Thursday, December 31, 2009

Even Cat People Get the Blues

So I saw Avatar. And after seeing the trailer for Clash of the Titans, I find it pretty hilarious that here's a Sam Worthington movie where his entire job description involves blending in to an environment. Specifically (that is, if you've been living under a rock the last six months) the environment of the planet Pandora and its blue catlike inhabitants, the Na'vi.

First things first. Visuals, since that's what this is, primarily, and the majority of the critical acclaim which Avatar has received has focused on those amazing visuals as well as its innovative use of 3D. I was worried initially I'd get an an absolutely titanic headache watching this, based on my limited experience with 3D movies before, but this article set me straight. I had no problems, except on occsion with closeup shots. Anything shot at middle distance, provided you just trust Cameron and let your eye go where he wants, works fine. The landscapes are gorgeous. The action is fantastic and there's a minimum of BOO! GOTCHA! 3D work.

The whole 3D thing raises questions of its own about the future of movies. Movies went color long before TV, and fifty years ago, threatened by infiltration of TV into every American household, movies went bigger. Specifically, wider. And at $10 a ticket, $5 for popcorn and a zip-dandy recession, 3D is here to stay. And if the above article is any indication, it may change entirely how shots are framed and composed.

So this movie looks amazing. Amazing. Not only is it simply pretty, but Cameron and his art department have taken great pains to depict a completely alien ecosystem. Most of the terrestrial creatures have two sets of forelegs, joined at the knee, suggesting a common evolutionary path. It's not like they stuck a couple of fake horns on a dog. There's bioluminescence everywhere. Big freakin' pterodactyls roam the sky. And there's the Na'vi. In keeping with the planet's low gravity, they're tall & gangly, but in service to the plot, these natives are hard to kill. Also: restless.

Which is where our guy comes in. Perhaps it's simple human arrogance on the researchers' parts, but I can hardly see how they expected to be taken seriously, let alone generously, as what the Na'vi call "dreamwalkers." Worthington gets downloaded in to an avatar, a cloned Na'vi that looks like the blue-cat-Hakeem-Olajuwon version of himself in order to shill for the evil company that's here searching for their Nth metal.

Same old story. It's Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai in space. And really, this is the focus of all the negative criticism of the movie. Rightly so. It's a shopworn cliche. The Na'vi are just another band of Noble Savage, painted blue this time. Of course Our Hero was going to bed their princess and become King. That was just inevitable. So Chameleon Sam falls for M'Ress (because she's a cat and played by Uhura, get it? Anyone? Anyone?) and turns against Space Blackwater's Evil Colonel of Evil, whose Evilness Can Be Seen from Space. He rebels, using Advanced White Guy Tactics, and they save the day. Hooray.

But it's so PURTY!

Other reviewers, specifically AV Club's cool, refreshing Sam Adams, argue a different tack with regards to the movie's politics, drawing an allegory not just to the obvious Native American similarities but also to the privatization of warfare brought on by strange bedfellows like Blackwater and Triple Canopy in this country.

I'm not sure that I buy all that, but it's an interesting read. More than anything, again, this seems like Dances with Wolves or Last of the Mohicans or any white-guy-cum-Indian movie you've seen, even going so far as to use its science fiction pedigree to grant the World Spirit Circle-of-Life animism present in most Native American mythologies a literal foundation. Space Blackwater's guys mock the Na'vi's religion, but we're shown it actually at work here, which seems an unintentional slight against people who have actual religions based around this kind of thing. There's no weird tentacle connection to a worldwide superconsciousness on Earth to tell us not to buttfuck the environment in to a bloody husk, so that must be why we did it, right? Right?

I do recommend the thing. If you have to see some version of the White-Guy-as-Reluctant-Savior cultural trope at some time in your live, it might as well be the floating mountain, helicopter dragonfly, bioluminescent moss, blue-cat-people, pterodactyl riding, Now-in-3D-with-100%-more-Michelle-Rodriguez version.