One of the signature images of the contemporary action blockbuster is of human operators manoeuvering artificial bodies. Whether it’s Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar, operating a lanky blue alien chassis while napping in a metal cocoon, Wikus (Sharlto Copley) in District 9 in a cyborgic war-machine suit, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) operating his hi-tech Iron Man suit, or the combatants of the Jaeger programme in Pacific Rim working the mind-and-body controls of their gargantuan monster-punching robots, we are accustomed to seeing the spectacular visual effects doing the heavy lifting while the human performers, seen in occasional cutaways, take up subordinate roles. This is partly a way of finding something for the people to do while the focus is on the big machines that are the agents of action in these movies, but it is also the visual logic of films dependent on motion-capture to fuel their digital heroes: these are films that celebrate technology, but remain anxious that those technologies are inscribed with the markers of human input that make films about machines relatable and engaging. Continue reading
[In his 2010 essay ‘A Compositionist Manifesto’, theorist of science Bruno Latour outlines his proposal for a new epistemology of the relationship between nature, science and humanity. As an alternative to ‘critique’, the analytical approach that “ran out of steam because it was predicated on the discovery of a true world of realities lying behind a veil of appearances”, he proposes a compositionist approach that requires its exponents to build, slowly and cautiously, forward-looking modes of thought and action to deal with looming ecological catastrophe which existing systems of knowledge have not prepared us to prevent. Perhaps surprisingly, he introduces the manifesto with a prologue about James Cameron’s Avatar, situating the film’s hero, Jake Sully, as a hopeful representative of a new way of being, where continuing existence might require a complete overhaul of how we perceive our place in the universe. The finished essay was published in New Literary History 41.3 (Summer 2010): 471-490, but you can read a draft version at Latour’s website; see also Lucas Verburgt’s excellent analysis of Latour’s argument, and Levi R. Bryant’s discussion of it at Larval Subjects. You can find my own posts on Avatar here and here. The illustration at the start of this post is from a concept design for Pandora’s Hometree by artist Seth Engstrom.]
“If I had an agent, I am sure he would advise me to sue James Cameron over his latest blockbuster since Avatar should really be called Pandora’s Hope! Yes, Pandora is the name of the mythical humanoid figure whose box holds all the ills of humanity, but it is also the name of the heavenly body that humans from planet Earth (all members of the typically American military-industrial complex) are exploiting to death without any worry for the fate of its local inhabitants, the Navis, and their ecosystem, a superorganism and goddess called Eywa. I am under the impression that this film is the first popular description of what happens when modernist humans meet Gaia. And it’s not pretty.
The Revenge of Gaia, to draw on the title of a book by James Lovelock, results in a terrifying replay of Dunkirk 1940 or Saigon 1973: a retreat and a defeat. This time, the Cowboys lose to the Indians: they have to flee from their frontier and withdraw back home abandoning all their riches behind them. In trying to pry open the mysterious planet Pandora in search of a mineral—known as unobtanium, no less!—the Earthlings, just as in the classical myth, let loose all the ills of human- ity: not only do they ravage the planet, destroy the great tree of life, and kill the quasi-Amazonian Indians who had lived in edenic harmony with it, but they also become infected with their own macho ideology. Outward destruction breeds inward destruction. And again, as in the classical myth, hope is left at the bottom of Pandora’s box—I mean planet—because it lies deep in the forest, thoroughly hidden in the complex web of connections that the Navis nurture with their own Gaia, a biological and cultural network which only a small team of natural- ists and anthropologists are beginning to explore. It is left to Jake, an outcast, a marine with neither legs nor academic credentials, to finally “get it,” yet at a price: the betrayal of his fellow mercenaries, a rather conventional love affair with a native, and a magnificent transmigration of his original crippled body into his avatar, thereby inverting the relationship between the original and the copy and giving a whole new dimension to what it means to “go native.”
I take this film to be the first Hollywood script about the modernist clash with nature that doesn’t take ultimate catastrophe and destruction for granted—as so many have before—but opts for a much more inter- esting outcome: a new search for hope on condition that what it means to have a body, a mind, and a world is completely redefined. The lesson of the film, in my reading of it, is that modernized and modernizing humans are not physically, psychologically, scientifically, and emotionally equipped to survive on their planet. As in Michel Tournier’s inverted story of Robinson Crusoe, Friday, or, The Other Island, they have to relearn from beginning to end what it is to live on their island—and just like Tournier’s fable, Crusoe ultimately decides to stay in the now civilized and civilizing jungle instead of going back home to what for him has become just another wilderness. But what fifty years ago in Tournier’s romance was a fully individual experience has become today in Cameron’s film a collective adventure: there is no sustainable life for Earth-bound species on their planet island.”
How to Train Your Dragon is made marvelous by that rarest of creatures – a nuanced and relatable CGI animal. Part dragon, part puppy, Toothless can convey a range of emotions with a curled lip or a twitch of the eyes, resorting only occasionally to the safety net of anthropomorphism. It’s the corniest of stories – a wimpy kid shows that brains trump brawn, and that gruff warrior types do not hold a monopoly on courage and persistence. The strongest message is that enemies are not always what they seem, and might be prey to the same fears and pressures as you are. It’s exactly what you want your kids to believe, but not necessarily what you want to see cynically mobilised to flog a Happy Meal. Dragon also benefits from the most effective use to date of 3D technology. Foreground and background are really unhooked from one another, dragons seem suspended in the air before you, and the Viking village depicted becomes a bustling perspectival pile-up of objects, high cliffs and big faces. I was also reminded of the close friendship between 3D movies and flying sequences. A film about dragons, and learning how to ride them, naturally lends itself to scenes of hurtling through the sky at breakneck speed, a white-knuckled passenger on a flight of vertiginy. See, for example, how Robert Zemeckis souped-up Dickens’s A Christmas Carol by having Jim Carrey’s Scrooge thrown through the air at regular intervals:
While the media puppies were distracted by the Oscar chew-toy, the Visual Effects Society was handing out its 8th annual batch of awards. Soundly trounced by The Hurt Locker at the Academy, Avatar could take some comfort from its haul of six statuettes in the shape of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. You can see a full list of winners here. The VES recognises films, TV shows, commercials and videogames that exhibit innovative or outstanding visual effects: these are effects completed in post-production as opposed to special effects, which is meant to refer to things done on the set, but which has become a catch-all for visual trickery of all sorts. As a result, almost every nominee (the stop-motion Coraline is the honourable exception) is featured for its digital effects. And what do you think was the single most impressive effect of the year? Was it the destruction of L.A. in 2012? The plane crash in Knowing? Nope, it was a shot of Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri drinking water from a leaf. A CG character dribbling CG liquid into her mouth. It’s less obviously spectacular than the fire and brimstone of its competitors, and techie insiders obviously recognised the complexity of modelling and compositing all of those separate elements, but it points to the micro-spectacular properties of digital effects. Aside from the capacity for large-scale destruction, they chase after the possibility of the sensuality of surfaces, skin and fluid, hoping for their successful integration, the thrill of their touch. This, depending on your view, is either a marvelous re-direction of the spectacular towards haptic, luxuriant pleasures, or a complete waste of time when there’s plenty of serviceable skin and water to be found in the real world at any time.
[Above image from Lineweights blog.]
The hype for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker built up slowly, but right now you can’t ignore that it’s the film of the moment. The media has loved the story that the biggest challenger to Avatar at upcoming awards ceremonies was directed by James Cameron’s ex-wife, especially since The Hurt Locker comes on like a guerrilla upstart version of Cameron’s tale of a new boy to the military theatre trying to manage his emotional engagement with the indigenous peoples at the sharp end of his army’s operations. But I don’t want to force the comparisons between the two movies, for while Avatar keeps its feelings about war at a distance, alienated by layers of CGI, blue skin, predictable narrative and right-on eco-friendly politics, The Hurt Locker wants to touch the dust and dirt that cakes every building, vehicle and explosive device in today’s Iraq. It’s an admirable attempt to climb inside the sensorium of a soldier under the hottest, highest pressure in a war zone that has to keep pretending its a bustling city, keeping the action grounded, nasty and persistently gripping. The camera stays close, as now seems de rigeur for this sort of thing, and the city becomes a conglomeration of glimpses, where any bystander could become a bomber or sniper; the soundtrack plays along – distant foes are eerily silent and inscrutable.
It’s just a shame that The Hurt Locker is good, but not that good. Whatever the visuals are doing to make it all feel authentic and asphyxiatingly tense, the plot contrivances work in the opposite direction. The film consists almost entirely of a series of missions, with little downtime or character moments in between. This is surely a deliberate decision to tell us about the protagonists through how they behave and interact while at work, but by structuring the whole thing out of a series of get-out-of-that set-pieces, it risks turning into a kind of Saw-style vision of men (because it is all men here) at war. I don’t have any experiences of war from which to draw my own comparisons, but I suspect that fighting a war is as much about the boredom and paranoia of the in-between moments as it is about the high-wire excitement of carefully-orchestrated puzzle bombs and insurgent attacks. Bigelow has always been interested in masculinity, and the masks that men put on to keep up charades of composure, strength and cool. The Loveless did a great job of queering the biker-gang movie, while Point Break knowingly pushed the testerone to self-parodic heights of dudeness. The Hurt Locker continues that project, with Bigelow’s troupe of bomb-disposal specialists manning up with acts of reckless daring and chest thumping, with ever-present hints that there is a troubled past or suppressed compassion pulsating just beneath the surface.
Jeremy Renner’s bomb expert is, let’s face it, a self-absorbed arsehole at the start of this film, and he ends the same way, with only fleeting glimmers of feeling for other humans along the way. He tunes out his family, and shows little empathy for the colleagues suffering around him. He mistakes fear for cowardice. So far so compelling, but I’m a bit fed up of stories about “the best of the best”; he’s a maverick, with all the attendant cliches, but hey, he gets the job done. He’s crazy but he’s brilliant. He’s endangering the lives of everyone around him, but he gets results. I’ve had enough of that. Tell me a story about ordinary people who have doubts, fears and butter-fingers. This characterisation leads to what I think is the film’s most perturbing thesis – that war is addictive. Is it really? It’s nothing new for a war film to focus on the physiological, psychological effects of combat on the people who have to conduct it, showing home-life struggling to match the sheer intense immediacy of being in life-or-death situations as a daily matter of course. It doesn’t even bother me that the film doesn’t engage with the causes and contexts of the war: there are plenty of other fora that are getting their teeth into those debates. Is addiction really the best analogy for men who build up a repetitive compulsion desire for the deadly sudoku that bombers have left around the city for them? I appreciate the idea that war might so overwhelm its fighters that they might end up normalising its lethal challenges, but I find it hard to believe that the biggest psychological problem facing soldiers is the danger that they might develop an unnatural attraction to their job.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on a worthy film. Perhaps, instead of being an examination of the mental interior of military men, it is another of Bigelow’s genre deconstructions, taking down the very figure of the maverick hero, showing him not to be just an efficient operator (though he certainly is that), but an empathy-bypassed shell of a man. The protective outfit he wears to march off into an uncertain sunset at the end gives him the look of an armoured cyborg, machinically stomping the track towards the next bomb, the latest fix. Such an interpretation would go against the rhetoric of authenticity that the film’s advocates have been touting, but it would confirm Bigelow as one of Hollywood’s more interesting disruptors of genre road-maps.
[As I was writing this, The Hurt Locker was picking up six BAFTAs. Not my number one choice, but at least it wasn’t Avatar.]
I must stand by my initial response to Avatar, which was that it was visually exciting, but dramatically leaden. It also fades from memory quite quickly, and sours a bit in the recollection. James Cameron’s film has, however, excited quite a lot of debate – despite mostly favourable, if qualified reviews (mine was very much in line with the majority, I think), there is already a backlash that shows how quickly cultural products can be mined for the subtexts and counter-readings that will be exercising students on film-studies courses in years to come. I can see it being used as a prompt for discussions of Hollywood’s myths of hegemony, race and history very soon, even though there are unlikely to be any campus lecture theatres to show it in 3D as intended. These post-hype analyses will not be dazzled by the arc lamps of spectacular, IMAX-sized action, which might make them more clear-minded and less likely to be swayed by special effects, but this is not necessarily a fair fight if one believes that visual spectacle is a part of a film’s lexicon rather than the fig leaf for an under-endowed plot.
[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.