A warning must be issued here. This isn’t a “review” of the film (I mean, two paragraphs about the plot, one about the technique, one about the acting, one about this and another about that and an easy and oversimplified good-mediocre-ugly categorisation issued at the end very conveniently dismissing all other opinions) so much as a journey into the corners of my thoughts. This review discusses topics I’d hardly imagined it’d when I saw the film. This is, as you’ll discover, two (maybe more) reviews for the price of one. There was something I wanted to review on this blog since 2009, but never could. Avatar gave me ample scope to do it this time. Issuing a spoiler warning for this film (and the subjects I’m going to discuss) is not only completely pointless at this stage (given the film has grossed a meagre $2.7 billion), but defeats the entire purpose of my review itself. You’re advised to avoid reading this piece if you are not familiar with any of these (which I believe is unlikely).
In anticipation of Avatar, I wrote a post describing my fond memories of Cameron’s Titanic. To this day, watching Titanic remains my most wonderful experience inside a cinema hall. I was expecting Cameron to reawaken the five-year-old in me, inspire awe and induce heartfelt emotions with another powerful drama. I was ready to bow before the King. A few weeks later, I was off to the theatre, bursting with excitement. After the screening was over, I found myself sorely disappointed. I could hardly understand what the fuss was all about. Was I being over-analytical in watching a film that was simply supposed to be enjoyed and experienced? (I didn’t even take my notepad along!) Did I grow too cynical and fail to enjoy the simple pleasures of life Avatar was supposed to provide? Where was the plot? Where was the excitement? Where were characters I could deeply care about? Where was the drama? The visual effects were brilliant; 3D was also great, but I got used to it so quickly that it, in my view, could no longer be used as an excuse to camouflage the hackneyed and predictable plot. I tried every bit to be swept by it. I just couldn’t go with the ride, perhaps because I’m not particularly fond of amusement park rides. Even taken as an experience, this one didn’t quite measure up to Titanic. “Oh, Jim, did you really have to do something this unimaginative?” I said loudly as I exited the theatre, much to the bewilderment of people around me. It was a perfectly forgettable movie, I thought. Then began the problem (and, needless to say, now begins the review).
The problem was I couldn’t forget the film. No, it wasn’t the two distinct sets of opinions on the Internet (and elsewhere) which either raised it to stratospheric levels or doomed it as the worst thing to have happened to cinema since Ed Wood’s departure. Nor was it the widespread coverage of James Cameron’s Huge Ego or his award-season battle with Kathryn Bigelow. It was something I couldn’t pinpoint. It was the exact opposite of there-is-something-missing feeling. At times, there was a faint spark telling me that I had experienced something similar earlier, probably after reading something. I couldn’t remember what it was until I looked at my bookshelves.
It was a fat, red book. I’d enjoyed the book that preceded this one. I remember how I excited I was before I grabbed that book from my bookshelf and started reading it. It was an even greater classic, after all and so I had to read it, just to add it to the list of great books I’ve read. I expected it to entertain me in the way all novels of this kind are supposed to do. A little more than 100 pages into the book, I started to realise that the author was deceiving me. But I didn’t put the book back on the shelf. I needed to complete it. But I grew more and more disgruntled as it went on. It wasn’t what I’d expected. ‘What kind of book is this,’ I wrote in my notebook, ‘that pays more attention to the description of trees, hedges, bushes and mountains than to the deep emotions and dimensions of its characters?’ More such gems came from me: ‘What do the poems and legends (many of which are composed in a different language) have to do with the plot? Where’s the plot? Why is the main plotline described almost in its entirety in the blurb? Where’s the emotional high that this book must offer me? Why didn’t it evoke profound sadness in me at the death of one major character? Where’s the drama? And pray, why doesn’t the eponymous character appear even once for a thrilling showdown?’
In short, the book disappointed me. About a week later, I was quite engrossed in another book when that feeling invaded my mind. The book kept coming back to me in ways I least expected it to. The little descriptions that I’d found so boring earlier suddenly ceased being a distraction. The very things that I disliked earlier seemed lovely then. I couldn’t explain why. Even a month hadn’t passed before I wanted to bang my head against the wall and eat up all my words (thoughts?).
|Prof. John Tolkien|
Tolkien wasn’t trying to bore us with the vivid descriptions of Middle-earth. He was merely asking us to appreciate the character called Middle-earth. I realised that The Lord of the Rings, unlike its predecessor The Hobbit, wasn’t about the flesh-and-blood characters (Men, Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, Maiar) so much as about . . . Middle-earth. Nothing but Middle-earth was the protagonist probably because everyone was inseparably linked to Middle-earth. The tales, poems and legends no longer seemed off-putting because I realised that it was those things that were more important than the plot. Having known the overall plot, it was easier to get lost in the history and mythology of Middle-earth. If anything would have worked against this novel and Tolkien’s intentions, that would be obscurity in the plot and dramatic events. I guess that’s why the death (and eventual resurrection) of someone as important as Gandalf is (admirably) treated with so few words and so little drama. It was all about the mythology. For me, The Lord of the Rings broke every myth about fantasy literature by creating a new mythology (which is rooted in the oldest myths of Europe, to which Tolkien was most affectionate) and became one of my most favourite works in English literature. I didn’t come to associate understatement (which I am very fond of, partly because of the kind of literature and cinema I grew up devouring) with fantasy. Tolkien’s work began to co-exist with everything I’d ever loved.
Just imagine my delight after having read The Silmarillion! It did away with that constriction called a plotline. He concentrated entirely on the rich and detailed mythology which we got to see only in fragments in Rings. He was wise enough to realise that mythological tales are all about stories that people in the past adored and embraced, and the drama needn’t be underlined. It needs to be felt and realised. Why, Tolkien was the first person to assert that Beowulf was something which must be considered as a serious, worthy work of literature, and not simply as a historical document and pointed out that monsters in Beowulf were no less important than humans. In The Silmarillion especially, Tolkien wrote what he wanted to write, not what his readers would have liked to read after the great success of Rings. Perhaps that’s why the early reaction to The Silmarillion was: ‘Tolkien can’t actually write.’
I was not surprised to see Tolkien’s view of dramatic representation of fantasy. He said:
In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature.
Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy. Fantasy, even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in Drama, when that is presented as it should be, visibly and audibly acted.
His son, Christopher Tolkien, hit the nail on the head when he said that his father’s work was particularly unsuitable for a visual dramatic treatment. Which is why I’m still confused by the adulation Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Rings receives. Make no mistake, the films are extremely well-crafted, entertaining and the passion and hard work that went into the production is visible in every frame. In fact, I am quite fond of the first film. Yet, for all the admirable efforts, I find the films rather oversimplified and dumbed down. The emotions and drama before my eyes hardly resonated with me the way Tolkien’s prose and poetry did. I find it more dramatic to recite Bilbo’s poem about Aragorn than to see Elrond hand over Andúril to Aragorn in an over-dramatised sequence.
Once I remembered my response to Tolkien’s work, it became easier for me to regard Avatar as something other than big-bangs-for-bucks entertainment. Didn’t it have anything beneath its admittedly spectacular surface? It perhaps had, I told myself, but I was not very sure. So I was willing to give it another chance. A second viewing was in order. More than three months later, I was off to IMAX, this time equipped with a notepad and a pen. A film which revealed its entire plot in the trailer itself perhaps had some other intentions, I thought. I almost feared that I’d be proven wrong by my instincts.
In the beginning itself, I was assured that Avatar was indeed aspiring to be something mythic. The very first line of The Hobbit reads: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” We, the readers, begin the journey in a place as confined (literally and otherwise) as a hobbit-hole but the journeys that follow take us to places we (and the hobbits) can scarcely imagine. Cameron gives us a visual cue to suggest the mythical style that the rest of the film will follow. We see Our Hero, Jake opening his eyes (mirrored in the last frame of the film) after waking up from cryogenic sleep only to find himself in the enclosed chamber of the spacecraft that takes him to Pandora. In the following scene, he comes out of the chamber and the passage he enters extends to infinity. (This scene is a particularly great use of 3D, which I’ll discuss later.) In this tiny bit of a visual trickery, we were shown the trajectory of his journey.
Take, for instance, the scene in which Jake spots a bunch of touch-me-nots. This is the precise moment he gets drawn into the world of Pandora. And there’s no going back. This is the first time the audience, too, thinks that this world is not as fearsome as promised earlier in the film. Delighted like a kid, he runs about touching them until all the flowers have retracted. Then, suddenly, we get to see a fearsome creature. But Cameron introduces this beast quite casually and matter-of-factly. It was simply there. Contrary to the audience’s expectation, Cameron refuses to give this creature any special treatment and so practically humanises this animal. You see, monsters are as important as the humans, er, the animals are as important as the Na’vi. A quick revisit to the fifth chapter of the Book Two of The Lord of the Rings confirms that Tolkien, too, introduced the Balrog of Morgoth (the most terrifying creature in the entire book) in a very minimalist and un-dramatic way. It also reminded me of how the ghosts were shown in The Shining. After we’re promised that the experience in the Overlook Hotel will be quite fascinating for a “confirmed ghost story and horror film addict”, the film doesn’t exactly satisfy those addicts and refuses to give us those scary moments which make us scream. Kubrick refused to satisfy his audience’s expectations with his genre-defying horror film and consequently earned a Razzie nomination for Worst Director.
A clueless gentleman seated in the row before me asked his companions whether the scientists time-travelled to a pre-historic age. His innocent question induced much laughter around. But I think he was spot-on. We all know that this film is about people of an ancient time. What we’ve failed to notice is the fact that the storytelling in the film itself is similar to how those people told stories. The Lord of the Rings and Avatar would initially appear pedestrian because they don’t follow the traditional norms. But a closer look would reveal that the method these works adopt was used when the norms were not set.
Cameron appeared to be deliberately underplaying the character moments in the subsequent scenes. He never lets the characters and drama to grow bigger than Pandora, because they are part of Pandora itself. Scene after scene, I could see him building the mythology of Pandora. In Titanic, the ship was the backdrop of a tragic love story. But here, the characters are the backdrop of Pandora. But the way he introduces the mythology is far from being a videogame experience or amusement park ride. The Na’vi are people who live in the myth and old tales and legends (like the ones in Rings) are as important as their present. It’s not just the visual effects; the mythology, too, is vividly detailed. In most films of this kind, the main characters are the ones who create new mythology and the mythology surrounds them. But seldom do we see films in which the protagonists are often overshadowed by a larger pre-existing myth and act as catalysts to create a new chapter in a myth. (Besides The Lord of the Rings, Pullman’s His Dark Materials and, to an extent, Rowling’s Harry Potter are fine literary examples to have used this method. Harry Potter is much lesser than the mythology around him and he’s an accidental hero, as has been emphasised throughout the series, in case you are wondering why I chose Potter.)
Everything that unfolds in the first act – the Pa’li! The Ikran! The animals! The trees! The language! This! That! – points toward a bigger myth. The pleasure, however, lies in appreciating how it unfolds. It’s executed in a style as casual as the introduction of Neytiri. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker doing this when this material automatically ensures a heavy-headed treatment which never lets us forget how profound it is.
The hobbits did not understand [Bombadil’s] words, but as he spoke they had a vision as it were of a great expanse of years behind them, like a vast shadowy plain over which there strode shapes of Men, tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow. Then the vision faded, and they were back in the sunlit world. It was time to start again.
The hobbits took the weapons, not knowing if the weapon would be of any use. Little did they – and we – know that one of these daggers will change the history of Middle-earth by causing the end of the Witch-king of Angmar. It’s not just the war with which Avatar shows the conflict between the past and the present. It’s the beautiful scenes like these with which it explores the gap between “the vision” and the sunlit world”, not to mention Jake’s back-and-forth avatar journeys. It’s the conflict within the Na’vi as well. Not surprisingly, the Na’vi society largely mirrors the Shire. (In fact, the entire premise appears to be an extension of “The Scouring of the Shire”.) The gathering of various Na’vi clans reminded me of many alliances in Middle-earth’s history.
After all this, I needed no more proof of Cameron’s intentions. As if to confirm what’s already proven, there was the felling of the Home Tree. It’s a sad scene, a very dramatic scene. I guess everyone will agree with me when I say it’s the most dramatic, most emotional scene in the entire film. Wait! Did I just say “dramatic”? Didn’t I say this film wasn’t supposed to be dramatic? Isn’t that contradictory? But isn’t that the whole point? Cameron distances us from the characters and makes Pandora closer to us. You grow to care more about Pandora. The death scenes of Neytiri’s father and the scientist Dr Grace Augustine (both of which are understated, once again) aren’t really as tear-gland-friendly as the sight of the falling tree and the leaves floating in the air. What Cameron does, mostly invisibly, is personification of Nature.
This reminded me of a film which had similarly embraced Nature and somewhat distanced individual humans, a film which is very close to my heart: 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening sequence was one of the most dramatic ones in the history of cinema. And what was that? A cosmic alignment set to Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. That scene made me realise that every part of my mind and body was made of strings. I perfectly understood the scientific phenomenon called “resonance” years before my physics textbook explained it at length. But the film that began on such a dramatic, pulsating note (about Nature) was so low-key in its treatment of humans that even the killing of humans (by a machine, no less) was shown coldly. Like Avatar, it wasn’t dramatic enough. Even the immdiate reactions to these two films are somewhat similar. One of my all-time favourite critics, Pauline Kael described it as “monumentally unimaginative” and “third-rate”. She went on to add: “If big film directors are to get credit for doing badly what others have been doing brilliantly for years with no money, just because they've put it on the big screen, then businessmen are greater than poets and theft is art.” That sums up Avatar’s reception, no? In many circles, 2001 is still called A Snoozefest Odyssey because of its waltzing spacecrafts, lack of storyline and great human characters. Like Avatar, 2001, however, did manage to grab a special-effects Oscar. (It’s another thing that the SFX guy who won the only Oscar in his entire career went by the name Stanley Kubrick.) Apart from the spacecraft design, both these films have a lot in common. In both, Nature deserved the top billing. Both films are about Man and Nature (as opposed to Man versus Nature).
That was just a cinematic example. Tolkien, in Rings, had personified Nature as well. The Ents (trees), most ancient race in Middle-earth, walked, talked and, as in Avatar, waged war against the forces that poisoned Middle-earth. In my favourite chapter in Rings, the old sagely ent Treebeard recounts to the hobbits the old tales of the paradise that Middle-earth was and of the Entwives, the feminine part of Nature, who disappeared from Middle-earth as the evil forces began to devour Middle-earth. Bits like this made Rings one of my favourite works of literature. (Can you imagine my outrage when I saw how terribly butchered Treebeard was to suit the dramatic purpose in Jackson’s “vision”?)
Rabindranath Tagore did something similar in his short story Balāi. Like Tagore’s most works, this was an intimately personal tale as well. It’s the story of a little child who had lost his mother before he could call her Mother. His companions were trees. He talked to trees; he listened to the voices within the trees. He could feel the life within plants. In a very moving passage (which I’m incapable of translating), the trees are referred to as our old ancestors, eager to make their voice heard. Deprived of his mother’s lap, the child finds comfort in the other mother, Nature and his aunt who couldn’t be a mother. In Avatar, Jake is a child whose mother (the earth) has died long before his birth. He never sees his mother and neither do we. (In a stroke of genius, the backstory describing the condition of the earth has been removed.) Jake finds his mother resurrected in another form. When Jake urges a tree to look into the memories of Grace, it’s a motherless child desperately trying to save the mother he found.
Now, I have to talk a bit about its science. Let’s just say, this film puts the “science” back into sci-fi. That’d be one of the biggest compliments for the film. I have no fondness for films which are called sci-fi simply because science is used as an excuse for idiotic (not to mention unscientific) ideas and stunts. Avatar, in the true spirit of great science-fiction writers, strives to be as scientifically accurate as possible, yet does not sacrifice its narrative flow. Best science-fictions are ones which have scientific ideas and facts within the narrative for the reader/viewer to discover. I was sold to this film’s science right from the moment it shows twins separated by light-years. I’m not sure how many films have played with the twin paradox. Even the extraordinary visuals have a detailed scientific basis. Bioluminescence is observed in Pandora not only because they are meant to stun us, but longer nights in Pandora would be a factor for such evolution. Even the floating mountains have been explained with a visual cue: the piece of the superconductor unobtanium floating in a magnetic field in Selfridge’s office.
In terms of scientific accuracy, this is the first film since 2001 to get so many things so much right. It uses carefully detailed astronomy, physics and biology to build the myth. (Again, Googling will help you find how accurate the specific details are.) The inaccuracies are very minor, and unnoticeable if one isn’t very interested in science. It’s also the first film since 2001 to marry art, science and mythology so well. Its use of 3D is a scientific feat by itself. Of course, a film is good only if it transcends all avatars, IMAX to iPod. But then I ask myself: What about 2001? Doesn’t it lose its much of its sensory appeal on my laptop screen? I’m one of those unlucky folks who simply imagine how different the opening black screen would be in a theatre. The third dimension isn’t about breaking the fourth wall. It’s there because, in Cameron’s vision, it has to. 2001 is a big-screen film and this is a 3D film. I don’t care whether this has reinvented cinema or not. (When Martin Scorsese declares that his next will be in 3D, it certainly has changed cinema forever.) I doubt if the careful use of 3D (never once does an arrow hit us) and visual effects will soon find an equal. The visuals, unlike those of other movies, aren’t great shots in isolation. They, like the Pandoran biosphere, are part of a bigger picture. The awesome images aren’t there for the sake of it. They are, well, interconnected. I have no passion for war sequences in films, but I admired this one enormously. I finally realised how well-edited this entire film is. The editing is good because it doesn’t call attention to itself. Even during the bang-bang war scenes, Cameron (himself an editor) and his co-editors keep the film focused and manage to create some compelling images like a horse running ablaze.
On first viewing, I, too, found the film shallow in its intent. It was indeed the glorification of the white male’s supremacy over inferior races. During the second viewing I realised how flat my earlier perception was. It’s as much about the victory of the white male as Tolkien was misogynistic or as Tarantino glamorises violence. The Na’vi accept Jake back in their clan after he’s tamed the Toruk. You see, only five people in history have been able to tame a Toruk. So the Na’vi don’t show him respect because he comes from a “higher, more advanced race”, they accept him because the myth-loving people submit to the mythology of their race. He isn’t a hero because he has heroic abilities. His worth has been determined by Nature. Except to deliver a rabble-rousing speech (I must mention that this was a bit of the film I actually hated), he doesn’t really do anything to be called a hero. As I said, he’s just a catalyst. Even during war, his co-warriors display more bravery than he does.
This can’t be about the triumph of a man while the entire film debunks the victory of man. It’s an all-out ode to the female form. It isn’t one of those pseudo-feministic films in which weak women are empowered in special situations with a man’s aid. It’s sends out a true feminist message which is more pronounced than the other messages in the film. (Here, I must tell you that I’m not fond of message-movies at all and I firmly believe in Louis B. Mayer’s words. But I feel the messages here are not afterthoughts, as with so many films. They are – forgive my bankruptcy of phrase – part of the bigger picture and internally realised.) Not surprisingly, this message has been thoroughly overlooked in the reviews that have vehemently trashed the environmentalist message, perhaps because environmentalists are favourite punching bags of today.
The scene in which Neytiri meets the human Jake is pure magic. She holds him like a mother does her baby. She is simultaneously his lover and mother. She’s the positive force of Nature. Moreover, is she Nature herself? During Jake’s soul-transfer, it’s her hand that covers his face. She gives birth to the new, reformed Jake, doesn’t she? This image, I suspect, is another nod to 2001. Humans transforming into far superior beings with an interstellar consciousness to catalyse the progress of civilisation captures the ending of 2001 well. In purely scientific terms, it’s the next stage in human evolution.
Even the most enthusiastic reviews praised this film only for its visual grandeur and found the film lacking in other departments. (I agree that the acting isn’t exceptional but in no way does it harm the film. The dialogue, though jarring in parts, is pleasantly archaic.) Sure, it’s a treat for the eyes, but one needs much more than optic nerves to fully appreciate this film. At first Neytiri regarding Jake as a child appeared to be a condescending statement to the audience. On second viewing, it became apparent to me that the statement had more to it than met ,well, the eye. It reminded me of W. H. Auden’s (not coincidentally, a Tolkien admirer) lines from his translation of the Norse mythological poem Hávamál:
Hail to the speaker,Hail to the knower,Joy to him who has understood,Delight to those who have listened.
Cameron is a clever trickster. Look beyond the gorgeous visuals (that’s what Avatar asks of its audience), you’ll see he’s made an intensely personal film. Apparently, it’s quite an audience-friendly film. But his handling of this material clearly shows that he doesn’t do what his audience wanted him to do. Instead, he does what he wants to do. (Admittedly, during the first viewing, I was that kind of audience who wants a film to submit to his/her expectations.) See how he disguises minimalism with a maximalist cover. He makes the film in a largely literary/novelistic way which is hardly seen in films. Moreover, isn’t it simply fascinating that it’s a director who’s dictating the Hollywood studio system and not the other way round? I believe Jake could also be called Jim. Here’s a character who’s emancipated of his disability in another form of existence and ultimately does things the way he wants to and defies his employers. (Oh, I forgot to mention how magical the first avatar transformation is. Look at the way the camera looks at the legs!) Does it really require an over-imaginative mind to think that it’s a director finding feet to stand up against the studio bosses? I can think of only one director who used studio finances to make epic-scale independent films: Stanley Kubrick. Made with relatively unknown actors, this is very much an auteur’s film. (To cap it off, the poster outside the theatre read “Un film de James Cameron”, for reasons best known to Eywa.) I suppose, Avatar is the first example of a $300 (or 400 or 500) million Art Film.
|The Eye Opens . . . Again|
As the film ended, I exited the theatre silently. I didn’t express my reaction loudly for everyone around to hear. But I did say something, to myself, emphatically and unapologetically:
Yes, I love Avatar!