Thursday, January 28, 2010

AVATAR - a story behind the story

Avatar, in little more than a month after its release, has become the number one box-office money maker of all time. That's a lot of tickets sold. The film is a visually arresting piece, having been photographed in a breakthrough stereographic 3-D process that literally opens the screen and delivers the audience to the planet Pandora, light years away.

It was the buzz that Avatar was like no other 3-D film ever made that got me into the theater. For more than two decades I’ve shot virtually all of my personal photographs with a 1952 Stereo Realist camera. It’s not exactly a cutting edge piece of equipment but solidly reliable and designed to capture terrific stereo images.

The 3-D medium is challenging and endlessly fascinating, dealing as it does with compositional elements in all three visual dimensions. The rules of conventional photography apply, and then some. In contrast to a conventional photograph, instead of looking “at” the picture, you look “through” a stereograph into a perfectly frozen instant of time. The eye is invited to roam around within the frame, or, “window” as it is called, picking out stray bits of detail an ordinary camera would gloss over. I have taken thousands of stereos over the years in which I attempt to capture a person or place with the “you are there” quality that only 3-D can deliver. When successful, the results are magnetic. Further, unlike conventional photographs which tend to sit in a drawer, stereos are looked at and shared. Not a week goes by that I do not pull a few stereos out to enjoy.

However, and stereo photography enthusiasts freely admit this, aside from a couple interesting 3-D films made back in the 50s, Hollywood’s use of the medium has rarely gotten past the cheesiness of rubber sharks, or the eyestrain of occasional bad projection. The movies always seem to treat 3-D as a side-show attraction.

The astounding impact of Avatar is due entirely to its breakthrough stereographic photography. Filmed conventionally, it would be a nothing more than another over-produced action flick. Until now, the 3-D equipment available to film makers was heavy and cumbersome; too limiting to be of general production use. But, computer graphics, digital imaging, and modern optics now enable a level of 3-D cinematography that was impossible using the refrigerator-size camera that Alfred Hitchcock used to film Dial M for Murder in 1954. In Avatar, when the ship from earth lands on Pandora and the doors open, the audience finds itself on another world.

However, when it comes to story, Avatar is “all meat and no potatoes”. It's little more than a ramped up remake of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. Well, that’s not quite accurate. Flash Gordon would be fun updated and in 3-D. No, this is Flash Gordon after he's spent a little time in a re-education camp.

Within the first ten minutes, about the length of time it takes to forget you’re wearing 3-D glasses, savvy movie-goers can see what’s about to come down the pike: a nice, gooey Leftist lecture. How do you figure this out? Easy: counter to Hollywood convention, the majority of the earthmen in the film’s cast look like they’re from Suburban-America. How long has it been since a crew of movie space travelers has been portrayed as anything other than a rainbow of diversity? Thirty or forty years? The dramatic reasoning for this is obvious: these are B-A-D Earth People, and they’ve traveled to Pandora to do bad things.

There is no need here to count the ways Avatar neglects presenting a plausible and imaginative picture of mankind and society in the year 2154, and instead relies on recycled Viet Nam imagery and sets out to grate on the sensibilities of present day conservatives, libertarians, and military veterans.

There is a purposeful dismissive insult built into the story from the start: a greedy Earth Corporation, backed by the US Marines – the scum of the universe – conspires to elbow the indigenous residents of Pandora, the Na’vi, out of the way in order to strip mine the planet of its valuable mineral resources. It’s no more subtle than that.

Even the scientists and techies aboard the ship are portrayed as weaseley sell-outs, the kind of hacks who would fake Global Warming evidence if there was a paycheck in it. Imagine what it must be like to be shut up in hyper-space for a few light years with these guys.

The message behind Avatar is simple: America Bad, Capitalism Worse. Yes, I loved the 3-D photography, but it was irritating to have to put up with a bunch of Leftist sing-song in order to partake of the visual marvels.

But – and here is the neat part – about half way into the movie I realized I was rooting for the Na’vi against the Earth Vermin.

At one point the Marine Colonel in charge of operations complains that he’s tried everything to get these yokels to cooperate. He offered to build schools, roads and hospitals in exchange for the mineral rights, but the Na’vi turned him down. They said they wanted to be left alone and in peace.

As tensions rose and the Suburban-Americans plotted what to do next, I turned to my wife and whispered “They should offer ‘universal health care for all’ – and then promise to raise taxes on the creatures over on the next planet to pay for it.”

And that was all it took. The Leftist spell was broken. I had discovered the “key” to understanding and enjoying Avatar.

Seen properly, Avatar is not just a prattle-headed space opera, rather it is a clever retelling of contemporary events back here on earth. It brings to mind the US Supreme Court 5-4 “Kelo Decision” a few years ago which allowed a cabal of business and government officials in New London, Connecticut, to muscle Susette Kelo out of her house in order to squeeze more tax revenue from the property. Remember that? Not long ago Fox News ran a five years-later follow-up report that showed everything about Kelo has turned into a disaster: Mrs. Kelo’s home was demolished, the real estate market tanked, the developer split town, New London is stuck with a vacant lot, and local taxpayers are holding the bag. In Avatar audiences watch a similar game on Pandora being played against the Na’vi.

When you look at them, the Suburban-Americans portrayed in Avatar are the same kind of officials who rushed through the TARP deal, the auto bail-out and the bank take-over; who designed the $780 billion dollar Stimulus Bill and loaded it up with earmarks and pork; who stuff pending Health Care legislation with Corn Husker Kick-Backs and Louisiana Re-purchases then call it "reform".

As for Eywa, Pandora’s mystical Tree of Life, which the Suburban-Americans were willing to destroy in their quest…that is clearly a symbolic representation of the fruitful tree of our own economy, Capitalism – famously called “the invisible hand”. We are daily watching it being hacked and chopped and bombed in a quest for what? Votes? Power and influence over citizens?

In a nutshell, here’s the problem with Avatar: James Cameron set out to portray the plundering of Pandora through the lens of Progressive Liberalism. In Hollywood it's as easy as 1-2-3; pull an old script off the studio shelf, fill in the blanks with Leftist assumptions and be sure your tuxedo is back from the cleaners in time for Oscar night. What could be easier? But this kind of paint-by-numbers film making rendered a flat, cardboard cut-out picture, a weak portrayal of Capitalism as something small and greedy and remote from the needs of real people. In effect, what James Cameron did was give us a view of Pandora through the wrong end of the telescope. When we turn the lens around and look through the other end we see a clearer picture.

When we watch Avatar through the correct end of the lens we begin to see that the problems of the Na’vi are very much like our own. Like the Na’vi, we are being offered a bag of worthless goodies we don’t want from a government that has not earned our trust. We watch in stunned horror as people from Planet Washington plot behind closed doors to pass a massive Health Care Plan that we know will damage the Tree of our economy. Like the Na’vi, we have listened as representatives at first promised, pleaded and cajoled…then insulted, lied and finally threatened (Rahm Emanuel, “Don’t think we’re not keeping score”)in order to force a deal on us. And, like the Na’vi, we’re not buying into the sell.

It’s all there in the movie. There is even a stirring scene where thousands of Pandora’s residents rally together in what can only be seen as an intergalactic Tea Party; a “Tea Party from Outer Space”. And, finally, there’s the climactic battle – Election Day – where the bad guys are tossed out of office and off the planet.

Viewed through the right end of the telescope Avatar is a pretty good movie. And, for the price of admission you can see it all, in Glorious 3-D.


Charles Johanns said...

Sorry, but this review is wishful thinking on steroids. I know it's hard to accept that the most successful movie in history is an America-bashing rerhash of leftist cliches, but that's what Mr. Cameron intended and that's what it is. It is particularly ironic that while millions are flocking to see this film portray the American military as a gang of thuggish brutes, the real US military is leading th way in bringing relief efforts to an earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

Chuck Johanns

steam said...

Good call, Charles. I wrote nearly the same thing on the Team Rubicon website(after donating as much as my budget could manage).

The Abyss is one of my all-time and my favorite Cameron film, even though there's some anti-military messaging in that one too.

Heh, interestingly enough, this means I haven't seen, and probably wont see, the top two grossing movies of all time, shall we go for three...

but give me "Serenity" in 3D any day of the week.