There’s been a bit of talk, here and there, on this blog about Cameron’s digi-romance 3D thrillride, but I thought it deserved its own thread. First of all, I’ve seen quite a few films made with the latest 3D technology, but this surely is the finest yet. I don’t want to go into the story too much. It is, as Chris pointed out, Ferngully (I’m taking his word, as I have not seen it). But it is also Aliens (Ribisi doesn’t quite manage to outdo Paul Reiser, but he comes close). Bad corporate interests, good-intentioned scientists, an ambivalence about technology
Just a couple of related things to get us started. First, the obvious: its so-called beauty. David Denby raves that the film is the most beautiful he’s seen in years: “no one should ignore how lovely ‘Avatar’ looks, how luscious yet freewheeling, bounteous yet strange.” How can one ignore it? What is there to distract us? The story is stripped to the core, its narrative structure utterly pure, generically. Can one really so enthralled with the storytelling that one ignores the film’s beauty? Anyway, what strikes me as more odd than this statement is a claim later in Denby’s review that one should more or less ignore the irony that the film’s “anti-technology message is delivered by an example of advanced technology that cost nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to produce.” Really? Relish instead the image, says Denby. But can’t one do that and address the story’s macro-politics in the context of the film’s methods of production? “What a show Cameron puts on!” Agreed. Now let’s talk about this show–its relation to America’s own history, America’s own foreign policy, the events of 9/11. Really, I’m surprised by Denby’s “beauty trumps ideology” line. Anyway, on with my thoughts:
After some distance (almost a day), the thrill of viewing this film is gone. But the experience is still vivid. The “show” I went to was very obviously oversold. I went with my wife and her niece, and we all had to sit in different places (even though we arrived more or less at a decent time). We paid two extra dollars each for the 3D experience (no one explains to us why, and I’m not sure there is an explanation to be had). I sat in the way back, the only row that had seats (the row is only three seats long, and it is in the corner). I sat on top of about 5 or 6 plastic boosters in order to raise myself high enough to be able to see over the row in front of me (I thank Cameron for being wise enough, or talentless enough, to put all the important visual information pretty high up in the frame). The boosters were too small for my ass and my legs kept cramping up. I was very aware, throughout this film, that I was at a show. But I was also very aware that the show was not much different than others, even though I had been told (we all have been told) that this film is unlike any other we’ve ever seen. Well, it is and it is not. There’s one brief moment where Sully, as avatar, is running through the woods with Neytiri. He is delighted by how the vegetation luminates upon touch (apparently Pandora is an LCD moon). He taps one plant, then another, each time with more glee. That’s pretty much the film’s take on its own technology. Neat-o!
Cameron has little or no concern for the image as such, and in this way the film is nothing new. How, exactly, does the human mind process data and gesturing and tactile interfacing? What does it mean to engage with and record the image this way? Sully is in one environment, his avatar is in another. Does Cameron have no interest in this at all? None. Here’s how you get from one environment to another: a tube! Yup, we travel through a slinky-like rainbow colored tube. No matter that this visual idea is used in just about every film that deals with virtual worlds or interfacing. What matters is that Cameron completely ignores the reality of the technology he uses–the reality of the image as such.
But I wonder if there is something of interest left on the cutting room floor (sorry to sound so archaic). This film surely needs to be four hours long. Probably was at the 4th or 5th cut. The film makes leaps and bounds of extraordinary narrative length in order to get down to its two hour and forty-five minute length. For example, what should have been the film’s most extraordinarily beautiful scene is left out (hey Denby, you can’t ignore that!). The (un)scene is when Sully tames the mighty Toruk. How can Cameron possibly leave this out? Is it because he more or less did the scene already when Sully tames his own Ikran? My niece has an explanation which may suffice. Sully didn’t need to tame it.
Cameron had something meaningful–I mean huge, the first film of its kind. Cameron could have put something in the film that gets right at what is the most cutting edge area of study in New Media: 3D technology and tactile interfacing. Cameron wants to tell a love story. Fine. But he could have addressed the idea of the human and the image directly. Sully’s video diary could have been the place to do this. But, as with all other interesting aspects of the film, this aspect is underexploited. Again, perhaps there’s about another hour or so of footage of Sully recording an image of himself as he talks about his engagement with the image. Maybe some of it is insightful. Most of it is probably hoaky. Perhaps it’s too much to ask Cameron to be so self-reflexive, but I don’t think so.
Cameron is a genius on one level. He knows exactly what we want, generically. There’s no chance in hell that a perfectly happy ending will not be delivered. And Cameron’s got a real gift for editing–the Home Tree destruction juxtaposed with Sully being playfully coerced by the other scientists to get in his healthy breakfast before “going in”–is near perfect. It’s repeated later when Neytiri is pinned under a dead something-or-other beast, and again when Sully is grasping for his oxygen mask.
I’m running out of steam (can you see my paragraphs are getting shorter and shorter?) Everyone must see this is its proper format (IMAX 3D). Seen in any other format will only expose the film for what it really is.