Ink & Paint IV: Avatar

First off, three comments by way of framing this post.

(1) I’m very late arriving at this dance, so I don’t expect to generate any great revelations that haven’t been thoroughly explored in other venues.  I saw the film last night and wanted to write down a few thoughts while it was still fresh in my mind.

(2) This is not a review per se—it’s more about documenting my reactions to the film and what it meant to me.

(3) Doing this under the banner of my recurring feature that focuses on comics and animation is a little odd because there’s little or no ink or paint involved, and Avatar isn’t one of the obscure or quirky bits of work I prefer to highlight. It is animation, though, and it has certain evolutionary and perhaps revolutionary qualities that I can’t ignore.

In a future at some indeterminate distance from our own, Jake Sully is a crippled ex-Marine offered the chance to participate in a project to win the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of the planet Pandora, a world possessing vast quantities of a rare and expensive resource that Earth wants desperately. He will inhabit the consciousness of a genetically-engineered facsimile of one of the natives—bigger and stronger than his own body, and fully-functional—via a telepresence link. Arriving on Pandora, Jake finds himself in the middle of a power struggle among scientific researchers, corporate executives, and paramilitary security, all of whom have a different agenda for Jake’s interaction with the Pandorans. On his first mission, Jake becomes separated from his team and is rescued by the Pandorans, who are suspicious of him, but finally decide to teach him their ways and assimilate him into their society. As Jake learns more about the Pandorans, he begins to realize that their world is much more than it appears to be, and that they are in grave danger from the Earth occupation leaders, who want to push them out of their habitat in order to facilitate the mining operation. Jake is caught between two worlds and two very different ways of life and must decide where his loyalties truly lie.

I’ll begin where everyone else does, with the visuals. They’re stunning. Cameron has leveraged state-of-the-art technologies in computer-generated 3D animation to create an immersive alien world. The movement of the CG characters is fluid and so natural that it was easy to forget they weren’t live actors, even (and perhaps especially) in close-up. Beautiful textures, colors, and expressions. Beads of sweat. No Jar-Jar Binks here. It’s not flawless, but it comes very close.  The 3D effect was mostly employed in a supporting role to give the picture real depth. It enhanced my experience of the film rather than distracting from it, which to my mind was a huge achievement.

Something I thought was pretty cool was that Cameron created a world in which fluorescent camouflage makes sense. In one of the most striking yet understated scenes, Jake’s rescuer douses an improvised torch Jake had been using to light his way and defend himself as darkness fell, and though his Pandoran eyes, Jake sees the forest come alive in riotous luminesence.

A lot of people are griping about the story. It’s cliche’; it’s predictable; it’s riddled with political, social and religious propaganda; there are logic holes and inconsistencies; it feels like a rip-off of Dances With Wolves; and the central conceit, the telepresence link operated by a crippled protagonist, seems to have been cribbed from the classic Poul Anderson story, “Call Me Joe.”

Pish tosh. This is a movie, not a great work of literature, and it’s a fun ride, chock-full of breathtaking action. People want to see the spectacle, not bask in the philosophy. Cameron isn’t shy about pushing his personal agendas, and you don’t walk into one of his films without expecting a certain amount of unsubtle prodding about the evils of corporate greed, military adventurism, and ecological neglect. Yes, he also preaches the starry-eyed joys of nature-worshipping pantheism. Whatever. The folks who are inclined to Cameron’s worldview will lap up the applique’ message, and the folks who aren’t will either laugh at it or ignore it. I don’t expect he’ll be changing any minds here.

I stumbled on an early screenplay for Avatar about five years ago—I think it was posted on BoingBoing (legally—I seem to remember Cameron was trying to build some early buzz and gather initial reactions), and I wish I’d kept the file. I thought at the time it showed a lot of promise, and it’s interesting to see how the story changed. There’s much more detail about the alien culture now, and the final battle became a whole lot bigger. Jake’s internal struggle played out pretty much the same way, and the final image in the movie remained exactly as I read it five years ago and feels as emotionally spot-on now as then.

Beyond all the flash-bang and pseudo-philosophic smoke, this is what I think the movie is really about—a human being becomes an alien, discovering in the process that becoming alien allows him to become more human than he ever was before. His transformation pulls him from his self-imposed isolation into a living community. He moves from bitterness, cynicism, and selfishness to love, compassion, and self-sacrifice. It’s not a new story, and it won’t be the last time we see it, because it’s a story worth telling—and Cameron does it with some astonishingly pretty pictures. Watch and enjoy. Do see it in 3D, and in IMAX, if you can.

PG-13 for violence, partial (but not gratuitous) nudity, and language.

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