Sunday, 2 May 2010

Enjoying 'Avatar' At Home

Whilst the movie 'Avatar' (2009) may have attracted record breaking takings at cinemas, there have been rather desultory comments that 'well, the story is too simplistic', 'it will not look any good on your television at home'.  Not all of us can afford to go to the cinema, the woman who lives in my house cannot sit comfortably on the seats and her son cannot sit in the same place to get through the average cinema advertisements let along a full-length movie, so for all of us in our house, seeing the movie, 'Avatar' at the cinema was not an option.  So we rented the DVD.  We have an average non-high definition television which I bought from Asda about two years ago for £179 so we certainly do not have a 'home cinema' set-up.  However, all three of us, utterly enjoyed 'Avatar'. 

The merging of the CGI generated characters and the live action ones was seamless and consequently you suspended your disbelief almost immediately that you were not watching a credible world.  Of course, the planet, Pandora, is utterly beautiful, which is the point.  It subscribes to many fantasy staples such as a 'home tree' in which the members of one tribe all live in a single vast tree; there are flying mountains like you encounter in 'World of Warcraft' and there are dragons.  However, all of these elements are given narrative validity and are incredibly well portrayed.  Even watching these things on a basic home television they draw you in.  I think thought has gone into the ecology of Pandora, with for example the indigenous people being larger but more slender than humans because the gravity of the planet is less than that of Earth.  You see different elements of the fauna and flora including predators and scavengers and a range of different plants.  The ultra-violet aspects of the spectrum seem important there as they are for insects on Earth.

As to the story, well, the accusations could equally be levelled at movies such as 'Dances with Wolves' (1990) or 'The Last Samurai' (2003) with the added advantage that not knowing the history of Pandora you cannot be certain of the outcome and especially who will live or die.  The story, as in those two movies, is of a soldier who has suffered from the wars he has been in, sent into a kind of military role, but one in which he encounters a set of indigenous people (in this case the large, blue-skinned, Na'vi) and is won over to the way that they approach things to the extent that he fights alongside them.  It might be an established story, but 'Avatar' brings a freshness to it.  There are reminders too of the movie, 'Dune' (1984) especially in terms of an outsider becoming a kind of messiah for an indigenous people and leading them into battle riding a particularly strong creature which has religious aspects for those people.

'Avatar' references lots of different elements of the Hollywood back catalogue, whilst seeming to bring a fresh approach.  One element is stories about interaction with Amerindians (the riding of horse-like creatures, the use of bows and 'war paint' in particular), and I would point to 'A Man Called Horse' (1970) as a classic point of reference.  There is also a lot of referencing to Vietnam war movies, with the Colonel Quaritch being like colonels from most Vietnam war movies (though of course, in 'Apocalypse Now' (1979) it is a colonel who goes over to the locals; Quaritch is more like Robert Duval's Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Kilgore from that movie), and especially Lieutenant-Colonel TC McQueen in 'Space Above and Beyond' (1995-6) and in particular the use of helicopters flying over jungle references so many Vietnam scenes. 

Sigourney Weaver's presence as the lead scientist allowing the downloading of people's consciousnesses into their grown Na'vi avatar bodies is interesting as in the environmental themes the moves seems to reference her 'Gorillas in the Mist' (1988) and with her character smoking, the presence of large humanoid appearing robots that users ride and the role of a corporation in leading dangerous exploitation to her role in 'Alien' (1979) and especially 'Aliens' (1986).  Giovanni Ribisi as Parker Selfridge as the corporate man is very reminiscent of Paul Reiser as Carter Burke in 'Aliens'.

The movie naturally does portray the damage that seeking out resources in wildernesses results in and we can all see parallels to gold prospecting in the Amazon and even at a distance seeking control of oil in Iraq in this movie.  Perhaps this is why the story has caused more ructions in the USA where it seems to be trying to win you over to the side of those the US military tends to stamp all over and so somehow is 'unpatriotic'.  The Papacy has seen its references to the connectivity of all life on the planet, the Gaia principle, as ungodly, but then, again, it reminds us of The Force in the 'Star Wars' movies.  The ability of Na'vi to 'interface' directly with certain creatures is a novel approach.  As the environmentalist perspective is one seen as having been shown before, we do not actually hear about this take on stories a great deal these days.  As fighting the baddies is seen as the norm, no-one challenges yet another movie in which characters who are parallel to Arabs or the Chinese are again battered. 

I think 'Avatar' handles the issues more subtly and also brings up the fact that there will be people who do not want to be Westernised and that does not make them deserving of destruction.  The progression of the lead character, Corporal Jake Sully played by Sam Worthington, to an appreciation of the environment is steady and credible.  The fact that he cannot walk is an interesting element, obviously making his transfer into a non-disabled body appealing, but this must be the first time in a while that I can remember the hero in a movie being disabled, only Tom Cruise in 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989) about a wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran, comes to mind; and I suppose the super-hero movie, 'Daredevil' (2003) which features a blind lawyer as the hero.

The concept of downloading yourself into a body, well clearly there is 'The Matrix' triology (1999-2003) in that, but the shift into a physical body rather than a virtual one is another step.  With series like 'Code Lyoko' running on UK television and 'Cosmic Quantum Ray' too, the 8-year old viewer in my house was more than happy to accept people being up or downloaded into other forms and DNA was not a mystery to him either when it was said the Na'vi avatar bodies were grown from this, so that they resemble the people who 'drive' them.  This allowed him to get into the story quickly without having to analyse how it all was possible.

I would suggest that if you have not seen 'Avatar' that you are not put off by desultory reviews, certainly if you could get into 'Dancing with Wolves' or 'The Last Samurai'.  I think in terms of story and how it engages you it is certainly better than a lot of movies being pumped out at the moment.  I recommend you go and rent it and I am sure many of you will enjoy it.

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