On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

Avatar 3D as cinematic milestone

In aesthetics, economy, media history, movies, philosophy, politics, review on January 7, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Good action movies tend to put their CGI-generated finger on some sort of zeitgeist. James Cameron’s Avatar does, as it not only currently makes the prime example of 3D cinema as media technology, but also contains some telling clues to current philosophical, economic and political debates.

In terms of media history, 3D cinema will probably entail a rebirth of the whole Hollywood experience; particularly the screening as an event, a unique experience. This will especially come to show later in 2010, when Alice in Wonderland premieres as a Tim Burton-directed 3D movie.

The big 3D premiere of 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar, was in some ways a brilliant experience. Sure, we were expecting critical doses of trustafarian cod-spiritualism and new age (similar to the Matrix trilogy’s “Zion”). We were expecting overly evident metaphors and a lot of Messianic hubris – but so is the nature of the genre. Those things aside, it is as driven and inspired a story as Terminator 2 or the first Matrix movie ever were.

The first striking thing is obviously the technical innovation of 3D itself. This is nothing new; attempts have been made before – note for example the fad in the 50s where black and white movies were watched through anaglyphic red-green glasses and the Jaws 3D disaster attempt in the 80s.

A number of unexpected phenomena strike you when you’re sitting there with today’s polarized, semi translucent glasses. First and foremost: the actual picture frame appears to be smaller than before! Something happens when the eye itself is offered an extract where you can let the gaze shift inwards and outwards, in and out of image depth – and not only, as before, left, right, up, down. The cropping of the image reveals this cinematic “truth” as indeed relative, as the human eye seems to be more accustomed to survey a depth than a flat surface. What used to be a two-dimensional poster is now a window.

The second thing that strikes you is the subtitling, and how annoying it suddenly becomes. It is really like a brick, hanging in mid-air, that constantly disturbs the visual experience. I wasn’t capable to even read the subtitles after a while and chose to ignore them instead, throughout the film.

The third thing is that the most subtle and effective expression of 3D actually lies in the little things: dust, flies and flakes of ash. James Cameron soon must have realized how this dramatically enhances the 3D realism in the movie. The most realistic moments occur when the scenery is shrouded in micro-particles that float around, close to the viewer in the depth of field. You can almost touch the air then.

Beyond the film’s more bombastic and predictable moment there are several interesting topics:

The Iraq war, oil extraction and brute force. The movie is almost painfully overt in its criticism of the Iraq war, but as my film connoisseur buddy pointed out: To communicate such an array of critical messages to the movie’s hordes of 12-year-old action-movie fans is a bit of an artistic achievement in itself, as Hollywood films like this one manage to provoke and awaken thoughts as much as provide sheer escapism.

Virtual identities; the very concept of avatars and “telepresence”. This theme is a very contemporary one, both in terms of said 12-year-olds familiar with online role playing games like World of Warcraft and social media, and in terms of a more academic discussion regarding agency and the exertion of (virtual) control over distance (think remote-controlled robots). There is currently a broad debate regarding what constitutes agency, i.e. who or what is acting, and where the locus for action lies in such a configuration.

The film also touches on the idea of whether our senses can be “transplanted” to other creatures, a fantasy that is in my view in fact more realistic than the infantile dream of “backing up” the human mind to a hard drive or machine (a very problematic imaginary proposed by futurologists like Raymond Kurzweil). Avatar does not try to neither explain the technology behind this nor to indicate that the human, chip-based technology would be capable of transmitting biological intelligence. Instead, it is the alien planet’s own biology that enables the ultimate, permanent transfer of sentient minds between living beings.

The dichotomy between two ontologies: Network economy / ecosophical ontology versus raw material-based economics / neo-classical economic ontology. The film clearly sides with a kind of economic ideal that is oriented towards network benefits and cognitive excess – in other words, ideals on which much of the “new” economy in today’s society is said to be based. The film’s fictional research team recognizes how an unexpected, emergent totality is to be found within the planet Pandora’s totally interconnected ecosystem; something which seems like nothing less than a collective consciousness. At the same time their ontology is confronted by the ontology on which the military builds its operation: the solid ore deposit of alien metal, resting in the bedrock on which this green ecosystem literally grows. The almost overly greedy merchant-cum-administrator Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is a pragmatist who sees few moral quandaries in the fact that this latter, “soft,” ecosophical wealth must be destroyed in order to access the raw materials underneath.

Thus we see a conflict between the “soft” economy and the “hard”. What is absent, however, is a more coherent, comprehensive analysis that takes this political dimension one step further and recognizes how the allegedly “soft” economy is itself directly based on the “hard”. Avatar is just an action movie, you can’t expect it to dive into such complex reasoning. But the conflict depicted by the film – between sublime, “intangible” wealth and prosaic, “tangible” – is just fiction, it doesn’t exist in the real world. The computers that enable the “new” economy in our society are indeed based on an abundance of oil, coal, steel and an almost inexhaustible range of other commodities.

Good action movies tend to put their CGI-generated finger on some sort of zeitgeist. Avatar does. When we’ll revisit it in the year 2020 we might giggle at the main character’s fondness for video blogging (this apparently forms part of said main character’s “mission statement”) but his video diary fills not only a narrative function to intensify and bring the story forward; it is also a testament to the film’s contemporaneity.

This is a translation of my original post in Swedish, here.

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