Posted on January 21, 2010
We saw Avatar last night — the full iMax, 3-D experience here in Hooksett. I can list for you its ostensible deficiencies. The plot line is lifted right out of Dances with Wolves (and a bit of Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai and Fern Gully)substituting the blue skinned Na’vi aboriginal people of the planet Pandora for the Sioux of the American plains.
The story is predictable. The flying sequences recall Harry Potter’s Quiditch matches. The hero, Jake Scully, is channeling Jack from the Titanic in terms of bravado, humor, and charm. The Pantheistic ethos is, from a theological perspective, pretty simple-minded (yes, we are all part of nature).
So here’s the thing. I was blown away.
Th obvious reason is the visually groundbreaking CGI created scenes rendered in the best 3-D ever. I wonder if this is how people felt in 1939 when they saw the Wizard of Oz. It certainly reminds me of how we felt in 1977 when Star Wars was released. Those movies, and now Avatar, open up new possibilities and create a new visual vocabulary for filmmakers. Avatar is the future and it did something I’m not sure we expect from movies very much anymore: it created a sense of wonder.
There are scenes in the movie that made people gasp for their sheer beauty. Floating mountains, luminescent plants and insects, vertigo inducing perspectives, and three-dimensionality that was so perfectly created it felt more like the holodeck on the Enterprise, at least as I’ve always imagined it (serious nerd admission, I know) than a movie. We all found ourselves smiling again and again at the sheer delight of the thing.
Rare is it for today’s films to create such a perfectly rendered world and one that is so utterly beautiful. Psychologists report case of people having post-Avatar depression because our own world is so much less beautiful than the one in the movie.
On a less visceral and sensory level, while the plot is utterly predictable and the themes familiar, there is an interesting dynamic going on. People are in many ways imprinting upon the film their own hopes and anxieties and ideologies. Some religious leaders see a critique of religion in the film’s Pantheism. Right wing types complain about an anti-American or anti-military or anti-Capitalism bias or all of the above (the far right tends to heap its criticisms, substituting volume for actual analysis). Some women have complained that the female Na’vi are less strong (Did they see the same film?). Cameron obviously means the film as an eco-fable, but he touches a lot of other nerves along the way.
There is enough breadth and substance and, maybe more important, myth-making in what some critics feel are its weak plot and themes to make the film a kind of Rorscharch test for the audience’s concerns about the world.
On a more personal level and like Star Wars, despite all the CGI gee-whiz wonder on display we also care for the characters. For example, if Sully’s transformation could be predicted by every single audience member, it is nevertheless charmingly delivered by actor Sam Worthington.
That’s the thing about Cameron. His technical audacity and imagination is matched by flawless execution. If the plot is hackneyed, at least its perfectly delivered. And after all, aren’t most great plot lines remakes of basic Jungian archetypes and themes? You score points for delivering them in original ways and making them feel new again.
I have particular affection for small movies grounded in real, if sometimes quirky, life. Films like Lars and the Real Girl, Beautiful Girls, An Education, and I’ve Always Loved You. Avatar reminded me of the magic that comes from being transported to another world. After Tuesday’s election results in Massachusetts, it was welcome and joyful escape.
If someone sees it and is not filled with wonder and delight, I sadly fear they have little of the child left in them.