Monday, June 28, 2010
If Yoda were a girl...
ABOUT YOUR YEN. In the InstaPunk tradition of watching and reviewing a blockbuster long after everyone's stopped caring about it, Mrs. CP and I finally ante'd up the scratch to see Avatar on-demand this weekend. (I put up $2.50; she made up the remaining $2.49.) Did we get our money's worth? I'll let you know at the end. But I wouldn't post this if I thought anyone else had said what I'm going to say. I read all the reviews and they ALL missed everything important. Such is life. Why I watch, however belatedly...
One of the headlines has to be that we weren't terribly offended by the anti-military theme. You know it's going to be there, but in a work of complete fantasy, it just doesn't pack any punch. The reference to "shock and awe" and the schlocky "twin towers" symbolism, for example, come across as just plain silly in this context, clear anachronisms that will contribute to the inevitable wearing down of this movie's reputation in years to come. "Dated" is the word they'll use more and more. Until it's a film school footnote. All it will ever be: the umpteenth attempt to do a breakthrough 3-D thing. Sigh. Failed again.
Of course the visuals are beautiful. The graphic artists who created the landscapes and flora of Pandora are genuinely gifted. (The fauna not so much. But more about that later.) There has to be more to a movie than that. As Emerson said, "Beauty without expression is boring." I was reminded of this with a bump during the looong lyrical second act when our hero avatar is exploring Pandora with Yodette and learning the ways of the forest. I was in full passive spectator mode when Mrs. CP suddenly turned to me and said, "This is one boring movie."
Things got much more exciting after that, obviously, but no third act can restore what wasn't there in the first place. It's the very DNA of Avatar that's fatally flawed, beginning but not ending with the script. This is where Cameron's anti-military bias offends the movie's entertainment value more than this conservative's political sensibilities. His protagonist is merely a placeholder, a necessary foil, for all the things which must happen to carry the action to its preordained conclusion. That's why it's an understatement to call the plot predictable. It's more accurate to say that the plot is set in concrete as soon as we've met Jake, the Colonel, and the corporate weasel in charge. There's only one way this can go, and by golly we're going there no matter how many implausibilities we have to bulldoze our way through like the wrecking machines of the evil unobtainium mining corporation.
Including the character of the protagonist Jake. He's a Marine. For James Cameron (as for Sigourney Weaver at first), that's all we need to know about him. He begins as a simple and soulless killing machine who will follow any military-ish orders without question until events literally club him on the head and thence into consciousness. This assumption may be convenient for Cameron, but it's deadly to much else, including plausibility, suspense, and the vital audience identification with the main character. When I say plausibility, I'm referring to the willing suspension of disbelief, not the fantastic premise. There's no reason whatever to think that a Marine corporal is somehow automatically equipped to be an undercover intelligence operative prepared to infiltrate a foreign culure, earn their trust and admiration, and work continuously throughout for their destruction. That's the polar opposite of what Marines are, in fact. They are frontal assault, courage, duty, loyalty unto death, protective of innocent civilians, and from first to last members of a unit -- not solitary soldiers of fortune -- with inviolable standards of honesty, integrity, and above all, honor.
To cover this massive contradiction, Cameron gives us a cheap, selfish motive for Jake to sell out his sense of personal honor without a moment's hesitation. Slaughter of whoever and however for the return of his legs. At a time when, every single day, we can see instances of American military men who clearly value their record of honorable service over their lost limbs. And who are making supreme sacrifices in two theaters of war to prevent collateral damage to civilians. Which leaves us asking, "Who is this scumbag Marine who betrays his officially assigned duties so easily (especially given that he's already indicted the troops on the ground as "mercenaries"), and why should we care about him at all?" The only answer: Because he is the designated hero and at the proper juncture in the script, he will become that hero. Built-in stalemate. The result is a protagonist without an identifiable face, figuratively as well as literally (in his atavar role). He's an expressionless cipher smack dab at the center of the picture.
Which is the principal reason for Mrs. CP's ennui during the movie's show-off second act. Sure, it's a spectacular attempt at visual seduction. But structurally it's merely an enormous set piece whose purpose and end result are axiomatic. It's a combination montage of falling in love and, well, Rocky training for the big fight to come. But because we know all this, we also have time to ask questions and notice what's missing underneath the flash and color. Why was do-gooder anthropologist Sigourney so hostile to a cripple at the beginning and so quickly affectionate after Jake enters the Nav'i culture? Doesn't she suspect, particularly in light of all the obvious clues, duh, that Jake is double-dealing, at best? Why does she insist on his video diary without conducting interrogations, if not inquisitions, of her own? What is her agenda?
And what's up with the Nav'i? They clearly know that Jake is a human in a phonied up body, and humans are the greatest enemy they have ever faced. Didn't they already boot Sigourney's social worker ass out of their community? But speaking of enemies, exactly which ones have these faultless creatures ever faced before this in paradise? Oh well. Maybe they'll explain that part later.
More importantly, what's up with Jake? How much beauty and sensual delight and superhuman physical sensation do you have to experience before you begin reappraising your whole relation to existence? Actually, we already know the answer to that question. Nothing can happen till the end of this set piece, at which point his transformation will occur all at once with some kind of a bang. Forget we asked.
Leaving, perhaps most damagingly, the rest of the second act free for us to start making up our own movie in place of the one that's being delayed so endlessly (if beautifully) right now. For example, when Jake finally turns on the cartoonishly evil colonel, how are Sigourney's geeks ever going to protect that high-tech coffin of his from the rampaging mercenaries while he saves the Nav'i from the evil earthmen? (Virtual kung fu? Secret avatars in waiting prepared by the savvy Dr. Sigourney?) How are the scriptwriters going to manage bringing the sundered lovers back together after she discovers what a treacherous piece of crap he's been? And what's it going to take for Jake to earn back a trust he absolutely never deserved? Oh. Got it. That great big, really nasty flying thing that's even bigger than their usual nasty, semi-domesticated flying things has been tamed five times before in ages of great peril. (What peril? Never mind.) Well. At least that's settled. Thanks.
In short, the movie is already a shambles before the final act that absolutely everything in the picture has been nothing but a setup for ever arrives. All of what should be thrills, excitement, and stirring emotion in the final showdown is ultimately, however technically astounding, pro forma in cinematic terms, a set piece of its own despite its self-consciously epic scale.
Truth is, that last sentence also describes the entire movie almost perfectly, at every level. Avatar wants so badly to be seen as an order-of-magnitude leap of the cinematic imagination. It isn't. In reality, it is a clunky assemblage of references, borrowings, and set pieces stolen from a long list of other movies. It's a kind of pastiche of great sci fi-fantasy-epic blockbusters by Cameron's peers, including his own. So much so that it's impossible to believe it's not being done self-consciously and therefore either cynically or fraudulently. The only possible excuse I can conceive of for what Cameron has done in Avatar is that he believes if he copies and steals from absolutely everybody, the end result somehow amounts to breakthrough creativity. Especially if he admits it explicitly once or twice.
I had an "aha" moment at the end of the first act, when Jake makes his manhandled entry into the Nav'i headquarters. The disdain, catcalls, and evident loathing of what they recognized as an avatar by the Nav'i tribe reminded me instantly of the scene in Last of the Mohicans where Daniel Day-Lewis's Mohican enters the enemy Indian camp. I flashed on the image of that movie's archvillain Magwa, and then I heard Magwa's voice. The voice of the Nav'i chieftain was Wes Studi, the actor who played Magwa. "You've got to be kidding me," I said out loud.
I'd had my suspicions earlier, but then I knew. That's when I began to make mental note of all the bits and pieces Avatar is made of. I probably didn't catch them all, but here's a partial list with sometimes direct and sometimes indirect hints about where various strands of Avatar DNA originated:
Lord of the Rings (Lothlorien, archer elves, the Nazgul, etc, etc, etc, and elves)
King Kong (flight through the tree roots, monster submission to humanoid female, predator eaten by bigger predator, oafish human interlopers, monster stampede)
Star Wars (Yoda ears, fauna, giant military robots, war in the woods, etc)
Harry Potter (hippogriff-human bond)
Jurassic Park (much more fauna, salvation by predator on predator)
Last of the Mohicans (elk hunt, cross-cultural romance, strung-up semi-crucified tribal enemy, etc)
Finding Nemo (Isn't Pandora really under water? All that blue...)
Aliens (Sigourney, of course, man-operated monster robots, foul-mouthed Hispanic military chick doomed to die)
The Matrix (Neo, waiting for Neo while the killer thingies dismantle the ship where his body's concealed, resurrection)
Apocalypse Now (Flight of the Valkyries, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning")
The Road Warrior (symbolic post-death experience, salvation by outsider)
I'm sure there are others. And I know it's possible to make the case that there are elements of myth and meaning that are common across human experience and the media in which they are rendered, thus arguing that Cameron only seems to be plagiarizing his rivals. But if myth writes in broad strokes and fundamental oppositions of good and evil, that still does not mean there's no difference between myth and cartoon. My essential point is that Avatar is the world's most elaborate and expensive cartoon, and nothing more than that. It's a parade of images without substance of any kind.
The use of all the borrowed resonances from other movies and other stories is a kind of promiscuous freeloading on emotions earned not here but elsewhere. Are the Nav'i elves or Native American tribes? Seems like it would matter, doesn't it? One is a semi-divine magical race possessed of wisdom and a profound written poesy. The other is a primitive culture perfectly at home with warring against other tribes and, lest we forget, torturing their enemies horribly to death, including women and children. To cast the contradiction into sharper relief, elves are meta-physical beings in the strictest sense -- meaning, beyond the purely physical. The tribal Indians encountered by the 19th century U.S. Cavalry, on the other hand, were like every single primitive culture ever discovered in the wildernesses of earth: their lives, however natural and estimable, are intensely and basally physical -- incredibly hard, short, laden with toil and disease, and in any terms that we celebrants of their 'naturalism' would recognize, only semi-conscious.
But Cameron is pasting together a Hollywood collage of scenes designed to equate one with the other. In order to make us feel guilty. For what? When you start slapping together emotionally wrenching scenes from other movies across genres, you're in the business of manufacturing moral Frankenstein monsters. So Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now is napalming angelic elves? and if we identify (somehow) with Cameron's buffoonish hero, we're all Neo resisting a matrix which is concealing from us that the Nature our ancestors invented civilization to protect us from is nevertheless benign and more worthy of worship than the hard-won moral codes which separate us from the jaw-strength justice meted out by hyenas in the wild?
If you're a human being, pantheism is nonsense, a fantasy far more far-fetched than Star Wars or Avatar. The chief distinguishing characteristic of Nature is that it doesn't care who lives and who dies. As Avatar actually acknowledges right before its climactic battle scene, when Yodette tells Jake that "Eywha" exists only to preserve the balance, not to take sides. The only species ever to care about who lives and who dies is Mankind. (Is it rebuttal or marketing which turns this one accurate observation on its ass in the exciting climax?)
It's tempting, I know, to back away from all the artistic oxymorons and see this dumb movie as a nested series of ironies we're supposed to mull and learn from. But not all unexpected things are ironies. Sometimes they're just careless and unexamined contradictions accidentally juxtaposed by the superficial and pretentious ones who have convictions aplenty but no accompanying thinking process, or artistic integrity.
Now to the big question I posed at the beginning. Was the $4.99 worth it? I dunno. Maybe. I've now seen the archetypal post-modern blockbuster. It's an expensively produced scrapbook of stuff torn out of older, more thoughtful works of art and pasted into a glitzy album of hijacked photos claimed under one name on Facebook. Kewl.
Think I'm overstating? Consider the one most marvellously imaginative visual conceit of the planet Pandora: The Floating Mountains where the heroes went to hide. What an act of imaginative genius to conceive of such a thing....!
Look familiar? Rene Magritte, 1898 - 1967.
Avatar is to movie masterpieces what a lap dance is to true love. An imitation experience. I retract what I intimated earlier. Not worth the $4.99.