Avatar: Old story, new dimension

It’s terrible, but it’s terribly innovative. That’s gotta count for something.

Avatar-Teaser-PosterAbout an hour before viewing James Cameron’s Avatar, I was driving across the snowy James River and thought about how in school they’d show us a clip of Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939), in which an icy river shot dissolved into a flowing river shot, in order to show the changing of the seasons. We’d blankly stare at something that seemed like no big deal to us and then blink up at the professor, who would roll his eyes at our inability to recognize that we take a lot of film devices for granted. Young Mr. Lincoln doesn’t exactly quicken the pulse in 2009, but in 1939, it did things that had never been done before, things that would quickly become par for the course.

Four million hours later, when Avatar‘s closing credits began to roll, I was still in the theater. And the reason that I hadn’t stomped out prematurely is because, ladies and gentlemen, 3D in the James Cameron manner is the new ice-river-turning-into-spring-river. So, just like the suspendered, tweed-suited, fedora-wearing moviegoer said back then when the river MAGICALLY MELTED BEFORE HIS EYES….I have never seen anything like it before.*

If you’re like me and you’re worried that the 3D experience was going to be arrows shot at your eyes so that you humiliate yourself with embarrassing and reflexive flinches, banish thy concerns. It’s not so much that things come out of the screen, it’s that things go in. Basically, you throw on your glasses and suddenly you are in danger of falling right into Cameron’s impeccably detailed setting. This world has layers and depth, and as a result these very, very imaginary creatures and landscapes seem more real than anything we’ve seen on the silver screen before. Semi-animated humans with a digital skin are most likely pretty neat to watch with just your regular glasses, but in 3D, I’m half-convinced those things are really out there in space, in spite of myself.

Without 3D, you just saw a big dumb blockbuster with some above-average special effects.

It goes like this: the Na’vi folk on planet Pandora are hella mad that the Sky People (er, that’s us, I’m sorry to admit) are destroying their precious planet for a mineral. Get this, we are trying to get them to move out of their homeland and relocate (we’ll call that process, I don’t know, the “Trail of Tears”), so we send in a disenchanted Marine named Jake in a sort of remote-controlled Na’vi body. It’s a complicated process, and they thankfully don’t bore us with any of the mind-bending details, don’t worry. The Na’vi are super in tune with nature, so when daughter of the chief, Neytiri (you can call her “Pocahontas,” if that’s easier), gets the job of teaching Jake the way of the Na’vi (or “colors of the wind”), she is simultaneously amused, enraged, and turned on by his blundering colonizer ignorance.

Jake (that’s the Marine, but if his name is too forgettable, you can call him “Kevin Costner”) starts to think Pocahontas/Neyriti is pretty cute, loyalties flip around, and suddenly the natives and the conquerors are engaged in a war, and…WHO KNOWS WHAT WILL HAPPEN? If this were, in fact, Dances with Wolves, you might get a really poignant, thoughtful ending, but the artistry in this movie lies in its visual composition and not its writing or directing. And when you’re trying to just use an old story as a vehicle for your immense visual stunner, it’s safer to just end it satisfyingly.

Safer and dumber. This movie took our colonizer’s guilt, flung it into the future, and assured us that everything is going to be OK. One day we will realize the error of our ways, it says. A white man will set them free, the good among us will be chosen to live in a verdant paradise, and everybody else will just have to deal. Also, there will be some giant explosions and possibly some dragons you can ride if you are cool enough. It’s a little too neatly resolved for a messy, realistic, and recurring chain of events – it’s our fantasy for how we would do things differently if, indeed, we would truly value natural resources and indigenous populations over money. It sure is a nice thought.

I don’t like Titanic much (Cameron’s last Oscar-winner),** but valued just for its content, Avatar can’t quite measure up to even that low bar.*** Perhaps I need to adjust my thinking, though, just like Jake, along with his trusty wolf Two Socks, has helped me adjust my thinking about our treatment of indigenous people. Maybe I need to appreciate Avatar for its deep connection with the colors of the third dimension and for its place in the cinematic innovation canon.

Guys, I really would, but the elusive mineral cash crop on Pandora is called “unobtainium.” Throw me a bone, here, Cameron. One star for what I imagine the standard version would look like, and an extra one for 3D. And I’m not budging.

*He probably said something more like “Dadgum! Some wizard just cast a spell on the picture-screen! This was definitely worth the ha’penny I spent on my double-feature admission! Pass the brickle!”
**This is sort of a lie. 17-year-old me saw it thrice in theaters.
***”Mating underneath the Tree of Voices” doesn’t hold a candle to “steaming up a jalopy in steerage.”

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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