Saturday, December 21, 2019

40 Years Ago Today: The Black Hole (1979)

In 1979 and in the wake of Star Wars, Walt Disney Studios released a big-budgeted outer-space adventure called The Black Hole directed by Gary Nelson. It was the first movie in Disney history to be rated PG rather than G for general audiences. And it faced direct competition in theaters from the likes of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), the long-awaited revival of the popular sci-fi TV series.

Reviews of the film at the time were generally negative. The word from science-fiction magazines and writers was far less gracious. "Poisonous" might be a better descriptor.

Even three decades after the film's theatrical release reviewers were still deriding the movie in articles with titles like "Does The Black Hole still suck?"

The main point of contention for most science-based writers appears to be The Black Hole's flagrant ignorance about the laws of physics.

For instance, there appears to be a breathable atmosphere in outer space at the mouth of the black hole during the film's fiery finale.

And then there is Kate McCrae's (Yvette Mimieux's) famously mangled line of dialogue early on insisting that the Palomino and Cygnus vessels share the same mission: "to find habitable life" in space.  

Technically, the learned scientist claims to be looking for "life" that people can inhabit or live in, and obviously that makes no sense. Had Kate simply said they were in search of "habitable worlds" or new "life forms," this wouldn't have been a concern. But there you have it: The Black Hole didn't do itself any favors by featuring a nonsensical line that should have been cut.

Despite such problematic moments, The Black Hole has survived and endured mainly on the affection of fans, I suspect, who first viewed the film in childhood and never forgot it. But is there more to The Black Hole than the inescapable gravitational pull of nostalgia? Exactly what are the film's merits? And why, thirty years on, does it remain such a polarizing and influential film?

Foremost among The Black Hole’s merits is its exploration of Manichean universe. More about that aspect of the film, and other positive attributes too, after the synopsis, below.

"If there's any justice at all, the black hole will be your grave!"

A small Earth space craft, The Palomino, has been charged with seeking out and discovering life in space. On mission day 547, however, the exploratory craft commanded by Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) discovers something else of interest: the largest black hole ever detected by man.

Intriguingly, the ship's robot, V.I.N.Cent (Vital Information Network Centralized) (Roddy McDowall) detects a stationary object near the black hole: the shrouded silhouette of a vast spaceship. The crew soon recognizes the craft as Space Probe One, or the Cygnus...the costliest fiasco in America's space program history.

The Cygnus's eccentric commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) -- "one of the greatest space scientists of all time" -- refused Mission Control's recall order and the Cygnus has not been seen or heard from since.

Now, the quiescent Cygnus sits at the lip of the swirling black hole, miraculously resisting the pull of the devouring maw.

After acquiring some damage the Palomino lands on the Cygnus and the crew comes to learn the secrets of Reinhardt and his vast "death ship." V.I.N.Cent learns from another robot, Old B.O.B., that Reinhardt is insane; and that he lobotomized his mutinous human crew, eradicating their will and leaving the men and women of Cygnus mindless, spiritless automatons.

Also, Reinhardt has created a devilish red robot, Maximillian to help him carry out his plans to travel inside the black hole, inside “the mind of God.”

The survivors of the Palomino attempt to escape from Reinhardt even as the Cygnus sets a fateful course for the black hole. The escape attempt fails, and characters good and evil meet their fates inside the strange, mystical forces of the black hole

"Some cause may have created all this, but what caused the cause?"

Mani was a Persian philosopher of antiquity (210-176 AD) who contended in his writings and teachings that that the universe was split into two opposing natures: Darkness and Light. He furthermore suggested that these warring forces fought their battles in the terrain of the human being. Man's body -- the material world -- was the world of sin and darkness. And man's soul -- his spirit side -- represented the Light. Roiling inside all of us is the never-ending conflict between these forces.

In The Black Hole, viewers can detect a number of Manichean ideas expressed in the dramatis personae and the narrative situations. This is especially so during the metaphysical journey through the black hole in the finale, a strange religious twist on the trippy denouement of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Mani believed that Evil had many faces...but that at all those faces were part and parcel of the same Evil, not different ones.

In The Black Hole, audiences see Maximillian and Hans Reinhardt as two faces of Evil (mechanical and human, respectively) throughout the film, but in their nightmarish last scene, these two evils literally join to become one: Reinhardt is subsumed inside the robot demon Maximillian.

Hauntingly, we see Reinhardt's frightened human eyes peering out from the machine's mechanical shell. This is our last close-up view of the characters, of twin evils welded together.

This strange inhuman union occurs inside the black hole, in a realm that resembles a Boschean vision of Hell, with hopeless souls (the spirit-less humanoids) trudging across a Tartarus-like underworld as flames lick at the bottom of the frame. High atop a hellish, craggy mountain, the Maximillian/Reinhardt Hybrid rules, like Milton's Lucifer.

In keeping with Manichean beliefs, this is visibly the realm of physical things: bodies, mountains, fire...materialism. It is no coincidence either that the production designs of the film have colored Maximillian, Dr. Hans Reinhardt and Hell itself in crimson tones.

This bond of red -- whether Reinhardt's uniform, Maximillian's coat of scarlet paint, or the strange illuminating light of Hell itself -- connects all of them as "the One Evil," not separate evils, as conceived by the ancient philosophy of Mani.

Contrarily, the four survivors of the Palomino expedition (Holland, McCrae, Pizer and V.I.N.C.ent) find not Hell in at the event horizon of the black hole, but rather a celestial cathedral of sorts. Their vessel, the probe ship, is guided through this realm of the spirit (not the body), by another soul...a white guardian angel. The protagonists temporarily seem to exit the world of the body, and the film reveals their thoughts -- past and present -- "merging" during a brief, strange scene involving slow-motion photography.

What this scene appears to portend is that the three humans -- and robot (!) -- have been judged by the cosmic, Manichean forces inside the black hole and found to be above "sin," hence their journey through the long, Near Death Experience-style "light at the end of the tunnel" and subsequent safe re-emergence back into space.

Instead of remaining trapped in a physical Hell (like the Reinhardt/Maximillian hybrid), the probe ship and those aboard it pass through the gauntlet of "spirituality" where nothing -- not even sin -- can escape, and arrive safely in what appears to be a new universe. The closing shot of the film finds the probe ship on course for a giant white sun...a beacon of light and hope, and perhaps even a new beginning for the human race (and again, oddly enough, robot-kind...).

Reinhardt's final utterance before entering the crucible of the black hole is simply a mumbled..."all light."

This might be an allusion to William Wordsworth's poem, An Evening Walk Addressed to A Young Lady: "all light is mute amid the gloom," It may be Reinhardt's (too late...) recognition of the fact that just as he has squelched out all light in the souls of his crew so will the black hole mute out his spiritual light...sending him into utter, eternal darkness.

Whether intentionally or not, the climactic and symbolic final moments of The Black Hole -- long a subject of debate among the movie's detractors and admirers -- fit the philosophical tenets of Manicheism perfectly, positing for audiences the metaphor of devouring black hole as a spiritual testing ground or judgment day: one where humans understand that the secret of man's spirituality; his sense of morality.

So the use that the movie ultimately puts the black hole to is not scientific at all, but rather spiritual or even religious. For some viewers, that may simply be a bridge too far in belief. For other', it's a recognition, perhaps, that man must ultimately reckon with himself, especially when facing what Reinhardt explicitly terms the Mind of God.

Another, all-together different way to appreciate The Black Hole is as a virtual compendium of Jules Verne concepts and characters as they appeared in both literature and film history, only translated from the sea to the realm of outer space.

For instance, Hans Reinhardt is clearly a futuristic version of Captain Nemo. Like his literary predecessor, Reinhardt is a figure associated with a magnificent and highly-advanced vessel. In this case, that vessel is Cygnus not Nautilus. 

But consider that both Reinhardt and Nemo also grant their "guests" (prisoners?) an extensive tour of those ships, with special attention paid to technological innovation. In the book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Nemo created a ship that ran on electricity; in the film it was atomic energy that powered Nautilus. In The Black Hole, Reinhardt discusses his creation of a limitless power source called "Cygnium" after his beloved ship. This is the thing that allows his ship to resist the forces of the black hole.

Furthermore, both Nemo and Reinhardt are defined as characters in terms of their ingenious ability to live off the resources at hand; off the sea or off outer space, as it were. In both 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and The Black Hole, the Nemo figure explains this fact in a dining room setting to his guests.

In the former tale, Nemo serves Aronnax and the others delicacies acquired from the abundant sea. In the latter narrative, Reinhardt discusses his personal hydroponic garden, which has grown all of his food.

Again, it's intriguing that both dining rooms (on the Nautilus and Cygnus respectively...) genuflect to the traditions of the past in terms of decor (candelabras, crystal glass ware, a naval telescope, statuary...) while the remainder of rooms on each ship suggest an overtly technological future.

As is the case in Mysterious Island (1961) and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), The Black Hole's screenplay explicitly debates the essential, conflicted, and perhaps Manichean nature of Hans Reinhardt with the very words we've seen utilized before in relation to Nemo: "insane" and "genius."

Similarly, like Nemo, Reinhardt is a man who has left mankind behind, dwelling in a realm of exile. Yet there's an important distinction here: Reinhardt is not an anti-hero like Nemo. He is not a hero of any kind. Reinhardt is actually an egomaniac who has robbed his crew of their very souls in his quest to probe the mysteries of God.

Reinhardt is so narcissistic in fact, that he has forced his soulless crew members to wear reflective, mirrored face-plates over their own visages. What does this mean in practice? When Reinhardt looks at his crew, he sees only his own face reflected back. This is arrogance and vanity far beyond anything which Nemo ever aspired to or considered.

It seems clear that if the film Mysterious Island transforms Captain Nemo into a more palatable, rational 1960s "man of peace," Reinhardt is a post-Watergate, post-Three-Mile-Island, post-Vietnam figure of corruption, avarice, and madness. He is Nemo, perhaps, but Nemo skewed heavily to the dark side, instead of to the light.

The remaining characters in The Black Hole also seem to have distinct corollaries with those found in Verne's works.

Most clearly, Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) is a dedicated man of science and one in "search of his own greatness." He thus seems a skewed version of the noble Professor Aronnax (another French name...) from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Aronnax clearly boasted a healthy moral compass, however, and by comparison Durant seems mesmerized, star-struck, and overcome by the dreams and accomplishments of Reinhardt. Again, we see a character from Verne's universe skewed to the dark side. This is appropriate given the increasingly low public approval of scientists as the 1970s wore on.

Harry Booth is very much the same story. A journalist, he could very well be the "war correspondent" Spillit from the movie Mysterious Island, only once more decidedly tweaked to seem more negative: this time emerging as a treacherous coward. Both Mysterious Island and The Black Hole feature confrontational scenes in which the Captain Nemo figure reveals his disdain for the reporter. Perhaps it is because the reporter, in both situations, represents the interests of the population back home and their "earthly" concerns: the so-called "unwashed" masses.

The similarities between Verne's world and the world of The Black Hole don't end with character descriptions.

Consider that a crew funeral plays an important role in both the Fleischer version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and also the Disney space film.

In 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the underwater funeral is the first thing Aronnax sees of Nemo's nature, crew, and world. In The Black Hole, Holland spies a humanoid funeral and garners the first clue about the nature of those "robots."

The dangerous black hole itself seems to represent the ocean-bound whirlpool, the deadly maelstrom that destroyed the Nautilus in Verne's literary masterpiece, serving the same function in The Black Hole.

Finally, it is impossible not to notice that Reinhardt and Nemo share very similar death scenes in both The Black Hole and the movie version of Mysterious Island. In The Black Hole, Reinhardt is crushed by a falling view screen, and we see him die with his (bulging...) eyes wide open. In Mysterious Island, Nemo also dies with eyes open, after a crushing beam has fallen on his torso.

While one or two of these Verne-style visuals, narrative points, characterizations or story traits might simply prove a coincidence, there is such a preponderance of them in The Black Hole that it becomes incumbent on us to view the film as almost literally a post-Star Wars adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. It is one that has updated the "fantasy" setting from the bottom of the sea to the most distant reaches of outer space; one that has re-fashioned the anti-hero Nemo as a more cynical, more corrupt 1970s-style figure. It is also one that has replaced atomic age fears of self-annihilation, with the 1970s "Me Generation" fear of personal oblivion and spiritual malaise.

Leaving behind Manichean interpretations and thoughts on its Jules Verne-ish qualities, The Black Hole impresses on another field of play.  I believe it was Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country who discussed the idea that many of the greatest works of art leave some sort of "gap" for the percipients to fill in for themselves. When we listen to music, our mind supplies the images. When we gaze at a great painting, our mind fills in movement or "life," perhaps. And in great, artistic films some gaps in motive, narration, and explanation are left open so that we -- the viewers -- can bridge that gulf with our own imagination. We thus engage the material not with passive disinterest, but with active thought.

For all of its flagrant ignorance regarding science and physics, The Black Hole is positively filled with bizarre, almost throwaway moments of remarkable imagination and implications. For instance, late in the film, after Maximillian has disemboweled Dr. Durant with his spinning propeller blades, Dr. Reinhardt approaches Kate with extreme fear in his eyes. He begs her in a whisper (so that his machine minion cannot overhear...): "Protect me from Maximillian."

There is no explicit follow-up to this moment; no real mention of it later in the film, just this urgent, persuasive conversational alleyway (lensed in medium shot) that suggests -- for a fraction of a second -- that Reinhardt fears his own Frankenstein monster. That it is the hovering, scarlet cyclops named Maximillian who rules the Cygnus, not the fallible, eccentric human being. It is as though Maximillian is Reinhardt's Id, only physically separated from him, acting of his own volition.

We might extrapolate that this single line of dialogue helps better to explain Reinhardt's final disposition -- his personal Hell. Inside the black hole, he is forced to join with Maximillian, to go inside the beast and dwell there for eternity. We know from that single, odd line of dialogue that Reinhardt fears such a thing...a monster he can no longer control, but that controls him. Where many people believe that in death we leave our bodies for non-corporeal spirit forms, the Manichean truth of Reinhardt's afterlife is that the Darkness has prevailed and he will be trapped in a metal shell for eternity. There is no ascension for him because of his sins. We know this later when we hear (inside the probe ship), his repeated and tortured calls for "help."

There are several odd little moments like this one in The Black Hole that are worthy of mention and analysis.

Many critics picked on V.I.N.Cent -- the Cicero-quoting platitude machine -- as some kind of R2-D2 rip-off. They complained about his mode of communication too. Throughout the film, the robot speaks almost entirely in proverb and platitudes, throwing out one after the other in clearly...mechanical fashion. One can look at V.I.N.C.ent's mode of expression as a result of bad writing, or as something a bit more interesting. That V.I.N.C.ent apparently sees his world in terms of metaphors suggests that he possesses some sense of understanding of life beyond the literal.

Again, this uncommented-upon touch plays into the ending of the film: the robot boasts a "soul," apparently, and survives the crucible of judgment inside the black hole since he -- a machine -- is put there on equal footing with Dan, Kate and Charlie Pizer...and we are privy to his thoughts. Even his throwaway line about disliking the company of robots seems to indicate that V.I.N.C.ent for all his lamentable cartoonish more than mere robot.

Kate is able to communicate telepathically with this distinctive robot, another indicator that  V.I.N.cent is more than the sum of his parts.

And that realization brings us to another interesting line of dialogue laden with implications: while on the Cygnus V.I.N.C.ent reveals the specifics of something called "Project Black Hole," a governmental operation which sent robots to the event horizon and telepathically recorded their responses to the strange events occurring there.

Again, this idea has no play in the remainder of the film, but it raises all kinds of notions. Are robots the slaves of man in the future envisioned by The Black Hole? Or are they an artificial life form slowly developing sentience? And if Project Black Hole existed a long time ago as V.I.N.C.ent indicates, then did Reinhardt know of it? Did he actually create Maximillian to house his body (knowing a robot could survive there...) in case of emergency? Was Maximillian's armor but Reinhardt's second fallback measure, behind the probe ship?

It's very easy to gaze at many moments in The Black Hole as being mere "fun with robots," or other such nonsense, but if one returns to the argument about Manichiesm, one might see how Maximillian symbolizes the realm of the body/darkness and V.I.N.C.ent seems to evolve beyond that, achieving the level of the spiritual/Light.  The movie is thus about not only about man, but the evolution of his machines into self-aware beings who are expected to conform to a moral compass.

Another thing that The Black Hole does remarkably well is hint at the larger universe of the characters. You see that in V.I.N.C.ent's casual mention of Project Black Hole, but elsewhere as well.

Early in the film, the crew of the Palomino attempts to identify the Cygnus on a holographic projector, and we are treated to a visual litany of missing ships. Arcturus 10 from Great Britain, Liberty 7 from the U.S., Russian Series 5 Experimental Space Station and the French Sahara Module.  Eventually the crew hits on the Cygnus, but not before we get a sense of how "dangerous" outer space can be in this particular universe.  This gives a much-needed context to the main storyline, that space is a dangerous and mysterious realm.

Indeed, another part of the film's longevity derives from the fact that it possesses this creepy, almost gothic texture of dread and terror. The humanoids are like faceless medieval monks, and Maximillian is deliberately a devil in red armor. The Cygnus itself is a vast, empty, “Flying Dutchman” of ghosts, loaded with mysteries (like limping robots, and eerily empty crew quarters...) that lurk around every corner.

The Black Hole even opens in macabre fashion, with an early digital representation of a black hole -- here something like a neon green spider-web leading to a kind of inescapable funnel. We spin inexorably towards this cosmic whirlpool faster and faster, all to the portentous strains of John Barry's Herman-nesque score. The stage is thus set for dark fantasy. 

But the creep factor finds its fullest voice in a scene set in the Cygnus control tower. Dr. Durant removes a humanoid's face-plate and in horrifying close-up we see briefly what a human looks like without his soul. The face we see is drawn, dry, and desiccated; awake but unseeing. It's a gruesome visage...and certainly nightmare fodder for children. And that moment is followed almost immediately by the sequence in which Maximilllian brutally slices and dices Dr. Durant (and Perkins' reaction is particularly effective.) Finally, the end of the movie takes us on a tour through Hell. Sci-fi movies don't get much darker than that.

So while it would be foolish and counterproductive to deny "nostalgia" as a reason for remembering The Black Hole fondly even today,  one must wonder if the movie's creepy, unsettling nature is the thing that, over the years, has brought many adults back to the movie a second, even third time.  

Like the cosmic force of its titular phenomenon, there’s something tantalizing about The Black Hole that draws in and captures the attentive and engaged viewer.  

Thursday, December 19, 2019

10 Years Ago Today: Avatar

"Watching "Avatar," I felt sort of the same as when I saw "Star Wars" in 1977. That was another movie I walked into with uncertain expectations. James Cameron's film has been the subject of relentlessly dubious advance buzz, just as his "Titanic" was. Once again, he has silenced the doubters by simply delivering an extraordinary film." (Roger Ebert, "Avatar," December 11, 2009.)

"The last third of the movie, a battle between the Na'vi and their human destroyers, is a groundbreaking blend of digital and live-action. OK, it's unnerving that a movie preaching peace hits its visual peak with scenes of mass destruction. But Avatar is no Hollywood wankfest. It extends the possibilities of what movies can do. Cameron's talent may just be as big as his dreams." (Peter Travers Rolling Stone:, "Avatar." December 9, 2009.)

"But Avatar is also a distinctly political work of art, with a strong anti-American and anti-Western message. It can be read on several levels – a critique of the Iraq War, an assault on the US-led War on Terror, a slick morality tale about the ‘evils’ of Western imperialism, a futuristic take on the conquest of America and the treatment of native Americans – the list goes on..." (Nile Gardiner: "Avatar: the most expensive piece of anti-American propaganda ever made." The Telegraph, December 2009.)

"It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration." (David Brooks: "The Messiah Complex." The New York Times, January 7, 2010.)

It has been ten years since the premiere of James Cameron's Avatar. As you will no doubt recall, the movie proved itself a veritable box office Goliath, and also earned positive reviews, at least in the majority. Yet, Avatar's success does not mean that the film is non-controversial, as the above critical quotations make abundantly plain. Some critics and audiences viewed this James Cameron film as an anti-American political diatribe and despise it specifically on those terms.

Others simply can't bring themselves to approve of a film that proved so hugely popular. This is the so-called "Woody Allen" critique. These fans can't be part of any club that would have them as a member. Many geeks apparently believe they can differentiate themselves from "the mob" by rejecting Avatar out-of-hand....some of them without even seeing the movie in the first place!

What those naysayers missed, however, is a film -- much in the spirit of Aliens (1986) or The Abyss (1989) -- that consists of both enormous heart and vision.  Here, Cameron obsesses on the yin and yang of the human equation.  He recognizes our natural desire to explore the new and strange, and in the process overcome hurdles. 

And -- on the other side of the coin -- he clearly "sees" our uncomfortable tradition of destroying or polluting that which we discover on our brave explorations.  

Exciting, emotional and visually pioneering, Avatar is a modern-day genre masterpiece, even if the sci-fi community has not yet entirely embraced it as such.  In time -- when there is some audience distance from some of the politics raised by the film -- the film's reputation will evolve.  And it will be for the better.

Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.

On the forest moon Pandora, the indigenous people -- the blue-skinned Na'vi -- unwittingly stand in the way of big business and "progress."

Namely, Earth men have come to Pandora to mine the ground for a valuable rock known as "Unobtanium."  

Business and military interests align to re-locate the Na'vi from their Home Tree in order to mine a rich deposit of the critical mineral.

The handicapped Corporal Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) fulfills his dead brother's contract and heads to Pandora to work as a "driver" for a genetically-engineered Na'vi avatar.  Collaborating with Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), Jake is assigned to learn more about the Na'vi so he can facilitate their orderly departure from Home Tree.  His military superior, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), however wants Jake to gather tactical information about the Na'vi and their environs, should diplomacy fail.  For a time, Jake works both sides of the street.

Inside the body of his avatar, Jake also learns the many ways of the Na'vi.  His teacher is Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the Chief's beautiful daughter.  She reveals to him the true Na'vi soul, and the duo soon falls in love. 

Meanwhile, Grace learns that all the creatures of the planet, including the Na'vi share a link with Pandora itself, a planet-wide symbiosis forged by "signal transduction."  The Na'vi see this bridge to the planet as a link to their God, Eywa.

Before long, the military and business interests grow tired with Jake's lack of progress, and  under Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) launch a devastating assault on Home Tree, scattering the Na'vi so their giant machines can commence mining.  Neytiri's father and many other Na'vi are murdered in the strike.

Finally realizing where his true loyalties rest, Jake decides to make a stand against the Earth men, and he gathers the disparate Na'vi tribes to fight back against them. 

But to gain the trust of the Na'vi, Jake must first tame a giant flying beast of legend: Toruk Macto.

"You are not in Kansas Anymore" - Avatar as visual experience

As Roger Ebert's quote above indicates, Star Wars is likely a fine point at which to commence an analysis of Avatar.

Like Star Wars did in 1977, Avatar stands at the vanguard of a new technological age, and a new threshold in terms of special effects achievement. 

Only this time, those achievements are in the realm of CGI and 3-D rather than motion control, alien make-ups, etc.

Because of this accomplishment, Avatar truly belongs in a select group of great science fiction films such as Planet of the Apes (1968), Star Wars (1977), Blade Runner (1982), Tron (1982) and The Matrix (1982).  Like those genre landmarks, Avatar absolutely immerses the viewer in a new world of unfettered imagination, complexity, color and depth.

The film's protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) notes that his arrival on the moon of Pandora represents indeed a "fresh new start," and that synonym for a "brave new world" might very well be our metaphor for the 3-D and CGI presentation of Cameron's Avatar

For once, CGI effects actually seem to comprehend the subtleties of flesh: the nuances of movement, expression, and even the "weight" of gravity.  

No doubt the visual wonders of Avatar will one day be eclipsed, but for now (and for the foreseeable future, given the state of films this summer..), they are certainly state-of-the-art.  In this arena, Avatar is never less than entirely convincing.  You never feel like you're watching special effects or limited, animated digital figures.

Instead, you see characters, creatures and strange lands.

What I find particularly noteworthy about the use of the CGI and 3-D is that Cameron uses the special effects techniques to make Avatar perhaps the very first movie in human history not scaled to us; not scaled to human proportions.

Although Lord of the Rings (2001) inventively blended pint-sized hobbits with human-sized elves and other humanoid beings, the general effect was still one of putting other life forms (Hobbits) into a world we recognize as ours.  Avatar takes a different and far more impressive stance.  It lands us in a world not made for us; and one in which human concerns are secondary. 

And that's very much an example of form following content.  Thematically the film is also about petty human concerns dwarfed by alien but ultimately more important ones.  The universe isn't always about us, and we see that idea (that slap in the face?) reflected in the very colorful, very dangerous, very oddly-scaled world of Pandora.

Accordingly then, Pandora exists against a backdrop that we can hardly conceive, and which is consequently awe-inspiring. Unlike many directors attempting to deploy 3-D, Cameron doesn't merely toss things at the audience in a blatant "coming-at-ya" style. On the contrary, he marshals the process to develop visceral emotions in the audience: to generate vertigo, for instance, and to dramatize for us extremes of height, and altitude and speed. 

Cameron also utilizes 3-D to reveal the depth and breadth of the Pandoran wilderness, escorting us into the greatest silver screen jungle since Kong's lush Skull Island in 1933. 

Again, the level of detail and complexity in this landscape is simply staggering.  I'm not exaggerating.  We get the feeling here not of a small geographic region in sight of a limited camera -- a region encumbered by the exigencies of movie budget -- but of a whole world stretching as far as the eye can see.

The point of the height, altitude, speed and depth, of course, is total emotional immersion.  And because of Cameron's integrated (rather than carnival...) approach to 3-D, in Avatar, audiences come to believe most profoundly in this fantasy world.  Avatar is magnificently unbound from the sound stage (and human proportions), but not at all in the static fashion of the Star Wars prequels, where characters seem to be forever standing in front of green-screen compositions.

Now, I don't share many fans' hatred of those three Lucas films (I rather enjoy 'em, actually...), but they certainly appear shallow in conception and execution next to Cameron's rich, layered vision for Avatar.  Here, every plant, every creature, every insect that swings, stampedes or skitters into view, captivates the attention and the imagination.  Cameron doesn't just record another world for us, he creates an otherworldly ecosphere from top-to-bottom.

Certainly, there's much you can debate regarding Avatar, but as a resounding technological and imaginative triumph it is virtually unimpeachable  No film director in history has utilized 3-D and CGI as inventively and in as integrative a fashion as Cameron has here, and on those grounds alone, Avatar is a watershed event.

"I see you" - Avatar and its themes

Avatar very much concerns the yin-and-yang of the human spirit.  

As a species we are always looking to explore what's over the horizon. And yet when we reach our destination, we yearn to make that new land ours; to harness the dirt and the water and make it serve our needs.  This is a fact of life.

We don't always use our resources wisely, yet the hunt for resources will one day, I'm certain, carry us to the far reaches of this solar system and beyond.  We are driven to explore. And apparently just as driven to use up that which we find along our journey.

In Avatar, we are introduced to a character, Jake Sully, who exemplifies the best aspects of this human equation.  

Despite suffering a physical impairment, he broaches not just a new world, but the "most hostile environment known to man."  And when he takes part in the Avatar program, Jake throws himself into his work.  He learns the Na'vi language. He learns to hunt, ride, fly and live as another life form all together. 

Again, Cameron reveals to us mankind at his most noble: questing and searching for meaning over the next hill.  A wise person once noted that disability is just a matter of perspective, and in some way, Jake's journey reflects that truth.  He first countenances, then embraces, a new way of living while also maintaining the finer qualities of our species (to love; to balance morality, and more).  This is what evolution  truly is: integrating new ideas and new concepts into the self as one's horizons expand.

The opposite side of that human equation, of course, is colonialism and imperialism, and Avatar's central conflict revolves around those very controversial issues.  Although we boast a history of imperialism in this country, we are not alone in that characteristic.  Not by a long shot.  Ancient Rome, England, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, France, China and other nation-states have also gone to war (again and again...) over a desire to "take" strange lands and harness them for explicit purposes of Empire-building.

Specifically, Avatar crafts a futuristic metaphor for the settlement of the American continent. 

It's easy to read the lines of the comparison.  The Earth men are the Europeans, come across the ocean of space to take and develop the land.  And the Na'vi are the Native Americans who see their existence and way of life threatened.

In film history, we've seen this very dynamic played out in Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990),  Walt Disney's Pocahontas (1995) and Malick's The New World (2005), among others.  It's not a new idea by any means, but that's acceptable because the presentation is new...and cutting-edge. 

Star Wars wasn't new in terms of narrative, either, especially if you have any familiarity with the oeuvre of Akira Kurosawa.  And Star Trek, of course, looks very much like a variation on Forbidden Planet (1956)  Avatar harnesses the familiar metaphor of the Native American/European conflict to tell its tale, but does so in ways that boast resonance both as science fiction, and as a reflection on contemporary times.

In the case of Avatar, I would argue that the film succeeds rather admirably in making its case about the moral evils of colonization or occupation.  It does so -- as is Cameron's tradition -- in entirely emotional, manipulative, and even grandiose fashion.  

That's the very nature of the medium of film and Cameron exploits that nature.  Ruthlessly.  As an artist, he is not merely interested in making audiences think about an issue; he wants us to feel it, intensely. 

Some people may object to this approach, but in doing so, they object to Cameron's singular gift as a filmmaker.  Using breakthroughs in movie technology, he brings the experiential, emotional aspect of visual storytelling closer to the audience than ever before. He constructs these intense dramas (like Titanic) based on intimate human relationships and ideas (like the interconnectedness of all life) because he apparently believes in a unique axiom: the more advanced the film in terms of technical prowess and achievement, the more it can impact your heart.

Not that the emotional approach doesn't have downsides.

For instance, the villains in the film are not truly fully developed people, but rather true evil-doers.  Giovani Ribisi plays a despicable character named "Parker Selfridge."  Selfridge?  Sounds like selfish.  Or maybe his name is about what we hope to find over that next horizon or ridge: something for the self

And the nasty Colonel Quaritch refers to the Na'vi as "blue monkeys" or as "cockroaches," and basically attempts to bomb the Na'vi back to the stone age.  He's a racist and a destroyer, and entirely easy to hate. 

Yet, to give Avatar some credit, it's pretty clear why Quaritch thinks as he does.  It's not because Cameron is anti-military as some insist, but because Quaritch has had a very negative personal experience with the Na'vi. 

On his first day on the planet, he was badly injured (and scarred) by them.  Fear and hatred have thus colored his perception of the planet and its people.  Quaritch can't put aside his negative experience with the Na'vi in the face of new thoughts, new ideas.  He can't evolve.  He stays as he is...never outgrowing his fear. He is thus an effective counterpoint to Jake in the story, if not a fully dimensional character in his own right.  This echoes the character of Coffey in The Abyss as we discussed last week.  Both characters effectively move the plot forward and effectively reflect a larger, symbolic issue (intransigence or stagnation in the face of facts, the self-destructive nature of nuclear war, etc.), but on some human level they aren't adequately developed.

Avatar: Does it hate America?
Many people have asked: Is Avatar anti-American?   Unfortunately, that's the wrong question to ask. 

Certainly, Avatar knowingly mirrors much of America's journey in the last decade (2000 - 2010).  Colonel Quaritch notes near the end of the film that "Our only security lies with pre-emptive attack.  We will fight terror with terror," invoking the Bush Doctrine.  

Furthermore, his mission to drop a bomb on a Na'vi holy site is also equated with a "shock and awe" campaign, conjuring memories of our siege of  Baghdad in the second Iraq War.   Also, we have seen people like Tom Tancredo suggest bombing the holy sites of our political enemies.  He mentioned bombing Mecca, specifically.

Following this line of thought, many critics have also looked at the Home Tree assault -- with twin plumes of smoke stretching high into Pandora's sky -- as a thinly-veiled reference to Al Qaeda's attack on the United States that Tuesday morning in September. 

Even the Earth men's hunt for natural resources on Pandora -- with war backing up that hunt -- can be seen as a coded reflection of the belief by many Americans that the war in Iraq was launched so our nation would have direct access to Middle East oil.

These points are certainly unmistakable; but they don't make Avatar anti-American.   That's where there's a crucial fallacy.

On the contrary, all of these issues simple reflect what many Americans truly feel about the direction of our country in the last ten years.  This commentary by Cameron is only anti-American if you assume that America never makes mistakes, that America is always right in the international actions it pursues, and that President Bush's decisions represent the full spectrum of American beliefs about this country.

I mean, is what Tom Tancredo suggested doing to Mecca the American way?  Is pre-emptive war the American way?  Is that the America that people defend when they claim that Avatar is anti-American?

And frankly, I'm baffled by people who want to view Avatar only as some kind of America-hating film anyway.  Avatar is the same story, essentially, as Battle: LA (2011), a film which has clearly not been debated in such terms. To wit: in both films a race of extra-terrestrials attack and occupy another planet to gather its resources (alternatively Unobtanium and water). And the natives in both situations strike back against the invaders, mounting a violent resistance to the plunderer.  The invaders in Battle:LA are non-human.  The invaders in Avatar are human.  That's the only difference, in broad strokes, in terms of narrative. 

So why is Battle: LA not anti-American, but Avatar is?  Both films argue the immorality of occupation/colonialism and the imperative to fight back against invaders.

The plain truth of the matter is that Cameron aims for a higher morality here. His statement is simply that it is not right to go to someone else's land and take their resources.  Simple as that.  It seems to me that ought to be something everybody can agree on in principle. It's true whether you're American, Chinese, Russian, Klingon, Jedi or Sith.  In the situation depicted by Avatar, the human beings are seeing only what they can take, not that they have no right to take it.  Now, you can argue the Machiavellian politics of the whole thing; that if mankind is dying out, he must take the Unobtanium and is justified in doing so.  Self-preservation and all.

But by the same Machiavellian mind-set, then, you must accept that the Na'vi -- in trying to protect their own existence -- are also justified in fighting back against the Earthers.  It doesn't only work one way.

It always bothers me when people are unable to see both sides of an issue.  We would hate it if aliens landed on our soil and began mining our land.  We'd fight back, and rightfully so. Just as the Na'vi fight back in Avatar.  But since humans are placed in the role of bad guy (as they are in many sci-fi films, from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, to District 9, to Blade Runner, even...) then Avatar is suddenly anti-American.

Here's my long-winded point: being leftist is different than being anti-American, and to conflate the two is the facile trick of the propagandist.

Go back and watch Planet of the Apes (1968) -- made at the height of the Cold War and the Vietnam War -- and honestly tell me that it is not a leftist film too; about man's self-destructive, warring nature.   It ends with a symbol of America, Lady Liberty, destroyed.  So is it anti-American too?  If Avatar is, then Planet of the Apes is.

It's only because we live in such hyper-partisan times that Avatar is constantly saddled with the moniker Anti-American, when what the film actually concerns is a human truth: that our drive to explore and increase our knowledge is a double-edged sword; It keeps us alive, but also, often, puts us in conflict with each other, and with nature itself.

Again, it's much easier to brush off Avatar with a simple label ("anti-American") than it is to examine Cameron's story and take it for what it is really about - human nature.  Does the film have a leftist bent?  Absolutely. Just as some science fiction films have a rightward leaning (Zardoz [1974] for one.). 

The right has not been alone in attacking Avatar for perceived "philosophical" flaws.  The left (plus David Brooks) have really gone after the film as being an example of "The White Man's Burden."  In other words, this is a film in which a white man saves a native culture and ascends to leadership of it.  Apparently, that's insulting to ethnic minorities or something.

Again, this is a more simplistic view of the film than is merited.

For one thing, when was the last time that a handicapped character took a leadership role in a major, over-200 million-dollar action film?  Jake Sully is a white man, it is true, but he's also one who has been largely discarded by his culture because of his physical impairment.  He's not physically powerful alpha male Kevin Costner, for instance.

Jake is not the typical "messiah" in that regard.  Instead, he is a perfect man to lead the fight because he is also, like many of the characters in the film, separated and isolated from his true nature.  His physical handicap has prevented him from being what he knows he can be; from doing what he knows he can do.  The avatar program grants him the capacity to tap that potential and to become whole again. 

The film is as much about the Na'vi (and the Na'vi experience) saving Jake as it is about Jake saving the Na'vi.  He learns much through their interconnection after all.

David Brooks' comments bear closer scrutiny. He writes that the film depicts colonists as "rationalist" and "technocratic" while colonial victims are "spiritual and athletic".  He should take a gander again at Quaritch, a man who is also quite athletic; so damned athletic in fact, he can pick off human targets some distance away while holding his breath for minutes at a time (in Pandora's poisonous atmosphere).  Qauritch is no armchair general.

And why does Brooks assume that the film says "illiteracy is the path to grace."  Nowhere in the film is illiteracy even broached. The path to grace in the film is through inter-connection; through the link and harmony between man/woman and the land.  Because we cannot see this psychic connection, the Na'vi might very well call mankind "psychically illiterate."  

Again, this attack on Avatar is too simplistic. 

Would it have been nice if the Na'vi could save themselves without Jake as the leader?  Well again, look very closely at the actual specifics of the text in question.  Which character destroys the villain?  Hint: it's not the white man Jake.  No, he is rendered paralyzed, in the final battle featured in the film. 

No, Neytiri finally takes out Quaritch.  She is no mere "supporting player" (as Brooks puts it).

And who turns the tide towards the Na'vi in the battle?  Again, it's not Jake or any other "white man." 

It's Eywa, who through her powers of inter-connection, summon the forest animals to attack the occupiers.  So again, it's not entirely accurate to say that Avatar suffers from this movie "Messiah Complex."   
On the contrary, Jake is present in the film to serve as surrogate for the audience.  He is our (human) entrance point into the world of the Na'vi, an example of -- again -- how mankind can go beyond what he knows and explore a new and alien situation. 

Even the film's ending is about this idea of crossing the next hill; evolving to the next point.  Jake is able to cast aside his human body and become fully Na'vi.  This is because he has embraced the better part of our human nature.  He has overcome his limitations (physical and mental) and become what he had only once "dreamed."   If you're James Cameron, you can't make this argument about human nature without featuring a human protagonist in the film.

In terms of the Cameron Curriculum, there's many points of commonalities between Avatar and Cameron's other films.  For instance, the Na'vi saying that goes "I see you," (meaning "I see your true self") is carried forth from Titanic. In that film, Jack and Rose share an exchange that seems familiar. "You see people," says Rose.  "I see you," says Jack. 

Also, like Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator and even Titanic to an extent, Avatar features as a hero someone who is "blue collar," in this case a so-called "grunt."  This also makes three Cameron films (Aliens, The Terminator and Avatar) in which a military man is amongst the protagonists, making it more difficult and less plausible for critics to argue that Cameron is somehow against the military.

And, of course, like out-of-time Ripley, an emotionless Terminator in T2 or Mrs. Tasker in True Lies, Jake is an outsider or fish-out-of-water in Avatar.  In a way, he is both outside of the human race because of his handicap, and outside the Na'vi because of his nature as a "Sky Person."  In many Cameron films, only those who are "outside" the dominant coalitions can bring a sense of balanced perspective to crises.

Earlier in the review, I brought up George Lucas and the Star Wars films.  Avatar treads on some territory familiar to that franchise, namely a primitive people waging a war against a technological foe. 

In Return of the Jedi the Ewoks battled the Empire, and in The Phantom Menace, the Gungans battled the Trade Federation.  Lucas essentially played both of those battles for laughs. 

By contrast, the final battle in Avatar is anything but funny: it's a harrowing, tense descent into all-out war.  In Avatar, the primitive species carries the day only because of a gift from Pandora: the ability of all  native creatures to communicate and connect with one another.  That's something the humans can't do, at least on a planetary scale.

Interestingly, Eywa does not normally "take sides."  She protects "only the balance of life."  But in this case, man is so egregious, so awful in his attacks, even God herself must become involved.   This is the environmental message of Avatar, another point that has enraged some people, apparently.

It's another critique I don't really get.  What could be more conservative, more traditional, than taking good care of the planet you happen to live on?

Avatar is a great film because of the advances it makes in terms of technology, because of the commentary it offers about the double-edged sword of human nature, and because, perhaps, people just can't stop arguing about it.

So many people "see" Avatar.  Or at least they think they do. My recommendation to them is to watch the movie again, this time keeping in mind Neytiri's admonition for those whose mind is already sealed tightly shut.

"It's hard to fill a cup which is already full."

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...