Saturday, January 02, 2010

Avatar vs. District 9

So, I went and saw Avatar last night in 3D. Normally I'm largely indifferent to seeing movies on the big screen. There's almost nothing that I just have to see, and I generally prefer to watch them in the comfort of my own home, where I can pause the movie to go to the bathroom. Also, the snacks are way better.

But there are some films that are such pure spectacle that it makes sense to see them on the biggest screen you can, and Avatar is definitely one of them.

[If you haven't seen it, and care, there will be spoilers in what follows, so caveat lector.]

As a technical acheivement, Avatar is nearly unparalleled. The vision is extraordinary, and the execution is just absolutely spot-on. Pandora feels real, and not only real, but credible. You can see how the ecosystem fits together, and though there's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief (floating mountains, anyone?), the parts add up to a credible whole. It may not necessarily make perfect sense, given what we know about things like physics and biology, but it's internally consistent enough that it's easy to allow yourself to be drawn into it anyway and let its internal logics and sensibilities wash over you and do their thing without engaging your critical faculties and ruining the spell.

And it is a spell, a glamer that draws you in, as fantasy worlds are meant to do, disconnecting you temporarily from your usual lived reality and casting you forth into a magical realm where not only is everything much prettier and more vivid, but all the intangibles that so inconveniently fail to manifest in said usual lived reality, the spiritual things that we poor humans must take on faith and believe in because we lack or have lost some fundamental connection to our world (that we may or may not ever have had), are always already there, easy to see thanks to the magic of the script and the cinematography.

And that is the real source of the film's power, the power of the vision behind it, the depth of the fictional world. The richness and splendor that draw you in, uncritically, and cast their spell upon you, the viewer. It's downright magical.

The story, well, not so much. Noble savages and white-explorer-goes-native aside, the sheer unoriginality of the plot is something you can ignore, or at least that I could, right up until the end. That such hoary tropes have been dusted off and pressed once more into service (is there any character, at all, that has more than a single dimension?) could be forgiven if the story did not engage in such obvious liberal-guilt wish fulfillment. The devastated Earth lurks offstage. We know she's been worked over but good. It barely rates more than a line or two of dialogue, because it can be safely taken as read. But here is a paradise that's never had its cherry popped, and She ain't gonna take it.

It's the deus-ex-machina that ruined it for me. Perhaps it is a personal failing, that I require some facsimile of realism even in my magical fantasy. I mean, you know that the humans are the bad guys, at least the military types leading the assault on the Tree of Souls. So you know they're going to lose, because that's what happens to the bad guys in Hollywood movies: they lose. Any other outcome would be unacceptable to a mainstream American audience, and we all knew going in that the Noble Savages of Pandora would triumph, even though the history of our actual world gravitates severely against such an outcome.

I'd hoped that said triumph would come about thanks to the smarts and savvy of, if not the Na'vi, then at least Jake Sully, the aforementioned white-explorer-gone-native. He's a marine, so you figure he's got some at least tactical understanding of warfighting, and certainly that he understands the armaments and capabilities of his foe.

But no, he doesn't. His plan is laughable. Bows and arrows against machine guns. A cavalry charge that makes the Charge of the Light Brigade seem like sound military strategy. The shuttle/bomber that's set to deliver the payload and destroy the Tree of Souls has an open door with no more than ten guys protecting it, but even though he has grenades (Where did he get them? It's never explained) he doesn't toss any in there, nor does he order a concentrated assault on the enemy's weak point. The whole plan is to say "Chaaaaaarge!" and hope that valor and ferocity will triumph over vast technical superiority. It makes you wish James Cameron had maybe talked with a couple of Native Americans before he wrote the script and asked them how that worked out for them, or maybe just watched The Last Samurai.

But instead the tide is turned by Eywha, the Planetary Overmind whose nervous system is made up of the trees in the forest. Flocks of flying dinosaurs conspire to take down helicopters. Forest rhinoceri plow through mechanized combat suits. Wolf-analogue packs rout the ground troops, who are surprisingly ill-equipped for their mission. And a tiger, or something very like one, consents to be ridden by the Hero's girlfriend.

Perhaps this is all part of the director's vision, the moral lesson we are meant to learn from the story. That not every Planetary Overmind will be as passive as Earth's, and just lay back and let the rape proceed. But for a movie that promised a new era of cinematic awesomeness, I have to say that though the cinematrography and technical acheivement are indeed stunning, the hackneyed storytelling and feel-good ending are Hollywood schmaltz at its purest. And for me, at least, that was needle enough to pop the bubble.

Standing in almost perfect contrast is District 9, a film gritty in its realism and unblinkered in its view of humanity. The aliens are just as believable as the Na'vi, though considerably less graceful or anthropomorphic. And though the vision of humanity, painted in broad strokes, is similar, it's more believable here, because it's rendered on a far more human scale. The documentary footage is what makes it work, especially the footage of Wikers van der Merwe, the quintessential company man whose luck in falling in love with the boss' daughter offers him the opportunity for advancement. That he has his unfortunate accident in the course of some bureaucratic kabuki makes it all the more poignant.

The story arc is nearly the opposite to Avatar in District 9. While both involve becoming alien, the one is willful wish-fulfillment, the chance to escape the fallenness of humanity and reconnect with something pristine and unadulterated by the moral hazards of civilization. The transformation of van der Merwe, on the other hand, is an accident, and represents a further fall from grace, the sundering of a man, not a perfect or even exemplary man, from all that he loves and holds dear. All he wants is to return to what he's lost, and you can see his character growing as the film proceeds. At the beginning, you'd hardly believe that the smarmy, nervous guy with the pre-emptive combover had it in him to do the things he later does, but we none of us know what we are really capable of until events require more of us than we are accustomed to, and we rise to the occasion or don't. Jake Sully, on the other hand, is a Marine, so we just assume he's up for whatever, and there doesn't seem to be a single moment where he has even the slightest question or hesitation. That may just be the character, but it's not half so interesting from a storytelling standpoint.

Contrast the endings. One the one hand, there's Avatar, that ends with the Na'vi running the human interlopers off-planet and Jake getting his wish to fully inhabit his awesome new body, a triumphal note that rings false pretty much as soon as the credits start rolling, because the disconnect between the story's logic and the logic of the lived world has become just too much. On the other, there's District 9, with van der Merwe's wife crying over her handmade garbage-sculpture flower (Wikers' preference for handmade gifts is mentioned in passing earlier, a small detail that becomes all the more moving in retrospect at the end) and the cutaway to what we assume is Wikers, now fully transformed into a prawn, gently smoothing out the rough edges of another, and seeming, somehow, to emanate a deep and abiding sadness, although the Prawn physiognomy is ill-equipped to demonstrate such quintessentially human emotions.

And here we have the crux of the thing. For all its visual richness and bombast, Avatar is essentially one-dimensional, a children's story with just enough sex and violence to keep the grownups titillated. The good guys win, though a few secondary characters must be sacrificed for the sake of some emotional string-pulling, and the bad guys are either killed violently or banished in ignominy, and that's supposed to be that. Everything's wrapped up in a neat little package with no loose ends, and we leave the theatre with the feeling that everything's going to be alright, although such a conclusion is patently ridiculous on its face if you stop to think about it for even two minutes. District 9, on the other hand, though equally science-fictional, resonates all the more powerfully at the end because so little is resolved. We assume Wikers is transformed, and awaiting his only hope, the return of the Prawns' ship, which may or may not enslave or destroy humanity in reprisal for its genuinely horrible treatment of its alien visitors, what with the experiments and the concentration camps and the casual executions that nobody seems to think is anything but wholly reasonable and right. There's a lesson to be learned, of course, but it's not clear that anyone has learned it, with the possible exception of the protagonist, who's not in a position to tell anybody.

In the end, if I may analogize, Avatar is candy, a delicious sugary mess whose gratifications are simple, straightforward, and essentially substance-free. District 9 is a meal, nourishment for the mind and spirit as well as a visually interesting phenomenon. And while both take as their subject the rapacious side of human nature, the one offers only pabulum and a happy ending, while the other leaves you with more questions than answers, and a lot more to think about after the spectacle is over.

For what it's worth, I liked them both. But as someone who enjoys some substance in my entertainment, there's really no comparison.


JC said...

How I loved Avatar. And oh, how I hated District 9. It COULD have been a meal if any attention had been paid to the script or the acting. I just found it to be so heavy handed and wooden. And even though the ending was a tad more cynical and nuanced, it was at least as predictable as Avatar in that regard. All that, and there was nothing pretty to look at. Yeah, OK, so I'm a shallow ex-sorority girl who must have pretty things to look at. So what?

G said...

I agree with your assessment wholeheartedly - except that I was harder on Avatar than you were.

I guess I'm just not the candy type.