Tag Archives: pandora

Oscar Grouching #1: Avatar

The Oscars are upon us. Another gaudy, self-congratulatory ceremony; another barrage of fashion coverage; and another bunch of nominees to spur discussion. What do the Oscars even mean, anyway? They’ve never been intended, after all, to really select the finest achievements in film from the preceding year. They’re far too mired in the politics of the industry, the current state of society, and all sorts of discourses totally unrelated to the quality of the films at hand. And yet, the Oscars are still a fun and worthwhile gateway into a year’s worth of (American) filmmaking. They show us how the public perceives different artists’ achievements, and try to throw together some kind of crude consensus that negotiates between popular mediocrities, inaccessible art films, and the occasional crossover success that maintains its aesthetic integrity while also having mass appeal (e.g., The Dark Knight – which was snubbed in 2008).

So instead of moaning about how the Oscars are bullshit, no one cares about the Oscars, they have no legitimacy, etc. (each of which have elements of truth and falsehood to them), I find it far more useful to look at the Oscars for what they are. Yes, they’re an awards show, they’re superficial, and they want ratings. They’re often a way for the film industry to more or less fellate itself. But they’re also a peek into the dark soul of Hollywood, and they often recognize some genuinely great movies (like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment). Overall, they’re a very mixed blessing, far too rich and complex a part of film history to be dismissed with a simple declaration of “They don’t matter.”

That said, I still have no interest in the dresses – unless they involve Amanda Palmer’s near nudity, as this year’s Golden Globes did. Nor am I particularly interested in making odds on nominees and winners, which seems pointless to me. I’m more captivated by what the choices say, and what leads up to them. Thus, this year I actually decided to pay attention and watch all five ten Best Picture nominees. The nominees are always a snapshot of a historical moment, complete with all the mistaken inclusions and exclusions that will become obvious as the years pass. They’re not really meant to be the ten best movies of the year. But they do mean something. I saw four of this year’s nominees in various theaters (Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, and District 9), while I pursued the other six through various not-as-kosher means. They’re a pretty diverse collection of movies, and together, I think, they narrate the scope of popular taste in 2009.

As part of this Oscar-observing project, I also wrote an article for the Carl entitled “Confessions of a Celluloid Junkie: Oscar Grouch Edition.” Here’s what I had to say this time around about Avatar:

“I might as well as start with the film that’s first both alphabetically and financially, James Cameron‘s Avatar. After stealing the hearts and minds of American moviegoers for the past zillion weeks (the number “zillion” can be applied to most aspects of this movie – budget, profits, amounts of Pandoran blades of grass and sci-fi action clichés), the big blue blockbuster appears poised to also seize the collective consciousness of the Academy. Will shininess alone be enough to net Cameron another naked gold man? Considering the accolades heaped on his Titanic, not to mention Return of the King, it looks very, very possible.”

I’m not going to go into any depth about Avatar‘s merits (or lack thereof), since I’ve already talked extensively about just that. Instead, I’m going to address its broader significance in terms of the Oscar race and beyond. As I see it, Avatar is a giant monolith of a movie hovering over the rest of the competitors, like the mothership in District 9. It’s fully saturated the pop culture du jour, and Cameron has massive plans to heighten that saturation, from an already-released video game to a novel prequel to (at least) two film sequels. And if the average American can’t block it out, how could the Academy?

After all, people love spectacle: this has been a truism about film since the Bros. Lumière projected a train approaching a station and the audience dived to avoid it. Or ever since William Wellman’s WWI epic Wings won the first-ever Best Picture award. Or ever since 1953 when, against all good judgment, Cecil B. DeMille’s overlong circus melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth was given a Best Picture statuette as well. These are the fruits of The Dark Knight‘s rejection, you see. The Academy ignored Nolan’s incredibly profitable yet cerebral superhero movie, prompting popular backlash, prompting the addition of five new slots for Best Picture nominees, and voilà – the Academy has no excuse not to nominate Cameron’s big-ass movie.

I don’t actually have much else to say about Avatar; it all feels pretty self-evident. It’s got some good precedent going for it: the oft-compared Dances with Wolves, Cameron’s earlier (and similar) Titanic, and Peter Jackson’s equally gigantic The Return of the King all had oodles of Oscar success. Maybe, for all we know, Avatar will sweep its nominations, with the Academy content to let everyone else scramble for acting and writing awards. The voters are about as fickle as paralyzed veterans put in blue alien bodies. Or maybe a little something called “the overall quality of the movie” will trump $300 million worth of exotic, artificial flora and fauna. I have no real way of knowing this – like I said, I’m not an odds maker. I’m just laying out possible scenarios for how March 7 could go down.

Avatar, I think, is especially interesting for the spice it adds to the mix. As I hinted earlier, in a way it’s the glue that holds the nominees together, a potential point of comparison for the other nine. For example, I believe that a large part of its popular appeal is because it’s a feel-good story, like The Blind Side and unlike District 9. (My thesis for this year: the contest is all about race and war.) Even after all its climactic-upon-climactic confrontations, everything in Avatar turns out OK, and the Na’vi go back to their emphatically environmental way of life. (Ah, the ol’ invocation of the zeitgeist.) And sure, part of the moral is ostensibly “Humans Are Bastards,” but thanks to some narrative shiftiness, the real moral you take away is that humans are bastards, but redemption is possible for one flat, empty protagonist (i.e., YOU) who has “a strong heart.”

In other words, the moral of the film each viewer takes away isn’t that he or she is a bastard, but that he or she, put in the same situation, would be just as valiant and brave as Jack Sully. Obviously, the real bastards are those military-industrial fuckers who are bombing the Na’vi in the first place; the viewer would naturally have nothing to do with that system of oppression. Because every viewer identifies with the Na’vi, not the soldiers, and therefore all the blame gets displaced onto some nebulous but definitely evil “Powers That Be.” Avatar is an inherently self-congratulatory movie, and this admittedly makes it a pretty good fit with the Oscars.

Yes, the Oscars love movies that claim to show ugly truths, then double back and sugar-coat everything with a dose of sappy liberal sentiment. (Consider the whole point of the 2005’s dark horse, Crash, or 1994’s beloved Forrest Gump.) And that’s a large part of why Avatar‘s been so successful: its audience is encouraged to eat its cake and have it too, by condemning corporations and embracing a natural lifestyle while shelling out to 20th Century Fox to see a totally unreal world designed on computers. So if, a week from Sunday, Avatar takes away some serious hardware, I believe these will be a lot of the reasons why.

I’m cynical about it because it’s a damn cynical film. It’s covered all of its bases, and is full of so many beat-by-beat storytelling mechanisms that it looks more like a Rube Goldberg machine than a movie. I’ll grant one thing: conceding the visual beauty feels obligatory at this point, but it is pretty beautiful. Maybe if the same financial resources had been in the hands of someone more capable of telling a less run-of-the-mill story with less offensive racial politics (I’ll get to Up later), then I’d be less reluctant to give Avatar any praise at all. This is why I prefer Star Wars and its wide-eyed awe to any piece of Avatar, whose usage of its own fictional landscape feels more like a series of money shots than the vicarious thrill of Luke gazing up at the double sunset.

So there’s yet another diatribe against Avatar. (I really need to stop doing that.) It may well win Best Picture; it’s got all the right attributes going for it. But, frankly, if it does I’ll be disappointed. The Best Picture Oscar is not sacred; it’s been given to a lot of worthless shit over the years. But I’d love to see something of quality awarded and encouraged, as I’ll probably discuss further over the next few days: maybe a movie with the intensity of The Hurt Locker or the sheer spunk of Inglourious Basterds, both of which live in dangerous territory that Avatar doesn’t even approach. But I’ll leave that for another day.

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My gripe with Avatar fandom

Fandom, at times, can be a little frightening. I like to think about the psychological effects of mass media and the Internet; I spent part of last night reading about “online disinhibition effect” – a consequence of virtual anonymity that we’ve all observed, whether we’ve seen flamewars or trolls or insulting posts in online forums. Today I’ve been reading into the sometimes terrifying world of the newly-born Avatar fandom.

Now, fandom isn’t always negative; as I wrote about Trekkies, sometimes fans can band together to create bold, new works out of the preexisting substance of the franchise. Ashley and I both wrote mediocre fanfiction when we were younger (her about Harry Potter, myself about Digimon), and it helped us start writing. However, I have some issues with the massive Avatar following that’s sprung up online.

Now, I grant that this is an enormously popular, successful, profitable movie. Not an especially good one, as I noted in my review, but somewhat imaginative and extremely well-loved. But I feel like the explosive interest in Avatar, which includes multiple wikis, forums, blogs, etc., reveals additional problems with the movie: namely, it’s contrived in order to create a huge base of fans, so that maybe Avatars 2 and 3 can join the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time, too.

I mean, the movie’s purpose is to launch a franchise, to sell peripheral merchandise, to spread Avatar brand awareness through lunch boxes and stickers and whatever else you can cram into middle school lockers. It’s a fucking blockbuster – that was its mission, which is now very well accomplished. Yet intriguingly, and disturbingly, some people see it as a worthy cultural object to base their life around.

Through two lovely blogs, Geekologie and Ramblings of a Film Snob, I’ve recently learned about the worst of the worst amongst Avatar fans: those who get depressed because “the dream of Pandora [is] intangible,” as a CNN article informs me. Against my better judgment, I visited a forum called Naviblue.com, and glanced over some of the more egregious topics:

Coping with Avatar/Pandora Withdrawals
Why are people claiming that Avatar has a racist message
If your Avatar were to die…
What do you think avatar hidden message is
Real Life Na’vi Tribe (NOT on the Internet!)

Now, I know this is just par for the course in the age of the Internet. If there is some phenomenon – especially within the realm of fiction-world-based sci-fi – somebody’s going to obsess over it. There have always been nerds. What were alchemists but a kind of proto-nerd? But I think that the CNN story linked to above isn’t just pointless hysteria along the lines of “Video games and Marilyn Manson make our kids violent” stories of the past; I think it’s symptomatic of something greater, which possibly connects to online disinhibition effect.

I’ve expressed before an interest in child psychology – how children are sometimes incapable of distinguishing between fiction and reality, and how they process media differently. I wonder if these reactions to Avatar have to do with this kind of childlike perception. Hell, when I was 11-12, I desperately wanted the Harry Potter world to be real. I actually mused about how I’d be able to cast spells in heaven. You know why? I was a stupid 12-year-old, that’s why.

However, Live Journal user tireanavi, who writes “We Are Na’vi [Na’vi Reborn],” doesn’t look 12. Glancing hesitantly through their entries, it betrays a slightly frightening level of devotion to Avatar, as well as a connection to “Otherkin” culture, which I was heretofore unfamiliar with. I have to wonder, are they being serious when they ask, “do you have any memories of your life on Pandora? How clear are they, how detailed?” It reminds me in a way of Jack Chick’s “Dark Dungeons,” and the total disconnect from reality that Chick perceives in D&D users.

Now, I’m not just a “hater.” I have a genuine interest in exploring what’s psychologically behind these actions and claims. At a certain point, fandom does start entering into cult territory; I’m reminded of the stories of violence against Twilight haters (granted, that’s from a virulently anti-Twilight website). You’re an unhappy or desperate person, you find something to latch onto, and you defend it against any who object to it. The quality of the cultural object doesn’t matter: it’s yours, and you need it. Scary? Yes, I’d say so. I think of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, searching for any purpose, or of this very dark Onion article about desperate fandom.

I’m not really able to draw any conclusive answers here about the hows and whys, but I do think that the mentality being fostered in Avatar fans who dream of living on Pandora or being a Na’vi – even to the extreme of, to quote a forum user named Mike, “contemplat[ing] suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora” – is on the verge of cultlike. And I don’t think that’s a total coincidence. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, Avatar is basically prefabricated fan material. It’s designed to acquire fans; its universe isn’t all that organic or lived-in, but it does have a sufficient number of tiny details for fans to obsess over.

I think a great example is the Na’vi language. I’m not saying a lot of work didn’t go into it. But I think back to before Avatar was released, when a news story about artificial languages discussed Na’vi, saying it’d be the new Klingon, which is notorious for being spoken fluently by diehard Trekkies. And sure enough, Avatar fans are talking and writing in Na’vi; I suspect that this is done so that 1) they can equate themselves with film’s blue, in-tune-with-nature noble savages and 2) they can have a way of speaking that normal, uninitiated folks don’t use. Having a special vernacular is common amongst most fandoms (“muggle”?); Cameron, whose already swollen ego must be close to imploding, just accelerated the process.

So my central complaint is that with Avatar, the following just feels so built-in. While talking to Ashley recently, I compared it to the political practice of “astroturfing” – i.e., artificial grassroots. It’s barely been in theaters a month and already people think they’re reincarnated Na’vi, really? Maybe Cameron tapped into a big 21st century zeitgeist. Maybe it has something to do with growing up with Internet access. Or maybe Avatar isn’t so much a movie as it is a giant, well-oiled fan-acquiring machine.

In any case, now I think I really want to stop talking about goddamn Avatar, but I just wanted to express why it really bugged me. Because this “I saw Avatar and now I’m depressed” story isn’t at all a completely isolated, wacky, extreme case. Our generation is all about losing ourselves in unreality. A few years ago it was Second Life. Or World of Warcraft. And by and large, I don’t believe these types of attractions are good. I believe that works of art can and should improve our real lives, not act as substitutes. That’s what aggravated me about Avatar. And now I want to get back to works of art and my real life.

I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora

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Avatar: the next generation of moneymaking

[This is a modified version of my review for Avatar, to be published next week in the Carl, Carleton’s biweekly arts & lit rag. Ashley wants it to be known that she hates James Cameron, and doesn’t want to hear about the movie anymore; also, she is temporarily without Internet. Finally, full disclosure: due to scheduling concerns, I was only able to see Avatar in 2D.]

Since it hit theaters in December, James Cameron’s Avatar has swept the nation, becoming the second (and counting) highest-grossing film in history, and inspiring lots and lots of tiresome, repetitive discussion. And in keeping with ‘s policy of weighing in on things, I’m here to add to that discussion.

In case, somehow, the behemoth that is Avatar‘s marketing budget hasn’t yet made a telepathic bond (or “Tsahaylu”) with you, the film’s plot is fairly easy to describe: in 2154, technologically advanced humans have colonized a planet called Pandora, which abounds with glowing natural wonders, and decided to plunder it in order to obtain its Unobtainium. However, a race of 10-foot-tall indigenous feline humanoids called the Na’vi already live there, right on top of one of the richest Unobtainium reserves on all of Pandora.

Don’t worry, though: I haven’t spoiled anything, because all of this is spelled out in clunky expositional dialogue and voiceover within the first 10 or so minutes. The only added twist is that several of the humans, including the disabled hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), are able to mingle with the natives by entering specially grown Na’vi bodies – avatars, if you will. Through his avatar, Jake is able to nimbly explore the diverse wildlife of Pandora, including rainforests full of lovingly rendered flora, and several large species of pachyderm that breathe through their front legs – I mean, why not, they’re aliens.

The story that follows, from Jake’s first encounter with Na’vi princess Neytiri, to his induction into their tribe, to the climactic war between the Na’vi and humans, is nothing if not predictable; if you’re able to follow the first act, you can probably guess with considerable accuracy how the villain, Colonel Quaritch, will die. Because, as so many reviews have already pointed out, the story is not the point.

The obligatory good vs. evil, technology vs. nature conflict simply serves as a framework for the real meat of the film: holy shit is that a detailed planet. Over a decade in the making, Avatar (by which I mean, Avatar‘s visuals) is being vaunted as the next generation of filmmaking, the next step in the history of film, and a lot of messianic-sounding phrases with the words “next” and “filmmaking” in them. Maybe it’s the cinematic Luddite in me talking, but I just don’t buy the hype.

The most pertinent point might be that I’ve seen better. Yes, Cameron’s engaging vision of Pandora is fun to explore, especially when the camera sits still long enough for us to check out the planet’s foliage and curious astronomical features. It’s admittedly a breakthrough of a sort, yet it’s hardly the most enrapturing world that’s ever been created on film. For example, British director Michael Powell helped construct exotic worlds of light and color in films like The Thief of Baghdad or The Tales of Hoffmann. Another apt example is Hayao Miyazaki, who’s more than matched Cameron’s artistry in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, while simultaneously developing similar themes more eloquently, and without resorting to obvious Manichaean struggles.

My other basis for dismissing Avatar as any kind of landmark film is the fact it relies so heavily on the shimmering beauty of its fictional world that virtually every other element suffers. Most of the dialogue is, frankly, inane; when characters aren’t speaking in Na’vi, they’re spouting action movie clichés like “Let’s dance!” or referring to a hammerheaded creature as a “punk-ass bitch.” As others have pointed out, this wouldn’t be such a problem if we were only dealing with a big, goofy action movie – like, say, Cameron’s earlier Aliens – but here we’re dealing with a big, goofy action movie that begs us to take its superficial allegory seriously while refusing to allow an ounce of genuine humor or self-deprecation into the material, lest that dilute its vital message or epic grandeur.

It’s also frustrating that such an expansive, spiritually interconnected world can’t be populated by anyone but easily identifiable stock characters. Jake is such a dull, hollow protagonist that it’s hard to see what everyone, from Neytiri to the rest of the Na’vi and even their earth goddess Eywa, sees in him. Upon their first encounter, Neytiri notes that he has a “strong heart”; the reasoning behind his tremendous success as a member, and later the leader (!), of the Na’vi is never again questioned. The Na’vi themselves, despite being the ostensible focal point of the film, are consistently ignored in favor of Jake, and outside of a few ritual chants (usually meant to help Jake) and plenty of sashaying before the camera in order to show off their shiny blue bodies, they don’t do or say a whole lot as individuals, at least nothing that Jake doesn’t tell them to first.

The humans, meanwhile, are mostly reduced to a set of militaristic stereotypes, with Colonel Quaritch as their pointedly evil, irrationally angry leader. (In fact, he’s so evil he can violate the film’s own ground rules and survive in Pandora’s atmosphere, simply for the purpose of being really, really evil.) The film’s only real saving grace so far as the performances are concerned is Sigourney Weaver as avatar supervisor Dr. Augustine, being her usual hard-headed, affable self; however, her character’s extensive experience with the Na’vi is immediately bypassed by the film in favor of Jake’s strong heart.

So in the end, my opinion on Avatar lines up with the sentiment I’ve noticed in most ambivalent reviews: it’s pretty to look at, but there’s not much going on underneath. It is a high-octane thrill ride, along with whatever else they’re calling it, and if that’s what you’re looking for, by all means go see it quick, before you’re subjected to the indignity of watching it on a TV or computer screen. But please don’t tell me it’s the next anything of cinema, unless that “anything” is “extremely profitable investment.” I have high hopes for the future of filmmaking technology. I just hope the next great pioneer has a more interesting story to tell than Avatar.

In case, somehow, the behemoth that is Avatar’s marketing budget hasn’t yet made a telepathic bond (or “Tsahaylu”) with you, the film’s plot is fairly easy to describe: in 2154, technologically advanced humans have colonized a planet called Pandora, which abounds with glowing natural wonders, and decided to plunder it in order to obtain its Unobtainium. However, a race of 10-foot-tall indigenous feline humanoids called the Na’vi already live there, right on top of one of the richest Unobtainium reserves on all of Pandora.

Don’t worry, though: I haven’t spoiled anything, because all of this is spelled out in clunky expositional dialogue and voiceover within the first 10 or so minutes. The only added twist is that several of the humans, including the disabled hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), are able to mingle with the natives by entering specially grown Na’vi bodies – avatars, if you will. Through his avatar, Jake is able to nimbly explore the diverse wildlife of Pandora, including rainforests full of lovingly rendered flora, and several large species of pachyderm that breathe through their front legs – I mean, why not, they’re aliens.

The story that follows, from Jake’s first encounter with Na’vi princess Neytiri, to his induction into their tribe, to the climactic war between the Na’vi and humans, is nothing if not predictable; if you’re able to follow the first act, you can probably guess with considerable accuracy how the villain, Colonel Quaritch, will die. Because, as so many reviews have already pointed out, the story is not the point.

The obligatory good vs. evil, technology vs. nature conflict simply serves as a framework for the real meat of the film: holy shit is that a detailed planet. Over a decade in the making, Avatar (by which I mean, Avatar’s visuals) is being vaunted as the next generation of filmmaking, the next step in the history of film, and a lot of messianic-sounding phrases with the words “next” and “filmmaking” in them. Maybe it’s the cinematic Luddite in me talking, but I just don’t buy the hype.

The most pertinent point might be that I’ve seen better. Yes, Cameron’s engaging vision of Pandora is fun to explore, especially when the camera sits still long enough for us to check out the planet’s foliage and curious astronomical features. It’s admittedly a breakthrough of a sort, yet it’s hardly the most enrapturing world that’s ever been created on film. As I discuss in the column above, Michael Powell helped construct exotic, self-contained worlds of light and color in films like The Thief of Baghdad or The Tales of Hoffmann. Another apt example is Hayao Miyazaki, who’s more than matched Cameron’s artistry in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, while simultaneously developing similar themes more eloquently, and without resorting to obvious Manichaean struggles.

My other basis for dismissing Avatar as any kind of landmark film is the fact it relies so heavily on the shimmering beauty of its fictional world that virtually every other element suffers. Most of the dialogue is, frankly, inane; when characters aren’t speaking in Na’vi, they’re spouting action movie clichés like “Let’s dance!” or referring to a hammerheaded creature as a “punk-ass bitch.” As others have pointed out, this wouldn’t be such a problem if we were only dealing with a big, goofy action movie – like, say, Cameron’s earlier Aliens – but here we’re dealing with a big, goofy action movie that begs us to take its superficial allegory seriously while refusing to allow an ounce of genuine humor or self-deprecation into the material, lest that dilute its vital message or epic grandeur.

It’s also frustrating that such an expansive, spiritually interconnected world can’t be populated by anyone but easily identifiable stock characters. Jake is such a dull, hollow protagonist that it’s hard to see what everyone, from Neytiri to the rest of the Na’vi and even their earth goddess Eywa, sees in him. Upon their first encounter, Neytiri notes that he has a “strong heart”; the reasoning behind his tremendous success as a member, and later the leader (!), of the Na’vi is never again questioned. The Na’vi themselves, despite being the ostensible focal point of the film, are consistently ignored in favor of Jake, and outside of a few ritual chants (usually meant to help Jake) and plenty of sashaying before the camera in order to show off their shiny blue bodies, they don’t do or say a whole lot as individuals, at least nothing that Jake doesn’t tell them to first.

The humans, meanwhile, are mostly reduced to a set of militaristic stereotypes, with Colonel Quaritch as their pointedly evil, irrationally angry leader. (In fact, he’s so evil he can violate the film’s own ground rules and survive in Pandora’s atmosphere, simply for the purpose of being really, really evil.) The film’s only real saving grace so far as the performances are concerned is Sigourney Weaver as avatar supervisor Dr. Augustine, being her usual hard-headed, affable self; however, her character’s extensive experience with the Na’vi is immediately bypassed by the film in favor of Jake’s strong heart.

So in the end, my opinion on Avatar lines up with the sentiment I’ve noticed in most ambivalent reviews: it’s pretty to look at, but there’s not much going on underneath. It is a high-octane thrill ride, along with whatever else they’re calling it, and if that’s what you’re looking for, by all means go see it quick, before you’re subjected to the indignity of watching it on a TV or computer screen. But please don’t tell me it’s the next anything of cinema, unless that “anything” is “extremely profitable investment.” I have high hopes for the future of filmmaking technology. I just hope the next great pioneer has a more interesting story to tell than Avatar.

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