When’s the last time you came out of a movie and just wanted to get in line and see it again right then? When’s the last time you wanted to shout to the people in line waiting to get in –it’s INCREDIBLY AWESOME, PEOPLE? That’s how strongly I felt when I walked out of the theater tonight. This was the most blissful cinematic experience I’ve ever had. So my question is – why? What is it about this film that has turned me in to a blithering maniac muttering words of adoration? It’s worth pondering because this has taken me to someplace very special.
I’m not going to do more than simple service to a description of the story. By now everyone knows the basic outline: it’s 2051 and on a planet called Pandora, humans are extracting the valuable mineral “unobtainium”, but in their way are the Na’vi, a 10 foot race of blue-skinned, catlike forest warriors of extraordinary beauty, simplicity, and oneness with their world –a world which itself, we eventually learn, is interconnected in a way that makes earthly notions of ecology seem rather tame and limited. They’re the ‘noble savage’ taken to a new level. The natives are living in a spectacular forest and ground zero in that forest is a special tree that is spiritually the center of their universe –and under this tree is where the greatest source of unobtainium exists. The human mission: If at all possible, negotiate with the natives and convince them to leave. If they won’t go – use other means. To learn more about their ways, a parapalegic marine and a couple of scientists inhabit an “avatar” – a kind of cloned up version of themselves made to “be” a native – a creature which they control with their minds from a semi-conscious state. The idea is to gain the trust of “the People” by appearing as one of them. Well clearly there’s a danger that any level headed hero might “go native” when put on the ground amidst this intriguing culture — especially when he finds himself being taught by the most wondrously beautiful ten foot blue female anyone is likely to ever encounter, and so the “mission: is compromised. Will he become the leader of “the People” as they fight back against the “sky people” (humanfolks). You get the drift. A cracking good sci-fi story — a genre movie, basically, executed to a level never attempted or achieved before.
What does this movie do for me?
First of all — flash back to 1976. I had grown up reading all the great fantasy and sci-fi writers of the fifties and sixties–Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Andersen – and Star Wars was coming out with great fanfare. I went to the Mann Chinese Theater in LA on opening day to see it. Was I excited? Yes. And how did I come out of the theater? Deeply disappointed. The critics were all out there saying that sci-fi had arrived. Not for me. Star Wars struck my sci-fi minded imagination as small, kind of mindless piece of entertainment that didn’t come close to capturing what good sci-fi was all about. There were no serious or even useful ideas being put out there; the special effects didn’t come close to capturing what my mind had imagined reading all those books. No. And 2001 didn’t do it for me although I had great respect for that effort. Nor did Close Encounters. Starship Troopers was a huge disappointment. Earlier this year there was District 9 – now that was a great appetizer for the main course I experienced tonight. But what a main course.
As I was watching Avatar tonight …. here are all the associations it triggered, exploding in my mind one after another:
• Primal dreams of flight – we all have them … from the first moments there was a sense of that, of the feeling of effortless flight hurtling above canopied forests filled with misty clouds, the stuff of dreams. And then there comes a point when the characters are riding on the backs of the ‘ikran’ — pterodactyl like creatures amazingly imagined down to the smallest detail — amazing. The most thrilling, dreamlike pure cinematic experience ever.
• Edgar Rice Burroughs. I said I grew up readng Asimov, Heinlein, et al — but who I really devoured more than any other writer of interplanetary fiction is Edgar Rice Burroughs. More than anyone else, Burroughs evoked vivid and detailed images strange lands and stranger creatures–planets with a breathtaking visual aura, with fully developed histories, – but always with the vivid descriptions woven within the fabric of a hero tale that touched archetype n a way that no other writer, before or since, has been able to do. If you aren’t familiar with Burroughs John Carter of Mars, by this time next year you will be (if the long delayed production of Burroughs martian epic finally makes it to the screen as scheduled). Non-addicts are more familiar with Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, and if you haven’t read the actual book Tarzan of the Apes, you don’t know about the magic I’m talking about. The magic of the forest, the creatures, a hero-child of mysterious beginnings who made himself one with another world. The Tarzan of the books didn’t swing on vines like Johnny Weismuller—he ran through the terraces of the canopied rainforest, a part of that forest, much as Neytiri is in Avatar — as at home there as you or I would be on, say – 7th Avenue in New York. (That last bit is a bit of an homage to Burroughs – one that doesn’t do his prose justice). But more than Tarzan there was Burroughs incredible Martian series, stories of a dying planet he called Barsoom where an atmosphere factory was all that kept the people alive; where telepathy was how riders controlled six legged “thoats”; where a dying Ulysses Paxton, his legs maimed and lying in a World War 1 trench reached out and was transported to the new planet and a new life (avatar like?)….And then there was the Burroughs series that completely resonates with Avatar – the Venus series where socieities lived among great gigantic mist enshrouded trees, where bird-men fought with humans for supremacy. And always there was the archetypal hero, a man who was always the man that a young adolescent boy would want to be, smart and fast, brave and strong, of noble heart and ideals — and singleminded in the love for whatever exotic and “incomparable” princess or warrior Burroughs would throw in his path. All of that – Cameron has to have read these novels because he drew on that knowledge throughout this movie. I always felt that Burroughs was hugely underappreciated in literary circles, (much in the way that Cameron tends to be dismissed as a technical innovator but not a great film-maker in certain film critic circles) — and indeed if you read Burroughs life story you’ll see how true that is that he was dissed regularly – he couldn’t even get Tarzan—a huge hit as a pulp serial—published as a book until he formed Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., and did it himself. Yet at last count it was the book which, other than the bible, has been translated into more languages than any other. When I read Burroughs my mind and my heart were filled with wondrous things—wondrous things that stirred me in a primal way that might have been a bit adolescent, but which nevertheless transported me. And tonight, with Avatar, Cameron brought it alive, the same feelings – the same yearnings and longings and sense of wonder. Only instead of it being only brightly imagined between the synapses of my brain, there it was – in incredibly vivid, glorious (and restrained and tasteful, believe it or not) 3D. And by the way — just for reference, here is an illustration of Burroughs’ Barsoom which, if you’ve seen Avatar — will look familiar.
• The other things that came to mind (they won’t get the ink that I just gave Burroughs because he was, I think, seminal to what Cameron has accomplished) – as they say on the elimination shows, ‘in no particular order’, Robert Duvall in Apocalypse now, the stories of Robert Heinlein, the stories of Isaac Asimov, an incredible novel by Peter Mathiessen “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” (a disappointing movie, but a novel to treasure forever), Last of the Mohicans (both the novel and the film), Apocalypto, the New World, Dances With Wolves.
• There will be those who don’t “get it”. Not too many, I hope. But the film aesthetes will find fault with some less than scintillating dialogue—not much, just a little—and there will be those who perhaps lament that characters were didn’t have as much arc as “good movies” require. But what I’m wondering is – will these same people who only think of movies in a certain narrow framework of what is expected of characters to make it a serious piece – will they grasp the utter suppleness of imagination that is blazed into every frame of this movie.
• It’s a film with some ideas, too – it’s something that those longsuffering sci-fi fans like myself always knew, that good sci-fi tends to have an element of social criticism in it—that the format lends itself to an examination of human foibles. How wonderful when, at the end of the movie (oops, slight spoiler here, skip to the next paragraph if you’re worried about spoilers), someone says: “And the aliens were sent back to their dying planet” and the aliens are us. Is it a totally unique and original story? No. Is any story? Well, yes — there are some that seem to break new ground. But part of what makes the experience of enjoyng story as enjoyable as it is — is our recognition of patterns that are familiar enough for us to recognize them, yet fresh in some way. I would argue that there is so much fresh in the imaginative, technically and aesthetically excellent way that the story is presented, that Cameron can be given a slight bit of slack if the story feels –to the literary and film elite, anyway–not completely original or unique.
• But I think the most important thing that Cameron has accomplished is an astonishing act of imagination and creation — the details that have been brought to life are just extraordinary. When you see it, you feel like you’re there. That’s the magic – that’s what Burroughs did. I could draw you a map of Barsoom and tell you the history of the planet; I could name all the creatures, in the language of the Mangani (the great apes), in Tarzan’s forest. You left the books feeling like you’d been there, like you’d felt the forest leaves under your feet, the dry ochre sea bottoms of Barsoom, the mist enshrouded rainforests of Venus. This is that same kind of immersive experience — you feel like you’ve been there and you don’t want to leave – and after you leave, you want to go back.
In fact I am going to go back tonight and watch it a second time. 10:10 showing. IMAX 3d this time. Can’t wait.
By the way — here are some images from Avatar that are different from the stills you see all the time on the web. I picked these out from the full trailer……
And here’s the link to the full theatrical trailer…enjoy — and go see it in 3D!