James Cameron’s Avatar, Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and more.


To say that James Cameron’s Avatar appeared to us amid hoopla and trumpet blasts would be like saying that John the Baptist had once mentioned Jesus. Generations of small children have been taught the calendar by ticking off the years until Avatar‘s release. Geeks prepared for the revelation by draping themselves in garlands of e-mails, lauding the vastness that would lie between Avatar‘s technology and anything they had known before. Even the most earthbound souls, pent in counting houses, cast their eyes heavenward and watched for the shower of gold. By the time of the film’s advent, at the only appropriate season, nothing but a miracle would have sufficed–and sure enough, Cameron delivered one right at the beginning of the story, when he raised up his crippled protagonist and made him walk. Healing and transfiguration you got immediately. The crowning miracle, like Jesus’, would wait till the end.

Do you think I’m being sarcastic? Then you have not traveled in 3-D through Avatar‘s extraterrestrial paradise, or watched its Eve remove the clothes and shame from its Adam, or noted that the name of the film’s prelapsarian forest tribe, Na’vi, is Hebrew for "prophet." As suffused with intimations of the divine as a Hudson River School landscape, and very much a product of that pictorial tradition, Avatar offers you nothing less than transcendence, in both the Lisztian meaning of the word, as virtuosic execution, and in the commonly accepted religious sense. Whether the film makes good on these twin promises (I’ll plunge in and say it does) is perhaps less interesting than its having explicitly united them. Avatar proposes that the Great Chain of Being really exists and is accessible simultaneously to the characters on the screen and the audience in the seats by means of a neuromotor plug-in.

By now, even if you have not seen Avatar, you will know that the excuse for this connection–the plot–is familiar cowboys-and-Indians fare, remarkable only for having combined titanic marketing power with a worldview congenial to readers of The Nation. Well, worse things could come along than an anti-imperialist, pro-Gaea sci-fi blockbuster, which pits the nature-loving wisdom of an indigenous people against a mining company’s clanking, murderous machinery. That Cameron has sided with the tree huggers (literally) but used sophisticated technology to do so is a readily spotted irony and may be readily dismissed as a criticism, if you consider that his own factory does nothing worse than keep hundreds of people peacefully employed making pictures. Besides, Avatar insists that spiritual truths are not only compatible with science but are demonstrably rooted in biophysics–a position that becomes all but irrefutable when asserted by a ten-foot-tall, blue, tiger-striped Sigourney Weaver.

Actually, Weaver is in her human guise, as a scientist with the incense-and-bells name of Grace Augustine, when she makes this argument; but it’s her character’s ability to incarnate as a Na’vi, and even more so the ability of the film’s protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), to take on Na’vi flesh, that completes the circuit between viewer and film. Equipment in the movie theater (and on your nose, in the form of 3-D glasses) projects you into an encompassing illusion of Jake’s world, where Jake in turn climbs into a piece of equipment–a metallic chamber, suggestive of both a casket and a tanning bed–and is projected into his Na’vi self. To complete the wiring, the Na’vi Jake then takes part of his body–the ponytail–and mates its hairy electric tendrils with any number of similar outlets lying about the forest, allowing him to project himself into the Great Shebang.

Note the powering up from one order of existence to another; note the well-marked steps, which to the impressionable might seem almost empirical, that elevate you to each higher level. And note how the essence of the progression, for you in your theater seat as for the crippled Jake Sully in his box, is a release into greater and greater freedom of movement. This is what makes Avatar‘s techno-mysticism too thrilling to doubt. Giddy with an ability you could have enjoyed in no other way, you and Jake run, leap, dive and soar through a landscape of sufficient beauty and terror to make your flight itself seem sublime.

Searching for a point of comparison, I think of another sci-fi epic and a celebrated essay composed in its praise years ago. Writing about 2001: A Space Odyssey, an astonished and delighted Annette Michelson said that Stanley Kubrick had in effect taken the fundamental reality of moviegoing–the kinesthetic experience of the spectator seated before the screen–and translated it into the theme and imagery of a film. I might say that Cameron has done the same thing, and I am tempted to add exclamation points.

But I won’t–because the projections and transformations in Avatar are actually inconsistent with the experience of the spectator, who may temporarily be a moviegoer but is in essence, first and last, the user of a role-playing computer game. You might almost say that the film version of Avatar–there is of course an Avatar for Xbox, PlayStation and Wii–functions as an especially successful game session, which Cameron has played for you.

This isn’t cheating on his part, exactly; but neither is it a fair simulation of gaming, which (unlike moviegoing) requires action. Once you think of a player working the console, you understand that the content of Avatar is less participatory and more of a pure head trip than the form suggests. I suppose that’s why the repeated images of Sully in his metal box are so disturbing–not just because they’re claustrophobic and full of pathos but because Sully, as a stand-in for the gamer, ought to be doing something, if only with his thumbs.

Here the carefully crafted links between you and the screen, or between the worlds of science and spirit, subtly break down. It’s a small discontinuity, admittedly, in a very big movie–but like all such ruptures, it has something to reveal. Let the exposure of Sully’s immobility and isolation point toward everything in you that Avatar leaves unengaged. Despite being the most miraculous of the holiday’s movies, Avatar does not plug into your physical self-awareness; your connections to the people around you; your potential to think and feel more deeply, and more independently, than Cameron asks you to.

Not that Cameron has misjudged his public. The box-office reports have proved him right; and so has the lineup of big holiday movies. Wherever you looked this season, for better and worse, you saw filmmakers luring the audience with some combination of science, spirituality and special effects.

The movie that is, for my money, the most involving of all has no use for science, except as a producer of stage machinery of the antiquated sort: quaint, breakable and comically inadequate to its purpose, which is to lead you to a choice between heaven and hell. This is the setup of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which stars Christopher Plummer as an occasionally immortal and frequently soused guru, now a busker in London, who dares to compete against the wiles of Satan, as portrayed by Tom Waits with a pencil mustache and cigarette holder. The main complaint I can lodge against the film is that the guru’s daughter–played by the British model Lily Cole and addressed throughout the proceedings as Scrumpy, as in "scrumptious"–can rightfully object to being nothing but a token in a game between men. Too true. Here, at least, Gilliam might have emulated Cameron, who provides four strong women for one Jake Sully. But if it’s any compensation, Gilliam’s visual imagination is as beautiful as Cameron’s but also idiosyncratic, surprising, grotesque and funny, and is put at the service of ethical choices that you might actually need to confront–such as whether to turn your face from that ragged bum on the corner. In Gilliam’s favor, there’s also the curiosity, and more than curiosity, of the film’s containing the last, fragmentary performance by Heath Ledger. To complete his movie, Gilliam had to enlist Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to play the remainder of Ledger’s scenes, in ingeniously reworked versions. The trick does nothing to diminish the film’s exuberance–but it does lend gravity to the supernaturalism. Doctor Parnassus is one fantasy that’s been visibly marked by death.

There’s a bit of death and resurrection going on as well in Sherlock Holmes–which might make sense, considering Conan Doyle’s involvement with Spiritualism. But nothing in the source material seems to have interested the people responsible for this glorified episode of Scooby-Doo: a mash-up of fisticuffs, fireballs, black-magic rites (designed in the Warner Bros. Harry Potter house style), ghost-hunting debunkery and also, as an afterthought, a little deductive reasoning. Robert Downey Jr., wearing a fashionable three-day stubble about a century before its time, commits the first mistake he’s ever made as an actor, allowing his portrayal of Holmes’s hauteur to betray his own superiority to the movie. The director, Guy Ritchie, cuts frantically to make you think you’re zipping along; but deep into the third act, when a passing religious fanatic held up a sign that read, The End Is Nigh, my heart sank, because I knew it wasn’t.

Speaking of frantic: let me digress to warn you about Nine, the latest act of musical aggression from director Rob Marshall. I don’t know what he’s got against his fictionalized subject, Federico Fellini (or against Vincente Minnelli, for that matter), but he’s made sure that the score is orchestrated to the thickness of a seventeen-car pileup; the vocals are mixed to the level of screeching metal and shattering glass; and the editing approximates the moment of impact, when your head snaps every which way. Penélope Cruz escapes from the catastrophe unscratched, which shows she really can do anything. But Nine reveals that Daniel Day-Lewis does have his limits. He cannot sell a patter song while clambering up and down a jungle gym and screaming in an Italian accent.

But to return to the theme of science and supernaturalism: in Peter Jackson’s version of the novel The Lovely Bones, we at last see what happens when rational thought is rejected (or reduced to a kind of deadly carpentry) while the spirit becomes wholly identified with special effects. Listen to the narration that Jackson has inherited from the book–the first-person account of a young girl who has been raped, murdered, cut into pieces and then left to wander through eternity–and you will think The Lovely Bones is meant to be a sensitive, reassuring lesson in leaving vengeance to the Lord. But watch Jackson’s direction (so oddly paced and clumsy whenever softer emotions are expressed, so charged-up at every manifestation of evil) and you will see that the movie revels in creepiness, and in making you yearn to squash the creep. Vengeance is yours at the end, because you (in the movie’s point of view) are a wrathful Lord, sure to wipe away the wrongdoer like a cloud of pixels. But then, to the covertly techno-enabled God, the innocent too are mere pixels–so what does their suffering matter?

And now, two movies I love that were released during the holidays:

A Town Called Panic, the marvelously demented animation by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, uses no special effects except stop-motion techniques–and those are applied to toys straight off the shelf of a dime store: a plastic cowboy, Indian and horse. Out of these simple materials and an abundance of imagination comes a dizzying tale of gift-giving disaster, infernal thievery, music lessons and horsey love. A Town Called Panic made its US theatrical debut in New York, at Film Forum, and now gets to galumph cross-country.

Police, Adjective by Corneliu Porumboiu (the director of 12:08 East of Bucharest) takes place in large part around the schoolyards of a Romanian city, features a character who is a teacher and concludes with an astonishingly protracted lesson out of the dictionary. You might say it’s an educational film–one that offers instruction in the difference between what we experience and what we put into words, what we believe is right and what the law demands that we do. A young cop tails a high school kid in scenes shot almost in real time, prolonging the surveillance (and tries to develop other lines of inquiry) rather than busting the suspect for simple possession of hashish. The cop learns a lot during the stakeout–but the only knowledge that ultimately matters is the information that can be diagrammed on a blackboard. Impossible to summarize; not to be missed.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy