Why 'Avatar' will never surpass the wizardry of 'Oz'

 

CULTURE SHOCK:IN RELATION TO James Cameron’s film Avatar, which now looks certain to triumph at the Oscars and at the global box office, it is worth thinking for a moment about The Wizard of Oz.The two films have a great deal in common. Both are fantasy movies offering escape from an economic depression. Both feature an earthling catapulted into an alien world and trying to make sense of its unfamiliar ways. (Dorothy’s line about not being in Kansas anymore is used at the start of Avatar.) Both are products, not of a genius auteur, but of an industrial studio system. (The Wizard of Ozhad a total of four directors and 10 scriptwriters.) Both were conceived as gigantic commercial blockbusters.

Now consider the obvious contrasts. Oz, even now, is enthralling and charming, funny and moving. It is not just that it has a narrative potency and a brilliantly constructed dramatic architecture. Even in its special visual effects – from the realistic twister that hits the farm to the fantastically scary flying monkeys – have a timeless quality to them. And Avatar? None of the above. It has no charm, no sense of humour and no emotional power. Its narrative is clunky, its drama mechanical and unsurprising. What a falling-off is there.

The comparison with The Wizard of Ozis worth making because it makes the point that this is not about snobbery. The motivation behind Oz is exactly the same as the force that drives Avatar– the desire to make an awful lot of money. If anything, indeed, Avatar, with its political and ecological analogies, has more pronounced pretensions to a higher purpose. We are talking in both cases about mass escapist entertainment – three hours sitting in front of a screen eating popcorn and looking at bright colours.

It is by those criteria that Avatarshould be judged and by those criteria that the force of the argument lies with the friends of Dorothy.

Why should this decline be so marked? It is not the case that Hollywood can’t combine technological innovation with wit and good storytelling. Pixar’s CGI films have proven that it can. But it is the case that Hollywood can’t combine technological innovation, good storytelling and human beings.

Two balls in the air can be managed – with a cartoon, it’s the drama and the technology. Add the third ball, of real acting and genuine human emotion, and the brain seems to freeze.

What makes The Wizard of Ozso pleasurable is that all its technological wizardry remains at the service of two of the basic constituents of any form of drama – plot and acting. The movie’s succession of screenwriters is evidence of an understanding that the storytelling and the dialogue had to be given at least as much attention as the special effects. The result is a sophisticated narrative, memorable characters and clever dialogue and lyrics. And all of this is embodied in extraordinarily strong, vivid performances. Apart from the luminous Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West, Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow, Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion and Jack Haley’s Tin Man all live in the mind as brilliantly individual creations.

Avatar’s storytelling, by contrast, is a mere patchwork of prefabricated motifs. It is essentially Pocahontaswith bits of Dances With Wolves, Star Wars, The Lost World, Apocalypse Nowand Braveheartstitched in. The problem is not the lack of originality (original plots are as rare in movies as they are in Shakespeare). It is the poverty of the variations on the theme.

Considered alongside, say, John Boorman’s The Emerald Forestor Terrence Malick’s The New World, with which it shares both mythic and narrative territory, Avataris a paltry thing indeed.

And when it comes to acting, the problem is that there isn’t any. The characterisations are so thin and clichéd – nerdy scientists, bratty corporate mogul, demented militarist and so on – that Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and the rest can never be much more than cogs in Cameron’s machine. There is so little humanity in these humans that it makes little difference when they are transformed into huge blue aliens.

What we’re left with is spectacle. And the awful truth about spectacle was revealed a long time ago by Aristotle when he suggested that it functions well only when it is subordinated to the dramatic elements that produce pity and terror. There is something in the human imagination’s response to spectacle that makes us strangely infantile. We gobble down one confection of technological marvels and then demand that the next one be bigger and brighter and faster. And we quickly get bored.

After about an hour of Avatar, the tedium is like that of watching someone else play a high-end video game. The images are striking but without emotional and dramatic connections, we are increasingly disengaged from them.

The paradox of Avataris that its effect is the very opposite of its intended message. It wants to be a critique of a mechanical civilisation. It pays homage to nature, to simple wonder, to ritual, to collective traditions. It tries, with some sincerity and a degree of courage, to champion gentleness and a sense of connection over technological power and ideologies of dominance. But it does so in a way that completely reverses those values.

Forgetting, as Hollywood so often does when it goes into blockbuster mode, that real emotional power still lies in language, narrative and acting, it becomes no more than a giant machine. Cameron asks us to despise the mechanical forces assaulting the forest. He does not seem to realise that he is one of them.

fotoole@irishtimes.com