11 January 2010

James Cameron's "Avatar" - the face of things to come?

Apparently, all of the hype has turned out to be true. “Avatar,” rushing past the $1.4 billion revenue mark this past weekend, truly is a game changer.

While the storyline, with elements lifted from familiar movies like “Dances With Wolves” and “Aliens” isn’t anything remarkable in itself, director James Cameron’s true triumph is in creating a world that seems so real that an online topic thread called “"Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible” has more than 100 members on the “Avatar” website. Like he did with the “Terminator” movies and “Titanic,” Cameron has once again changed what is possible with movies.

After years of hype (how Cameron invented much of the technology to make it, how he spent 12 years doing it, etc.) my hopes were pretty high. When the first trailer previews came out, the movie looked, well, awful. It looked like another computer-generated adventure in a world that looked like a video game. There was a reason for that – the 3D effects, the movie’s true coup, weren’t there.

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, “Avatar” uses 3D in a way that makes you forget it is even there. It’s not like an old 1950s-era movie, where 3D was a gimmick. No, this time, you lose track of the concept minutes in to the movie. I immersed myself in places that seem so real that I questioned whether or not they had always been in my memory. When I left the theatre, my brain was humming. I felt like I’d lived it – like I’d been to these places before, and had some sort of ancestral tie to them.

The story line of “Avatar” revolves around a greedy corporation that is trying to save a dying Earth by mining a mineral (called “Unobtainium”) on a planet called Pandora, which is populated by a race of 7-foot-tall aliens called the Na’vi. The Na’vi’s main village is on a huge deposit of Unobtainium, so the corporation develops simulations of the creatures, called “Avatars,” that are remote-operated by humans. One of the humans, sent to infiltrate the Na’vi, instead falls in love with the culture, and becomes one of its greatest heroes when times runs out and the company starts the military assault to clear the area.

James Cameron has several elements from “Aliens” in this movie – the greedy corporation putting profits before people (apparently, in space, all corporations like to hear you scream), powered robot suits, aircraft making atmospheric entry from space ships, hypersleep, Sigourney Weaver, etc. Cameron isn’t the only one to reference his own past work in “Avatar.” Soundtrack composer James Horner’s score uses motifs from other scores he has written. In fact, one of the main themes for the Na’vi rips off the first part of the main motif from “Glory,” another Horner score. Some of the action cues are also reminiscent of fragments of “Aliens,” “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan,” and “Titanic.”

The plot boils down to simplification: all corporations are bad, all native cultures are good. I doubt our troops in Iraq will be seeing this movie. There are several unsubtle references to some of the perhaps less-diplomatic aspects of America’s foreign policy this decade, including use of the phrase “shock and awe” in conjunction with the final assault.

The idea that people on Earth would pay a corporation using armed forces to forcibly remove other cultures on other planets and steal their resources also sounds like something that would actually happen. It appears that making any sort of sacrifice in lifestyle isn’t any more popular in the future than it is now. Out of sight, out of mind – just as long as it isn’t in my back yard.

It’s easy to draw parallels between this plotline and others taken through human history. The parallel between the story and what happened to Native American tribes in the United States is so obvious that it practically smashed the viewers’ glasses with a baseball bat. There are other references in “Avatar” to the native peoples’ gods failing to protect them.

I am reminded of how the Inca saw this happen in real life where, in November 1532, 168 Spanish conquistadors arrived in the holy city of Cajamarca. They faced 80,000 troops and the Incan emperor, yet within 24 hours they had killed more than 7,000 and had the emperor in chains. Within hours, an empire was destroyed. Eventually, more than 95 percent of the entire native populations are wiped out. The “savages” in “Avatar” face the same fate.

In the end of the story, though, it is the god of technology that fails, as well-equipped and powerful military forces are crushed (sometimes literally) by the powers of nature. It’s perhaps an unintended reminder to another technologically proud culture (us) that no gods are truly infallible.

“Avatar” is just a story – albeit one which draws on history and current events and presents these in such a way that it wipes the movie-making slate clean. If “Avatar” is any indication of what we can expect for the future of cinema, it could be more amazing than we could imagine. This new technology could elevate cinema to the place it once held in the pantheon of entertainment as the place where you go to see things you can’t see anywhere else. All it took was a $238 million gamble from James Cameron – a gamble that appears to have succeeded.

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