Sunday, 29 August 2010

Can we be fronds?: A critic makes peace with "Avatar"

Because hardly anyone shelled out to see it first time round, James Cameron's Avatar has been reissued this August bank holiday weekend - a full eight minutes longer - as Avatar: Special Edition, strengthening the (in this case, not altogether helpful) parallels with Cameron's other insurrection-on-another-planet picture Aliens, which similarly existed in a number of cuts back in the days of VHS. Of course, the film benefits from reappearing after eight months of retrofitted stereoscopic junk - one-time contenders such as Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans turned out to be scarcely worth the glasses hire - and the new additions are negligible loose ends, barely observed within the fabric of what's gone before.

I was all set to condemn the director for his gaudy showmanship, his flagrant peacocking even in the face of that Oscar defeat, until about fifteen minutes in, when I realised there's something in the way Avatar takes it to the max. Any old hack equipping himself with this new format could shoot a scene in which a character putts a golfball towards the camera - but only a filmmaker of the utmost chutzpah would replay the same effect within seconds and expect us to remain impressed. (And, I'll admit, be correct in that assumption: something to do with the satisfying noise of club striking ball.) Avatar treats digital 3D as sport, and goes about its business with the casualness of a five-time Masters winner enjoying a swift 18 holes at the local rec.

Watching the film again, I arrived at the same conclusion the paying public must have done first time around: that it doesn't matter that the storyline is rote, that leading man Sam Worthington is a humorless cut-out who only comes alive in avatar form, that the MacGuffin is stuck with the stoopid name of unobtainium (geddit - or, rather, don't get it; geddit?); that the whole is still so cartoonish, never mind that its integrationalist, plugged-in-branched-out foreign policy feels a good deal healthier than The Hurt Locker's terse appeal for America to keep its distance. No, what counts here is exactly how multi-layered those visuals are.

It's possible you could go see Avatar once more just to shut out the inevitable Pocahontas/Dances with Smurfs comparisons the narrative leads you to and keep a closer eye on the background action. Depth of field hasn't been this deep since Citizen Kane; the jungle hasn't looked this lush and inviting, this full of wonder and surprise and threat, since the days of Henri Rousseau. Cameron's mastery of space is evident even in those relatively spare scenes onboard the ships heading to Pandora. When Jake Sully records his video log, we're confronted not just with his outpourings in the middle ground, but the graphics in the foreground, and the techies milling about behind him; stick Na'Vi-to-English subtitles, or a light drizzle of forest rain in front of that, and it's no wonder Avatar seemed so overwhelming on a first viewing - why my initial instinct was to back away from it a little.

It's not merely a matter of scale, but of how thematically resonant these images are. Only on a second pass did I spot that the shot of the displaced Na'Vi taking shelter around the Tree of Souls - which had looked one of the kitschier tableaux - had been framed to recall the huddled masses taking refuge in the Houston Superdome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, or indeed, once the Tree has illuminated, how the Na'Vi resemble an audience gathering before the cinema screen seeking comfort, escape, release. (Way to get us on side, Jim.) For all its hippy-dippy, tie-dye Terrence Malickisms, Avatar somehow manages to be hotwired into both the here-and-now and the properly mythic.

Whether the film unites its myriad fields of vision into a wholly satisfying spectacle remains open to discussion - but it's also the reason why the experience of Avatar isn't quite immersive (which suggests a certain passivity) so much as interactive: it forces you to choose where to look. Take the opening sequence of Worthington's Sully - cast in an ominous blue light - having to readjust to see the drop of condensation passing before his eyes; or the cutaways to the insides of cockpits as we first touch down on Pandora, and then again as the natives strike back. Telling that our guide throughout should be in a wheelchair, himself an avatar for viewers who may feel enfeebled by the film's barrage of visual information. Cameron has never seemed more committed to putting us in the driver's seat; now imagine what he could do with this technology and a half-decent screenplay.

Avatar: Special Edition is on selected release.

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