Monday, December 28, 2009

A MMOdern Day Fairytale

Merry Christmas fellow smart asses! I have no gold, frankincense or myrrh to give, and while I could beat on a drum for you, the ba-rum-pum-pum-pum thing wears thin real quick. Instead, I offer you a review/plot analysis/rant on Avatar, the decade's final blockbuster epic.

This poster looks awesome. Why haven't I seen it anywhere?

When I first heard the film's title some time last summer, I didn't like it. I don't have anything against the word avatar; on the contrary, I think it's a brilliant shred of language. I was put off because James Cameron apparently pilfered it from the excellent animated series by the same name. To my mind, the cartoon was there first, and it's upcoming movie adaptation was better deserving of the title. Besides, seeing how it will be suffering from the directorship of M. Night Shyamalan, it will need all the advertising cache it can get. My opinion of the flick did not improve when I heard about it's universes nomenclature from a friend working on the films advertising. The moon is called Pandora? Really, the most hackneyed mythological reference in science fiction, again? Okay, whatever... but Unobtanium!? Human's are searching for something called un-ob-fucking-tanium? I assume that's supposed to be cute, but it just sounds moronic. There isn't a bus short enough for it to ride on. I understand that you are a visionary Mr. Cameron, but you hired a linguist to help you invent an entire language for the Na'vi, so why not spend five minutes with a writer and see if you can come up with a name that's just a touch sharper?

[Inhale. Exhale. /rant]

Despite my hostilities, Avatar won me over. It is a good movie, and you will most likely have fun if you go see it. You will probably enjoy it even if you don't typically like Sci-fi, because James Cameron is a master of making things that most people like. Even if you found Titanic to be trite and over-long, Avatar is still a spectacle well-worth watching for it's technical brilliance. The movie's ill-named moon has been meticulously rendered, and it's ecology has been populated with flora and fauna that make George Lucas' offerings look like the set pieces for a particularly cheap episode of SG-1. Even Lord of the Ring's Gollum, who exorcised the embarrassing shade of Jar-Jar Binks and proved that CGI characters could be emotionally compelling, seems terribly dated when compared to the Na'vi. There was never a moment in the movie where the illusion fell apart, and I found myself wondering what the mo-cap or voice actors behind the curtain actually looked like. As far as my brain cared, the actors really were big blue cat people. The movie dazzles easily even if you don't spring for the Real3D experience, though the extra $4 or $5 really does make an appreciable difference. For those of you who are wondering where life after HD will take us, this seems a likely path.

There's a story here too, of course, and it is a serviceable scaffold for the brilliant spectacle. It's very easy to figure out who you are supposed to cheer for, and the components of the plot are very familiar. I have heard it compared to Ferngully by a number of people, which surprises me because: (A) I had no idea so many people remember Ferngully and, (B) from a narrative perspective the parallels are almost dead-on. An average joe is magically transported to a naturalistic society where he falls in love with a beautiful woman and together they fight to protect it from evil humans and giant bulldozers. Don't let Avatar's sci-fi trappings fool you. Both films are fairy tales, but what Ferngully accomplishes with pixie dust, Avatar does with an idealized concept of online gaming.

In case you forgot what it looked like. I know I did.

The film's title refers to technology that allows researchers to mentally control biological avatars (created from human and na'vi DNA) to explore Pandora. Humans cannot wander Pandora as they please, you see, because it's very air is poisonous. This establishes a dynamic to similar to online games which are themselves, fantastic worlds that cannot be explored without a surrogate body. The crucial difference, is that Pandora is physically real, as is the Avatar driver's experience of it. Jake Sully, Avatar's aforementioned Average Joe, is a paraplegic ex-marine, and using his Avatar magically gives him back the use of his legs. This is an idealized reversal of a user's typical experience with MMO's, wherein players must give up their physicality to gain the mystical abilities of virtual reality, though the rest of the gaming parallels carry strong. Jake is chosen to learn the ways of the Na'vi; a process that handsomely mirrors leveling up in online gaming. He must learn to speak the local language, hunt the forest's various monsters, and master the Na'vi's magical ability to connect with animals. This last ability bears particular similarity to World of Warcrafts mount system. In fact, a key turning point in the movie entails capturing one's epic flying mount as seen below:

And not one gold paid for it. Hax.

I don't mean to imply that James Cameron intended to make a movie about playing MMOs, but the themes at work certainly cater to the desires of the WoW demographic. In this movie, withdrawing from human society to live in a fantasy world is not only plausible, but noble. Humanity is the bad guy on Pandora, and it's respective avatars are Mr. Corporate Greed and General Texas. Sure, there are good humans, like the nerdy scientists who developed the avatar project to promote cultural exchange and understanding, and Cameron is sure to include one gold-hearted fighter pilot so audiences know he doesn't think all soldiers are bad, but they are all on the Na'vi's side; the right side. Now, I'm no stranger to plots with clear-cut (read: over-simplified) good guys and bad guys where violence is the only solution, but for some reason, it's presence in Avatar bothers me more than usual. As long as the movie is, and it is looong, the climactic battle ending feels too abrupt and easy. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if Cameron stretched the story out over the course of a couple sequels rather than cramming everything into one sitting. I have no doubt that we'll be back to Pandora, though I'm not sure where the franchise will go from here.

Despite those gripes, Avatar is an excellent piece of cinema, and an important victory for big budget film-making in this age of economic dreary. You should give it a watch when you have the chance, because it really is the sort of movie best experienced on the big-screen.

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