Clash of the Blockbusters, by Josh Long

8 Jan

Avatar – we’ve been hearing about it for ages, and now it’s finally here. We were skeptical, but the response is amazing. Critics are praising writer/director James Cameron’s new epic to a fault. Now it’s being compared to what many consider the greatest science fiction film ever, Star Wars. Ebert equates the two in the first sentence of his celebratory review. The comparison may be a little contrived, since Cameron was pushing it before any of us had a chance to decide for ourselves. But it’s an interesting comparison, and the commonalities between the two hulking sci-fi wonders give it credence. Is Cameron raising the bar in bringing us a new galaxy far, far, away?

So much of Avatar really works. Everyone’s talking about the 3D and the green screen effects, but maybe the most notable accomplishment is the art direction. The film is set on the planet of Pandora, which is a lush, beautiful world, creatively imagined. It’s one of those places that make you want to be there. So much modern sci-fi fails in creating its locale, but it’s here that Avatar succeeds. Cameron created new species of flora and fauna, and even a language for the indigenous Na’vi people. It’s a complete, cohesive whole, and looks new enough to get our imaginations churning.

But let’s not forget that Star Wars has the same massive scope in a completely realized new world. For every Thanator there’s a Wampa, for every Banshee there’s a Bantha. And like a new language was created for the Na’vi, languages were created for Greedo, Jabba the Hutt, and various peripheral characters 1. In both films we accept the entirely new world and the history and biology that lies behind it. But Star Wars may have a slight edge. In Lucas’ films, the details of the alien world seem weaved into the story with less effort. We accept them because the characters accept them nonchalantly, and the sense of a world that has always been this way pulls us in deeper. Cameron introduces every new detail of Avatar almost as an event. Practically every creature of Pandora has an entrance “showcase,” as if to say “here’s this amazing new creature, have you ever seen anything like it?”

That’s not to say that they don’t look amazing, almost always more breathtaking than the creatures of Star Wars (30 years of technology makes a BIG difference). But the things that inhabit the many planets of the Star Wars universe are treated so naturally that they give the world a richer life. Besides that, the scope of Star Wars exceeds that of Avatar ten-fold, covering countless alien species and taking place on no less than seven different planets (in the original trilogy). That’s in no way a criticism of Avatar, but just helps us keep in mind that its attention to detail isn’t “unprecedented,” as many critics would suggest.

Possibly the most obvious similarity between the two is that like Star Wars, Cameron touts Avatar as a game-changer in terms of special effects. The special effects are indeed fantastic; there’s no question that it’s beautiful to watch. Still, this is difficult ground on which to compare the two movies. Both really wowed audiences, but it’s almost impossible to make any quantitative judgment about which movie caused bigger changes, especially since Star Wars is thirty years old and Avatar is hardly thirty days old.

Here’s one thing I can say. If Avatar launches a universal shift to 3D films, that’s huge 2. It certainly does use the 3D technology expertly. Instead of a gimmick, it’s introduced without presumption. There’s no question that it immerses the viewer more and makes the battle scenes more exciting. If 2D to 3D is the new silent to sound, or black and white to color, then Avatar will have earned titan status in the annals of film. But it’s honestly much too early to say if that’s the case 3.

While the two films may be neck and neck in terms of mythology and spectacle, there’s more of a gap when it comes to possibly the most important element – the story. Avatar’s script is good; it’s not just a gimmicky set-up for the effects, it keeps us interested and it values its characters. But it can’t compare with the story of Star Wars. First of all, the characters of Avatar have far less in terms of motivation. Besides industrialist Selfridge’s (Giovanni Ribisi) brief moment of hesitation before sending in troops to destroy the Na’vi’s “Home Tree,” the evil characters of Avatar are completely one-dimensional. While Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is pretty bad-ass, he’s only a stiff caricature of a man. He is motivated it seems purely by an unsubstantiated bloodlust.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has a lot of potential as a character – the fact that he’s a paraplegic finally able to walk in his avatar body is very interesting, but it’s hardly dealt with. We spend most of the time with his fight to help the Na’vi save their world from pillaging miners (meant to represent American energy companies). But does he have enough of a reason to turn against his people? This is where the commitment to the ecological message hurts Avatar’s story. A good story has to put its stake in something the viewers care about. The themes that will make people respond the most are the ones that appeal to some innate sense in humanity. While it may be a valiant cause, creating a “green” world isn’t a universal goal.

The message of protecting the environment is a relatively new one, and almost completely distinct to Western society. Avatar bases its entire ethos in this message. Star Wars, on the other hand, has much more relatable goals and ideas. Luke Skywalker is searching for his identity; finding your place in the world is something that all men can identify with. Besides this, he is fighting against an “evil empire” which intends to enslave and destroy other worlds. The stakes here are universal – the empire brings death, the rebellion brings life.

While Star Wars calls for a literally “universal 4” freedom from oppression, Avatar calls for a specific code of ethics, and shames all those who disagree. It does worse than shame them, it paints them as pure evil. But that’s necessary for the story to work. Cameron must make his villains this evil in order to get us to side with Jake and the Na’vi. If we’re left with simply resource conservation as their goal, it’s not enough to make us care about their plight. When the Na’vi are juxtaposed with utterly terrible enemies, it’s a lot easier to side with them. Cameron himself realizes that even then the eco-message isn’t enough, which is why we learn that all living things on Pandora are linked both in spirit and in the biology of the world. Of course, this again hurts the message, because only the most extreme of environmentalists believe this is the case with our earth 5.

Add to this the fact that Star Wars gives us more diversity in terms of character goals. Avatar’s supporting characters have goals that are merely peripheral to those of Jake Sully. The good guys want what he wants, the bad guys want the opposite. But in Star Wars we find many characters on the same team with different goals. Princess Leia wants to save her people. Han Solo starts as a mercenary who just wants make a buck, but is begrudgingly drawn in by the undeniable necessity of the rebellion. Darth Vader, on the other side of the spectrum, serves the “dark side” because of the power it brings him. The complexities of the ethics of Star Wars far outshine those in Avatar (odd that a movie condemned as “preachy” could be so weak when it comes to an ethical groundwork). Darth Vader does what he does because he serves a clear “evil.” Quaritch and Selfridge seem evil for the sake of being evil.

I hate to sound this negative about Avatar, because I really did enjoy the movie. If in reading this you feel like panning the film, don’t. It’s absolutely one to see, and you will most likely have a great time. The only reason I come out on the negative side is because I think that when you compare it to a film like Star Wars, you see its flaws more clearly. There’s a reason Star Wars has stood as a favorite for all ages for thirty years. Only time will tell if Avatar will stand beside it in the history books.

1. In all fairness to Avatar, the creation of the Na’vi language was a much bigger accomplishment than the creation of Huttese. The Na’vi language is quite an accomplishment, and I don’t mean to downplay it.

2. Keep in mind that 3D was used back in the 50s and 60s as an attempt to bring people back to the movie theatres in a time when ticket sales were sagging. It was a big fad for a while but ultimately died out. There’s doubt as to whether the technology has developed enough to catch on this time around.

3. Also, I must take issue with the critics (Ebert included) suggesting that Avatar avoids the “Uncanny Valley” effect. This just isn’t true – the “Uncanny Valley” effect is more like a law of SFX than a stumbling block. It always happens, and it does here. The Na’vi, elaborate as they are, still look like cartoon characters. There were moments in the movie when we shift from Na’vi out in the jungle to Jake in the lab, and I felt a rush of relief to be back in real life.

4. “Galactic,” if you prefer.

5. This is, of course, a major American political issue at the time, but basing your themes around a political ideal instead of a relatable moral code brings the stakes down a notch. Maybe Al Gore sees it as an all-important goal, but your average Joe probably doesn’t.

One Response to “Clash of the Blockbusters, by Josh Long”

  1. Robert January 18, 2010 at 10:17 pm #

    Adding to your discussion:

    http://theamericanscene.com/2010/01/11/the-problem-with-avatar

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