Monday, December 21, 2009


So yesterday we went to see the 3-D version of Avatar, which has arrived on a blast of the kind of hype that only a movie which wound up costing $460 million dollars seems to be able to generate. The movie has been heralded as epochal, game-changing event in the history of moviemaking. (There's a terrific recent profile of director James Cameron by Dana Goodyear in the October 26 New Yorker which makes a plausible case for that.) It has also been observed that Avatar has a five-hundred milllion dollar body and a ten-cent brain. There's an element of truth in both points of view.

Certainly it is the most amazing and consistently riveting visual experience I've ever had in a movie theatre. Even when what you're watching doesn't really hold up to logical scrutiny, it's gorgeous to look at, and there was never a moment in the movie where I found myself drifting off or reacting to anything other than the amazingly complex and richly imagined world unfolding in front of my eyes. Whatever else you might say about James Cameron, he has succeeded in putting together a movie that goes, technologically, where no movie has gone before. And it's going to make billions, so you can't fault him on having bad business sense either.

The plot is another matter. Certainly it's no worse than a thousand other movies that have been made along the same lines. There are certain buttons that moviemakers have learned to push. The are certain story lines that just get repeated over and over again because they work, because they resonate with human psychology at some basic archetypal level and elicit a very predictable response. There are no new stories. However, there's a difference between telling an old story in a way that makes it fresh, and telling an old story from a list of plot conventions so mechanically that you can almost feel the boxes being checked off. James Cameron has made his list and he's checked it twice, or maybe twice times twice times twice. Ordinary guy gets sent to alien world. Check. Has to establish his street cred with the humans already there. Check. Humans want to exploit natural resources of the alien environment. Check. Our hero gets sent undercover into the alien world and immediately faces danger. Check. Is saved by native girl. Check. From that beginning, you can go ahead and make up you own list of where we're going with this, and by the time you get done with this movie you'll find every single item on your list will have been checked off. There is nothing new under the Pandoran (or Pocahantan) sun.

Which is not an argument against seeing the movie. If there were ever a movie that qualified as a must-see, Avatar is it. It is, as advertised, just mind-blowingly, amazingly, awesomely impressive entertainment experience. There are chase scenes and fight scenes and taming-the-wild-beast scenes that are going to be talked about and admired - and, perhaps unfortunately, imitated - for years to come. You just don't want to think too hard about it after you leave the theatre.


Graham Wegner said...

I too enjoyed this film although I didn't go to see the 3D version. I share your sentiments about the storyline - it did pack a lot into its two and a half hours but I found a number of the characters to be very one dimensional. The colonel was a classic example where there was no depth to why he behaved in the manner that he did - as was the case with the female chopper pilot Chacon who switched allegiances without any soul searching whatsoever. I'm probably a little compromised as I'm currently watching the DVD TV series "The Wire" where every character is shown as being flawed and compromised regardless of whether they are aligned with the law or the criminal world. Anyway, I thought you'd also enjoy what a controversial Australian columnist thought of Avatar - you may want a re-watch to see things in his very unique way.

Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks, Graham, for the comment and the link. Funny stuff. I guess this is one of the things about pop culture that is always going to be true to some extent: complex ideas are going to be whittled down to easily digestible clich├ęs. I certainly wouldn't expect that anyone would turn to Hollywood for an informed commentary on issues social or political. Even Invictus, which has been widely praised, indulges itself in all manner of sentimentality about Making a Difference without showing much of anything about how exactly it was carried off. Reality is more vexing.