Sunday, April 18, 2010

Anatomy of a Blockbuster

By Lisabet Sarai

This week Garce asked us to choose a story, book or film and then analyze why it worked—or why it didn't. My first inclination was to pick one of my favorite erotica stories. I was thinking of choosing “Butoh-ka” by Remittance Girl. Then I realized that my post wouldn't mean anything at all to visitors if they were not familiar with the tale. Remittance Gir's name is not exactly a household word (at least not yet!)

The same problem would arise with practically any literary work that I chose, unless I decided to tackle a classic like Lolita or To Kill a Mockingbird. Famous or universally admired books, though, have already been analyzed to death by critics and academics far more insightful (and more facile with critical jargon) than I am.

Stuck with this dilemma, I decided to look at a narrative work that only a Stone Age tribesman buried in the jungles of Papua New Guinea would fail to recognize: the recent blockbuster film “Avatar”.

Of course, reams have already been written, pro and con, about this movie. The outbursts that it has inspired (condemnations as racist, praise for advocating environmental responsibility) testify to its emotional impact as much as to its masterful marketing.

I saw “Avatar” in a normal 2D theater, on a wide screen with top-quality digital sound. I didn't expect to like it. I tend to be quite cynical about popular hype and my opinions rarely coincide with the mainstream media. Furthermore, I'm a ferocious critic of films that use special effects as a substitute for convincing and engaging storytelling. The advances in computer graphics are astounding, but technical flash by itself does not impress me.

Much to my surprise, I loved the film. I was totally absorbed in the story, walking through the forests of Pandora, soaring through the skies. The movie consumes three hours, but didn't feel long at all. About two hours into the film, I had to tear myself away for a bathroom break. I was astonished to find that my heart was beating double speed from the adrenalin surging through my blood.

For several days after seeing “Avatar”, it lingered in my thoughts. I enthusiastically recommended it to several friends. It colored my dreams. I even blogged about it.

So why is it that this film worked for me? The plot is neither original nor surprising, although it does have a mythic quality in its stark portrayal of good versus evil. The characters, with the exception of the chain-smoking xenobiologist played by Susan Sarandon, are mostly archetypes with little depth or subtlety.

I have come to the conclusion that the film's appeal rests in its ability to totally immerse the audience in the alien world of Pandora. This is partially the result of the close-to-perfect rendering of the alternate reality on the screen—a technical tour de force even without 3D. However, the key lies not in the computer graphics, in my opinion, but in the imagining of Pandora. Pandora feels real because, marvelous as it is, its landscapes and its creatures are familiar. The plants and animals are no stranger than species one might encounter on earth.

Consider the sentient floating seeds that convey the messages of the Earth Mother to the heroine Neytiri. They combine the gossamer quality of dandelion seeds with the luminosity and dynamics of jellyfish. Recall the scene where Jake walks through a grove of trumpet-like flowers that snap shut at the slightest touch. Anyone who has ever seen a mimosa or a Venus Flytrap will recognize the quality of motion. Pandora offers creatures reminiscent of horse, rhinoceros, wolf. The dragon-like flying steeds soar and dive like eagles.

The Pandorans themselves are no stranger in appearance than my hypothetical Papuan native. Where they diverge from human form and behavior, they recall the grace and alertness of felines. We are not asked to identify with an truly alien race. The Pandorans are us.

Despite the familiar basis of many of the film's images, “Avatar” succeeds magnificently in evoking a sense of wonder. But then, our own earth has scenes and beings as marvelous as those of Pandora. If you have ever visited Hawaii (where live sequences of “Avatar” were shot) or Bali, the Amazon jungle or the badlands of Utah, you have likely experienced landscapes equally outlandish, mysterious and awe-inspiring.

Viewed as science fiction, “Avatar” is very tame. It plays no serious games with “reality”. It gives us aliens who could well be our close cousins. It demands no extreme leaps of imagination. Paradoxically, that is why it succeeds. Pandora is gorgeous, dangerous, addictive, full of marvels—just like our own world. The computer graphics make it convincing, but it is the familiarity, with just a twist of the strange, that makes it so easy for us to believe, to enter seamlessly into the universe of the film.

I do not mean to minimize James Cameron's accomplishment here. It sounds simple, but actually making the familiar-to-strange transformation work must have been devilishly difficult. Certainly, I've seen dozens of movies where the film maker failed miserably in this regard.

I wonder how much of this analysis might be applicable to fiction. Film is a visual medium, while writing is not. Still, the authors who succeed in making other times and places real—do they use the same strategy, playing on what we know in order to make the strange feel real, normal, convincing?

That might be an interesting thought to ponder in a future blog post.


  1. hi Lisabet!

    I hope you get to see this movie in 3D someday when the little flower things are floating in front of your eyes.

    I agree with pretty everything you say here. Its a very complex film. Its space opera, like Star Wars, which gives it a universal appeal. Its a formula movie in many ways, but there are also interesting themes under the surface. Such as the new-agey spiritual concepts of the planet being a sentient being that can communicate with the Nav'e, and that departed souls go back to the collective consciousness of the planet. This is a movie that I want to go back and watch many times and try to figure out how it works.


  2. Lisabet,

    I haven't yet seen Avatar. The huge bubble of publicity had the effect of alienating me, so I've not yet trouled myself with seeing it.

    That said, after reading your post...



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