Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Avatar- Worthy of the Hype and Much More

Yesterday I wrote that rather than sit home and watch a political debacle unfold in Massachusetts I'd go to the movies to try to escape from the news for a few hours. Actually, the time was ripe for me to see if all of the hype involving James Cameron's film Avatar was deserved. For weeks all we've heard was how amazing it was, what a benchmark the in filmmaking AVATAR is, and above much money it was earning worldwide.

So I decided to check it out. I opted on the 3-D version at my local multiplex. I paid what I initially thought was an outrageous sum of $13.50 for a ticket, plus anther nine bucks for a Reese's pieces and a small coke. I sat there with the small Tuesday night audience watching the endless commercials, and then the trailers for the upcoming summer movies. At the appointed time we were told to put on our 3-D glasses.And within only a few minutes all my reservations were tossed out the window.

I was seeing something special....amazing....groundbreaking.

In a word....wondrous.

Avatar is more than a film- its an experience. The viewer is dazzled by its special effects, where they are transported 150 years into the future to Pandora, a moon of the planet Polyphemus in the Alpha Centauri star system. This is world being colonized by corporations from Earth- in particular, the United States- because of its abundance of the mineral unobtanium, which is used as a fuel on Earth. Pandora is inhabited by primitive hunter-gatherer humanoids called the Na'vi. They are a tall race with bluish skin and feline features. To these people, all of nature is sacred and they value the interconnection between all living creatures and their mother deity called Eywa.

Predictably there is a collision course between the Earth colonists, called the "Sky People", and the Na'vi. The Avatars are a biological mutation taken from the DNA of the humans and the Na'vi. They are controlled by genetically matched human "operators" in a controlled environment. Jake Sully, a wheelchair bound ex Marine goes to Pandora to control the avatar meant for his deceased twin brother. Jake's avatar goes out on a mission with those of scientists Grace Augustine and Norm Spellman. The Jake avatar becomes separated from the other two. He enters an amazing world of wolflike beasts, lemur-ish creatures, armored giants that resemble rhinos on steroids, and plant life that is...literally...out of this world. Jake meets Neytiri, the princess of a group of Na'vi. He is introduced into the world of the Na'vi and their beliefs. He grows to love Neytiri and her clan, but soon finds himself in conflict with his new life and that of his own real race; the human colonists aim to remove the Na'vi, either by resettling them, or failing that, to kill them.

More on the cast and plot can be found at the avatar Official Website, and Wikipedia does a fair job giving more information and background. I was originally going to add a theatrical trailer to this post, but even those on YouTube are in a wide screen format and would be chopped off in the blog's margins. To see an extended HD trailer for the film click here.

The Na'vi and the Na'vi avatrs were portrayed using performance capture by actors Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Wes Studi, and CCH Pounder among others. One of the ironies for the viewer was that these computer generated images become more human than most of the human characters in the film. We root for these primitives in their struggle against the earth colonists, led by the evil Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the head of security and possibly the most villainous screen presence since Darth Vadar or Hannibal Lector.

About an hour into the film I realized my jaw had dropped, probably from the start of the picture; also, the bag of Reese's Pieces I was clutching in my right hand had long since melted, and the Coke in the holder on my left was flat because the ice had melted in it. I was into the film so much that I felt like I was drawn into this miraculous, otherworldly 3D universe. The characters were compelling, the theme familiar- there is the obvious comparison to Kevin Costner's DANCES WITH WOLVES. It is a story of the noble primitives who are more in tune with- and have a greater appreciation for- the sanctity of life than those who have come to "civilize them".

James Cameron's film came with a created mythology, customs, rites, and language for the Na'vi. In this way the film was similar to STAR WARS, STAR TREK, and THE LORD OF THE RINGS epics of fantasy. The blue Na'vi are said to be a homage to Hindu deities.

In my spare time I've been reading The Imperial Cruise by James Bradley. In the book Bradley explores American foreign policy in the Far East at the turn of the 20th Century. A little known chapter of our history involves American occupation of the Philippines in the early 1900's, right after the United States seized them from Spain in the Spanish-American War. An insurrection occurred, and as many as 20,000 Philippine freedom fighters were killed, as well as up to 300,000 civilians. They were the victims of US troops, some of whom executed all males in a village over the age of ten to insure they wouldn't raise arms against American forces. I couldn't help but think about the book as I was watching AVATAR- it was as if James Cameron turned into a modern Nostradamus, looking into his pool of water and seeing a possible tragedy in a world far away in the distant future.

And I also thought about the late Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist who's best known work was THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. Late in his life Campbell became a close friend of George Lucas, and Campbell often used STAR WARS as an example of modern mythology presenting classic themes for a contemporary  audience. Campbell would have been astonished by this epic film; he often said that the artist- in this case the filmmaker- is the modern equivalent of the primitive shaman, the interpreter of mythology. "Mythology" is not a false belief, but a universal truth told in the guise of a story.

In AVATAR, James Cameron has taken his place in a modern pantheon of contemporary mythologists- this is an epic tale that will only grow in stature in time.

It is also ironic that so much technology was used to tell a story about the beauty and interconnection of all living things. And when presented with the choice of going on my computer to write this entry or taking a long walk on a mild day in January I chose the former.

But I will go outside and take a few deep, cleansing breaths when I finish.

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