Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pocahantas Simba Binks Meets Avatar

Warning: Plot Spoiler. This review gives away parts of the plot (such as it is). My personal opinion is that a movie worth seeing won't be diminished by previous knowledge of the narrative, but some people can't live with it, so there you are.

The short version: Very long (2.5 hours), watchable, highly Disnified fairytale. No literary classic, but respectable visual and audio effects.

The longer version (but not as long as 2.5 hours):

In a galaxy far, far away, a mining company searches a primitive jungle planet for a mysterious precious mineral with the unlikely designation of something like “Unobtanium.” What this stuff is good for, we never know exactly, since all of the transportation modes involved in the fantasy world appear to operate in old-fashioned combustible ways, but for whatever reasons the stuff is highly desirable. Okay, we'll give them that.

The native inhabitants are a unique and vaguely jurassic group of spiritually interconnected plants, animals, and elongated blue humanoids with little use for the low-consciousness of the invading miners and their environmental carelessness. Coincidentally, deposits of the valuable mineral tend to be associated with the most important places in the native culture. Opposition from the natives and the hazards of the environment require the mining company to employ an army of ex-marines to insure security. If the native population doesn't cooperate, the Marines will also either forcefully relocate them, or eliminate as many as necessary to insure success of the mining operations.

Racing against the military profit schedule set by the corporate business manager, a team of dedicated scientists led by the crusty but culturally-conscious Sigorny Weaver as Grace, the science manager, struggles to find a workable diplomatic compromise by gaining knowledge of the native culture through the interaction of avatars, biological android replicants controlled by transfer of consciousness from a human operator. Just in case that wasn't sufficient provocation to produce avatars, human beings can only live in the atmosphere for about twenty seconds without gas masks. (Sorry folks, those are the rules, I didn't make them up.)

Into this predictable conflict of methodology and objectives, stumbles, so to speak, Jake Sully, a disabled Marine veteran who has lost the use of his legs under circumstances that are not clear, and is now, for reasons that are also not clear, the only suitable replacement to do the job of “sullying” the native culture as an avatar operator that was supposed to be his twin brother who has inconveniently died under circumstances that are even less clear. In a likewise somewhat incomprehensible deal, the militant and determined Marine Drill Sergeant Maniac commander of the security force offers to insure replacement of Sully's legs in return for his cooperation as an avatar operator to find something about the natives the mining company can use to force their cooperation. Apparently, as a fellow Marine, the Marine Drill Sergeant Maniac feels Jake's loyalty can be trusted. Unfortunately for the Marine Drill Sergeant Maniac, the native chief's attractive, independent daughter (think blue Pocahantas) conveniently rescues Jake in the character of his avatar (with a stylized minority face remarkably similar to Simba the lion cub) from the consequences of his own impetuous ignorance in the jungle. The inevitable follows.

Jake learns to appreciate the native culture as well as his shrewd and attractive native guide. His loyalties shift. The infuriated security chief convinces the business manager the time has come for violent action. The company sends in a team to destroy the native home-base (think Disney Tree of Life). The attack aircraft launch explosive incendiary rockets at the base of the colossal tree. The tree falls, and in the chaotic aftermath, the father of Pocahantas, I mean Blue Native Princess, gets speared by a fatal spike of the splintered tree.

Disowned by the natives for his human connections, poor Jake has to find a way to regain their confidence. This he accomplishes with a minimum of fuss by jumping onto a giant flying dinosaur and piloting the awesome beast in for a landing at the powow, becoming only the sixth or so successful major dino pilot in the long history of the natives. This is good enough for them. They take it as a sign.

The natives worship another weird tree (think fiber optic weeping willow) that serves as a kind of connection to the spiritual network of the planet. Unfortunately the tree grows on a promising location for Unobtanium. The company sends out an expedition of giant mining equipment, but Jake and the blue warriors head them off at the pass, so the business manager decides to go ahead with plans to drop a huge bomb on the site, and Jake leads the defense. Some kind of natural forces on the planet interefere with navigational instruments, so it's mano-a-mano, dino-riders against exo-suits.

In spite of their valiant effort and some help from their friends, including the scientists and a rogue copter pilot, the dinos and the natives are getting whacked by the massive firepower of the secuirty machines. Blue Jake jumps onto a flying humvee for a showdown with the Marine Drill Sergeant Maniac, and tosses a missle into the rotor, but Marine Drill Sergeant Maniac escapes in an exo-suit and Blue Jake makes a successful crash-landing through the sympathetic jungle vegetation.

On the ground, Marine Drill Sergeant Maniac in exo-suit takes on Blue Jake, Blue Pocahantas, and some of their dino back-ups. I won't spoil the duel by describing the outcome. I'll only suggest that it won't surprise you much.

As a teacher once put it to me, the simplest way to explain literature is that it messes with your head. Literature sells ideas like billboards sell cruises. How the ideas come across depends on a lot of things, including language, logic, comparisons, organization, all those things literature teachers are always ranting about as elements of literature whether they understand it themselves or not. This is also critical thinking, understanding how ideas are presented and their effect.

As literature, Avatar doesn't especially convey ideas successfully. The fundamental conflict between economics and nature represented by the mining company and the blue natives, a thinly veiled comparison to European colonial expansion, is something Disney has routinely exploited, exploited more effectively, and exploited with more blatant and complete hypocrisy (and I'm not even arguing that would necessarily be a bad thing for a business project).

What impact the narrative has depends, not on discovering any important or novel aspect of the relationship between nature and economics, but on contrived sentimentality of the sort criticized by Horkheimer and Adorno as products of the culture industry, predictable devices: destruction of the loyal companion, destruction of the devoted father, destruction of the loyal pet, destruction of the noble warrior, joining of the romantic characters, not things that have impact because of fundamental, inescapable personal connections, but things that have impact because of conditioned behavior, things that make you want to cry because they are supposed to make you want to cry.

To an extent, all emotional reactions are learned, conditioned, social behavior, but if that's all it is, then there is nothing authentic in the reaction. In that way, Avatar adds little or nothing to the conversation in the way that films like Blade Runner or Brazil added to the conversation, and the construction of the narrative is inconsistent. What supposedly happens to these avatars when the operator disconnects? Apparently they just go to sleep wherever they happen to be, which seems rather careless. Shouldn't they at least be parked somewhere secure?

Like a demanding mother, Grace insists on poking macaroni and cheese into Human Jake while the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. What kind of planning is that? Are clothes generated for avatars the same way as the avatars themselves? Why does one of the scientists' avatars always wear identical clothes? Doesn't that guy ever change clothes, in or out of the tank?

The only real critical success of Avatar is not in narrative or in social issues. The success is almost strictly in the detailed aesthetic world of imagination that conjures up the frightening proximity of unfamiliar creatures, provokes stomach-turning vertigo on the verge of numerous heights, or involves the viewer in the ceremonies and environments of a mystical race. Dinosaur-like predators attack with jarring presence. Fragile, glowing reptiles with wings and luminous jelly-fish insects float through the air. The characters scamper recklessly along mossy branches far above the apparent surface. The meager story advances through myriad views of unfamiliar life forms, but the thing painfully apparent is confinement to the passive visual and audio experience.

This is not an alien world. It is 3-D, the dimensionalizing of fantasy art into movement and sound. The floating mountains, the dinosaur-like dragon creatures, the weapons of the primitive tribe are all standards, not of profound insight, but of an esoteric, mock-medieval style of legend. It is a magnificent set without a script of any significance, and even the technical effect is questionable. It lacks the novelty of a Star Wars and merely utilizes the hyper-real production techniques of a Final Fantasy or even a Toy Story. In some ways more like the arbitrary identity shifts of a video game than narrative, Avatar ends up as an only somewhat successful and very long (2.5 hours) look through a constrained window of special effects, although for that length of time, even the accomplishment of not being totally boring is a degree of success.

I was rather struck that so many people in the audience would accept the corporation and the caricatures of the US military as enemies, that they would literally applaud the destruction of the strike force. But perhaps the joke is on me, because ultimately the representation of military loss is only pretend, and the message that remains attached to the visual spectacle seems to be that the fate of nature and culture depends not on right, or justice, or even on inner strength, but on the disputes and intervention of Anglo, male, U.S. Marines. Whether you are a predatory corporate enterprise, or a valiant blue native, you can't win without an Anglo male Marine on your side. Everything else is incidental, and resistance is futile. As true as somebody might like that to be, 2.5 hours is a long time to take for the message.

Here's Thinking for You

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