parcel of a movie of this kind -- or else so carefully foreshadowed that they don't seem that clunky when you got to them. It's pretty much inevitable that the squaw who finds the hero when he's separated from the cavalry is the daughter of the big chief, and equally inevitable that our hero will fall in love with her. And the silly climax, in which all the fauna on the planet spontaneously attacks the Bad Men who are going to burn the Sacred Tree, doesn't feel silly at all because we've seen our hero praying to the Sacred Tree and asking it to help him win the battle. Since we've already been told that the all the animals and plants on the planet are connected together into a sort of vegetarian computer, it makes complete sense that he should be able to influence the tree to influence the animals to attack the Humans. We spend the slightly too long final battle saying "How will the tree help out?" and react to this literal deus ex machina by saying "Ooo...clever," rather than "Oh, what a literal deus ex machina!"

It was, both literally and metaphorically, a little too green. Say what you like about the Star Wars prequels, and I have, but they keep jumping from one jaw-dropping landscape to a completely different jaw-dropping landscape, so your eye never gets bored. Avatar dumps you in one jaw-dropping rain forest and leaves you there for three hours, rather as if you'd had to spend the whole of Return of the Jedi on Endor.

And speaking of which: the final battle does rather lapse into Ewok logic. At the beginning of the film we are supposed to find it silly that savages think they can damage giant mega-tanks with bows and arrows; but at the end of the film we are are expected to believe that bows and arrows fired by a large number of really motivated and very noble savages would be able to do so. That we largely do believe this is a tribute to how well drawn and immersive the film is. But still. If a herd of really angry elephants charged a tank, I'm not completely sure which side I'd place my bet on.

The natives have a sort of biological scart cable in the pig-tails, and can literally plug their brains into the planets flora and fauna. They can become literally "at one" with their mounts; they can commune with planet's ecosystem; and the minds of their dead are literally downloaded into the biosphere. A nice science fictiony idea, this, and someone will tell me where it was swiped from. But I rather suspect that Mr Cameron has a notion that it is also a Really Profound Metaphor, and just as the Navee can literally plug themselves into the soul of the planet, so can we in a very real sense, commune with the Earth, provided we stop destroying the environment by fighting wars, burning carbon, going to the movies, etc.

The one really weak point in the movie is the characterisation of the human colonists, who work, of course, for The Company. (Sigourney Weaver herself shows up to provide the technobabble.) The Company are only interested in the planet as a source of a McGuffin called (I liked this) Unobtanium; it answers only to it's shareholders. The Colonel in charge is so one dimensional that he would be chewing the scenery if it wasn't computer generated: unable to quite decide if he's in Apocalypse Now or Moby Dick. When he announces that he's going to gratuitously nuke the Navee's Sacred Tree in order to generate some "shock and awe", his team of marines nod and grin, and seem to have been recruited entirely from the brute squad. (Had the humans been on the planet to obtain, say, a precious drug which was the only thing which could possibly save the human race from a terrible lurgyplague then Jake would have been faced with a genuinely difficult moral dilemma. Now, one man must choose, between a race entirely consisting of happy, spiritual folk living an idyllic life and a race entirely consisting of nasty sweary money grabbing thugs. Gee, which way will he decide?)

Clearly, the thing has been over hyped to an embarrassing degree: we are told that there are people who have seen the film dozens of times, that it has changed their life, that there may have been suicides by people who don't want to live if they can't live on Pandora. In fact a ludicrous amount of money and skill has been spent on what is really a very, very slight narrative.

But this doesn't matter: the film isn't making any particular claim to be a new religious movement, although the Hollywood publicity machine may be. From the opening moments when the crippled ex-marine agrees to have his brain transplanted into a Navee it is absolutely clear what kind of a movie we are watching, and it delivers on all its promises. The hero does indeed get the girl. The Navee do indeed, after much sacrifice and derring do, repel the invaders who want to steal their land. The hero does indeed get initiated into the tribe's ways, and we do indeed feel that those Ways are plausible and interesting and quite pretty and inspirational. The first time we see the nasty Colonel, he is in one of those Transformer-type exo-skeletons and, sure enough, after his big space ship has been destroyed and the Holy Tree has been saved; everything comes down to a one-on-one between Smurf and Armoured Space Marine.

The Skiffynow writer's guidelines list "does exactly what it says on the tin" as a cliché to avoid at all costs. But Avatar does.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, that was pretty much how I felt about it. As that kind of movie, I'd say that it could have been improved by being rated a bit higher, and thus being bloodier. I would have been gripped more if things had been more intense.

Oh, and there's whole "White guy saves the natives" thing, which annoyed a bunch of people. I could live with it, but it did annoy me slightly.

Nick Mazonowicz said...

Unfortunately James Cameron seems to lack even a George Lucas level of characterisation. The original Star Wars was as predictable a battle of good against evil but at least gave you characters that were a bit interesting in their dynamics (Obi Wan thinks Luke is too impulsive, Luke thinks Han is too cynical, Han thinks Leia is too haughty, everyone thinks Chewbacca is too violent, everyone thinks C3PO is too cowardly etc.).

My problem with Avatar was that I just found it very difficult to care about anything that was happening once I got past the 'wow that's amazing' stage. 'Will the marines win? Will the main character make the right choice?' seemed as redundant as 'will the Titanic sink'

Louise H said...

I thought it was seriously lacking as SF (no, you really can't make your planet a moon of a gas giant and then completely ignore the physical and biological consequences, Mr Cameron) but as a fairy tale it was rather satisfying. Fairy tales don't really need characterisation so that was fine. And I've been waiting for dragons that pretty since I was 14.

Rebecca Holt Stay said...

I'd agree with Louise: great Grimm fairy tale told with amazingly beautiful effects - but no tension over plot. Still, I'll go see it again and wish I had a pigtail and dragon.

Mark said...

You asked where the ponytail scart cable meme was stolen from.

I was very strongly reminded of 'Sentenced to Prism' by Alan Dean Foster; I seem to recall that this had biosphere-wide brain interface tendrils or somesuch; leading to pervasive peace and understanding...

So, who did ADF steal the idea from?

Warren JB said...

Being plugged into a possibly-sentient biosphere-wide Gaia-like super-organism involving trees isn't a million miles away from the short story 'Hunter, Come Home' by Richard McKenna.