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.
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