“Avatar” – Seeing Tomorrow

Taking a respite from the unrelenting snow assaults in New York – the multiple “snowmaggedons” and “snowicanes” and “snownamis”, my thirteen-year old son and I went to see “Avatar” last Friday. Friends and critics and multiple reviewers had prepared me for an excellent cinematic experience. Indeed, my son had seen the movie already (of course) and he had already proclaimed it as “amazing”.
But no one and nothing had prepared me for “Avatar”. To say that “Avatar” was a great movie is akin to saying that Duke Ellington was a pretty good bandleader or that Fred Astaire was a dancer or that Michael Jordan could play a little basketball. For me, “Avatar” (in IMAX, in 3-D, with total surround sound of a gazillion watts) was a transcendent experience. The combination of technology and story line conspired to create another place in time and space, a place that could only be visited through the portals of this movie.
One day people will compare the appearance of this movie with the epiphany that audiences experienced when first viewing “The Jazz Singer” (the first feature film with sound and the spoken word) and “The Wizard of Oz” (the first full color feature film). Both of those movies, released within a decade of each other, transformed the experience of watching a movie. There has been a gradual evolution of cinema since then. But evolution is a slow process, and sometimes change is barely discernible. And then sometimes the four-footed primate stands on two legs and walks and then talks and then the change inspires awe.
After the movie, after saying “Wow!” over and over again, I tried to explain my perspective to my son, a young man who has never seen a rotary dial phone or heard a phonograph record or known a world without a computer screen. I told him that this was what it must have felt like when viewers heard the actors speak in a movie. His puzzlement required me to explain that there was a time when movies were black and white and silent – he refused to believe that there had ever been such a thing. Dad was joking again, trying to pull his teenage leg.
And that is what the next generation of moviegoers will think – that someone is trying to be funny in explaining that there was a time when movies did not completely draw you into the cinematic presentation. That there was a time before when visual and auditory senses produced tactile sensations cued by the technology-driven sights and sounds on the screen and in the speakers.
But “Avatar” is not simply techno-bells and new age whistles. The movie tells a story that is both an adventure and a cautionary tale. It teaches the eternal lesson of the price of hubris and too much pride and too much prejudice. We see the recurring theme of humanity not understanding or respecting that which is different. Instead, the story of human civilization is full of too many sad stories of one culture encountering a different culture, deeming it inferior because it is different and then seeking to destroy it.
There is the eternal lesson of the connectivity of all living things – a theme that is found in the Bible, in the Torah, in the Koran and in any reasonable presentation of environmental care and concern. Certainly these are neither new nor fanatical notions, but the response of some critics would have us think otherwise.
The director James Cameron has been accused by rightwing nihilists of subverting the global movie-viewing public with a subliminal tree-hugging, neo-environmentalist gospel that is anti-industry, anti-business, and anti-progress. And for good measure these self-same wizards of bedlam also perceive an anti-colonialist/anti-American theme (the irony is tantalizing and delicious) which morphs into support for all the “forces of evil” in the world including the Taliban and the Bloods and Crips and who knows what.
In the final analysis, it is my view that there is no contest for Best Picture at the upcoming Oscars ceremony. There are other good and great motion pictures. “Avatar” is transformative. It is beyond just being and good and great movie. It is tomorrow – today.


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