Thursday, 18 November 2010

James Cameron's 'Avatar', 2009

James Cameron's Avatar is, to date the highest costing and grossing film in history, the reason being it's also the most technologically advanced.

The film is almost completely computer generated.  The CG animation displayed in Avatar is unlike anything seen to date. To create  realistic movement the actors are adorned with a skin-tight suite with lots of little dots on that are used for a camera to track their movements.  Eve Light Honthaner reveals that "in making Avatar, James Cameron took this technique to a whole new level by creating a small skull cap that hung a camera in front of the actors' faces, so as they performed, the camera also transmitted facial movements which were then assigned to their virtual characters."  This techniques was one of the many new techniques that Cameron had to have developed in order to portray his vision that was Pandora and its inhabitants, the Na'vi.  The Na'vi are blue, incredibly strong and tall humanoids that live a tribal life on Pandora.  These, though acted by people, are completely rendered in CG and despite this sometimes becoming more of a burden than a blessing, Chris Hewitt explains that:"The Na’vi, each of whom has clearly distinct features ... may not always seem photo-real, but they do seem – and this is crucial – alive and extremely expressive, helped by the fact that the dead-eye problem, which has plagued mo-cap movies since their inception, has been well and truly solved".  It is these expressive eyes that make such a huge impact on the audience as they watch the characters develop.  Due to them being such a dominant part of the Na'vi's faces for them to be anything but expressive would do naught but hinder the narrative.  He goes on to explain that all the emotion of the characters, whether it is love or sadness, is "contained in the intricacies of detail in the eyes – a flicker of longing here, a widening of the pupils or a rolling tear there, that further aids the illusion that these conglomerations of ones and zeros actually exist. ".

It is this realism of emotional display that provides the audience with their attachment to these characters, and without this emotional investment the audience wouldn't be so drawn into Cameron's underlying moral message.  Within the narrative, the audience is observing the disastrous consequences that humans have wrought through there ravaging of their own planet's resources.  As Jake Sully, the lead male character, mentions, the humans 'grey world' where they 'killed their mother' and now they've moved onto Pandora because it has a lustrous source of their most desired fuel. Though at some points the message isn't  particularly subtle, the audience can see that Cameron is contextually referencing the effect that humans, such as the most dominant powerhouse, America, are currently having on our environment. Akbar S. Ahmed has acknowledged that "A more recent critique of America, its foundational myths, and ideological assumptions comes in James Cameron's Avatar (2009),... It is about soulless, arrogant, and murderous white colonists out to deplete the planet Pandora's natural resources and in the process destroy its tribal population."  At present, America is believed to be a greedy consumerist country that selfishly takes what it wants because it has enough power to, whether it is fairly or not.  One example of this blind greed is the current war with Iraq and Afghanistan and the previous Gulf war, during which oil was the unsaid agitator.

Along side the cultural reference is the theme of what makes a person human.  The Na'vi may look human but they're 'savages' living an uncivilised life inside an enormous old tree.  The humans the audience see are highly technologically advanced, with their 3D computer monitors and ability to clone s spliced mixture of human and Na'vi genes for them to use as avatars.  Despite the huge war machines and breathing aparatus, the audience is left feeling somewhat empty when they are within the confines of the humans 'safe zone', the concrete grey civilization they've made on Pandora.  It isn't until they are placed with the Na'vi, running through trees and glowing vegetation or grouped together at the 'Tree of Souls' chanting and moving as one that the audience really feels the pulse of life within them.  Chris Hewitt also observed that Cameron is "asking fairly complex questions about what it means to be human... the humans here, Sully and an assortment of ‘good’ scientists ... aside, are the monsters; avaricious, rapacious, planet-killers. There’s never any doubt that Cameron considers the Na’vi to be more human – freer of spirit and emotion, more connected to the world around them".  This connection to nature is seen not only through their respect for it but through the pulsing rhythm at the tree of souls.  This is when the Na'vi are physically one with nature, it is when a rippling light pulses around them as they sway together and it's this obvious connection and gratitude that they have to the 'earth' around them that makes the viewer feel they're more alive and more human than the mechanical, concrete 'planet-killers' human beings seem to be.

This film's narrative can be seen as unsubtle and perhaps unoriginal as it is similar to that of Disney's Pocahontas, but it is also a refreshing awakening to what is possible with CG animation.  The minute textures and details within the Na'vi's skin, the glorious blue hues within the glowing forest that literally pulsates with life.  A huge sand box that anything can happen in.  Avatar, despite its faults, is an inspiration to those who feel they want a little more from their life as it acts as a reminder that the life around us is precious and that selfishness and greed can only lead to a grey and lifeless future.

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