Saturday, 22 August 2009

Avatar first impressions

I am tired like one of Steinbeck’s characters in The Grapes of Wrath. The reason I am so tired is that I blasted my break at work by horse-sprinting to the cinema to see the famed preview (fifteen minutes of extracts) of James Cameron’s Avatar, which I’ve been fantasising about since forever. I’ve just come back home and I don’t have the brain to put together a cogent article on the screening, so here’s my thoughts in small capsules.

1. This really is going to be the new Star Wars. The premises have a lot in common – a massive, exotic and fascinating new world to explore, a plane of genre which stands at the margins between sci-fi and fantasy, a tone and presentation which are vaguely kid-friendly (the film is certainly not as dark as Aliens or Terminator), and a melange of epic drama and a (slightly juvenile) social affirmation narrative, even though the latter two tropes are not as distant as one may think. Interestingly the ‘social affirmation’ themes, which are indirectly linked with ‘coming-of-age’ topics (the latter really evident in Star Wars – we’ll see about Avatar), are prevalently masculine in terms of the anxieties, concerns and fantasies which they suggest. I guess this may be called the counterbalance to Cameron’s Titanic, which was entirely about feminine coming-of-age tropes. Anyway, I’m quite confident that Avatar will repeat the success and impact of the original Lucas saga.
2. At the same time, the divergence in style and execution between Lucas and Cameron is so strong that the two sagas will show some very important differences. I look forward to discovering what these will be (beyond the fact that Avatar will be really well written, of course).
3. The 3-D is really impressive. As long as the characters are just sitting around tables and talking, it’s nothing to drop your jaw. But when the action starts, and despite the fact that the CGI is not dramatically improved over present productions, it’s all ‘Holy Shit!’ Of course, a lot of this is due to the fact that Cameron is the best action-movie director that I can think of and his sense of pace and pathos are miles beyond Lucas (or anyone else). I fear this will not be given enough credit when the film comes out, but the 3-D is only so overwhelming because it’s in the hands of someone who knows how to make the absolute best of it. Hell, even the most outlandish action scenes seem to be given a backdrop of realism and plausibility, something which is so rare today that fire-fights and car-chases are often the most boring part of a film.
4. Story looks promising. I wouldn’t believe in a single photon of the hype that is surrounding this thing if I weren’t familiar with the excellence of Cameron’s typical stories. No more than this can be said, but then, I wasn’t going to this showing to check on the story.
5. So what was I checking on? Well, what I wanted to find out was the quality of the science-fiction. I am very pleased to say that Avatar looked set to fulfil every ounce of expectation that I had for it. It really may represent the true rebirth of the genre following the 1999-2009 decade of total inertia inbetween The Matrix and Wall-E. The film is very heavy on CGI, but at the same time it is (or at least seems) aware of its own virtuality, foregrounding it as it displaces the identity of the main characters into its ‘avatars.’ There’s a wealth of jargon I could throw out here to show off – ontological displacement, heterotopias in virtuality, dialectical empiricism and other fancy stuff. But the point that I wish to communicate is simply that Avatar shows a real sensitivity to the dualism between ‘old-school’ industrial science-fiction representing the real and ‘new-school’ digital science-fiction representing an unreal space (themes obviously also present in The Matrix and Wall-E), the discrepancy or confusion between which has been the leading cause of sci-fi’s decline. (A complete analysis of this phenomenon can be found in one of my previous articles, specifically here: [LINK]). Avatar presents an intriguing combination of old and new science-fictional tropes, making it feel like a much more ‘pertinent’ representation with respect to the world we live in. The extent to which this will be the case will be seen when the complete film is released.

A very impressive preview all things considered. I already can’t wait.

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