03 February, 2010

Depth Perception

Scattered through the blogosphere, there are probably enough posts about James Cameron's "Avatar" to fill several books. And there is enough in the film to warrant books of critical, thematic, and technical discourse.

When a film is referenced by two professors, in two classes the same day, you know it's time to see it. So with the evening free, i took the bus off campus to Ankuva mall. I keep mentioning Real - like Walmart in size, only at least half the store is devoted to food - and beneath this massive store, parallel with two floors of underground parking, is a cinema multiplex. Picked up my 3-D gözluk and braced for - well, i didn't know. As i sat waiting for the film to begin on the biggest screen i've ever seen outside an IMAX, i didn't even know whether it would be in English, subtitled, or dubbed.

That every shot was pains-takingly planned for effect is clear. As other reviewers have observed, Cameron never uses 3-D to make the film pop outward at viewers (an effect which could have been well used in some of the flying scenes); instead, the background falls into the distance. Ranks of mercenaries on the transport shuttle offer some of the most effective uses of the technique; close-up shots brim with detail and depth, the contours of Sam Worthington's face standing in relief as his eyes blink open. When the action is fast, though, 3-D seems to disappear. I couldn't help wondering if, in making one of the most expensive films ever and advancing the cinematic frontier, Cameron's guiding intention was to produce a visual echo of the film's thematic depth. (The other thing which really caught my eye was the dazzle of cockpit reflections as Trudy's chopper first approached the Hallelujah mountains: "You should see your faces," she says, as if referring instead to rows of gaping movie patrons.)

Of the three theatrical elements - plot, character, and spectacle - Avatar is at first so slick and eye-popping that on the surface, spectacle dominates. Yet Jake Sully is paraplegic for a reason, or for many. His agency in the real world - the world he experiences through his own body - is limited; when he feels like striking out at Colonel Quaritch, he can't. Sully can only escape into the world of his Avatar, a world where his long, blue toes curl in the alien soil. His motivation to protect Pandora from industrial spoilage then, is not simply romantic attachment: if his mission to relocate the Na'vi is finished, this daily rebirth will end.

Long. So long. That the film was deliberate, and only broken by one discontinuity in storytelling (when Jake's avatar flees the lab prematurely, and meets Grace's avatar already in the forest) seemed to stretch it forever. In that expanse, there was much spectacle, but only two scenes stood out. The first, when Selfridge, Augustine, Quaritch (a.k.a. Colonel Asshole), and Sully are arguing over how to proceed with the Na'vi: the dramatic tension among the four actors is palpable, par excellence. The second: the moment when Neytiri at last embraces the real Jake Sully, the one whose fearless heart won hers. Of course that scene's a winner. The outcome remains unrevealed, but the connection between the two characters - who have known each other for months and now truly meet for the first time - raises the emotional stakes to a par with the film's third-of-a-billion budget.

I worry that the blazing neon message of the film (as one reviewer aptly described it) is nonetheless overshadowed by a bloated shamanic theme. Dr. Augustine's discourse on Pandora's bio-informatic connectedness gets about ten seconds of screen time, compared to long scenes of a thousand Na'vi beneath the Tree of Souls, swaying to a ceremonial chant. That there are different ways to describe the same phenomenon - through both science and primitive religious experience - rides backseat to the utopian vision of Pandoran life. Yes, it all is connected, i say silently, but the mixture of what Ken Wilber might call pre-egoic and post-egoic ontologies is dangerous, confusing to the uninformed. 

Avatar, it would seem, is a masterpiece of ironies above all else. It is an epistle of environmental sensitivity delivered in the most artificial envelope possible. In an age when we humans interact more and more often in a virtual world of online avatars, our protagonist achieves his connection with nature through a bioengineered surrogate body. Children will relive the "Avatar" experience through video games and action figures, not a membership to their local Audubon society. A film that would seem to focus attention more on our own pillaged planet works its magic on a CG moon where humans cannot breathe and, perhaps unfortunately, it is Pandora that remains in our consciousness. The afternoon before i saw the film, Dr. Mutman lectured in Visual Technologies and Visual Narratives: "we will see," he says, "that in Simulations, Baudrillard makes a challenging argument - there is no longer a difference between the world of reality and the world of representation."

We have become one with our avatar.

It was late when i arrived home, out of the wind-driven rain, and logged on to skype. I shall leave the last word to my friend Emin.

[2/3/10 1:26:57 AM] Emin Okutan: aliens were never like this before.
[2/3/10 1:27:02 AM] tavi: true that
[2/3/10 1:27:04 AM] Emin Okutan: they were the invaders tech advanced. zapping wiping out humans. here the humans have the technology and aliens are primitive. so maybe we are the aliens now
[2/3/10 1:27:54 AM] Emin Okutan: alien to our own habitat
[2/3/10 1:28:14 AM] Emin Okutan: avatar could mean that

The ~$300 million question, then, is - short of a new, blue body, how do we reconnect? The theme of expatriation will have to wait for another post.