Avatar and the Oscars

So Hurt Locker won and Avatar lost in all the major categories (art direction and visual effects was a no-brainer).

I’ve watched Avatar five or six times, the first time I downloaded Hurt Locker I didn’t bother watching the second CD, though I could see that it was brilliantly executed in a cinematographic sense. I just don’t find this art all that attractive to watch.

Bomb diffusing in Iraq is a very important job but it’s also a dull subject after having this war on the news for over seven years. You can actually kick a few beers with your friends and conjure the entire Hurt Locker storyline in less than fifteen minutes. Fill the rest with stereotypes and your script is ready. In this particular case it was based on a book that was based on a true story of a real bomb technician.

How unimaginative.

After watching Avatar so many times I can’t stand the storyline either, I was critical of it from the very first time, but the visual effects are still astonishing, I’m still not tired of them and I want more of Pandora and Navi, and Neytiri. I suspect the story will become only cheesier when they do the sequel, though.

So that’s that. Let’s see what HD version would look like on big screen TV, I hope they’d improve on the screener.

Oh, and I noticed Acer 3D notebook going on sale, and Adam Newman is talking about 3D TV in his comic strip. That could be exciting if it eventually works.

PS. I was following Oscars on Twitter, they had this official backstage commentator, and I can’t describe how much celebrity crap he produces, Sandra Bullock said that, Jeff Bridges said that, he smiled, she laughed, they winked, she walked, he said, she said. Urgh. I’m apprehensive of anything endorsed by that crowd. No more Oscars for me.

Avatar screener

Just downloaded new Avatar DVD screener.

First impression – where are the colors??? I know the final DVD/Blueray versions will look a lot better, but without those vivid blues and greens the movie feels really pale.

Just goes to show how much the movie loses when viewed on inferior media – no 3D, low resolution, pale colors – the “wow” factor has gone completely. I hope the story is still as engaging, but the visual feast is just not there anymore.

Earlier I generally dismissed Pandora’s civilization and its people, arguing that we, earthlings, have passed this stage thousands of years ago. It clearly is unsuitable model for us, we are not going to live on the trees anymore.

On the second thought, however, I wonder what the purpose of having civilization and a certain way of life really is. We, the earthlings, have clearly lost all sense of it. For us it’s just a natural battle for being better, stronger, having more things and so on – our “western” civilization follows Darwin’s theory of evolution, and it has no particular goal and no destination.

I can’t speak for Pandorians with any confidence – they are an imaginary race, after all, but our asian civilizations are markedly different from the western model. Hindus goal of life is some kind of liberation, moksha, Buddhist goal of life is nirvana. Consequently the society is organized in such a way that makes moving towards those goals easier. Anything is ultimately judged by how it affects people’s progress towards moksha (or nirvana). Monks are given higher status and respect because they guide the rest of the society, kings’ main duty is to preserve dharma/dhamma, all communities are centered around temples and so on. Thais invented “middle way” and “sufficiency” to accommodate earthly desires and still stay on the spiritual path.

When faced with aggressive west these asian values and societies generally crumble, though we are from giving out a final verdict on which model is more sustainable in the long run, what with rising China and bankrupted US.

The point is – Pandorian life of balance and restraint works for them, and, at least on this occasion, they managed to preserve it.

As for us, we should probably rethink our value system. It is rooted in Christian values but those have very little relevance to a modern life. Atheist/scientific approach might have offered us logic based substitutes but those haven’t got much ground yet. People still judge what is right and what is wrong based on what they feel in their hearts, not on complex benefits vs. loss calculations. In real life those calculation never really give you an absolute answer anyway.

Destroying Na’ve clearly feels wrong, for example, and I can’t see an easy way to calculate any immediate damages to us if we go out and suck that planet dry.

So here is our first task – how to reconcile what we feel is wrong with what we calculate as right. Do we need to legitimize these feelings and give them protection? They were legitimate and protected when religion was dominant but that era is gone forever. Do we need some moral substitute for religion? Lots of people would not even hear about it, but, on the other hand, show me someone who didn’t feel it for Pandorians?

Avatar review

Avatar is by far the must see movie of 2009. It’s simply mind blowing.

I’ve watched it twice already, first in regular 3D and then on “proper” Imax, both at Siam Paragon.

No idea how it would look on a non-3D screen, I suspect a lot of visual appeal will be lost. Imax also had superior sound with chairs literally shaking during heavy machine gun fire. On the other hand, the 4:3 screen ratio on Imax was disappointing. I’ve seen a blurb somewhere that Cameron thought cutting off sides would be better for 3D viewing but in my opinion there’s so much more detail on a wide screen that 4:3 cut takes away a lot of wow factor.

Either way, visually it’s a feast, especially the Pandora itself. From floating rocks to seeds of the sacred tree to animals and insects, it’s just awesome. I’m going to watch it again at least once before it goes off the screens – it won’t be the same on the TV once the dvd/blueray comes out.

Having said that, there were several let downs. Cameron is a great director but his stories don’t live to to his technical skills. I won’t judge if this story is as emotionally compelling as Titanic, it certainly has its tear jerking moments, but it could have been so much more. Once the emotional high has passed and I started to think about it rationally it looked shallow, boring and predictable.

Without giving the plot away beyond of what is in the trailers, the decision to fight the earth army back was clearly a rather childish kindergarten sandbox reaction. At first I thought Jake Sully had a real plan for this conflict resolution, for two sides getting a solution based on mutual respect but no, he’s just a marine, they don’t do thinking and negotiations even if the basic conditions are there – after all the “skypeople”, the earthlings, wanted the resources that natives didn’t use themselves, surely they could have found a way to co-exist and maintain the same “balance” that Ewa, some sort of Pandora deity, was so much concerned about.

It wasn’t even the Earth army, it was a private security force for a mining company, any win would be only temporary, skypeople would surely come back and put the native rebellion down. Bows and arrows and local wildlife can save the day once, maybe twice, but ultimately they are doomed anyway. They are fighting progress, and progress is unstoppable.

That brings us to another aspect – “paradise” vs “progress”. The story assumes that paradise is better, that Pandora should be left alone, that it’s perfect as it is, that once you get to know it, like Jake did, you’d appreciate its beauty and even fight to protect it. One problem, though – in order to fight you need some sort of a progress anyway – you need better weapons, better organization, and you need strong passion and propaganda machine, you need to compete with other civilizations. Once you start on this path your paradise is as good as gone.

It’s nice to be a “self-sufficient” hunter on some little known planet but only if that planet has been designated and protected as a spa resort or a monastery, not if it happens to be on the front line of human endeavor to conquer the nature. Greens might rage against it all they want but it’s a fact of life and they’d better learn to live with it, and so do Na’vee Pandorians.

That brings us to the culture of Na’vee themselves – what do they do with their lives? What do they do beyond eating and procreating? What makes them different from the animals they hunt? They all, Na’vee and the animals, seem to be equally aware of “Ewa” and their places in the “balance” scheme of things, so that’s nothing special either. In fact Na’vee seem to be aware of the concept of “progress” and their elevated status among species on their planet, they are essentially at the stage the Earth civilization passed through thousands if not millions years ago and as such they don’t offer any alternative modes of development.

Surely we can learn something from them but it’s not going to change the essence of what our civilization is all about, and one remarkable thing about it is that it’s very adaptable. Even if skypeople come back and conquer Pandora, the episode will be registered and our civilization will learn from it and be more considerate next time. I bet “we” are even more concerned about preserving places like Pandora than Pandorians themselves. They just go to war, provoking destructive forces they can’t stop, and they risk losing the whole planet to their little emotional outburst. Savages, indeed. They yet to learn to control themselves when passions rise. We had a lot more experience with wars and their outcomes, they should learn our history if they have nothing to relate their situation to.

About “savages” label – while only war mongering skypeople used the term in the movie, Jake Sully, the convert himself, related to them like to savages, too. He had no second thoughts in treating them like a clueless tribe that had no idea what they were getting themselves into, he knew that Na’vee had to be saved from making fatal mistakes, but eventually he also gave up and resorted to war, and, for all their assumed enlightenment it that was apparently the only option they could think up themselves, too.

That brings us to “Ewa” and its role in this mess. In Na’vee’s words Ewa is a combined consciousness of all living beings ever lived, in science words it was a network of whatever Pandorian trees have for brains, and it has more connections than a human brain (the whole planet beats one single human brain? Duh). In Na’vee’s words Ewa is interested in maintaining the balance, it doesn’t take sides. Fine, but then it was clearly a local phenomenon as it didn’t take into account the existence of skypeople and their aspirations, it clearly took sides when the battle started. A bit disappointing, religion wise. Here, on Earth, we have a concept of God that rules the whole universe and every living creature on every planet, and, as such, if he is interested in maintaining balance he’d have no problem in settling Skypeople vs Na’vee dispute. I could say that in the end the war mongering skypeople got what they deserved by OUR God rules, not by Ewa’s, which makes Na’vee alleged superiority questionable again.

Also it was no problem for an earthling to achieve highest position in Na’vee society in three months but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t work the other way. So here the Earth is superior again.

I think the main lesson we should learn from this story is something along the lines of responsibility and sustainable development, not about bliss of sitting under trees and singing Kumbalaya.

What if we compare this story to the West vs Thailand? Well, for one thing, Thais have learned how to walk the fine line and have the best of the both worlds. When colonial powers came knocking on Thai doors, Thais have managed to placate them and save their independence, and so far they seem to resist “soft” colonialism rather well, keeping their cultural identity under the onslaught of all things “farang”. They were smart enough not to go to war they couldn’t possibly win, and they are smart enough to maintain their “privileged” status now, though at times I think they are paying only the lip service, equally to “imported” development and homegrown Buddhism.