That’s the first thing I got out of Avatar – the amusement that somehow this film is in some part penance for Aliens. The monsters are prettified and startlingly dissimilar from H R Giger’s nightmare visions, but the reversed perspective is lampshaded heavily throughout Avatar and becomes so blatant during the final scenes that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch Aliens, with the violent, hissing Queen facing down Ripley’s Powerloader again without seeing a little of Neytiri in her. There may even be sadness when Ripley blows her into deep space. Not much (she is a mean ‘ol crone), but perhaps just a little.
It would be an insult to Aliens and the complexity of its plot to say that Avatar represents some sort of cultural evolution from warmongering to environmentalism. The former just isn’t simple enough to call a gung ho macho war movie since it gradually shifts as the story progresses to be some odd deconstruction of the three faces of Eve. However, there is definitely an aspect of Avatar that makes you wonder how deep Sigourney Weaver’s claws were in James Cameron and there’s no doubt that in this new movie we’re fighting for the other side.
The second big thing I saw in Avatar was the obvious tie-in with online gaming. The amusing scene where Jake is being “forced to eat his dinner” before he’s allowed to upload back into his alien body (while simultaneously bad things requiring his full attention are happening around his “other self”) was one embarrassingly familiar and yet particularly moving moment.
The theme played out throughout the entire film and there can be no doubt that at least one person on the writing team understands what it can feel like to be panicked by problems with internet connections while somewhere in an imaginary world, friends and non-existent computer characters are dying in droves solely because one can’t get there to hold the line and rescue them.
The third angle I enjoyed was almost as geeky. I could see how Avatar was designed to get right everything that “Final Fantasy – The Spirit Within” got wrong. It may be a film grounded in pretty CGI. It may be a film whose characters are all but the most recent generation of a computerized family line that stretches back through every video game cut sequence in history, but it’s still a film. It falls in line with outings more palatable to people who don’t spend hours each day shooting little 3D people in a virtual space, like Shrek or Wall-E do. It pushes the envelope a little, but still stands as a very serious attempt to blur the boundaries between mainstream cinema that everyone enjoys while also nudging the greater population a little closer to the sort of visuals that any gamer will be so familiar with that one spends the occasional moment waiting for the cut scene to end so one can get back in direct control of the action. I know this is nerd arrogance, but during a few particularly spectacular scenes I did think to myself “ah, so *that’s* how they’re trying to sugar-coat the visuals to keep all the “other” people engaged and stop them falling asleep”. There is a nice heritage to Avatar, and it owes more to the work of graphics artists of games than it does to Pixar.
Besides these main themes, I was especially impressed that James Cameron resisted any deeply unwise urge to soften the female lead with any form of cartoon dragon, comic relief donkey or any other of countless “funny female companions” that seem only to serve as a foil to a love interest’s emotional intensity. This breed of sidekick is usually a shorthand for “the mystery of woman”, “intuition” or some other feminine quality that (if written well) should be within the female’s own power to unleash upon the typically clueless but loveable male lead. I didn’t expect a Jar Jar archetype (James Cameron is far too savvy for that) but I was worried I’d find a Fizgig or talking animal somewhere and thankfully none ever emerged to detract from the very realistic and well-rounded female Neytiri.
Yes, the plot is played very, very safe so as not to detract from the pretty visual detail. That didn’t bother me at all, it certainly didn’t bother me as much as reviews of the movie that seem to skate around exactly *how* the plot is played safe. It’s simple – the plot is the go-to screenplay of dozens of Hollywood films. Just off the top of my head I can name: The Last Samurai, Last of the Mohicans, Dances With Wolves, Fern Gully and Pocahontas...the list goes on and on. It’s the archetypal guilty conscience story for America and the entire developed western world. Yeah, we know we’re really the bad guys in just about every way that matters, but hey look – we’ve got a heart and deep inside feel bad about what the most powerful people in our societies are doing to you “savages” or whatever we’re calling you these days. We suck, now back to drilling for oil.
And yes, the CGI is amazing. It’s the first CGI I’ve seen where human or near-human characters actually look like all their shoulder and neck muscles are moving like a real persons’. There are no clichéd moments where a character turns around in a startled yet formulaic manner with wide eyes just for the benefit of the audience, and no moments where someone smiles and you can almost hear the Director shouting at the CGI artist that they need to make sure certain facial muscles pull and push “just-so“ for maximum dramatic-yet-unrealistic effect. Watching Avatar in 3-D helped to iron-out any small remaining imperfections in the animation – when you’re already viewing the film through tinted glasses that make even the living actors appear a little unreal, the CGI characters blend in seamlessly.
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Overall, I think the most surprising thing about Avatar is that its ending manages to avert not one but two hugely ubiquitous plot devices. With the “rebirth” mechanic thrust down the audience’s throat well before the denouement you’d be forgiven for expecting the obvious cliché ending where our hero rescues his female love interest from the “big bad” by sacrificing himself in a noble and totally unnecessary manner.
Or at least having the good sense to be mortally wounded, requiring the final wish-fulfillment rebirth.
It’s just not to be. The female lead does indeed find herself in trouble during the final scenes. But she doesn’t require the heroes’ help at all – in fact it’s she that kills the final monster, saving Jake’s life in a pleasantly unexpected role-reversal.
Not content with usurping just one hackneyed climax, she then ruins any remaining self respect the hero clings to by preventing him from performing any sort of dramatic self-sacrifice at all. Jake tries as best he can, dropping dead from asphyxiation due to the actions of the now-dead villain, but Neytiri simply shrugs this off as boyish nonsense and promptly revives him, saving his life for a possibly unprecedented second time. I sense Sigourney Weaver again here, with another wry smile.