I don’t think I’ve commented much on films on this site, which is odd, because I see very many. I’d lived in New York City for a time, and when there managed see very many foreign and obscure films, and never kicked that habit. Having a strong connection to Poland that has a real tradition of intellectually challenging film-making, certainly didn’t hurt.
Since all film reviews seem to want to distill any review into a “star” rating, placed right at the start of the review, am going to refuse to do that.
First, a quote:
“If a work has surreptitiously taken you to another world, previously unknown to you, what more can you ask?” — Wassily Kandinsky
OK, the surreptitiously part is a little weak in Avatar, but the film definitely does take you to another world, and fairly convincingly, too. If you accept the criteria implied by the quote above, you don’t downgrade the movie because the plot is cliched and the characters are somewhat 2-dimensional. The characters and the plot are just the light by which to render this new world. That is very different than saying that the plot is just means to show off the special effects and filmcraft, as many reviewers (and even an op-ed columnist) are repeating in Avatar reviews ad nauseam. But almost all the reviews are good, and it has struck a chord that defies the box office analysts, dropping very little week on week. The market has spoken.
Then, on the subject of “another world” I’d note that many of the reviews compare Avatar to The Lord of the Rings. That’s a very good place to start, because Tolkien has also written about the value of works that take you into another world. In his essay On Faerie Stories Tolkien suggests that these stories allow the reader to review his or her own world from the “perspective” of a different world. He called this “recovery.” The rules of this new world contain a critique of the world as it now is known. More interesting too are the positive values asserted by this new world, which go beyond a critique of the existing, and into the construction of something new.
Avatar deals with the human race as an alien, and more importantly, as a deeply malign presence. It is to be expected that the exploration of that concept in a 2 and one half hour movie cannot approach that of intellectual heavyweights such as Stanislaw Lem in Fiasco. But it cannot be denied that to approach such a subject was a risk, and one that Avatar pulled of very well. Taking risks like this is exactly why Avatar is the success that it is. It is not formulaic. It is not safe. People have had enough of that.
1. The world of Pandora contained several things that, as well done as they were, I feel could have been done better. I may elaborate.
2. Something occurred to me that is relevant to Kafka’s and Virilio’s critique of film as a form, in light of Avatar.
(My final Verdict: ****1/2 out of 5)