Swans Commentary » swans.com March 8, 2010  



James Cameron's Avatar


by Charles Marowitz


Film Review



(Swans - March 8, 2010)   Given the fact that we are living in what historians are bound to label The Age of Technology, it goes without saying that every new technological discovery is greeted with a fanfare, a deafening drum roll, and a clash of cymbals. Inventors like Steven Jobs are the new elite and their discoveries draw in hordes of "techie-groupies" to be regaled by the latest playthings of this supremely-inventive age.

But when it comes to film, it has to be remembered that, apart from technological innovations, there are also esthetic ingredients such as style, storyline, characterization, performance skills, and underlying purpose. These are the components that determine the efficacy of any and all films. A gigantic stride in technology may delight the technocrats, but it can never eliminate the traditional virtues that have always been associated with cinematic art. Those who are unimpressed by the great strides in cinematic technology may be decried as Luddites, but for the general movie-going public, Plot-Purpose-Performance-and-Personalities are still the major constituents of motion pictures.

In l929, the arrival of The Jazz Singer and the dazzling discovery of human voices on a sound track was a momentous leap forward for the medium; but in retrospect, the film qua film could not escape the sense of old-fashioned melodrama and banal sentimentality that could be found in many films of the late twenties and early thirties.

Unquestionably, the coming of sound added a dynamic new dimension to film and, as a technological leap, it will always be historic. This was eventually followed by innovations such as Letterbox formats, which increased the physical dimensions of the screen itself, and oddities such as stereophonic sound -- all of which were often wasted on mundane and cliché-ridden films that were not helped by simply being distended. But the tacit assumption seemed to be if one wanted to appreciate modernity, it had to be strictly in technical terms.

An "avatar," according to Webster, is "an incarnation in Hindu myth. The appearance on earth of a deity in human form," and truth to tell, the "creatures" that populate James Cameron's film of that name suggest that transformations of a sort have certainly taken place -- although the reincarnation doesn't exactly cover deities so much as it does ordinary human beings only a step or two away from exotic animals.

The process by which Cameron and his team have created both the magical landscape of a fictitious species of natives vs. white men is more terrestrial than cosmic and his creatures are driven by human passions such as patriotism for their native land while the tendency of superpowers is to conquer and appropriate the riches of other quasi-human species.

The narrative line that binds together the natives and their American-styled conquerors is allegedly supposed to suggest parallels between Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan and to chide the technologically-superior military forces that are trying to acquire the resources of these more primitive cultures. But since the natives in Avatar are peace-loving and empathetic and the usurpers belligerent and exploitative, that parallel doesn't quite jell. Only one part of the parable does ring true, which is that the American forces are brazenly exploitative -- even vicious -- in their attempt to acquire a mineral resource that they covet for their own stability and in order to maintain their military superiority.

So, if the contemporary parallel doesn't hold up, one is left with a weird conflict between a Western nation discovering a uniquely different kind of enemy, which the film coaxes us to respect from the standpoint of its two leading characters who ostensibly fall in love with each other creating a misogynistic coupling that has a certain novelty value -- a little like an American G.I. falling in love with a sexy dark-skinned orangutan.

The din of the three or more battle scenes in the film is, as always, in blow-'em-ups -- cacophonous, ear-drum-bursting, and apparently beloved by the ingenious Mr. Cameron. Although for me it put the lid on the film, 3-dimensional eyeglasses notwithstanding, and was simultaneously brutal and rollickingly violent.

If you remove the technological charisma with which the film is being sold to gazillions of moviegoers, one is left with a sci-fi flick that has an incredulous narrative but is occasionally rescued by some breathtaking shots of a magical forest inhabited by a strange tribe, which, with the aid of 3-D glasses, makes them all look like Cezannes come to life. Indeed, the luxurious wilderness in which the story unfolds is in many ways more compelling than the love story that unfolds therein. If Tarzan and Jane inhabited such a fecund wonderland, they would have far sooner learned to live happily after.

I seem to recall that when I was a movie-mad adolescent growing up in New York, we were all doled out similar cellophane-filtered glasses that made distant flying objects look as if they were heading straight into our faces. It was a short-lived novelty, but a pleasant one. However, I'm sure Director Cameron would take it as an insult if one applied those meager words to his monstrous, and monstrously successful, motion picture.

Ultimately, every film, either consciously or unconsciously, carries a message of some sort to its public. What Avatar seems to be saying is: "Aren't we damnably clever?"

The response is: Unquestionably! - But so what?


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/cmarow160.html
Published March 8, 2010