12 years in production, so we are told. James Camerons first feature film since Titanic. We all think it will be flawless and yet, we also know that our expectations of the film is unfair because the expectations are so high. I personally think the marketing campaign was awful – nothing we hadn’t seen before. Those huge blue faces on posters meant nothing – reminded me of an out-of-proportion, incomplete half-face pencil sketch. As an Art-teacher, I spent many years improving my drawing skills drawing many-a-self-portrait and one of the first things you get wrong is proportions – the size of the eyes, of the mouth, etc – and so you stop drawing at a point, such as when you have only completed half the face, of the area around the eyes. So, to finish, the posters of too-big-eyes and too-big-lips, with only half the face shown simply reminded me of incomplete portraits. Not exactly exciting. Nevertheless, with Chris Hewitt’s 5-star review ‘flawed but fantastic’ and Roger Eberts ‘two thumbs-up’, it could hardly be too bad. Then came the negative press. Tom Huddleston’s two-out-of-five in Time Out and Anthony Quinn of The Independent seemed intent on stating how, as impressive as it looked, the consistency of themes – “corporate predators versus harmonious tree-dwelling natives, militarism versus humanism” – did not exactly stay true-to-its intent by the final act. Before I continue, I side closer to the 2/5 and 3/5 reviewers rather than the, what I think is ridiculous, five-star, top-marks it got elsewhere. Avatar will not be king of the world this year.
Get the, rather dull, story out of the way: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has legs that don’t work and becomes an Avatar of himself as a Na’vi creature – a religious tribal group who are fiercely predatorial on the planet Pandora. The Na’vi protect nature and respect the environment – in an early sequence, the killing of vicious dogs to save Jake is deemed sad because the vicious dogs are part of the environment as are the Na’vi (unlike the humans who are not literally connected to the environment, while the Na’vi actually are literally connected to everything around them – trees, animals, etc). Fact is, beneath the home of the Na’vi is expensive rocks that Ribisi and his corporate company is desperate to get their hands on. Jake, initially amongst the Na’vi to gain their trust and move them out so the humans can take the rocks, begins to then change and adapt his views to suit the Na’vi, ultimately preferring his life – with legs – as a Na’vi tribal member rather than being a human. How the militaristic company deal with this situation in the final reel is obviously out-and-out war which looks great and it ends as one side wins. Guess who folks?
Straight off, I found something jarring about the blue-people and their eyes. Something nearly cartoonish about it. My favourite visual treats was not the landscapes – which you could watch on any Blue Planet or Planet Earth documentary (or even on one of those 3D films released years ago about nature) – but it was the shots of the humans standing close to the Na’vi. The beautiful finish as the Na’vi creature Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) holds the human Jake Sully in her arms. It was almost surreal and rooted in true-fantasy. Recalling artwork by Boris Vallejo and other fantasy artists. Fact is, this was a passing resemblance rather than a true rooted-in-the-visual theme.
Additionally, the machines the humans used were, pretty much, the same as the ones used in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Obviously, as Thomas Anderson ‘jacks’ into the matrix to become Neo, Jake Sully ‘jacks’ into his Avatar body to become ‘jakesullee’. So the parallels are constant. The difference being that ‘Jakesullee’ is who Jake stays as – while Neo was fighting the forces, but had to become powerful, in his real body. There is a much deeper philosophical story in the idea that people would give up their lives to be something they are not, while Avatar seems to have legless-Jake become disgusted in who he really is and therefore change into something he is truly not. Funnily enough, I am reading Barak Obama’s book (like everyone) Dreams from my Father whereby one fascinating chapter explains how, as a child, Barack saw a story in Time magazine about an African-American who changed their skin-colour to be white – in a time when racism was more prevalent in society – and this forced Barack to look into the mirror and analyse who he is. And, more importantly, how society views him. Does Avatar claim that if you have some sort of disadvantage in society – such as a disability – you can simply change who you are (in terms of racism, an interesting quote comes from Annalee Newitz of io9 blog in a post titled “When will white people stop making movies like Avatar” concluding that, in Avatar, a ‘white guy’ becomes the best member of a ‘non-white culture’). Interestingly, Jake Sully was even offered ‘new legs’ (Gump to Lt. Dan “You got new legs!”) by the uber-male army-guy – something that could, and should, be an incredibly important shift in the story becomes a simple choice for Jake – choosing to go back ‘one-more time’ to the land of the Na’vi only proving that he despises who he truly is – with or without legs.
Dances with Wolves – a comparison to Avatar by many critics including Mark Kermode – shows how Dunbar (Costner) becomes a Native-Indian slowly but surely through understanding the Native-American culture. Thing is, it ends as Dunbar is ‘saved’ by the American army and he has to escape to get back to his tribe. Dunbars change of allegiance makes him a bigger target for the American-army – so Dunbar has to leave the Sioux group so that he doesn’t make them a target also. His original identity forces him to be alone. The violence of the American civil-war ultimately won-out in history and there is tragedy in Dunbar being forced to be alone, but it wouldn’t have been any better if the Native-Americans ‘won’ through violence. There should be an acceptance of cultures – not a cultural war, which was, in effect how Avatar ended. Yes, Jake ‘tried’ to get a mutual understanding with the Na’vi and failed – and the uber-army man and Ribisi claimed that, for years, they tried for a peaceful solution and failed. So, rather than explore a complex issue, Cameron decides to simply show the ‘good guys’ win without realistically exploring how complex a war actually is – clearly there are always two-sides to any story and, alas, this is merely touched on and not followed through.
Another frustrating section is when ‘Jakesullee’ prays to the god-like Eywa (a tree…) for help in the coming war. Neytiri tells him that she doesn’t favour anyone and won’t assist anyone – she is merely there to ‘keep the balance’. But this entire argument is contradicted as during the coming war, they Na’vi only ‘win’ because nature assists and Neytiri is well-aware that it is Eywa who has interceded. So Eywa does favour people – so, think about all those murders ‘in the name of God’. What was originally Na’vi defending themselves becomes a God-supported Cause – akin to the God-supported wars of extremists and religious-mentalists.
So many structural and moral flaws with this film – you could go on about it all day. But there are some good points. Namely the actual acting talent. Giovanni Ribisi, for me, was incredible. I have never had a problem with him before and this is no exception. What is interesting is his range – he has a very unique appearance and yet has now officially progressed from the doper-teen roles he played when he was in his mid-twenties (his cameo in Friends, Gone in Sixty Seconds) to more maturer roles in his mid-thirties – playing the corporate boss in a moral dilemma in Avatar. The few scenes he has in Avatar, he completely steals from everyone (except Sigourney Weaver) and he has more depth than poor ol’ Sam Worthington and Stephen Langs action-man roles. You really see the difficult position he is in – but how he ignores the moral implications and pushes through his own agenda, potentially threatened moreso by Colonel Miles Quaritch (aka, the aforementioned Action Man) than by his own conscience.
The 3D stuff is impressive, fine. But like any new perspective, once you have climbatised and accepted the 3D it all becomes a bit of a waste. I watched it at the IMAX, so no problems with the edge of the screen and I am sure on a smaller scale – even on your 50″ TV screens – there will be stuff missed, but then again, I’ll bet once you start watching it, you climbatise and watch it on that smaller screen. And see, this is my problem – following its limited cinema release – when released on DVD, will it matter. All that 3D-ness and for what? for a better ‘cinema-experience’, cinema will always be better than home-viewing. I guess with all these big-ass TV’s in the homestead, 3D makes cinema that-much-more unique. Personally, I still have a classic (I like to think retro) 25 inch, back-projection Sony TV and I don’t cry myself to sleep when I watch Gladiator on it. I accept it for what it is and I understand the story and see enough of it to be able to enjoy it and appreciate it – it hardly stops the ‘enjoyment’. Fact is, even if I had a huge TV and all the sound and whatnot, Gladiator would still be better at the cinema, so you have to ask yourself this, without 3D, would it matter? How far can these ‘changes’ come before it all becomes a little redundant. I am sure Avatar in the IMAX is always going to be very different than when viewed, in 2D, in your lounge – as any DVD-on-TV experience is always inferior to the cinema experience. In my opinion, cinema always wins out over TV-viewings, but when Avatar is released on DVD or even blu-ray … even 3D blu-ray – it will not really seem worth it. Either you watch it the way it was intended – 3D on the IMAX – or you settle for less, even watching it 2D on a big-enough screen (20 inch minimum I would say) and you’ll still enjoy the movie. Everything in between seems either not-good-enough or trying-too-hard.
So, to wrap this essay up! Talk of a sequel is in full flow so, yeah, that will happen. It is what it is, but I do think its unneccessary because so much is tied up. Nevertheless, it will inevitably come – if only because they have all the CGI banked from Avatar to use – all they have to consider is the ‘new’ aspects and areas of this ‘world’ we are don’t know about. I think its fair to say Cameron has not spent 12 years on this one movie, he has spent twelve years establishing a franchise that can run and run. “I’ll only work in 3D in the future” Cameron said on The Film Programme podcast … thats because he will probably only make Avatar sequels. I think this expansion of the world is one of the biggest problems with this first film. I had no idea about the other ‘tribes’ we found out about in the final act, until they were on screen. There was only hints of history and the size of this world. Considering people claim that the scope of Avatar is akin to The Lord of the Rings, I have to say no – Lord of the Rings was such a huge universe that they had to relay in the first ten, twenty minutes of The Fellowship of the Ring the history that preceeded it to give us the scope the trilogy deserved. No history was shown in Avatar so we only trust what we see – and only in those brief moments when Jakesullee makes his world tour with the clan – do we get some idea of the size of Pandora. Thats only brief, and before we know it, we are fighting some war.
To close, ‘let your mind go blank’ is what Sigourney Weaver tells Jake before he enters his avatar body – and I feel we need to forget about the countless stories and films that deal with the same themes, issues and aspects of Avatar to truly enjoy the movie. Because, if you really want to know about philosophy watch The Matrix, if you want to know about allegories of the American Civil-war – in fact, just watch a film about the American civil-war, watch Dances with Wolves, if you want Sam Worthington with a ‘strong heart’, watch Terminator Salvation … the list goes on.