Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar first impressions - the Sioux win this time

By Donald Sensing

Lengthy update added and some new text in the previous body also.

I went with two-thirds of my kids to see a 9 a.m. showing of Avatar - the 3D Imax version. Since I have to leave again shortly, a full review will have to wait. But here are snapshots.

First, the story line works, though it is exceedingly simple and derivative. Alfred Hitchcock always said that before you get a cast or a crew, you have to have a good story. So what is the story line of Avatar? It is: boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Which is to say that the story lines in both the love story thread and the grand concept are wholly unoriginal. I don't mean that adversely, just to point out that the story takes you no place you haven't already been, many times over. But Cameron makes it work anyway.

In the meantime, there is a huge war going on. So the grand concept is this:

Sioux Indians Na'vi aliens of Jewish descent living on an extraterrestrial Black Hills called "Pandora" are rescued from oblivion by Kevin Costner Sam Worthington, as Jake Scully, who survives his first contact with the Na'vi by the intervention of Pocohontas Neytiri, a Na'vi woman. Meanwhile, Robert DuVall Stephen Lang, as a one-dimensional colonel in command of the white strike force, plays opera drinks coffee while helicoptering in to blow up the Na'vi.

The Sioux win this time and everyone lives happily ever after. Except the white guys, who pretty much don't live, period, happily or otherwise.

I said "white guys" because the cast of this movie makes NASCAR look like a melting pot. After the movie ended, the three of us could identify only one, count 'em, one black actor, and his role vanished after the first few minutes. There are a few Hispanic actors, including a human heroine, but apart from the blue Na'vi there really are no characters of color in the film.

Whoops, time is short. Quick hits:

1. The 3D works well, but not perfectly. I'd like to see the movie again, but in 2D, mainly to avoid the sometime technical distractions of the 3D process. The theater issued a motion-sickness caution at first, but it never bothered me, and I didn't notice anyone else bothered, either.

2. Extra points if you can explain why I said the Na'vi are "of Jewish descent."

3. There are rips in the music track evocative of "Enemy at the Gates" and "Glory." As James Horner is the composer for those two movies, too, it's not surprising; Horner has something of a reputation for reusing his work. But this is not a bad thing. I like his work. I think the soundtrack for "Glory," for example, is deeply moving in many places. It's closing credits perfectly cap the movie. So at least Horner had to good sense to reuse some of his best work.

4. The special effects are so incredibly well done and so well integrated into the whole movie project that you hardly remember you're watching a movie "set" that usually is nothing but special effects. There are several simply breathtaking sequences of flying on Pandora. The individualization of the Na'vi characters is superb, too. It is well that the FX are so fantastic because the story line is so templated and every character (including Scully and Neytiri) so shallowly scripted that without the FX the movie would probably be rather boring.

5. Probably should explain that the white guys are all former Marines or former soldiers in the employ of a company strip mining "unobtanium" on Pandora. What is unobtanium, you ask. Wikipedia:

Unobtainium is a facetious term for any extremely rare, costly, or physically impossible material needed to fulfill a given design for a given application.
So it's not Cameron's invention; he probably used the term as an inside joke. Unobtanium serves the role of Hitchcock's "McGuffin" - a dramatic device that causes the conflict of the story. It's worth $20 million per kilogram back on earth (of which probably $19.999998 million is charged to transportation and labors costs!).

Overall, I give the show

eight out of 10 raging mad Marine colonels of the clan of Jarhead.

Update: Is Avatar really a left-wing fantasy about the evils of imperial Amerikkka? Jeffrey Wells thinks so:
The political import of Avatar -- and there's no waving this aspect away because it's right in your face start to finish, and especially in the third act -- is ardently left. It is pro-indigenous native, anti-corporate, anti-imperialist, anti-U.S. Iraq War effort, anti-U.S.-in-Afghanistan (and anti-troop-surge-in-that-country, or strongly against the thinking of President Barack Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal), anti-rightie, anti-Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld, etc.
I don't think all that is in the movie to the degree that Wells claims - I suspect he's seeing the movie through that kind of lens and hence is being much more eisegetical than exegetical. But let's remember that movies are meant to be individually interpreted.

My take is that the grand concept line that I explained above is deliberately modeled on the Indian Wars of the Old West. That accounts for a cast that is almost as white as wind-driven snow - with modern sensitivities Cameron couldn't bring himself to fold into the mercenary army a paradigm of the all-black Buffalo Soldiers cavalry unit of renown.

More discussion (with spoilers, be forewarned!) after the jump.

As the movie progressed it became more apparent to me and my kids (ages 23 & 16) that the blue people were American Indian collates. They are tribal. They have a chief (Worthington's heart-throb Neytiri's dad) and a shaman, Neytiri's mum. They self govern with council meetings. The Na'vi's tribes are referred to by habitat and animal transportation - Worthington even refers to one tribe as the "plains" tribe of "horsemen," there being a six-legged horsey creature the Na'vi ride like the plains Indians rode horses. Their weapons number exactly two, the knife and the bow and arrow, both tipped with flint blades. They are fierce in battle and fight not only to protect their lands but also their honor. They adopt Jake Scully into the tribe very much like the North American Indian tribes adopted Simon Kenton, Daniel Boone and others.

The Na'vi are savages, to be sure. But they are noble savages, super-noble in fact. The protagonist tribe of the movie sits atop the largest deposit of "unobtanium" within 200 kilometers of the white mining company's present mining operation. The mining company's on-site director, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), is determined to get it, even if that means killing the Na'vi.

The company has tried to buy out the Na'vi by building them schools, teaching them English, offering science, etc. But the Noble Na'vi simply want to be left alone. As Scully says explicitly, "They don't want anything we have." And so, if the Na'vi won't listen to reason or succumb to bribes, they have to die.

But this story line betrays Avatar's great weakness: the story is so simple as to be infantile. There is no nuance, no complexity in anyone's character, blue or white. The good guys are completely good, the bad guys completely bad. The troops are unthinking storm troopers. (In fact, one sequence of the mercenary army disembarking onto Pandora's surface looks remarkably like Star Wars's clone army in SW1.) The former Marine colonel commanding the mercenaries simply wants to kill the Na'vi and doesn't mind losing a few or many of his own men to do it.

I said at the front of this post that the movie made me think of the whites' incursions into the Black Hills of South Dakota, enraging the Sioux who held them sacred. Thus with the Na'vi: the unobtanium seems always to sit directly under incredibly holy sites of the Na'vi's religion. It's not enough for Cameron, I guess, for the bad white people to want to kill the Na'vi because they won't move away. They have to commit desecration, too.

But it's not really Jake Scully's "Dances With Wolves" cognate that the Na'vi need. It's lawyers. Set in 2154, either political correctness and environmental lawfare have been utterly vanquished or no law firm on earth is even remotely curious where the fabulously valuable unobtanium actually comes from. If the Na'vi were "sue" Indians rather than merely Sioux, their problems would be over.

That may be why, 10 hours after movie's end as I write this, I am less impressed with Avatar than when I first posted this. As a technical achievement, it is magnificent. But for story, there's no "there" there and it is is anachronistically set 150 years in the future when it better belongs about that far in the past.

And this review at IMDB seems about right, too.


Anonymous said...

Deep review and an enjoyable read. Thanks. None of the wives or daughters-in-law in my little circle what to see it so I am waiting avidly for the group of boys to assemble to see it together. So, the plot is shallow. Will viewers want to see it more than once, I wonder. Do the special effects and new use of 3D presage a new form of movie making? I am anxious for these technical reasons to see the movie.

Mel Park

Anonymous said...

Just saw the flick. The commentary is accurate. Nice to see the Sioux win for a change. It would make Chief Dan George proud. The flight sequences are also pretty slick. Makes me glad I'm a GA pilot. I also volunteer to serve as GC for the Na'vi. Sideways tunneling would have made them rich! You forget about the old and soupy story line enjoying the special effects.
Hudson, Ohio