In one of the most roundabout and expensive methods in history, James Cameron's new movie, Avatar, proposes that those of us who have honed our video game skills in the 21st century could become the world-saving diplomats of the 22nd.
Avatar is the $300-million (or so) new movie from the director of Terminator and Titanic, a futuristic amalgamation of Cameron classic Aliens and Kevin Costner white-man-joins-the-Native-Americans movie Dance With Wolves. It is an American movie transparently critical of the United States of America, one that is simple in both good ways and bad. It is beautiful in ways only good, and, yes, in that roundabout way, it says something about the future of video games.
The movie occurs midway through the 22nd century, as wheelchair-bound grunt Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) assumes the mission of his deceased brother, shipping out across the universe to the planet Pandora, where a private corporation has enlisted both scientists and a private military to help them obtain a nearly priceless element unironically called Unobtainium. The military forces, led by the scarred and scowling Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) itch to clear the planet's best site for mining by blasting away the natvies who live on top of it. These natives are the tall, skinny, blue-skinned cat-like Na'vi, who live in the massive tree on that site and are the visual signature of the film. The scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) utilize Avatar technology, enabling Augustine, Sully and others to transport their consciousnesses into artificially-created Na'vi bodies and walk among the natives in the hopes of establishing either an economic trade or peaceful motivation for the Na'vi to move.
Early in the film, Sully, in his Na'vi body, is separated from his colleagues, lost to the wild and rescued by a Na'vi chief's daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). What follows is a film about Sully's education of life amid the Na'vi, the battles that erupt between humans and natives and a crossroads decision about who is right and with which sides the key players will align.
A Beautiful Place: Whether you watch Avatar in digital 3D, as I did, on IMAX or even in the plain old-school way, this is a movie of tropical-vacation beauty. It is an escape, on this planet Pandora, to an imaginative ecology of many-legged horses, helicopter bugs, hammerhead elephants and a variety of magical plant life that is so lovely that the setting alone has motivated me to try the Avatar console game, a game for which no demonstration of gameplay nor review had motivated me to play. If a video game can be my own transport back to this world, I will suffer through the reported mediocrity to see those plants and animals again. This is a dream world and the ultimate Al Gore planet, a combination of a lush green paradise and Internet-like network of natural electricity, a place to which I am eager to return.
A Beautiful People: The Na'vi have been created with the reverence many North Americans now have for those tribes that lived between the Atlantic and Pacific before our ancestors and forefathers squeezed them into reservations. (Speaking of which, see our sister site, Io9, for an excellent exploration of the "white guilt" in effect here.) They are also digital marvels, an impossibly lithe but visually believable band of hunters and shamans whose every tradition, from wrangling their versions of horses and hawks to climbing their floating mountains is a thrill to watch. Neytiri indoctrinates Sully into many of the aspects of Na'vi culture, nearly all of them a delight to witness.
A Video-Game Simple Hero: James Cameron, ever the romantic and skeptic of corporate power, presents in Avatar a love story intermingled with a morally clear struggle between those who would spoil a paradise and those who would not. It's seldom unclear who it is we should be rooting for, even though it is doubly awkward, watching this movie in the U.S., to realize early that the bad guys are not just the humans but those types of humans who would both violently shove native peoples from their lands but invoke a "shock and awe" military campaign in the interest of securing access to a foreign land's natural resources.
Some of that narrative simplicity is due for valid criticism, but what works well is the blankness of some of Avatar's characters, particularly Sully himself. Avatar, more successfully than any other film I can recall, embraces the simplicity that characterizes many video games, which infrequently portray emotional depth among its protagonists. Games, I believe, do this as a means of transporting a player more smoothly into their worlds. In games as in Avatar, the lead character often feels less like a real being than like a vessel, even compared to a usually more believably fleshed-out supporting cast. The lead role is left more blank, so we might more easily see ourselves in it. So is the case in this movie, on multiple levels. If Sully's Na'vi body is the personality-less form through which he can vicariously experience the Na'vi's world, then his blank personality — he is, like a game character, defined more by his options for mobility (as a human only in a wheelchair, in his case) than his personality — allows him to be a vessel through which a movie viewer can vicariously experience his world. He is, as a movie lead, as blank as a gaming hero, which serves the mission of transporting consciousness into a foreign avatar well in this film, as it does in so many games, from BioShock to Zelda.
War With Mech Warriors: When it's not being an extraordinary documentary for an exotic environment that does not exist, Avatar is a war film. It's a high-tech, special-effects battle between Na'vi and the machinery of future human war. The battles are incredible, full of natives, animals, planes, space marines and walking mech suits controlled, too, like video games, in this case with their cockpit drivers using gesture control to make their mech fire a gun or throw a punch. The battles are exhilarating, though hopefully you don't mind rooting for human death at the hands of the natives.
The 3D:I'm not sure I was cognizant of it all the time, but watching the movie in 3D appeared to add depth to Avatar's already extraordinary visuals. This movie, as alluded to above, can feel like a vivid nature documentary and the 3D allows one to further the illusion that we're in there. It never felt gimmicky, as the movie doesn't waste much time trying to pretend to throw things out from the screen into your face.
Transparently Political: Avatar makes Titanic look subtle. Cameron's last film was a romance, a disaster movie but also an allegory for the triumph of American self-realized ingenuity over the inherited privilege of old Europe. This movie is a guilty fantasy of Native American resistance against American occupation of the continental U.S. That's tolerable, as is the light overlay of climate politics that admits that distant Earth, where war has been waged in oil-rich Venezuela and Nigeria, is now devoid of green. But it strains patience to listen to Avatar's private American military commander promise a "shock and awe" campaign as he vows to "fight terror with terror." Stopping short of naming Saddam Hussein, the anti-science, bad-guy human commander declares that "our only security is a pre-emptive attack." I get it. But George W. Bush is not president anymore, and the equivalency of the war in Iraq with terrorism is the kind of blunt politics that I wish the makers of good science fiction would relegate to less sophisticated artists.
Rushed Story:Avatar treads much ground in introducing the viewer to so many places and cultural aspects of the Na'vi people. It skips an explanation for most of its science and relies on a sci-fi approach to YouTube to explain some of its plot and characters. That's fine, but it leads to so much that is unexplained that the movie feels hatcheted and crammed into an acceptable theatrical viewing time in advance of what I expect would be much longer director's cut. I'm not sure added exposition will improve the movie, though I do hope it plugs a logic hole that opens up two-thirds of the way into the film, when an event occurs that strains belief and that, unless they have a better explanation for it, probably should have spelled the doom for our hero characters right then and there.
Avatar is the fantasy of a new world and a revised way America could have or still can affect the old world upon which we live. It's also a light exploration of the possibilities of gaming, of being in another body and using its form to affect others. At times, in Avatar, doing that by getting in the seat of a mechanical warrior suit, is only a means to the destructive end, a successor to today's joystick-controlled Predator missiles and other tools of remote high-tech war.
But also in Avatar there is the promise that virtually inhabiting other bodies could bring us new cultural insights, could empower us beyond our physical limitations and could enlighten us to a new way of being. These are ideas that are more ancient than video games, more spiritual than a PlayStation, but they are ideas that we gamers have at our fingertips almost every day. Our future could be blue like this, in the happiest of ways. Avatar, the movie, represents a preview of that transformational and transportive possible future.
Avatar was written and directed by James Cameron and released by 20th Century Fox on December 18 in the U.S.
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