Invasion of the Body Switchers

Avatar is back in theaters with extra footage, exclusively in 3D. I saw it a couple of weeks into its original release and have been waiting for just such an opportunity to re-publish my thoughts here.

Human and Na'vi faces, both shaded blue, in the sky above Pandora landscape

Most of the talk when the lights went up at my screening, positive and negative, was about the technology behind the film. And one has to wonder if that fact alone doesn’t make the movie something of a failure by James Cameron’s standards. The reason why Avatar was so long in the making, from what I understand, is that it took considerable time and effort to create or refine the tools and techniques necessary to reproduce the alien figures and landscapes that Cameron saw in his head — then, of course, more time for those tools and techniques to be implemented. He seems to have wanted the audience to marvel at what they were experiencing without stopping to think about how that experience was constructed; while I’m afraid he’s only partially succeeded on that score, the extent to which he did still manages to impress.

There’s a concept dubbed the uncanny valley that I hope to discuss in another post.
A quick explanation: As representations of people become more realistic, be they real-world dolls or robots or CGI characters on screen, the empathy for and connection to those representations that we as human observers feel grow stronger and more specific — until, as the representations most closely approach realism but fail to entirely replicate it, our connection turns to revulsion. If one were to chart a bar graph from anecdotal evidence, as is shown at the above-linked Wikipedia entry, it would reveal a dip late in the steady diagonal march from zero human likeness / zero empathy to actual humanity / complete empathy (the merits of the individual character or person notwithstanding) — i.e., a “valley” where the representations turned uncanny in not only a Freudian sense but also by The New Oxford American Dictionary’s simple definition of “strange or mysterious, often in a vaguely discomfiting way”. I seem to
fall into the valley sooner and more violently than most viewers.

Cameron pushed his luck by issuing the film almost exclusively in 3D, in my opinion, because the process overlaid a further attempt to approximate reality that is inherently destined to fall short of its goal. No matter how painstaking the labor, so-called 3D actually acts as a series of planes — like a pop-up book or diorama — rather than as a rounded, fully three-dimensional experience, and what’s more there’s nothing to keep foregrounded objects at the periphery of the screen from distractingly jumping into or out of view as the camera pans. I did find Avatar’s 3D effects more obvious (and thus more intrusive upon my suspension of disbelief) in the scenes within the humans’ command center, whereas the longer we were completely immersed in the natural environs of Pandora the more I accepted the visual trickery of all sorts at face value.

Which finally brings us to the actual story of Avatar. It’s the year 2154 and a mining company from Earth, the RDA corporation, has discovered a literal mother lode on the planet Pandora of a mineral named, I kid you not, unobtainium. Pandora’s indigenous humanoids are called the Na'vi (“nah-vee”), and they live not only with great respect for but in actual symbiosis with the planet’s ecosystem, honoring the creatures whose flesh they eat, bonding neurologically if not spiritually with the animals who serve as their steeds, and communing with the deity or collective consciousness called Eywa through such flora as the Tree of Souls. Researchers studying Pandora’s biosphere, and the Na'vi in particular, work alongside the mining company and its heavily armed security detail. When a Na'vi tribe refuses to relocate so that RDA can access the unobtainium deposit beneath their habitat, known as Hometree, the anthropologists who have been studying the tribe are caught in the middle. So is Jake Sully, a former Marine who has been accepted into the Hometree clan in the form of a human/Na'vi hybrid avatar — hence the movie’s name; the Earth scientists have developed technology that allows them to project a human consciousness into a Na'vi-like body to better interact with or, depending on your perspective, infiltrate the Pandoran environment.

For me and most of my viewing party the repeated reference to unobtainium was
at least faintly ridiculous and one more thing to shake us out of the film’s carefully constructed reality. The word is fine to use in the context of satire or, as has apparently been done for decades, as a wish-list placeholder for a substance not yet extant, but Avatar is not an abstract parable; however fantastic its trappings, it aims to be a crowd-pleasing action/romance/drama wrapped around, or in, a pro-nature polemic. Yet while the landscape of Pandora was often as breathtakingly beautiful as the overall plot was predictable, and while it was impossible not to sympathize with the appropriate characters, the conversation not just among my friends but all around us after the show was of how the effects were done or what the story meant instead of paeans to the warm afterglow of amazement Cameron might have preferred.

Across the aisle one fellow was overheard saying he’d spent pretty much the entire movie looking for a hidden meaning that someone had told him about. He finally realized that this supposed hidden meaning was probably the glaringly obvious parallel between the Earth folks despoiling Pandora and episodes in American, Western, or general world history. Avatar isn’t really allegorical in this regard because it doesn’t refer to a specific chapter in our past or present; rather, Pandora could be a stand-in for tropical rainforests, the Na'vi could represent Native Americans or other aboriginal cultures, and RDA’s assault could be a commentary on the perceived collusion amongst the American government, oil companies, and paramilitary forces in the invasion of Iraq. It’s actually more damning that even if you don’t buy one of the possible correlations there are plenty of others to chose from than it would be if the film were about a particular social injustice.

There’s no denying that Avatar is worth seeing as a cultural event or simply for the
lush optical experience. I’d like to have seen it on a large screen without 3D, though, and I have to admit that as the lines streamed out of the auditorium I mostly thought back to how on Avatar’s opening weekend several days before I sat in a nearly empty theater thrilling to the criminally overlooked The Princess and the Frog.

Related: The Inhuman Condition Knives, Chow Ghosts in the Machine


  1. *This comment makes reference to season 1 of True Blood.*

    I hope you do write more about the uncanny valley. The thing I have found the most terrifying on True Blood so far is that Little Demon Girl with the blacked out eyes. *heebeejeebiesheebeejeebies*
    Have you seen the human baby robots they make now? Christ preserve us.

    Also, Avatar was pretty crappy. I wrote all about my dismay on Nikki's post awhile back. I hated every character. Except Hissing Girl but I didn't particularly like her. I just didn't outright loathe her like all the others.

    We own The Princess and the Frog! It is a great movie. My favorite part is when Charlotte is doing her makeup and pulls her eye down while saying "I used to think wishing on stars was just for kids and crrrazy people!" Ha! That woman's voice is great. It's my kids favorite movie - I am shocked it didn't do better in the theaters. And let me tell you, Double Blammy, I do a mean Mama Odie.

    And speaking of True Blood - RENE! Nooooooo! You were so cute and brave and lovable and your accent! Too bad you were also a psychopath :(

    I'm getting myself one of them Cajun Accent for Actors tapes. Yes indeedy...

  2. Well put, your Blamness. I felt pretty much the same way upon seeing Avatar in 3D at the theater. I have always had a soft spot in my heart (and one might say, my head) for spectacularly cheesy movies. [such as Twister, the original Clash of the Titans and The Deerhunter. Or maybe I meant Bambi, there] While it is totally acceptable, and quite charming, if these films do not KNOW that they are great flaming Balls O' Cheese, it drains the fun batteries if the movie (or it's director) thinks the movie is An Important Work of Cinematic Culture.

    Enter James Cameron, who occasionally makes Glenn Beck seem introverted and humble.

    I concur on the overhyped issue of 3D in general - although I have to put in a plug for the spectastic Friday the Thirteenth Part III in 3D. Even if only for the scene where Jason squeezes the guy's head until his eyeball pops out. As you can clearly see, I am a cineophile of impeccable taste and erudition. Plus, I eat a lotta popcorn. Without pasteurized homogenized artificial butter-product, thank you.

    I have to say that this summer's blockbuster Toy Story 3 made the most successful and restrained use of 3D in memory. And yes, I wept like a baby. And no, not because the springs in my seat had busted through the cushions. I got used to that.

  3. I totally get what you're saying about how the name Unobtainium drives a massive exploding truck through the flimsy walls of our suspension of disbelief, but at the same time, I can't help but admire the sheer cheek of calling the thing they want but can't obtain Unobtanium.

    It makes me want to watch a movie where the MacGuffin driving the plot is called the MacGuffin.

    Also, the wife and I saw (and thoroughly enjoyed) The Princess and the Frog long before we made it to Avatar, for what it's worth.

    @Joan: And let me tell you, Double Blammy, I do a mean Mama Odie.

    I am not at all surprised by this.


  4. I hope you do write more about the uncanny valley.

    Me too! 8^) No, I mean, the post was started and kind-of abandoned way back when the Avatar review first went up in, like, December; it's on my list of things to finish, but given that I have stuff that is basically finished and still hasn't made it onto the blog... Would it help or hurt if it was described as brilliant and worth the wait?


  5. I'd forgot that I was even behind on replying to comments on this blog.

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone! I know that when the likes of Humanebean and Teebore are commenting on a post, there's something to it.


    Did I forget somebody?

    And let me tell you, Double Blammy, I do a mean Mama Odie.

    I'm sure you do, Grand Slam Joan Run.

    My aim is to get a True Blood review up near Halloween, so that it has some semblance of timeliness despite Season 3 now having ended over a month ago. I gather you've been discussing it over at Nikki's, though.

    It makes me want to watch a movie where the MacGuffin driving the plot is called the MacGuffin.