Gaia and Dolls: James Cameron’s Avatar

[See also the follow-up post, Digesting Avatar.]

Do you feel like the game has changed? Are we in a new age of spectacular cinema, freed from technological limits? That’s what was promised, but has Avatar rescued us from our humdrum lives of everyday movies with everyday special effects? My initial verdict is, well … sort of.

First things first (and here’s where you’ll find the greatest concentration of potential poster-quotes) Avatar looks astonishing. Really. It has wondrous moments when you momentarily accept the tangibility of the lanky blue folk on the screen, and it makes perfect sense that these are couched in a narrative about a man exploring a new world via a new body: Cameron meshes together the diegetic events and the experience of their spectacles perfectly, so the spectator’s exploratory view of Pandora (where the film takes place) can be focused on discoveries of plants and species that are, at the same time, discoveries of CGI novelties. It means you don’t have to feel bad about stopping and staring: it makes gawping at stuff feel like a plot point. But the plot is so stale that it might even be seen as a deliberate strategy to choke off any sense of suspense or complexity and force the audience to focus on the immediate splendour of the present moment: don’t worry about what’s going to happen, just check how good it looks as it’s happening.

The rush to get to grips with the arrival of Avatar, and the accompanying upheavals that extreme novelty might bring, has lead many commentators to try and describe it in terms of its resemblance to other things. It’s a souped up Ferngully, Dances with Wolves in space, Dances with Smurfs in a hilarious South Park episode, a Yesalbum cover, a plagiarised 1957 novella etc. One more comparison that occurred to me as I was watching is Anders Rønnow Klarlund’s marionette movie Strings (2004). It is also built around a quasi-mythical tale of a wandering warrior sheltered by a tribe he has previously thought of as primitive barbarians, and gaining respect for their culture and their one-ness with nature. There’s even a similar sex scene tangled up in strings. And, of course, Strings is made using puppets for actors, and we could justifiably consider the motion-captured CG bodysuits worn by the actors to be a kind of hi-tech puppetry, worked by their own frames but endlessly malleable in post-production. Here’s how are some of the stages that show how it’s done, moving from the performance capture of Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington, with the suits recording the co-ordinates of points on their bodies while the cameras in front of the faces capture the detail of their expressions…

… to the digital models of their Na’vi bodies in a lo-res version that can be viewed on a monitor and directed live on the set.

… Weta Digital then developed these templates with more detail (note that this has to be done for the background environments, too) and finished off the fine-tuning on the animation of the performances …

… before the final levels of detail, shading and skin tones, reflections, shadows etc. are added:

Some of the non-Na’vi scenes are shot against greenscreen with all of the backgrounds and sets added in afterwards. Why travel to another planet to make a movie when you can stay home and draw your own?

Much will no doubt be made of James Cameron’s form of feminism, whereby his female leads get to do as much heroic jumping and kicking as any of the boys, and indeed the image of a tiny little Sam Worthington cradled in the arms of his giantess mate (Zoe Saldana) is a striking one, suddenly embodying his species’ physical inferiority and visualising her statuesque prowess. Saldana gives, and I’m assuming that we can attribute most of this work to her, a wonderful physical performance; you can see her gestures and body language pushing through the technology to invest Neytiri with layers of passion and detail.

You can almost see a resemblance under the techie prosthetics, but Cameron favourite Sigourney Weaver is much more clearly apparent in her avatar:

Michelle Rodiguez is surely one of the most typecast actress in Hollywood, and once again trots out her usual tough-girl act, which I hope she’s at least enjoying doing while it lasts, because it would be great to see her stretching herself a bit. She doesn’t have a lot else to do except instigate the “I-didn’t-sign-up-for-this” change of heart that helps out in the rebellion against the military, and provide the kinds of cleavage shots that really show what the future of 3D is more likely to end up becoming. That sounds a bit facetious of me, but her body seems to have been used at times to deflect some of the attention away from the amazing physiques of the Na’vi, who appear to have no nerds, slobs or munters amongst their number: Cameron is in danger of sentimentalising, via body-fetishism, the alien clans and the purity of their race, and I like to think that he reserves some fascination with human females and their contribution to physical spectacle. In any event, this is feminism with boundaries and sub-clauses, ultimately clearing the path of the hero’s journey towards knowledge and superiority.

Is it prurient of me to wish that they’d gone further in depicting the “mating” between Jake and Neytiri? No, I don’t think so. All of the sexual interest between them is displaced onto their competitive mastery of hunting skills and the taming of wild beasts, so it’s almost like we don’t need to see them explicitly bumping uglies (and stop me if I’m a bit slow on the science but if the avatars used in the research programme are created using human DNA, wouldn’t mating with the Na’vi pollute their gene pool with all that feeble human stuff?), but if  Cameron truly wanted to break new ground and show us that the technology was fully mature, why not have a go at some challenging intimacy in CG? The bodies of the Na’vi are the centrepoints of the film’s spectacular project, and you’re invited to inspect their flesh and marvel at their anatomical superstructure and acrobatic grace – forgive me, but isn’t the usual next step to wonder what they’re like in bed? Why else make them kinda sexy, lithe and sultry if you don’t want to encourage such a reaction?

Seriously, though, it makes perfect sense that Jake Sully himself is curious about Na’vi sexuality: thankfully, though perhaps disappointingly, they do it just like people, or at least people in movies do, with vigorous snogging and heavy breathing until the inevitable fade-out or pan across to a bedside table. Where would be the harm in indulging that natural instinct, except that it might delay getting round to the real task of blowing stuff up.

Cameron has built an impressive world and taken the trouble to have its flora and fauna meticulously designed so that it feels like a cohesive eco-system, but the downside might be that it feels overdesigned at times. It’s a perfect environment, and it works like a kind of organic world wide web: the Na’vi can jack into the planet and its wildlife with a kind of fibre-optic ponytail that lets them feel its memories and to communicate more intimately with its creatures. This is a fascinating idea, and it backs Cameron out of a few corners – the Na’vi gods are real, measurable and demonstrable. Of course, I don’t believe that the non-existence of gods is justification for kicking any peoples off their land, but it does mean here that the moral odds are stacked unequally in favour of the Na’vi.

(Aside: Has there ever been a film this expensive that’s had to labour under such an inept marketing campaign? The half-face posters did nothing to convince you that this wasn’t going to straight to video (or that it hadn’t done so 20 years earlier), and even the tie-ins couldn’t be bothered to think up anything interesting – waiting for the film to start, we were “treated” to two ads, one for some kind of mobile phone, the other for Coke Zero, but they both resorted to exactly the same device of the slack-jawed average-joe customer finding himself sucked into the world of the film. Ooh, d’you get it? It’s, like, totally immersive and stuff. But was there no communication that might have flagged up the fact that they were making the same commercial? Maybe the “sucked-into-the-movie” template is the default setting for these things. In any event, given Coca-Cola’s record of shafting indigenous communities to let them set up their sugar-water bottling plants, it stinks to high heaven that they should have been allowed to associate themselves with a film that sets out to make your heart bleed for a bunch of natives whose natural resources are being ravaged by corporate interests.)

And what was the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a film if you’re just going to invite James Horner to sully it with a disastrous score? It’s a lazy musical mish-mash of borrowed ideas (including his own – the main theme even quotes the chorus of My Heart Will Go On) that wobbles incoherently between Carmina Burana and Pan Pipe Moods. It’s a hackneyed set of quasi-ethnic gestures, and at the very least it should have been cut back to let the soundtrack breathe from time to time. The visuals may be 3D, but the soundtrack struggles to create a comparable sense of spatialisation. Think how effective sound could be used to make Pandora seem tangible, lushly present if only we could really hear the brush of leaves against skin. This may be part of a bigger problem, and one that I’ll admit might sound picky at first: Avatar does a great job of creating a spectacle to behold, but we always feel shut out, distanced from it by its immaculate composition. While it wants to appear real, what it actually achieves is a temporary renegotiation of what we might want to think of as real – the prioritisation of the visual plays down the significance of the other senses in developing a sense of presence and physicality.

The problem here centres on Cameron’s easy summation of the drama as a clash of civilisations, with a militarised, corporate-sponsored colonial mission from Earth over-riding the rights and dignities of an indigenous tribe of spiritually-enlightened natives. I can’t help noticing a double-standard that makes Avatar feel a bit cheeky. Cameron has invested enormous amounts of money in fabricating a “natural” world, one that feels organic, lush and earthy, so that we can really give a crap whether or not it gets bulldozed. He wants us to celebrate nature, but has to redesign it along his own imaginative lines in order to make it worth our while. It’s all been made to measure to his specifications, which surely avoids some of the chaotic, bizarre and unpredictable qualities that distinguish nature from, say… technology. Cameron’s grudge is against the corporate interests that always twist the science of progressive idealism into a brutally self-serving ideology of progress and expansionism at any costs. Nobody would really argue with such a noble sentiment, but this director doesn’t seem to want to untangle or investigate the moral ambiguities at the centre of technological debates – is scientific progress possible without compromises to human nature? Is militarisation readily divisible from technological investment and production? Even if he were to always proselytise in one direction, there is at least some dramatic mileage in the posthuman debates that his film touches upon without running with (apart from being a bit tired and disorientated, Jake doesn’t seem faced with any existential crises over his transferral to another body), and if Cameron wants to earn his reputation as a visionary futurist, he might want to pause playing with the gadgets and consider the complexities of the human/machine interface, or the paradoxes of the miltary-industrial-technological complex, not because it’s his moral duty, but because it might be really exciting and interesting. Otherwise, we’re just left with another tale of noble savages being noble. He had a similar problem with Titanic, when he wanted to condemn the corporate corner-cutting that sent an unsound ship to sea, but ended up dazzled by the magnificence of it all.

Looking back over what I’ve just written (hard to believe, I know, but I do it sometimes), I realise that I’ve criticised the film quite a lot. I should point that Avatar was a thrilling experience, both in terms of the spectacular action it conjured, and the excitement of seeing technological obstacles surmounted so effortlessly. Having one’s own skepticism dispersed is always a pleasant feeling. But when the 3D specs come off, and the film becomes a memory to be pondered and pored over, without its powers to overwhelm and bedazzle, it has to stand shivering in the harsh light of critical customs, and the truth is that it’s a flaccid piece of drama with a this-will-do-till-a-script-gets-here approach to dialogue. It’s one of the most deliciously sweet confections on the menu, but you’ll crave some roughage soon after.

OK, those are my initial thoughts. Wanna talk about it?

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18 thoughts on “Gaia and Dolls: James Cameron’s Avatar

  1. Thanks for this: a great exploration of some of the problems with this fascinating film. I tried to write something about it myself, but pretty much ended up summarizing a bunch of other stuff I’ve been reading in lieu of an opinion of my own ( I do somehow find that the more I reflect on it, the more negative I sound.

    • Thanks, Dan. You’ve assembled an excellent summary of Avatar-related reading there, and I look forward to getting through more of it. I basically posted my own responses off the top of my head, but I’m sure I’ll modify my position as time goes by and I read a bit more. At the very least, it’s a film that got me thinking, just not about what I was supposed to be thinking about….

  2. Love the point about Coca-Cola.

    Last year my new years (about Febuary, March…) was to stop drinking the stuff, not that I drink much of it. So I thought it would be easy – until I kept coming across other products they made / owned. So while this endeavour has been mostly successful, next years will be to redouble the effort and add something else to the list. And add something else to the list in a different way: to buy more from someone/thing good!

    Good, good crimble to you.

  3. This is an amazing post, Dan. So effortless and hitting all the right notes (or the the wrong notes should I say?!) of the film. Avatar is, plainly, cinema of hypocrisy. Really disheartening to see a veteran director stoop this low.

    And yes, abysmal script. I guess he finished the movie and outsourced the script during post-production….

  4. Thanks, JAFB. The uniformity of the Avatar reviews (spectacular but predictable/lazy/colonialist) is striking. I was thinking of doing a digest of critics’ responses to the film, but they’re all so similar in their sentiments. Objections to it are also cohering around the anti-colonialist subtext (which hardly counts as “sub” at all!), which has annoyed a lot of right wing media commentators in the US, but is also winding up lefties who find it suspect that it’s all filtered through a white guy’s experience of an alien other. See Dan’s link in one of the replies above for more on that.

    • Thanks, r4i. It obviously worked for you – I also found it spectacular, though perhaps not quite a full-body experience: it didn’t exercise my brain very much, which was a shame. I would definitely recommend that anyone wanting to see it should see it in 3D, and on a big screen. Maybe I should have seen it in IMAX, but I don’t have an IMAX screen near me.

  5. Pingback: Avatar Movie and its connections to current events « Thoughts into Words

  6. Pingback: Digesting Avatar « Spectacular Attractions

  7. Hi Dan,
    Both this and your follow-up post on Avatar make excellent reading. I note the ‘it’s only a movie, so stop reading so much into it’ line has appeared in the Australian press with Charle’s Purcell’s bullet-headed opinion piece ‘with movies often what you see is all there is’:

    Personally, for me the most interesting thing about Avatar is Zoe Saldana’s performance, which I found really affecting (in part it’s the grain of the voice, I think – but is this because I’m searching beneath the pixel mask for some sign of an authentic actor contribution?). I’m increasingly tickled by the indexical rhetoric emerging around digital performances — David Fincher talking about ‘xeroxing’ a performance and transferring it across to a digital body; Cameron asserting that ‘actors don’t do motion, they do emotion’ so he’s developed ‘e-motion capture’. At the same time, my plain-talking brother-in-law told me proudly on the weekend that he had no intention whatsoever of seeing Avatar, as ‘I like films with actors acting – I hate CGI’.

  8. Hi, Lisa,

    Good to see you round these parts. “It’s only a movie!” I’m getting fed up of that response – I wrote a post about Terminator II that was met with quite a few messages in that vein. Who are these people who go around message boards telling people not to think about stuff? If I was standing in the middle of the road, that might be a bad place to think about stuff, but a discussion forum seems like a good place to think about stuff. But wow, Purcell gets paid for this?

    I also thought Zoe Saldana was great. We need to keep track of the way people are discussing “virtual performance”. I see it as a kind of puppetry where the actor (assisted by all sorts of technicians) projects a persona onto the remote surface of a digital…. thingy. I’m still settling on the terminology. Avatar is an improvement on other uses of CGI, undoubtedly. I heard Cameron talking about this as the future of performance, but it’s still in its infancy – he suggested that it shouldn’t be used for resurrecting dead stars (citing the classic Monroe example), but that it could be used to elongate the shelf-life of existing stars. So we’ll still be able to see Will Smith playing a 20 year-old in 40 years time. Or something like that. Personally, I reckon cinema already has that preservative function. We’ll still be able to watch Fresh Prince of Bel Air in 40 years time.

  9. It’s interesting to see just how permeant digital memory has become in our everyday lives. It’s like everywhere I turn, I see something with a card slot or USB jack, haha. I guess it makes sense though, considering how inexpensive memory has become lately…Ahhh, who am I to complain. I can’t make it through a single day without using my R4 / R4i!(Posted from Nintendo DS running R4i DS NETPost)

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