Day By Day

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Watching Avatar

"She Who Must Not Be Named" and I went to see "Avatar" today. It is pitch perfect science fiction, which means that it is an adolescent male fantasy of a kind that has been exploited numerous times in literature and film. I first encountered the story at about the age of seven reading old Edgar Rice Burroughs books that had been first published before 1920. The plot is simple [and I'm not giving anything away here]. An obscure young man is transported to a magical land where he acquires new powers, abilities, and understandings. He wins the heart of a warrior princess [no girly-girl she], performs arduous tasks that mark him as "special", and finally emerges as the hero that defends and saves the mystical realm. So archetypal is this tale that Joseph Campbell identified it an essential hero myth. Hey, it worked for George Lucas in Star Wars, and Kevin Costner in "Dances with Elves", why not Cameron.

Thematically there is nothing much new here either. The essential motif is Rousseauian nonsense, a portrayal of heroic noble savages threatened by the encroachment of corrupt and evil civilization. It may be gussied up with all sorts of Havelockian silliness about the mystical unity of nature and loony left anti-corporate hatred, but once again it is an old story oft told and, it's a bit out of place here (as indeed it is in all of Cameron's work). The film itself is the product of the very high-tech corporate culture it trashes.

Cameron's decision to include references to "pre-emptive strikes", "shock and awe" tactics, and other such swipes at the Bush administration is also problematic. This is a classic fantasy narrative presented in stark, Manichean terms. The good guys are really, really good and the bad guys are horrible monsters. Trying to relate this simplistic scheme to contemporary politics is not only inappropriate, it is offensive and distracting to any intelligent viewer over the age of twenty. This tendency to present the complexity of social and political themes in stark and simplistic terms with a moralistic overlay is also a classic element of science fiction as it is with all adolescent literature. Most people as they grow up begin to realize the limitations of the form and drift away from the genre. Some, like (apparently) Cameron, seem never to have adopted an adult perspective on real life and seek refuge from it in the purity of imagined worlds.

The visuals of the film are well done and are indeed its only virtues. Motion capture technology is advancing by leaps and bounds and the rendered background is impressive. The color scheme is striking and the 3-D moments are not as annoying as they might have been.

All in all, it's not a very good film. Simplistic characters, simplistic plot, and insultingly simplistic moralism are not a very palatable brew and that is something that all the visual stunts in WETA's world cannot disguise.