Avatar, before it can be a science fiction film, is a documentary. One about Hollywood, that which no longer can convince like it used to, that which is looking for a way to survive the crisis and tries to claim its position as a machine still capable of producing that which, for better and for worse, can’t – won’t – stop doing. And when incapable of surrendering to the risk of doing differently, they bet on showing differently. A chance for exhumation was lost and instead we got the voodoo: the return of the the 3D technology as a life boat for an industry which has been losing the war against the DVD and the download, and that aims to convince the audience to give up their television screens and monitors for an abortion of creativity that somehow represents the “future”.
But to quote an internet meme, the goggles do nothing.
Cinema – Hollywood cinema, mind – has long lost its trust on its own imaginary or, rather, it has long lost its trust on the primal strength of its own imaginary. “Future of cinema” is a misleading term: cinema has always been “of the future” as it managed to prove so over the years as a technological marvel (from brothers Lumière to brothers Wachowski), political criticism (like the documentary) and social revolution (the working classes which, both in viewers and work force, gradually won a place side by side with the higher classes). And of course, all of that juxtaposed with an artistic expression that has filled our lives, making us privy to characters, adventures and journeys without peer. This imaginary has always been its driving force and will keep on being something “of the future”, of our future.
Which perhaps explains why the techonology’s debut was such a failure. Jack Arnold’s “Creature from the Black Lagoon”, originally released in 1951, saw the use of pointless 3D glasses artificially prolongued in the following decaded with three rereleases. The movie’s premiere em portuguese television, still a part of my memory even considering my tender age back then, failed to convince and I remember my boyish curiosity holding onto those glasses disappear in a flash. Film has always been based on the suspension of disbelief, that secret contract between author and audience wherein it’s not about distinguishing between the real and the ficticious, to look for the reality and the falsehood – rather, it only matters the distance placed between them. And in all three times, the novelty was just that: a trick, an invisible rabbit out of the hat, something that – instead of reducing – further enlarged the gap between what we see and how we see it.
And the contemporary movie industry, even when faced with phenomena like YouTube and NetFlix (and the good old illegal download), goes back to betting on mistakes. Avatar can’t do much else that keep up with the mistake but tries to do so with head held high, confident of its choice but stumbling along the way.
So: yes, there is a certain visual shock. Yes, there are clearly moments where awe comes without warning but also others where great scenes exchange clarity for blurriness which do nothing to improve the experience and, devoid of clairvoyance, we’re left unsure of when or where to take off the glasses to see the movie without these interferences. But the biggest problem that 3D brought to Avatar’s screening is that thirty, forty, fifty years after the technology was built there is no shudder, no revolution and no improvement that justifies the hype. It would be dishonest to claim it’s a pure visual decoy: if it’s true that there are sequences which are nothing but mere illusion, structured on the mindset of pampering the “audience of the future”, in others it’s hard not to be swept up by the magnificent scenarios or the realization that there’s something special at work there. For moments, the con works, and it’s easy to confuse the indelible magic of film with the 3D magic.
But it’s a magic that, unlike film itself, soon goes into parlor trick. The splendour isn’t so much found on the feeling that the viewer is immersed in the whole spectacle in some way but by the feeling that, unfortunately, all the tech apparatus on display is a big nothing followed by nothing. Space, volume and depth have always belonged to the visual realm and Cameron, for someone who’s been at this for years, chooses to sacrifice movie magic for a beginner’s cheap trick and I can’t say that, throughout the entire experience, something made me think about the “future”, the “future of cinema” or – has is also common in videogames – that the use of 3D is in any way superior to 2D. It’s a tool like any other: it’s only good when the user knows what he’s doing.
And whatever Cameron’s technical prowess may be it doesn’t disguise the limited themes he’s always explored in his movies. In Avatar, the clear but ordinary message of pro-environmentalism doesn’t break that rule and is painted with the most primary set of colors. That so called prowess is a formality amputated by a technological basis that edifies a fantasy without foundation, pretty but banal. Not only because Pandora’s majesty tries to look alive instead of actually living, not only because the Na’vi are a string of motion captures that forget what it is being natural, not only because its expression is subjected to an almost complete emotional detachment: everything in Avatar is simultaneously in rapture of, and doomed by, a visual fascination that doesn’t seem to understand what cinema is about.
Or in another way: Avatar is first a toy and then a movie. None of them is particularly good.
The intention is to appeal to something universal, here marinated by a “feel-good” environmentalist and assured by an almost videoclip like montage. All the discourse that follows suffers from a language obscured by not knowing to who this is all supposed to be aimed at, limited by a series of images which run blindly looking for a reason to be. Is it a movie about the sentimentality that Cameron harbors for hippy discourse, of violence and corporations being a human domain while peace and acceptance are a tribal domain? Is it an ironic movie that flashes its technology to stamp its foot on the ground and inform us that technology is bad? None of this finds echo, analysis, reference. It’s pure pocket philosophy and a cartoon parade: the militarized action still clinging to the Bush doctrine of “war on terror”, a mad dog of a general who insists on violence as a proof of his own existence, a little salaried worm who grows a conscience when he sees footage of slaughter people, the jarhead disenfranchised from his peers who finds in the aborigines something better than saluting his imperialist comrades.
Comparing Avatar to a westen is a possibility even if it would be ungrateful to that genre. Yes, we’re reminded of “Dances with Wolves” but only because, perhaps unfairly, it’s the one that closest makes the home run to the theme, to the intention. But it’s an intention pulverized by the arbitrary intervention of images that pays heed to 3D entertainment, no matter how fleeting it is, and detached from cinematography, of which little appears to be happening. A lot of noise and little signal, misplaced allusions (the human world is ugly and gray, nature holds all the colors, oh-my-god-the-metaphors) of little consequence (progress only works when it’s built on the deaths of those who opposte it, the real “me” found in the rejection of technology and the acceptance of wishy-washy misticism), the utter debauchery of the beliefs it hopes to praise (the moral precipice which is to symphatize with a tribe but then to explore their limited knowledge and superstitions, for instance, doesn’t seem to bother the paraplegic soldier) and splashes of bombastic action (who would put up with 163 minutes of a transparent and generic message if there wasn’t something along the way to dull the senses?). To his credit, Cameron is a kind of director that doesn’t plagiarize – he just cites all his previous works, so it’s all in the family.
Between the blue puppet dance, the aping of north-american comic book dialogues of the worst kind (I’m reminded of Image Comics, “vintage” 1990 and something out of the blue, or a “Sin City” that suddenly forgets it’s a cool parody of a trashy genre) and this peculiar notion that you have to go to space to confront mankind with itself (what about Ford’s westerns? what about Cronenberg’s experimentalism? but if you want space, then what about Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” or, let’s say, W. S. Anderson’s “Event Horizon”?) transfigure Avatar into a carnival of mistakes. Oh yes, the “simbolism”, the “critique of society”. The MTV generation did the same when they licked the fingers off the channel that promoted them then bit off the entire hand when they smelled success beyond televisions and of those, how many were recognized by the poignancy of their critique? At best they’re T-shirts of the month nowadays.
Cameron has no problem in detailing his imagination even when it’s not a particularly imaginative one – we’ve had more imagination or equally impressive uses of CGI this decade, not only in film but also, perhaps in a justified comparison, in videogames – and of imprinting his presence on the more powerful scenes of the movie, but his stories have always been founded on the poorest kind of emotional conventionalism and in an idea of human nature broken down into binary code with no room for nuances. And the web of relationships, the fall and redemption of the jarhead, emancipation through war and deserting it as well, technology that both dooms and saves: all of its perversely manipulated by tech fetishes that condemn the restlessness of the imagery to a pointless “let it rip”, dialogues to an emotional void, the mistery of Pandora a box wide open long before the viewers could ever touch it. Here, perhaps more than in his past films, Cameron wants to show what he has done but doesn’t want to share his creation. And that’s not understanding what film is about.
Although there are things to admire in Avatar, the movie is never one of them.