After several weeks of following the Avatar (IMDB) press, I finally got a chance to see the film itself, in 3-D, last night at a local megaplex. I’ve been fascinated by the degree to which the film has simultaneously become a means for fantasizing about the reinvention of cinematic language, for reintroducing the concept of the cinematic auteur, and for digging out political allegories of one kind or another. Many others seem to be watching box office numbers with the breathless hope that Avatar will supplant Titanic as the highest-grossing film (domestically and world-wide) of all-time. In a media environment typically characterized by niche cultures, it is an improbably mass-culture event, one that seems to demand that we engage with it on some level.
By coincidence, I’ve been reading Jonathan Gray’s intriguing new book, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, and one of Jonathan’s primary arguments is that when we go to see a movie or watch a TV show, we are engaging in “speculative consumption.” We have no idea whether the movie will be good or the TV show will be worth our time. Once it’s over, we can’t get our time or money back, so all entertainment texts depend on “paratexts” that help us figure out what to watch or help us to position ourselves–politically, socially, aesthetically–in relationship to the movie or TV show in question. In essence, for a movie like Avatar, we aren’t just consuming the movie itself, we are consuming the hype about the movie. Part of the pleasure of seeing the movie is sharing the experience with a larger crowd, of being part of a larger public that is, potentially at least, able to witness something new: the dawning of a new cinematic language, the realization of cinema’s quest for full spectatorial immersion, the allegorical expression of our political condition in late capitalism.
One of the aspects of this phenomenon that I’ve always found fascinating is the seemingly spontaneous impulse to applaud as the closing credits roll. This form of approbation makes sense when the director, screenwriter, and actors are present at the screening, but I’ve always found it odd when none of the people involved in the making of the film are in attendance. But perhaps instead of cheering the creative work of the director and stars, the applause is meant to celebrate the shared experience of watching collectively, the genuinely felt enthusiasm for discovering something new together. Avatar, theoretically at least, takes film the medium’s promise of offering novelty, excitement, immersion, and meaning to new heights.
And I’ll be the first to admit that I was utterly captivated by the visual spectacle offered up in the film. Much more impressively than Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf (which I liked at the time, but now find pretty awful in retrospect), Avatar uses 3-D to create a densely-layered depth-of-field, one that was often filled with a flurry of activity and detailed compositions. My appreciation of the 3-D was actually stronger in many of the scenes that depicted only human characters rather than the alien planet, Pandora, but the immense detail with which the planet was depicted was impressive and helped to underscore Cameron’s desire to create a fully immersive experience (this includes, of course, Cameron’s widely-documented decision to hire a linguist to create a believable new language for the Na’vi people).
But despite all of these attempts to create an immersive experience, I found myself resisting Avatar in a number of places, but especially at the level of plot. The film itself is about immersion and becoming-other. Self-proclaimed jarhead Jake Sully is commissioned, through the magic of science fantasy, to project himself into the body of a Na’vi. His body is placed into a tank that allows him to control the body of another being. Initially the paraplegic soldier struggles to control this new body, but given a new opportunity to move, physically, Jake quickly embraces this new self, even as his human body deteriorates when he spends more and more time as a Na’vi, gradually identifying with the natives and against the rapacious military-backed capitalists who seek to mine the planet’s precious metal, unobtanium.
Like Jeffrey Sconce, I had a difficult time taking this overt political allegory terribly seriously. It’s hard to watch a film destined to gross nearly $2 billion in box office alone and take seriously the critique of capitalism, militarism, colonialism, and racism embedded in the narrative. References to “pre-emptive attacks” and natives equipped with bows and arrows couldn’t be any more transparent (read: condescending) if they tried. In its most basic expression, the film is a “tedious lecture” on the excesses of capitalism. Even the “circle of life” in The Lion King movies seems loaded with more ambiguity than the conflict between humans and Na’vi. But as Sconce himself hastens to add, that’s not what the film is actually about at all, op-ed columnists to the contrary.
Instead, I think Sconce is essentially right to argue that Avatar is actually about “the warring production paradigms the film so conveniently spatializes within its diegesis.” In other words, the film stages a conflict between photographic and digital realism, one that is mapped onto the conflict between the human and Na’vi worlds. It’s no accident that one character describes the entrance to Pandora in words that echo film’s introduction of color: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” The old, decaying medium of film has been replaced, supplanted by the potential of digital perfectionism. And I think that’s where Sconce’s review is especially insightful in noting that the promise of digital tools, much like the promise of motion pictures in the 19th century, can never be completely fulfilled. Realist immersion is not something to be achieved technologically. Instead, it is contingent on historical protocols and social expectations.
That being said, I don’t think the answer to this moment of recognition has to be wry commentary or biting disappointment. Instead, it’s worth asking why this fantasy of complete immersion is so intoxicating and why this particular allegory seems ready to inspire so much public applause, whether in a multiplex in Cary, North Carolina, or across the globe.