“Avatar” / 2009. USA / James Cameron / 161 Minutes / Drama
A ruthless corporation is mining out Pandora, an alien moon inhabited by a splendid flora and fauna together with the humanoid Na’vi, who are struggling for preservation of their Garden of Eden. Since Greenpeace doesn’t rush to help, they rely on spears, shamans and some human allies, among them scientists who develop Na’vi bodies that can be possessed by humans. As one of them, Jake Sully, spies the Na’vi clan from the inside he falls in love with the chieftain’s daughter and their LOHAS lifestyle. When the struggle between the earthlings’ military and the Pandoran ecosystem starts getting ugly Sully takes side for his new home land, saves the day and gets the girl.
Watching movies has often been compared to dreaming and one of cinema’s greatest potentials is the power to draw you into alternative worlds. Many of those who watched James Cameron’s AVATAR in the last few weeks seemed to be so consumed by its fantastic landscapes that returning to the seemingly dull, real world causes some to even experience depression, according to a recent CNN article. It seems as if after AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH and all the research revealing how rapidly our home planet is dying AVATAR offers a welcome escape into an idyllic world that can after all be saved from human destruction.
So I too watched AVATAR and I hate to confess that it left me oddly unmoved. I don’t mind if a movie plays on nothing but great visuals, but after all the media hype in which this movie has been proclaimed a paradigm shift in filmmaking, even historic, I can’t hide my disappointment. It is entertaining and gorgeous to look at – but aside from improved 3D projection technology and soaring CGIs AVATAR has little that can’t be found in dozens of similar movies and video games. Sadly, I thought the 3D effects were extremely distracting, the music worn-out, and plot and characters as predictable as a movie about the Titanic.
I will only touch briefly AVATAR’s most obvious feature: 3D. I didn’t get headaches but I had the impression that it actually hindered me from grasping the whole picture, especially during the exposition part. One problem I see lies in the nature of the physical camera, creating stark out-of-focus areas which feel strange for a true three-dimensional illusion. It got better as soon as the virtual camera allowed wide-angle shots with deep focus, but at that time it added neither anything to the excitement nor to the storytelling. I even come to conclude that the 3D projection was the major reason I felt so uninvolved from the AVATAR world.
Much more captivating were the computer-generated environments and characters of Pandora. AVATAR simply looks magnificent. The unparalleled density and credibility of the simulated jungles were so striking that I found it even unnatural not to believe the trees, the rivers, the air of Pandora being real-life footage mixed with some funny CG animals jumping around. It’s uncanny.
However, while acknowledging the tremendous work of James Cameron and his platoons of designers and animators, I cannot fully join the choir of those considering AVATAR an exceptionally creative achievement. Personally, ever since I watched STAR WARS – EPISODE I, where computer-generated characters already interacted seamlessly with the life actors in a digital fantasy world, I knew that anything would be possible with digital technology. AVATAR is the obvious and inevitable milestone in a development pushed by movies like JURASSIC PARK, FINAL FANTASY and WALL·E and if we watched those we can be little surprised by the life-like textures and animations of the Na’vi.
Even aesthetically speaking, compared to the dazzling worlds of most Japanese video games such as those of the FINAL FANTASY series, Pandora’s design is far from being outstandingly creative. Games have continually been feeding the hunger for the exotic with evermore fantastic settings. So, nothing really new here, however great it is. I am reminded of the ODDWORLD series of the now defunct game company Oddworld Inhabitants: The ODDWORLD games too were a fable for nature endangered by industrial exploitation. The story revolved around the green-skinned tribal folks known as Mudokons who could possess animal creatures and looked pretty much like the goofy brothers of the blue Na’vi. Long before AVATAR, the Oddworld games delivered an example of an imaginative virtual environment along with anti-consumerist messages. The times I sat in awe of computer-generated wonderlands forgetting that they are mainly serving themselves are long passé. What I now want is a decent content in the shiny box.
Sad to say, however, that AVATAR’s story is light years away from the staggering magnitude of its images. I dare to suggest that if it had been shot with only half of the CGI and the Na’vi replaced with blue-painted humanoids á la Star Trek this movie would have been torn apart by the critics as teenage fantasy on steroids. While AVATAR’s in-your-face-metaphors render the earnest effort for visual credibility into a wearisome farce the plot bears nothing that would not seem calculated by repetitive hollywood schemes. I have to admit though, that thousands have left the theater truly touched by the story and the ecological message. Does the movie hit some subconscious longing for an innocent, harmonious life? The primordial memory of our ancestors? Are the audiences of 2010 so detached from the wonders of nature to believe that Pandora offers more biodiversity than Earth (well, it soon will)? AVATAR surely expresses the joy of life that many lack in reality.
Still I want to put the film’s message in perspective. Watching it in a Japanese theater I was surely not the only one reminded of director Miyazaki Hayao’s animation works like NAUSICAÄ (1984) or PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997). Cameron himself admits being a fan of Miyazaki’s. Those movies share the environmental theme and an animistic world view. Especially PRINCESS MONONOKE’s mystical natural ties represented by a mothertree and forest spirits are similar to AVATAR. The difference is the complexity of the personalities, their relationships and the plot and that PRINCESS MONONOKE’s characterization never slips off to shallow juxtapositions of good vs. evil. And the perfect symbiosis of content and form makes it really unforgettable. To Western audiences, the notion of spiritual and energetic interconnectedness between all beings might still be somewhat foreign, while the Japanese conceive it more naturally. Miyazaki’s profound Shintô sensitivity stands in stark contrast to the good-willed but shallow hippie-spirituality of Cameron, who strings together esoteric and ethnic clichés in rather unimaginative ways (one could also elaborate on the many interesting Hindu influences, but I know too little about that). It simply lacks the depth and maturity to keep up with its technical grandure.
Although thin on substance the spectacular AVATAR bears potential and will certainly convince me better after a second viewing – in 2D. Nowadays it might take a $300 million movie to remind us of the thousandfoldly more magnificent world we are given here on Earth.