James Cameron’s Avatar

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An amazingly well-done movie that suffers from a failure to take Socrates’ advice.

Review: I had previously written a somewhat negative review of this film after seeing it in 3D IMAX along with a sizable crowd. I did enjoy it, however. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to compare it to similar blockbusters and breakthroughs in filmmaking technique, as well as seeing it for the second time on a much smaller screen, I’ve come to a more complete and fairer conclusion. I’m still disappointed with it, but it’s not the two-star movie which I had initially recognized.  This is a remarkable work of art, but it could have been so much more.

‘Avatar’ is about the collision of two philosophies of life.  One, represented by the humans’ mining operation on Pandora, is the use of natural resources to feed an artificial, distant and mechanical kind of living, since Earth’s organic resources have apparently been wiped out (though it would have been more effective if they had shown us this wasted Earth).  The other, represented by the typically idyllic but sometimes savage and irrational Na’Vi aliens, is the integration of all forms of life into a kind of harmony guided by a superior, personal lifeform.

The story reveals very little faith in humanity, in direct contrast to Cameron’s previous ‘Terminator’ films, which presented the conclusion that humanity’s self-destructive tendencies were nevertheless canceled out by their potential for selflessness. The Na’Vi, to my disappointment, are not truly alien.  There is no study of ‘the Other’, which is unfortunate, as it is a way of encountering God.  Instead, the Na’Vi are superhuman.  They’re everything Cameron apparently wants us to be.  Athletic, beautiful, generally altruistic, feminine, but also in touch with a fierce animal side.  It’s a strange contradiction with Cameron’s brilliantly creative mind, since the Na’Vi are, quite simply, not ambitious.  They don’t show an appreciation for the idea of social evolution.  Cameron praises their refusal of the humans’ offers of technology, medicine, and education, yet these are all things that Cameron has personally invested himself and his resources in for the betterment of humanity. There is no betterment of the Na’Vi, only a keeping of the status quo, simple maintenance.  Ironically, this is kind of like a machine.  Eywa, the feminine deity of the Na’Vi religion, is a giant bio-mechanism in the form of a planet which shows admirable personality but not the desire for growth.  Machines, as of yet, don’t consciously reach out with curiosity to become better machines.  We do.  In doing so, we often resist control.  Eywa appears benevolent, but unlike a good human mother (like, say, Sarah Connor), ‘she’ merely keeps the cycle going, and there is no release of the Na’Vi into an independent adulthood.  It’s a nice, even beautiful cycle, but just like doing a Queen’s laundry in the Louvre, it’s going to become tedious eventually.

This is part of the inherent flaw of religions based solely on a deity’s will and/or a cyclical universe.  In Calvinist Christianity, since God has complete control over literally everything, there is no sanctioned stoking of independent desire and therefore, no social evolution, no betterment of humanity.  The best that Calvinism can ultimately offer is a cyclical heaven in which persons act like programs to fulfill a function.  In Buddhism and Hinduism, the universe is a cycle that repeats indefinitely, and the best escape offered in either, to my knowledge, is annihilation.

For all of James Cameron & Co’s amazing designs and well-told story beats, there is essentially no consideration of the complexities inherent in the opposing philosophies of the film.  The human bad guys are flat and unsympathetic.  The Na’Vi have a couple shades of complexity, but none of their flaws hamper them or are really considered flaws by the protagonist.  It’s true that ‘Avatar’ heavily relies on the concepts of the Noble Savage and nods to imperialistic atrocities, and what’s worse, they are again not explored in any depth.  This continual failure throughout the film’s long runtime to really explore the issues smacks of propaganda.  Perhaps in a rush to tell a successful morally simplistic tale like the original ’77 ‘Star Wars’, Cameron made the critical mistake of which morals to simplify.  ‘Star Wars’ was the noble rogues versus the oppressive, fascist state, a story as old as and older than Robin Hood.  It’s been mulled over, examined, rethought, and is pretty much universally acknowledged as being morally sound.  ‘Avatar’ pits unrealistically evil humans versus unrealistically good and superhuman aliens, a story as old as and maybe older than the 2000s, and an unwelcome addition, in my book.  Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”. In a similar way, the unexamined idea is not worth having.

For all my complaints, it’s obvious that ‘Avatar’ was a labor of love for James Cameron and his massive team of artists, and they did make a pretty above average movie.  In fact, they made a very good one.  It’s a full 4-star movie, but it’s terribly terrible philosophy.

Moon

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary: Remarkable philosophical sci-fi from a great new director.

Positively cool.

Review: Newbie director Duncan ‘Zowie’ Jones — David Bowie’s son — has officially blown my mind.  The hard sci-fi awesomeness of the original ‘Solaris’, ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ has returned in the form of ‘Moon’, Jones’ debut film, starring Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, a man working on the titular orb that I’m sure we’re all familiar with.  Kevin Spacey supplies the voice of Gerty, the apparently friendly computer that runs the base and is Sam’s only companionship.  The details of the plot are directly tied to the surreality of the experience, so I’m afraid I can’t spoil it, though eventually it will suffer from ‘Planet of the Apes’ disease and have its great twists assimilated into common knowledge.

But ‘Moon’ really isn’t a movie about twists and turns. It’s really not a movie about science concepts, either, even though one familiar to modern audiences does appear.  It’s more about loneliness.  It’s about the tendency of human beings to divorce themselves from painful self-knowledge.  Sam Bell could never have taken his harrowing journey towards overcoming his demons had he been working amidst a community.  He, like the early Christian ascetics, found, unwittingly in this case, that in isolation there is a chance to explore the regions of heaven and hell within the human spirit.  This is not a permanent pursuit; even Sam Bell must eventually return to Earth.  The great danger for Sam Bell, as it was and is for all ascetics, is to become trapped in one’s hermitage, unable to overcome hell and trapped in a cycle of defeat.  The nirvana of Buddhism is nothingness; the nirvana of the Christian monk is everything and everyone, when viewed through the right eyes.  We are our worldview.

The music by Clint Mansell is a strong counterpoint to the music of Kubrick’s ‘2001’.  Clint Mansell creates a score of the moment, a piano-driven, eerie, unsettling atmosphere that centers on the individual.  The ‘2001’ soundtrack, with its many classical pieces from different sources, represents the whole of mankind and its evolution through encounters with the alien.  Clint Mansell’s ‘Moon’ is always introspective.  This provides an excellent contrast of the themes of each film.  ‘Moon’ is about the one small step for a man; ‘2001’ is about one giant leap for mankind.  In another sense, Clint Mansell’s score is ambient and uses electronic sounds to subtle effect, showing some similarity to Vangelis’ score for Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’.  Both films have something to do with the relationship between identity and technology.

All in all, ‘Moon’ is spectacular filmmaking.  It’s greatly moving and greatly creative.  Here’s hoping for more from Duncan Jones.

Classic Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  Breathtaking.  Visionary.  Unequaled.  Terrifying.  Different.  Dfdndononcmnieowidnosjnd.  What?

Dude... don't touch the monoliths, man, they turn you into, like, a space baby.

Dude... don't touch the monoliths, man, they turn you into, like, a space baby.

Review:  Hey, look, I’m reviewing another “Best Movie Of All Time”.  I guess it’s unavoidable.  I went into the late night experience of watching ‘2001’ with a healthy amount of skepticism.  I’m not much for judging a movie solely on its reputation, I mean, that just takes the art out of the whole thing.  I’ve known the plot and the details for a long time, and that fueled my early criticism, as it didn’t grab me on paper.  I hoped, truly, that the film would far exceed my expectations, and I was pleased to see that it did.  I also hate it.

klndklnfknkdnfonsiondo!  What’s that, you ask?  Oh, that’s art.  Don’t ask me to explain it. Create your own interpretation.

I love this movie, but woe to the monkey-ness at the beginning.  Seriously, it opens with twenty minutes of people in monkey suits, with the excuse that it is “The Dawn Of Man”.  Very well, then, I’ll buy that for a dollar, and I’ll buy the set up with the black monolith and influenced evolution, but did it really have to drag on for so long, Mr. Kubrick?  Naturally, I have to remind myself that I’m looking at this late ’60s motion picture with 21st century eyes, but I grew up on ‘Ben-Hur’.  I think I have a sense of patience when it comes to movies, and the monkeys were really pushing it.  But, all bad things must come to an end, and when the monkeys are gone, then the good stuff starts.  I really, really don’t want to get in-depth in ‘2001’, I’m sorry, reader, but I can’t do that.  You have to watch the film and experience it.  You may find yourself strangely captivated.  The special effects, for instance, look real.  Forget the hubub about James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’.  That’s a cartoon (but kudos to the artists behind it, because they’re swell!).  This stuff is real.  A good chunk of it I have no idea how in the world they accomplished, much less in the ’60s, and there’s no kidding about it holding up today.  It doesn’t just hold up, it surpasses, because of its elegance and simple photo-reality.  Of course, I would be amiss if I didn’t take time to laud the amazing use of music.  Since space is silent, and too much dialog would detract from the mysterious atmosphere, classical music plays over a large portion of the film, to great effect.  In fact, it seems to me that the space travel scenes are constructed in a similar way to the music accompanying them, giving a sense that humanity is in some kind of gorgeous, patient dance through space.  You bet I dig it.  The slow, almost real-time pacing on some portions of the film works to its great advantage, I’m glad to say, and Mr. Kubrick’s reputation is officially lived-up-to, in my book.  The sequences with HAL 9000 are warming, chilling and unforgettable, thanks to some great voice work by Douglas Rain and an emotionless red “eye”.  Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea play two astronauts, whose encounter with the apparently insane computer changes them both forever, for better or worse.  Earlier on, William Sylvester gives us necessary humanity and warmth in the form of Dr. Heywood Floyd, who’s dispatched to help deal with the discovery of an alien artifact on the moon.  He’s a big part of why you stay watching the movie, especially after the debacle with the monkeys.  Unfortunately, after the HAL 9000 scenes draw to their end, the film goes all psychedelic for like, another twenty dragging minutes, and an astronaut ages in a kind of unreal room, dies, and gets reborn as a Star-Child, or space baby, if you will.  It’s all wonderfully unexplained (through dialog, that is), even though it is pretty obvious that it has something to do with an ever-watchful alien race assisting with the evolution of humanity, which the Star-Child appears to represent as the first new member of a higher human race.  It’s not too terribly cryptic, actually, which makes the ridiculously long psychedelia segment, which is basically content-less except for cool special effects, kind of pointless.  Kubrick could have realistically shortened it, considerably, as he could have with the opening ‘Dawn Of Man’.

But let’s have a go at ‘2001’ from a philosophical/theological angle, shall we?  The central theme appears to be that humanity is part of a grander scheme in the universe, being guided ever higher, progressively, by powers they can not possibly understand.  Yet humanity must also, in synergy, respond, and reach out.  The monoliths, the faceless symbols of the alien powers, react to human touch, and every time they are interacted with, something greatly powerful happens.  One could argue, from a religious perspective, that the film’s underlying assumptions are godless, but I would argue the exact opposite.  They perhaps unwittingly express a very real desire to connect with the Divine, and to enter into the unfathomable mystery that exists “out there”.  It used to be in popular imagination that heaven, that is, the sky, was the place of the Divine, but it seems to me that this has lost its power over the imagination of a post-moon landing world (I don’t suggest, however, that in Christianity that it be changed).  Now, as in the final segment of ‘2001’, we are constantly reaching and searching ‘Beyond The Infinite’, to where we sense we can evolve — by which, we mean we can become more human.  So humanity, as long as it is practical and taught in schools, will look to space in its search for God.  It’s the final frontier, according to ‘Star Trek’, but ‘2001’ disagrees.  There’s always something beyond.  In all this, I see orthodox Christianity reflected beautifully.  Humanity, even before the much-contested idea of macroevolution entered the philosophical scene, has always understood that it must grow up.  Christianity in particular sees humanity as the image of the Infinite, and as such we will always be developing and changing and growing and reaching out.  As with the monoliths, this requires synergy, a combined effort of the Divine power and our own curiosity and willingness to, well, evolve.  Yet unlike the black, impersonal monoliths, in Christianity, God has become man, so that man may become god, that is, fully human, whatever that will look like (hopefully not as terrifying as ‘2001’s Star-Child!).  In Christ, we touch God Himself, and we are taken beyond the created order into the energies of God, where our dark, corrupted nature dies and we are reborn as the new humanity.  So ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ has got my interpretation, now, and I hope you like it, Mr. Kubrick, wherever you are.

All things considered, though, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is quite a trip.  What it lacks in overall coherency and clarity in makes up in beauty, simplicity, tension, drama, and just plain real art.