Archive for December 18, 2009

Smurf Versus the Flying Saucers

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2009 by dcairns

Rushed to see AVATAR at the first available screening — of course I did — propelled somewhat by Fiona who is a bigger ALIENS fan than I. And oddly, I liked the film better than she did, although basically everything that’s in ALIENS is in this, bigger and better and more brightly painted.


I didn’t mind the neon intensity of the colour schemes, nor the imagery reminiscent of both modern vidgames and 70s and 80s sci-fi paperback covers / prog rock album art. I likes me some Chris Foss / Roger Dean / Rodney Matthews. The film is more nostalgic than it is futuristic, both in its Dragonriders of Pern visuals and its indigenous tribes versus civilization plotline. I think that particular real-world struggle is largely over.

Maybe because Cameron has kind of been away from fiction cinema since TITANIC, unless we count his mission to raise Christ from the floor of the Atlantic where the Messiah has rested since striking an iceberg and breaking in half, or whatever that was about, but this is in a pleasant way quite a time-warped movie, something like EYES WIDE SHUT in that sense of not absolutely belonging to the now. Of course, this is a Cameron film, so it is somewhat more boneheaded and cloth-eared. JC (not Jesus) still writes speech-bubbles rather than speech, and still seems to think stringing buzz-words and catch-phrases together (“What’s wrong with this picture?”) constitutes, I don’t know, writing, or something, but that’s a lot easier to take in this context than it was in TITANIC, which was one of those rare movies that could almost be improved by giving George Lucas a crack at script doctoring. Of course, I exaggerate for poetic effect, nothing’s that bad.


What I’m building up to is that AVATAR is primarily an audio-visual experience, working on the rational part of the brain mainly by tickling it with absurd implausibilities, which are only worth listing because they’re amusing, not because I take them seriously as flaws or anything: the arrows which bounce off the humans’ helicopters suddenly start piercing them; the humans send their infantry out in T-shirts to fight an enemy who uses poison arrows — no Kevlar?; the lousy security exercised by the military in their own base…

We ignore all that, and enjoy some retina-searing colours, constant kinetic stimulation and really beautiful 3D, and some interesting resonances, as I’m sure Cameron likes to think of them. The Hometree’s collapse “was just like 9:11,” said Fiona. “Only in wood,” I added. And yet, conversely, the humans are the bad guys in this movie and they’re like the Americans in Iraq (the blue Smurf tribe briefly ululate, and are carefully designed to echo every non-white ethnic group ever). But the real resonance comes from the Avatar concept itself, in which the hero inserts his consciousness into a new character to explore a new world. His eyes experience REM movement as he operates his alien body, and when he sleeps as an alien, he wakes up again as a human. So it’s like dreaming, and also like cinema, the process of “identification” with a fictional character. And everybody does it in this film, the aliens plug themselves into horses and dragons and trees, the humans have their avatars and big ALIENS-style robot exoskeletons. It makes total sense that this is a 3D movie, aiming for the kind of total immersion experience its characters keep having.

On top of that, our hero has a double existence in terms of his bodies, and a triple allegiance in terms of his politics, betraying the aliens to the scientists and the scientists to the military, before seeing the error of his ways and going native (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, do you?). And interestingly, he deals with his obvious conflicts of interest in the first two-thirds of the movie by… not dealing with them. He is perfectly compartmentalized, totally loyal to whomever he’s with at the time, and then totally disloyal as soon as he meets one of his other factions. I found that pretty interesting, and although maybe it comes about due to Cameron’s disinterest in character psychology, which is much on display, it seems fairly accurate nonetheless, as a depiction of the way people can separate off parts of themselves to avoid facing contradictions. Anyhow, this hero is one of the most spectacularly non-thinking I can recall having seen. “A character who is dramatically interesting thinks ahead,” says Alexander Mackendrick. Our hero here doesn’t do that, does he? And so he’s able to deflower his artfully draped near-nude leading lady (the film’s extreme reticence about nipples reminds me of the Beethoven sequence in Disney’s FANTASIA) with a clean conscience in a bit of tasteful xenophilia, despite the fact that he’s also selling out her people to the humans, having already supplied them all the data the need to attack.

And yet he’s mostly quite appealing, a tribute to Sam Worthington’s winning performance, which glosses over the moral cracks with troubled good-guy warmth. But top acting honours should go to Zoe Saldana, who does the best job of acting through motion-capture since Andy Serkis’s Gollum and Kong. She’s the only major alien character who doesn’t have a human counterpart. It’s fun seeing Sigourney Weaver as an alien giantess, a slightly more extreme version of herself, with the few marks of time which enhance her beauty erased and replaced with bluish gleam and fangs. Elsewhere, Giovanni Ribisi is a clone of the corporate bad guy in ALIENS and Cameron doesn’t know what to do with his character (surprisingly — slow death seems an obvious choice), Michelle Rodriguez repeats Vasquez from the same film, and undergoes a defection to the side of the aliens which is totally unexplained — compared to Worthington’s, anyway, which takes up most of the story. And Stephen Lang, one of the few actors I enjoyed in PUBLIC ENEMIES, is a ludicrously hard-assed general, taking the role of villain which rightfully belongs to Ribisi, the man in charge.

Cameron’s confusion about who is morally responsible in the story is a free-floating problem that gets everywhere. The final battle is enormously enjoyable, except that we’re supposed to cheer as the aliens kill marines who were the hero’s former allies and who simply weren’t lucky enough to be immersed in the alien culture as he was. And the script strangely withholds information about the state of human civilization, so we assume the aliens need a miracle to win — but the humans are a lot weaker than we’ve been led to believe. It feels like a cheat, mainly because it is one. And it stacks the odds in favour of a happy ending, one which has been generally denied tribal nations of Earth. The tactics used in Cameron’s film, which work when one tribe battles another, are disastrous when used between tribes and the forces of western civilization. By refusing to acknowledge this, the film avoids any honest engagement with its nominal subject.

None of which is probably as important as it ought to be, since this is a comic-book video-game movie more concerned with kitsch notions of beauty than with real political engagement. As with most blockbusters of the modern age, it’s designed to be consumed by the eyes and ears, bypassing most of the mind.