Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Epic Blues

Avatar(2009)Directed By James Cameron
If you take the giant winged creatures from Miyazake's "Nausica and The Valley Of The Wind" and the blue skinned giants from Leloux's "Fantastic Planet" and mix them into an apocalyptic episode of the Smurfs you get "Avatar", a really, really, really, really expensive cartoon. I love action adventure epics, and seeing CGI monsters and armies battle for the fate of the universe in exotic locales, but I don't believe that all of these stories and films have to be mindless, vapid, or completely predictable. Fantasy and science fiction in literature have authors who have dedicated themselves to moving the genres forward by thinking of themselves as artists first and genre peddlers second or not at all. Sci-Fi "new wave" writers like Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, Ursula K. Lu Gluin, Stainlaw Lem, J.G. Ballard, R.A. Lafferty, and Micheal Moorcock (whose essay "Epic Pooh" (http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=953) attacks the epic fantasy of Tolkien and CS Lewis for being colonial dreck intellectually equivalent of "Winnie The Pooh" and is recommended reading for the "Avatar" age) to name a small few, all wrote exciting and thought provoking stories so I know it's possible to have your ray gun's and eat them too. The "novel of ideas" may have died amongst the literary set (many Creative Writing programs at Universities to this day commonly reject "genre fiction" flat out), but it survived on in the low art, lower class paper backs and fan rags til it found a cheap home on TV and in the movies where it's cashed in on today. It's hard to depict "ideas" dramatically, so most focus on what grabs attention the quickest; the alien, the action, and the uncanny aspects of such stories, strip mining them much the way the barbourous future humans do peaceful planet Pandora. On Pandora no one thinks outside the box. This in the case of the first two films I mentioned at the top and is not always a bad thing (though I wouldn't describe either of those films are brainless or heartless), and sometimes it's enough for a film to skate by on, the way some actors get by being attractive and slightly charming. Avatar is not one of those, not really. "Avatar" is science fictio action adventure, to be precise it's "space opera", about a hero who goes to a faraway kingdom, get's a magical weapon (in this case a whole new body), meets a princess(literally a princess in this), and saves said kingdom and maybe even the world, from an unstoppable evil (smooth talking backwards chair sitting blood thirsty generals and their corporate overlors)There is little too nothing scientific about it. Though the special effects are striking with the phosphorescent neon jungles and the "tree of souls" being particularly impressive, it's nothing that has never been depicted before. Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus" made at a fraction of the cost of Avatar, uses special effects to create surreal landscapes that could never possibly exist. Though that film was pretty patchy in plot points too, it at least had what "Avatar" claimed, things I had never seen before. Like "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within", "Beawolf", and "The Polar Express" before it, today's earth shattering special effects will become tomorrows corny joke if all it seeks to do is be a little more detailed and a little more realistic than the rest. It is a terrible irony to me that at a time when Dali-like fantasia's of infinite possibility can be easily generated we are consumed with technology only in so far as it can be used to make the expressions on animated humanoid faces a bit closer to our own. I don't much care for Frank Miller but when once asked about why his art became more simplistic in his later works, he said "I want to see Super-Man fly, I don't want to see the sweat beneath his armpits", and reactionary as that statement might have been, I understand it. Fantasy and SF films of today fail because instead of imaging the impossible they are content to infinitesimally replicate the improbable; e.i. what would a ten foot tall blue giant's face look like if he were concerned, angry, or is not sure if he left the iron on? As for the movies "pro-green" or "anti-war" message, it has neither. The gods of the N'avi ultimately save them (contradicting the idea that the "tree of souls loves everyone and takes no sides" espoused by Princess), which makes this movie in the very literal sense holy war, pitting the good indigenous against the evil capitalists infidels and their demonic machines ("Krull" anyone?). As my friend Chris Kimsey at Flixter said of the movie and this point in particular, "This movie suffers from major issues, for one, it is an overtly romanticized look at colonization and resource harvesting, and the film has an illogical and ridiculously unrealistic conclusion. I suppose if the people who are being "pushed" out are actually right and founded in fact, which they never are, then this film would make sense. But the Native Americans were wrong, the Native South Americans were wrong. The only thing which makes these peoples success make any sense is that their theological beliefs happen to be correct....You see if the Aztecs were like the Na'vi then they would have prevailed against Spain, because Jaguar men and gods of the forest would have helped them! DUH!" Likewise to the "pro-green" message if the Earth didn't want to be raped of it's resources it would retaliate in a fashion similar to "The Happening" or "The Ruins" or I'm personally hoping "Little Shop Of Horrors".Like so many colonial fantasy films the N'avi would be helpless also were it not for the intervention of a hero from the colonizer's side, marshaling them like children by manipulating their religious beliefs of being "the chosen one". Remember the story about Cortes being mistaken for a God when he arrived at Tenochtitlan, well in "Avatar" like 2000's "The Road To El Dorado", they take the idea and run with it.I do not accept that "Avatar" as just a sci-fi flick or an action movie and one you shouldn't really think about it. I think the best SF is made to be thought about and the best action does not requite 300 million dollars, because David Cronenberg made one of the best action scenes of the decade with "Eastern Promises" brutal naked knife it in a sauna.I am also not impressed with realistic depictions of an alien landscape which aside from a few slightly mutated plants and animals isn't that alien (compared with any Rene Laloux movie), and downright normal if you were raised on Saturday morning cartoons, or anime, or other movies from this genre camp. So what's left is just an untalented actor in a wheel-chair (I'm guessing this is to help us sympathize with him going native and preferring his N'avi body) talking into the camera like a really bad reality show. "Avatar" was not terrible, and genuinely better than "Transformers 2" and "District 9" which preceded it this year, but they had both already lowered the bar so much, this didn't have very high to leap over. The film is humorless, the characters one dimensional, the performances weak, and the concept so traditional for this type of material it has lost all meaning. Once the next really expensive thing is made with a large chunk of that expense going to a huge ad campaign, we will all swarm over it, and look back at this as being one of those hokey movies with cheesy outdated effects, nothing more (ex: I've included several shots from Avatar the video game in this post, try and see if you can tell the difference between the "real" film and the game). For now it's fun though, I liked when the animals attack the machines. Take that bad guys!


Dorty said...

Great review Joe. My thoughts echo yours, but it still didn't keep me from watching this thing twice. The main thing I noticed on my 2nd viewing was that our hero had 5 blue fingers vs the native blue teams' four. Thank god for that 2nd viewing. haha

Joe Sylvers said...

Lol. Yeah Arvia told this was actually really, really impressive in 3d. I should try to see it again sometime. I really do like all the effects and images, I mean I grew up with this kind of stuff, it was my bread, butter, and water, but maybe that's why it also kind of bored me a bit. I was never for a moment suprised by any of the images, or ideas because they were so familiar. But(trying to be positive), perhaps the sequels will be able to take more risks now that the franchise has proven profitable. I might have liked it more had they left the Navi sex in, but that's another story. Thanks for stopping by Dorty, it's nice to see people are reading these crazy rants of mine.