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In one of the stupidest moments in movie history, Jaws: The Revenge features a shark that roars. Aquaman may remind viewers of this epic piece of idiocy, as it features a range of sea creatures, including sharks, giant seahorses and an apparent Kronosaurus, that growl and snarl. The toothsome recollection is just one of many reminders in a film that is not only so oceanically stupid that it collapses like tissue paper in the tide the second you think about it, but so overtly derivative it feels like a deliberate pastiche. Narrative and visual tropes from the likes of Thor, Batman Begins, Gladiator, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Panther, Clash of the Titans and more compete for space within a world of wet sand that disintegrates under its own tide. The visual effects teams create bright and bombastic digital environments, but they fail to create a sense of wonder. As the titular hero Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) experiences an underwater kingdom, there seems little effort to make it strange or wonderful, which is a waste of the fine visuals. Yet despite these problems, director James Wan still manages to craft a decent superhero adventure. Adventures of this sort largely depend on the exploration, both narrative and visual, of super powers and heroic identity. When it comes to the action sequences, Wan shows stylistic flourish with some immersive long takes in which combatants spin, slash, shoot and swim at great speed. Central to these sequences are the powers of Arthur, who possesses super strength, speed, resilience – what self-respecting superhero doesn’t have these? – and the ability to breathe and talk underwater. A further power that proves crucial is the ability to communicate with sea creatures. An early scene in this origin story shows the young Arthur ridiculed for talking to fish, and a striking visual image captures the inhabitants of an aquarium assembling in a formation behind him. This conceit suggests that the greatest power is communication, a worthy addition to the pantheon of superpowers, and is one of two things that save the film from being a completely damp squib. The other is Momoa himself, a likable and engaging lead who delivers a performance of physical grace and witty personality. Arthur’s interplay with Mera (Amber Heard) is enjoyable, and while their globetrotting raises objections of ‘That was awfully quick’ and ‘How do they know how to do that?’, it also allows them to build a fun relationship. Thanks to its engagement with communication, and the charm of its leads, Aquaman manages to keep its head above water despite the currents of dumbness that threaten to engulf it.
The seventh film in my list of ten significant films used to be among my top ten, and although it has been supplanted by another from the same director, this one still holds great significance for me. In 2000 AD, when this was released theatrically, I went through some bad times in which I felt that the majority of people were against me and that an institution I believed in was going to the dogs. Therefore, Ridley Scott’s epic tale of a general who became a slave, who became a gladiator, who defied an emperor, struck a deep, resonant chord with me. I went to see Gladiator five times on its original release, that’s right, five. While I have seen other films as many or more times in the cinema, those were due to re-releases and special screenings (yes, The Dark Knight, I mean you). ‘Gladiator’ offered me hope, inspiration, catharsis and the other positive feelings that one gets from bloody hand-to-hand combat and the deep-set rot of a once noble empire.
The talent behind Gladiator have to an extent gone off the boil. Russell Crowe was a known figure but became a star and an Oscar winner with this film, while Ridley Scott came as close to an Oscar as seems likely. Their subsequent collaborations such as American Gangster and Body of Lies failed to bottle the lightning of Gladiator. That said, it is fair to say that Joaquin Phoenix has become a more respected presence as time has gone by, not least by seeking out interesting projects from Walk The Line to The Master to You Were Never Really Here. Writer John Logan recently did us all proud with the excellent TV series Penny Dreadful, and The Martian demonstrated that Scott still has some decent work left in him (the less said about The Counsellor and Alien: Covenant, the better). But Gladiator remains undimmed in its epic grandeur, an awesome spectacle that works on a pure visceral level and has moving emotional depth. Furthermore, the film makes interesting comments about the proper uses of power and even our own violent appetites. Are you not entertained? I certainly am.
Ridley Scott does hollow decadence like no one else. From Blade Runner to Gladiator to Prometheus, Scott crafts opulent environments that surround empty, powerful men. All The Money In The World creates this world around the real events of 1973, when J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) was kidnapped for ransom from his grandfather, the wealthiest man in the history of the world. Paul Getty is played by Christopher Plummer (no relation to Charlie), who replaced Kevin Spacey at very short notice, Scott reshooting and re-editing all of Getty’s scenes in ten days. The film’s greatest achievement is that the joins do not show, as Plummer fits snugly into the role of Getty, oozing charisma and greed in equal measure. Scott and DOP Dariusz Wolski create evocative locations, often with dim yet stark lighting, both in Italy and England, the opulence echoing Scott’s earlier film Hannibal. The curiously un-unified narrative strands are reminiscent of American Gangster, which cut between career criminal and honest cop in a Goodfellas meets Serpico sort of way. Here, we cut between Paul’s imprisonment, flashbacks to Getty’s history of wealth accumulation, and the emotional heart of the film, Gail Getty (Michelle Williams) as she attempts to get the ransom money from her ex-father-in-law, talks to the kidnappers with the help of the Italian police and negotiates/struggles against Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a fixer for Getty himself. This aspect of the film works less well, because Fletcher’s role is underwritten and unclear. What is more interesting although largely left unexplored is the relationship between Paul and one of his kidnappers, Cinquanta (Romain Duris). Their scenes have a tantalising suggestion of Stockholm Syndrome and indicate the criminal infrastructure of Italy, but we only get this in passing. A further compelling yet frustrating dimension of the film Getty’s retreat into his wealth, as he describes himself as ‘vulnerable’ and holds onto his money like a bulldog. The film does not take a didactic stance on the impossibility of buying happiness, but rather displays an elevated and somewhat incomprehensible state. Getty understands finance in a way that the non-wealthy perhaps cannot, and he serves as an intriguing enigma at the centre of this compelling exploration of hollow decadence.
Continuing my response to the response to Oscar nominations, it is worth noting that there are certain types of film that are consistently honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This type is determined more by content than anything else. I have seen the accusation that the Academy is more interested in rewarding financial than artistic success. In the case of the current crop of nominees, this is patently nonsense, as the eight films nominated for Best Picture are the lowest earning group of nominees in recent years. The combined box office gross of the eight Best Picture nominees came to $203.1 million before the announcement of the nominees, and there is little time before the ceremony for this to increase significantly (although American Sniper is doing very well). Furthermore, look at the earnings of other films, including nominees in other categories. In an act of remarkable brashness, Paramount submitted one of the year’s highest earners, Transformers: Age of Extinction, for consideration as Best Picture. Shockingly, it was not nominated in that category or indeed any other, but the five films nominated for Best Visual Effects (the category Transformers: Age of Extinction had a chance in) have a combined box office gross of $3.6 billion worldwide. So to say that AMPAS only rewards box office winners is simply untrue.
It is typical that the Academy Award for Visual Effects goes to commercially successful films, often along with other post-production categories such as Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. What irritates me about this is the perpetuation of the art/entertainment divide – movies make money and might win an award for their effects; films are “art” and win awards for being “artistic”. It is an utterly nonsensical division that I love to see occasionally challenged, such as when genre films like Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010) are nominated for Best Picture (unsurprisingly, neither won that award although both won Best Visual Effects, as well as Cinematography). There are exceptions that straddle the divide, earn vast box office receipts and pick up multiple awards as well, but these are few and far between. The best example is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), a fantasy blockbuster that won all eleven Oscars for which it was nominated. Although they did not win, other unusual nominees include The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), as well as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the occasional animated film such as Toy Story (2010), Up (2009) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and especially Gravity (2013).
An interesting comparison can be made between Gravity, which won seven Oscars including Best Director, and Titanic (1997), which tied the record of eleven awards set by Ben-Hur (1959) (a feat later achieved by The Return of the King). Both Gravity and Titanic were commercially successful, and both are disaster movies with very high production values. Yet Titanic was more honoured than Gravity, picking up Best Picture whereas Gravity lost out to 12 Years A Slave. The common factor between 12 Years A Slave and Titanic is the factor that the Academy consistently rewards – history.
Look over these Best Picture winners of the last three decades:
2013 – 12 Years A Slave
2012 – Argo
2011 – The Artist
2010 – The King’s Speech
2009 – The Hurt Locker
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire
2007 – No Country for Old Men
2006 – The Departed
2005 – Crash
2004 – Million Dollar Baby
2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2002 – Chicago
2001 – A Beautiful Mind
2000 – Gladiator
1999 – American Beauty
1998 – Shakespeare in Love
1997 – Titanic
1996 – The English Patient
1995 – Braveheart
1994 – Forrest Gump
1993 – Schindler’s List
1992 – Unforgiven
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs
1990 – Dances With Wolves
1989 – Driving Miss Daisy
1988 – Rain Man
1987 – The Last Emperor
1986 – Platoon
1985 – Out of Africa
1984 – Amadeus
Only eight (26.6%) of these thirty Best Picture winners have a setting contemporary to the time of their release, whereas twenty-one (70%) have a historical setting, ranging from 18th century Vienna to ancient Rome, 13th century Scotland to various points in the 20th century. Many of the films feature significant historical events, including World War II (four), Vietnam (three), the Middle East (two) and the US Civil Rights Movement (the anomaly is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Ten of these films (33.3%) are based on specific historical events or people, making them “true” stories.
The Academy consistently rewards the depiction of history, both in terms of period setting and significant events. Unsuccessful nominees have the same features – Saving Private Ryan, L. A. Confidential, Quiz Show, The Cider House Rules, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning – demonstrating that a significant proportion of nominees depict historical subjects. One can interpret this historical dimension as adding (in the minds of some) an element of gravitas, a quality that makes the film seem “important”. If we accept that AMPAS is an institution devoted to the development, promotion and cultural significance of motion pictures, then it follows that this institution would reward films that make the effort to engage with significant socio-cultural concerns and events. “History” can be considered a short-hand for this, the Academy honouring films that depict “history” because this subject matter is worthy of reward. Equally, it is rare for a contemporary-set thriller to win Best Picture (only The Silence of the Lambs and The Departed in the last 30 years – Argo and No Country for Old Men have thriller narratives, but both are historical and the former is based on a true story) and unheard of for a science fiction film to win. Gravity came closest and I had hopes for Interstellar this year, but no such luck for Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic. Surprise, surprise though, Interstellar is nominated for Visual Effects.
This goes back to the art/entertainment divide, a form of cultural elitism that goes far beyond the Academy Awards. The Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for literature rarely (if ever) go to science fiction, fantasy or thriller novels, and there remains the nonsensical view that literature and theatre are “art” and therefore somehow superior to cinema which is “only entertainment”. Interestingly, one of this year’s nominees, Birdman, engages with this elitism through its portrayal of a former movie star struggling for credibility in the face of immense cultural prejudice, including a scene where a theatre critic lambasts the entire practice of Hollywood cinema for being too commercial and giving awards for “cartoons and pornography”. The great irony of AMPAS is that it perpetuates this bizarre double standard within its own medium, for the most part ignoring genre films and those with a contemporary or (God forbid) future setting and consistently rewarding historical dramas of “importance”.
While I am frustrated by this practice of AMPAS, it would be unfair to entirely blame AMPAS, because the cultural attitudes at work here go far beyond a single institution. But I will blame the Academy members for their general conservatism and reluctance to honour films that differ from the typical pattern. Nominees like Gravity and Avatar, and the extraordinary success of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, are especially gratifying because films like these develop the cinematic medium, creating fantasy worlds and taking audiences to new and exciting places. The challenges and innovations of these films are often expensive and the only way they can pay for themselves is through commercial success, therefore by honouring such films the Academy honours and encourages the development and continuance of cinema itself. That is what I would like to see more of in the future, though I am not optimistic as year on year the Academy instead rewards subject matter rather than innovation, perpetuating an unnecessary cultural elitism.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is an odd beast. Plagued (see what I did there?) with controversy as well as unhelpful comments by director Ridley Scott (these complex issues warrant specific discussion for another time), it arrives at the tail end of the year with little competition in terms of scale. It also comes out in a year that saw another Biblical blockbuster play fast and loose with the source material, Noah. Comparisons between the two are inevitable, as are comparisons between Exodus and Ridley Scott’s previous sword and sandal epics, Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator. While these films have epic scale (and at times Exodus seems to openly imitate Gladiator, including almost identical lines), Exodus suffers in comparison with Scott’s Roman tale, especially for failing to deliver the same epic sweep, a problem that also troubled Kingdom of Heaven (though not Noah). However, this is also an unexpected strength of Scott’s take on the story of Moses. Rather than a grand, sweeping style that takes the viewer on an irresistible ride, Exodus offers instead a surprisingly intimate take on faith and politics.
Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are close friends and allies, raised as brothers and both responsible for the Egyptian Empire. Moses is presented as more rational and politically savvy – talking to people rather than prejudging, reviewing financial records and consistently demonstrating critical thinking. By contrast, Ramses is impulsive, paranoid and, as the film progresses, increasingly cruel and tyrannical. The clash between these two men becomes a clash between power and justice, Moses’ pursuit for Hebrew liberation echoing with contemporary concerns over redistribution of wealth and the ruling 1%. While the film delivers grand spectacles in its depiction of the ten plagues of Egypt as well as major battle sequences, it does not overplay these elements – the inevitable parting of the Red Sea is handled in a surprising way. The film’s portrayal of faith is also ambiguous, as Moses’ encounters with God (Isaac Andrews) can be read as divine intervention but also as hallucinations. That said, while some spectacles are given rationalist explanations, others are not and can only be read as supernatural, creating a lack of confidence in the subject matter. The storytelling is sometimes loose and progression between scenes illogical and unsatisfying. These flaws do undermine the film, but it remains a dramatic and engagingly personal exploration of politics and faith in the grandest of settings.
A little late in the day, I offer my reaction to Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction. It is perhaps interesting that Scott’s re-entry into the genre has been marked by a 30 year absence, filled with films from such diverse genres as crime thriller (Black Rain, American Gangster), military drama (G.I. Jane, Black Hawk Down), historical epic (1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven) and conman tragi-comedy (Matchstick Men). Yet Alien and Blade Runner cast long shadows over the director’s career, creating an initial level of anticipation for the viewer. The film’s marketing increased this anticipation, with viral marketing giving details of the Weyland-Yutani Company and snippets of the characters. The stage was set for something special, spectacular and superb.
The reaction to the film, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been mixed, but if there is a consensus, it is that Prometheus failed to live up to its hype. Plenty of online comments have lambasted the film, with such comments as: “Prometheus is a train wreck”; “Prometheus is a vacuous experience. Just well-directed nonsense with magnificent production values. Plenty of it makes little sense and one can only hope that a Blu Ray ‘Director’s Cut’ will prove more satisfying. Why did you create us? Because we could. Why do you believe? Because I choose to. These one-liners are metaphors for all of Prometheus’ secrets”; “Prometheus – Not an alien film!!!! And not good. One has to worry when the only interesting character is a freaking robot. Far too long. Nothing explained”; “Ridley Scott is a hero of mine, but Prometheus is not the intelligent, emotionally satisfying prequel that Alien deserves. It’s a derisory, empty experience – and anyone who loved Alien is surely too old and too smart to be fobbed off with something this bad just because it’s shiny”; “Alien worked because it focused on believable characters stuck in a terrible situation, without that believability the film would be greatly lessened. Prometheus, lacking that, is uninteresting”; “With a little more thought, Prometheus could have addressed the plot holes I and others have noted, and as a result been a tighter film with more tension and surprises”; “The CGI is good and the acting would be fine if the actors had been given something worthwhile to do. But every other aspect of the film was a disappointing waste of time”. Other responses go into more detail – “My God, We Were So Wrong”, “Prometheus Rising” and others. Critical response has also varied, with critics such Mark Kermode and Roger Ebert being impressed with the film, while publications such as Empire, Variety and the Guardian have been critical but not damning. The only aspect of the film to attract universal acclaim, it seems, is Michael Fassbender’s performance as the android David.
What is interesting about these responses is that they have been largely comparative, a common complaint being that Prometheus is not Alien, nor like Alien. This is fair: Prometheus does lack the slow, drip-feed menace of the earlier film, and when the scares come, they are thrills and spills rather than tension and suspense, and its action compares poorly to that of Aliens. When compared to Alien and Aliens, Prometheus does come up short. Compared to Alien 3, Alien Resurrection and (whisper it) Alien VS Predator and Alien VS Predator: Requiem, it excels.
If the rest of the franchise is left aside, however, how does Prometheus stand on its own? Many criticisms have been directed at the script, rather than the style, to which I return later, but to consider the script first, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s screenplay does lack characterisation, or character detail and distinctiveness. The simple reason for this is that there are too many characters – 17 in total, but many are disposable and could have been amalgamated, providing less cannon fodder (or should that be alien food?), which would have increased the tension as the major characters have less to hide behind.
In terms of the major characters though, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and Captain Janek (Idris Elba) are fine, and Fassbender’s David is a great character, superbly played, and a useful expression of the film’s major themes, to which I shall return later. As Peter Weyland, Guy Pearce (under a tonne of prosthetic make-up) is somewhat wasted. Indeed, considering David’s interest in Lawrence of Arabia, it is a missed opportunity that the role of Weyland is not played by Peter O’Toole (who recently announced his retirement from acting).
These responses highlighted a common issue for me in film analysis. Characterisation is not a major concern for me, a position that I find interesting as it appears to be unusual. For years, I have been irritated by the complaint: “I didn’t care about any of the characters”, because this concern, to me, is given disproportionate weight. Why is it necessary to care about the characters when there are events going on? What is going to happen next has always been more important to me than to whom it happens. For example, in relation to The Dark Knight Rises, I want to know what will happen to Batman (Will he live or die? Will he retire from crime fighting? Will it end with him going back on the job?), but am less concerned about what character development there may be. Similarly, with Prometheus my interest and enjoyment of the film are related to what will they find on the planet and how will they deal with it.
I may be demonstrating the accuracy of a stereotypical male response, simplified as “men like plot, women like character” and oversimplified as “Men like action, women like story”. I cannot speak for men in general, but for me, plot and story are more significant than character. This is not to say I have no interest in character – I find many characters fascinating especially those in the films of Michael Mann that I have analysed in great detail. Character is one pleasure within texts, but I do not regard it as essential – the progression of events is just as rich a pleasure for me.
One comment that my position invites is “If you don’t care about the people you’re watching then why spend your time watching them?” It’s a good question – if I am not overly concerned about the people onscreen, what am I getting out of the experience? My enjoyment for events over people is not as straightforward as plot point A to plot point B to plot point C, they need to be presented in an engaging fashion, and it is this presentation that is crucial to the specific enjoyment of cinema, at least for me. The medium of film employs a multitude of techniques, features and elements, and it is the combination of these elements that makes film work.
Furthermore, I think there is a certain responsibility on both sides – films and viewers work together to create meaning, theory, analysis and audience studies have demonstrated that film viewers are not simply passive receptacles. Characters can indeed be under-developed by screenwriters, unsympathetically or unconvincingly played by actors and edited out of films – perhaps more of Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers was left on the cutting room floor, for example. But if you do not care about a character, might this not be down to your own reaction, taste or personality as much as the film text itself? It seems unfair to blame the film for not presenting a character that you will care about, because how could the filmmakers possibly know what every possible viewer will need from a character to care about them? A response to this is that “good writing always means good characters, so when I don’t care about the characters it’s because the writing is bad.” To me this is too easy, simplistic and a little arrogant – good and bad writing are not determined by objective standards, however much we like to believe they are. Good writing is good writing? Character is character? According to what? To whom? Who decides these things? Critics? Academics? Audiences? None of these groups collectively agree, so is there not space in textual, cultural, aesthetic, artistic appreciation for all views, responses and positions?
For me, all elements of a filmic text, including the plot, character, mise-en-scene, editing, sound and cinematography, are tools for the presentation of the film’s meaning. What matters to me, what makes a film (or any text) engaging, is the meaning within it, i.e. the sub-text and themes. One of the first academic essays I ever wrote on film was concerned with the power of sub-text, and I didn’t do very well because I discussed sub-plot as much as sub-text. Perhaps this early career trauma (ha ha) made me more sensitive to sub-text and it has become a major source of pleasure for me in film – what is this film actually about. It may be deep and complex issues like those in Prometheus, and they may be explored in greater depth as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or it can be a simpler notion of learning about one’s own courage or how do two people get together, as a great many films are. How that central question plays out, for me, is what I want to see on screen.
To return to Prometheus, criticisms have identified the plot holes, but perhaps these holes are strengths – the narrative involves a quest for ultimate knowledge, answers to the ultimate questions, but instead grand narrative proves unreliable, leaving only incomplete interpretations and speculation. This may be too generous – the plot holes are there and the script is patchy at best. But visually and stylistically, the film is stunning – as expansive and looming a use of an alien planet’s environment as Star Wars or Avatar, and Scott makes great use of 3D in his signature world-building. More importantly, these are not empty visuals or style for style’s sake – they serve the film’s central premise (according to my interpretation) of people getting out of their depth, largely due to their own hubris, scientific and otherwise. This thematic conceit is expressed visually through the location filming (Iceland), the grand sets, and the deep focus potential of 3D. My impression when viewing the film was one of being overwhelmed, on a regular cinema screen but in 3D. 3D is a tricky cinematic device, vastly overused and often for no good reason, but in the case of certain cinematic worlds, such as those of Avatar, Hugo and Prometheus, it does add something.
Indeed, this sense of being overwhelmed and engulfed is a common visual and thematic trope of Ridley Scott’s oeuvre. From the expanses of the South-West USA in Thelma & Louise to the grandeur of Rome in Gladiator, as well as Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven and the rain-soaked cityscape of Blade Runner, the horrific urban war zone of Black Hawk Down and of course the claustrophobic interior of the Nostromo in Alien, time and again Scott depicts people in environments that threaten to subsume them, both mentally and physically. Fear, courage, resolve, determination, panic and eventual defeat or triumph are juxtaposed against these odds, and Prometheus develops this idea further when the Engineers prove to be anything by benevolent. Prometheus therefore continues the director’s interest in environments that are both beautiful and terrifying, overwhelming the people within them, landscape manifesting the overpowering forces that the characters encounter. Rarely has this been more apparent than in Prometheus, which perhaps might have been better named “Icarus”, as the explorers indeed fly too near the sun and are severely scorched – indeed two spacecraft rise and subsequently fall. This is one of the main ideas in the film, which for me is its ultimate and considerable strength. It is a film of ideas, as the most interesting science fiction films frequently are: where, what and who do we come from? Why do we exist? How do we regard and react to our creators/parents? And that old favourite, what does it mean to be human?
Through its exploration of these ideas, largely through visual devices and techniques, utilising the expressive potential of cinema, I suggest that Prometheus will make a very useful study text for film studies courses. When asking students the initial questions about what makes film work, it makes sense to present them with something that depends on its filmic expression for meaning. At the other end of the scale is another 2012 release, Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg), which is largely dialogue-based and has a very restrained visual palette. Prometheus utilises cinematography, mise-en-scene, sound and editing for the major exploration of its thematic material, so I would certainly show it to students with the directive to look, see and interpret, rather than focus on the (admittedly apparent) shortcomings of the writing.
With its combination of big questions and horrific answers, I would class Prometheus as the offspring of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, perhaps midwifed by Blade Runner. Doubtless many fans of these classics would lambast me for comparing Prometheus to them favourably. I doubt Prometheus will become a classic of the genre as these have, it is unlikely to join the ranks occupied by The Terminator and Aliens, Star Wars and The Day The Earth Stood Still, but it is a science fiction film willing to ask big questions, and leave us pondering the answers. That, for me, is reason to applaud it, and to teach it.
As a piece of entertainment, Avatar is probably the greatest cinematic thrill I have ever had. Other films that created similar experiences would be The Matrix, for much the same reasons, all three of Raimi’s Spider-Man films, and Ang Lee’s Hulk. These express the pure, raw, undiluted, visceral experiential thrill of cinema, which is one of the fundamental reasons I adore this art form over all others – when done properly, cinema can transport you. Indeed, transportation is important, particularly in science fiction in which world-building is key. In a recent poll of Greatest Science Fiction Films of All Time, I voted for Avatar because, more than any other sci-fi film, I felt it took me to another world (the poll was won, unsurprisingly, by Blade Runner). It was a world I could feel, believe in and care about, which is key to the film’s environmental ideology. To quote Carol Kaesuk Yoon of the New York Times, Avatar “has recreated what is the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world” [Kaesuk Yoon, Carol (January 19, 2010). “Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist’s Dream”. The New York Times: p. D-1].
In addition to a visceral thrill, I genuinely find watching Avatar to be a spiritual experience, which is rare for me. I would identify my top five films of all time as emotional, intellectual and spiritual experiences, the others being Titanic, perhaps unsurprisingly, Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings, and Heat. These films touch me on multiple levels, and when I encounter disparaging responses, I am both aggrieved and saddened that others do not share the positive experience that I have: “It’s fantastic, I want you to feel fantastic as well, you don’t, you’re being mean, stop it, etc”. It’s not that I’m right and you’re wrong (although…), it is that I want more people to be happy.
I think a key reason I don’t understand the problems that some other people have with the film, and even find the criticisms offensive, is that plot, characters and dialogue are not major concerns for me. I understand that the plot is prosaic and can be seen as “baggy” or “clunky”, but that is not a problem for me. Indeed, the extended version works better for me because there is so much more of Pandora, its flora and fauna, as well as the culture of the Na’Vi to enjoy. One of the key pleasures of re-watching films for me is the accumulation of detail, and the visual detail and attention to detail is a marvelous creation that I revel in. Is Avatar‘s plot formulaic and predictable? Yes, and I have absolutely no problem with that. And as we know, familiarity is a key ingredient in popular story-telling.
I honestly do not have any problem with the supposed “bad” dialogue in this film, nor Titanic or John Carter that are also berated for their dialogue. What makes dialogue by James Cameron “bad” and that of David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino (or indeed Michael Mann) “good”? The standards to which dialogue “should” be held have never been made clear to me, it seems like some piece of cultural knowledge I never acquired.
As for the characters, they are means to an end – what matters to me is what is going on and who it is happening to is largely unimportant, especially because I feel involved. Rather than being distanced from the film by grumbling over the lack of characterisation in Jake Sully (which I do not deny), I find myself within the experience and concerned with what will happen next and, indeed, what I would do. This is immersion (in however many dimensions), which film, at its best, can accomplish. I understand and share the pleasure of in-depth characterisation, but I do not see it as a requirement for high quality – they are one method of textual pleasure, much like 3D, special effects, music, shaky cam, cuts or fades, etc. In the case of Avatar, I also think there is something very deliberate and effective in making the characters archetypes, as I believe the film creates a contemporary myth and mythic characters work best as archetypes. Indeed, the character of Jake Sully is himself an avatar for the contemporary audience that are disengaged from the world and must learn to re-connect. This is the spiritual aspect of the film that is so easily missed – the film does not preach for a return to the woods and nature, it is entirely metaphorical and urging people to reconnect with our world, through a re-invigoration of cinema. There isn’t a lot of characterisation because it would be completely unnecessary and indeed a hindrance to the myth/metaphor.
Furthermore, while I can understand that many find Avatar preachy and didactic, I have no problem being lectured on an issue I absolutely agree with and believe should be expounded, the issue of conservation and anti-environmental exploitation. I also loathe cynicism, so the cynical response that somehow Avatar’s message is invalidated by it being a hugely successful commercial product raises my hackles. This position has no evidence, it appears to be no more than an assumption, and that arrogance bothers me as well. Indeed, research has shown that some reacted very positively to the film, reducing their carbon footprint and attempting a re-engagement with their environment. Good for them. And others would rather refuse to accept that a piece of wildly successful commercial entertainment could have a socially positive, therapeutic effect. What does it take for these people?
As for the accusations of racism, I find them problematic when they come exclusively from middle-class (predominantly white) academics. If indigenous people were shown the film and found it offensive, I’d credit that, but instead, people of the Amazon, Iraqis and Palestinians as well as environmentalists have spoken of their identification with the Na’Vi, which appears to contradict the critical/academic response. It’s fine to be offended on behalf of others, indeed that is a crucial aspect of social justice, but if those for whom you are offended are not, does it not make sense to support their position? The presentation of the Na’Vi is idealised, which is perhaps a stereotypical view of indigenous peoples, but when the presentation is positive, and detailed, and not simply explained away in terms of their beliefs just being their beliefs but demonstrated as something tangible and, for lack of a better term, real, that hardly seems racist: “It’s not racist to try to save humankind by targeting your efforts directly on transformation of the consciousness and practices of those currently doing most of the destroying” (Rupert Read, “Avatar: A call to save the future”, Radical Anthropology).
Academia has an unfortunate tendency towards cynicism and not accepting potentially positive suggestions, seeming instead desirous of vague criticisms about the status quo. An interesting comparison is Fight Club, that is a direct assault on consumerism through an aggressive narrative and visual style. Fight Club was a box office flop that became a cult favourite – Avatar reached a far wider audience and has sparked constructive political activism. This, surely, is something to be applauded.