Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Avatar: A Film Review

Well, we finally succumbed to the hype and went to see Avatar. A friend had told us she had heard it was "anti-American." No worries on that score. I see it as profoundly American in its depiction of the perennial battle within the American soul between the individual and the collective vision, between self-interest and idealism, between the avid pursuit of material gain and ecstatic transcendentalism. If there are, on the one side, the abject creatures of American capitalism, the other side is led to eventual triumph by a quintessentially American Marine.

The film is American, also, in its inextricable muddle of myths, most of them deeply Romantic--from that of the Noble Savage to the Enchanted Forest, from the Arthurian knight to the Savior of Mankind. The hero's transformation from agent of the capitalist exploiters to hero of the oppressed embraces the saving of a Damsel in Distress and a spectacular initiation rite that involves hand-to-hand combat with his personal dragon (read, perhaps, inner demon, or "shadow"), harnessing its power, and riding it to freedom. All this takes place in a gorgeous Garden of Eden governed by the spirit of an all-powerful, animist deity envisioned as an energy (or "Force"!) which unites all beings, whether flora or fauna.

My quarrel with the film has nothing to do with its "politics," then, but rather with its essentially juvenile and hackneyed vision of the eternal struggle between Good and Evil, and its reinvention of the old myth of apocalyptic violence as its necessary outcome. It's Armageddon revisited, for the zillionth time. Eventually, perhaps, our human species will tire of its fascination with the spectacle of the clash of titans, whether down here on earth or in outer space. For now, we watch it re-enacted in a new and necessarily yet grander fashion, and with the same dreadful fascination.

That said, there remains much about "Avatar" to recommend it. The landscapes it envisions--vast mountains, floating in space, lush forests--are truly awesome. The flora and fauna of this alien environment are created with wonderful imaginative attention to the detail of color and design, movement and scale. From the tiniest, most delicate insect to the massive, lumbering creatures of land and graceful dragons of the air, the beings that inhabit this planet entertain us with their charm or their terror; the forest is peopled, too, with vegetation that delights both the eye and the imagination. It's a richly envisioned world, reminiscent enough of our own to convince, yet different enough to be wonderfully strange and exotic.

Ah, yes, and those special effects... kind of breath-taking, in 3-D. You take your ride down the sheer face of a bottomless cliff on the back of your speeding dragon. You stand on a vertiginous mountain top and survey the endless depths and distances below. You are shaken by the roar of space fighter engines, the thunder of missiles. Great forests explode... You can't help but be taken in by it all. It's not exactly a "willing suspension disbelief," but rather an assault on the senses which your senses are simply powerless to resist. They are invaded, conquered, and occupied.

Okay, it's all an adventure. Subtlety is not this film's strong point. Did I mention the "love interest"? No? Well, there's romance to be had here, too. Might as well simply give in and enjoy for what it is.


They call him James Ure said...

I really liked Avatar but mostly for the innovative 3D. By the way, I finally got my review of "Persist" up on the blog. Thanks again for sending the book.

robin andrea said...

It's likely that I won't see this film. I don't like to be overwhelmed by special effects. I was glad that Avatar didn't win the Best Film this year. I have often thought there should be a special category for films that rely heavily on special effects to advance their narrative.

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