31 Jan 2016

The 3-D Experience and Hero’s Journey of Avatar

By Peter Krämer

Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
Great Expectations

In April 2009, an article in the New York Times entitled ‘Fan Fever is Rising for Debut of Avatar’ opened with the following statement: 

In an old airplane hangar …, James Cameron has been working feverishly to complete a movie that may
a) Change filmmaking forever
b) Alter your brain
c) Cure cancer.

The writer was obviously having fun with these exaggerations, which were inspired by the larger-than-life persona of the filmmaker and by his many public statements about his latest project, ever since it had been announced to the press in January 2007: ‘Mr. Cameron has done his share to feed the hype with his repeated assurances that a coming wave of 3-D cinema … would have the power to penetrate the brain in a way that movies never have.’ The writer’s choice of words here is interesting, perhaps designed to evoke the colloquial term ‘mind-fuck’, while also mocking Cameron’s machismo (only a very special kind of man would want to ‘penetrate’ people’s brains). 

Yet, beyond its humorous hyperbole, the article also appeared to register a widespread and sincere belief in the possibility of radical change. Referencing both the religiosity of American society and the recent election of the country’s first African-American president, the article stated that Avatar was ‘stirring up a kind of anticipation that until now had been reserved for, say, the Rapture’, and that the film’s ‘technological wizardry is presumed by more than a few to promise an experiential leap for audiences comparable to that of The Jazz Singer, the arrival of Technicolor or an Obama campaign rally.’

When Avatar, which had originally been scheduled for a May 2009 release, belatedly appeared in cinemas around the world in December that year, it certainly told a story about dramatic change: parts of a distant moon’s ecosystem are severely damaged by the operations of a mining company; a humanoid alien tribe has to deal with the destruction of its ancestral home; for the first time in many generations the moon’s scattered tribes unite so as to be able to confront the threat; the neural network of trees, which constitutes a kind of brain for the planet’s ecosystem and is revered as a Goddess by the natives, gives up its usual practice of non-interference and helps to eject the operatives of the mining company. All of this is explored through the central storyline of one of the employees of the mining company who uses a specially grown body as his avatar in the world of the natives, then takes their side in the conflict before he finally abandons his human form for good so as to be reborn in the alien body. 

In addition to telling this complex story about dramatic change, Avatar also initially lived up to the expectation that it might in fact change cinema. In the run-up to its release, there had already been a marked increase in cinemas with 3-D projection capabilities around the world; some of this expansion had clearly been fuelled by the announcement of a live action 3-D release (almost all 3-D releases in recent years had been animated) by one of the world’s most successful filmmakers. When Avatar then went on to break all existing box office records, both in the United States and in the rest of the world, with a particularly strong performance in 3-D cinemas, there was a perception that the popular habit of cinemagoing, recently under a particularly strong threat from alternative leisure time activities, had been given a new lease of life, and, furthermore, that it had been transformed forever, insofar as 3-D could now be expected to become a new standard, rather than the exceptional attraction it had been heretofore. 

Now, if one were to claim that cinema was reborn through the 3-D technology of Avatar, which allowed audiences to inhabit cinematic space in a compelling new fashion, such a claim would constitute a curious echo of the very story the film tells about its protagonist being reborn through the avatar technology which allows him to inhabit a new body and through it a new world. Such echoing can also be observed when the circumstances of the film’s release are considered. Its original May release date derived from Hollywood’s practice to set up its major releases for a high impact before the summer holidays which will hopefully translate into a long run during these holidays. Once it became clear that Avatar would not be ready for this early date, the only obvious alternative was a release in December which would allow the film to profit from increased cinemagoing during the Christmas holidays and also set it up for consideration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and other organisations handing out awards in the first few months of the new year. 

Logo for the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009
In the end, the precise release date chosen for Avatar coincided with the final stage of the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, which was widely regarded as a catastrophic failure. Thus, as a film about environmental issues, Avatar could, in very general terms, be said to have profited from the public interest in, and intense media reporting on, climate change across 2009 which culminated on the very weekend that the film was first shown around the world. More specifically, the film’s story echoed real-life developments in at least two striking ways, first by imagining a future humanity which has destroyed the ecosystem of its home planet and now sets out to do the same on another planetary body; secondly by imagining an alternative way of life. Here, human-like beings are shown to live in harmony with nature and to achieve a kind of global unity in their attempt to defend themselves and the ecosystem they are part of against destructive forces. 

The most high profile attempt yet to achieve global unity so as to take action against global warming fails at the very moment that Avatar begins to draw audiences all over the world into its story. One might go as far as saying that, whereas politics fails to achieve global unity and bring about necessary change, this film does not only offer a vision of such unity and change, but through its impact on individual viewers and its international success also laid the groundwork for potential real-life personal change and unified global action. At the very least, a substantial proportion of the world’s population now shares the story that Avatar tells. It is conceivable that such sharing will contribute to an awareness of the shared fate of humanity and indeed of the Earth’s ecosystem, and perhaps even to the willingness to take action on its behalf. 

Audiences and Their Avatars

The title of James Cameron’s science fiction epic resonates with ancient myth and with contemporary cultural practice: an avatar is the shape an Indian God takes when walking among humans, and it is a player’s audiovisual representative in the electronic world of a computer game. In the film’s story, Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-marine, is employed by a mining company to enter the dangerous jungle outside the fortified human compound on the distant moon Pandora. This is achieved by projecting his consciousness into an artificially grown body, which mixes human DNA with that of Pandora’s intelligent humanoid species, the Na’vi. In this way, Jake, who has come down from Pandora’s heaven as one of the ‘sky people’ - the Na’vi designation for humans - can walk among the Na’vi, and he can temporarily lose himself in the adventures he experiences in their world. In the course of the story, Jake learns a lot about the capabilities of his new body and about the Na’vi and the other life forms he interacts with, and this provides him with an increasingly critical perspective on the human world he comes from. In the end, he is willing and able to leave his human body behind so as to live permanently as a Na’vi on Pandora. The player thus exchanges what he took to be his reality for his game world; the one who came down from the sky joins the web of life on this new Earth.

Avatar, dir. Cameron (2009)
Through its mythical and gaming associations, the film’s title also comments on the very nature of the cinematic experience. As viewers and listeners, members of the audience descend from their own reality into the fictional world of the film, using its protagonist as their avatar. Like gamers, they may concentrate on learning about this world and confronting numerous challenges within it, which in turn allows them to engage with it ever more intensively. While they have no actual control over the actions of their avatar, like divine beings audience members may feel that this whole world is at their service, and that everything is ultimately organised for their avatar’s convenience. So what are the implications of Jake’s decision to switch permanently into his avatar’s body and thus stay in his gaming world? Where does this leave the audience for whom Jake is an avatar?

Similar questions are raised by the film’s opening sequence. The film begins with the camera flying over a dense forest, and a voiceover explaining that this was a recurring dream the protagonist (Jake Sully) had when he was in a veterans’ administration hospital. Given that this is a 3-D movie and that initially it was shown on the largest available screens (including many IMAX screens), the opening emphasises one of the main attractions of widescreen and 3-D technologies, namely the possibility to create a heightened sense of movement through space. Jake’s dream has been the dream such technologies have pursued ever since they were widely introduced in the 1950s. Right from the get-go, Avatar confirmed to viewers that this dream has now become a reality.

At the same time, the opening scene offers references to a particular tradition in Hollywood filmmaking. In recent decades, thoughts of war veterans and jungles are most likely to evoke the Vietnam war and in particular Hollywood’s numerous representations of that conflict in films primarily of the 1970s and 1980s. If one makes this connection, then the dream flight over the jungle landscape represents more than simply the age-old human dream of flying, or the specific desire of an injured soldier to compensate for his restricted mobility in a hospital with the heightened mobility of flight; it also entails a potential threat, because American soldiers might just start firing into the jungle, dropping bombs and setting fire to it (which of course they do later in the film).

Finally, the opening scene is presented as arising from within the protagonist’s consciousness, and it does so in two ways: first it is said to be a dream of the soldier lying in a hospital, secondly the voice-over narrator explains that it is a dream he used to have in the past; even the dream is now only available as a memory. Hence the flying scenes are twice removed from narrator’s present reality: they are memories of past dreams. Yet, for the viewers (especially those in a 3-D IMAX cinema) they take place very much in the present and may well have the power to affect them physically. There is a gap, then, between the narrator’s highly mediated connection to the flying scene and the viewers’ immediate experience of it. One might expect that this gap will be closed in the course of the film (as indeed it is). 

This expectation is also raised by the conventions of Hollywood storytelling: We can assume that, if a dream is so clearly stated at the beginning, the protagonist who has this dream will strive to make it a reality, and that eventually he will achieve this. We can also expect the distantiation created by the voice-over to fade in the course of the film, so that the sense of present tense overrides the fact that everything presented in the film is in fact a memory. In this way, then, Jake’s experience of his own dream will catch up with that of the audience. (Indeed, the voiceover of the protagonist looking back into his own past can in places be mistaken for, and is eventually dissolved into, the present-tense commentary that Jake records for his video log.)

Avatar, dir. Cameron (2009)
A Hero’s Journey in 3-D

Let’s take a closer look at the kind of change the story of Avatar focuses on. Hollywood cinema is centred on the transformation - the personal growth, psychological maturation etc. - of the stories’ protagonists.  According to script guru Christopher Vogler, filmic protagonists go on a journey (a hero’s journey) into a ‘special world’ which mirrors, in a highly exaggerated and fantastic manner, the everyday concerns of their ‘ordinary world’, and which allows them to resolve internal and external tensions and conflicts, so as to emerge from this adventure as more rounded, more socially integrated individuals. 

Films such as Avatar first establish an ordinary world for the protagonist - a world of family, community, work, which is comparable to our own world. This world is full of problems. In Avatar’s case, it is characterised by Jake Sully’s low social status, his inability to carry out his previous job due to partial paralysis and his lack of qualification for the new job he is given, his loss of the cameraderie with fellow soldiers and the initial hostility of his new boss, the death of his brother, and the absence, or active destruction, of natural surroundings. Once this ordinary world is established, the film transfers Jake to, and immerses him - and us - in, the special world of the jungle of Pandora. Cutting-edge film technology is used to make the ‘special world’ as extraordinary as possible.

How does 3-D technology function with regards to the hero’s journey? And how does the film itself reflect on that technology and that journey? It is certainly the case that 3-D effects allow viewers to immerse themselves deeply in the natural world of Pandora, and motion capture (or ‘performance capture’) and computer generated images bring its alien beings to life. However, a word of caution about the importance of 3-D for the film’s impact is in order: Both in cinemas and on DVD and television, the vast majority of the film’s viewers worldwide saw the 2-D version. And although Avatar was by far the most successful 3D-Film in history, the expectation that its success might make 3-D a new standard for Hollywood releases has not been fulfilled. Nevertheless, I want to concentrate on the particular contribution that 3-D makes to the experience of the film.

Before entering the cinema auditorium, we are given 3-D glasses, which we have to use to cover our eyes so as to be able to enter into the world of the film which is going to be projected onto the screen. If we were to refuse to wear them, watching the film would be an exceedingly unpleasant experience. Putting on the glasses reminds us of how utterly dependent our cinematic experience is on technology. It also constitutes another threshold we are crossing in the transition from our everyday world into the world of the film adventure (other such thresholds are the departure from our homes, the purchase of the ticket, entering the auditorium, the lights going out). Each threshold serves to emphasise how different our cinematic experience is going to be from everyday life. At the same time, the donning of glasses brings us closer to the people who are going to share this experience with us. Not only are we all converging on this particular cinema auditorium at this particular moment in time, but we also cement our connection by all donning these glasses, creating a uniformity of appearance. But the glasses also serve to distance us from each other, insofar as looking at each other rather than at the screen is discouraged by wearing them.

3-D IMAX cinema audience
Now, in the story of the film, after a long journey across space, a group of people arrive on a planet with a poisonous atmosphere. Before they set foot on this planet they are told that they have to wear a mask on their face which will enable them to breath. The mask is a reminder that their presence on this planet is heavily dependent on technology, and that they have moved far away from their previous existence. It also serves to emphasise their shared humanity in contrast to the natives who require no such technological support to breath. Of course, they are not required to wear the mask all the time because they can move within the man-made environments constructed on the planet; in other words, instead of wearing a mask, they can inhabit a technological construct that is like living inside a giant mask. Still, whenever they cross the threshold between their built environment (buildings as well as vehicles) and the outside world, they all have to wear the mask, which makes them look alike and also creates a distance between them, a physical barrier between one face and the next. The necessity for human characters to wear a mask thus echoes in quite a profound way the necessity for viewers of the 3-D version to wear glasses. 

At the same time, the wearing of the mask expresses the tension at the very heart of the film’s narrative: in it humans confront an environment that is dangerous to them, developing a range of strategies for how to deal with that danger. Broadly speaking, there are two strategies: first, the mask and the built environment; second, the avatar programme. Both are heavily dependent on human technology. In a surprising twist, towards the end of the film, a third strategy arises which is no longer dependent on human technology: the permanent transfer of a human mind into the avatar, brought about by the planet’s neural network. The avatar programme thus constitutes a transitional stage - inbetween the initial stage of a fundamental physical separation between humans and environment, and the final stage of full human immersion in that environment. One might even say that the avatar programme marks that moment when a cinema audience, awkwardly conscious of the glasses in front of their eyes and thus of a physical barrier between themselves and their surroundings and also of their dependence on cinematic technology, loses itself in the 3-D cinematic space their glasses allow them to see and in the story unfolding in that space, with the film’s protagonist acting as their own avatar. 

While the transition from an awareness of one’s own body, of a technological process, of the real space of the auditorium and the people in it, to an immersion in fictional space and story is typical of all cinema experiences, the 3-D technology enhances the transformative nature of this transition. The use of the word ‘avatar’ in the film’s title, and the way it is literalised in the story, marks this heightened sense of transformation by suggesting that viewers can physically enter into a different world (as gods walking among mortals, as players in a computer game). Yet, the term also is a reminder of the fact that this entering into a different world is only a partial and temporary experience (the gods will eventually return to the heavens, the players never actually leave the physical world around them and they can not play on forever). 

Avatar, dir. Cameron (2009)
All of this is mirrored in the story of the film. On the one hand, the story emphasises how physically liberating and stimulating it is for the protagonist to inhabit the avatar body (here his disability serves to heighten the difference between his everyday existence - which is, of course, characterised by a restriction on mobility similar to that of the people in the cinema auditorium - and the technologically facilitated experience of the avatar’s world - once again mirroring the viewer’s technologically facilitated experience of the cinematic world). On the other hand, this experience is constantly disrupted (initially in a planned fashion, later through violent outside interventions), and the reminders of the needs and vulnerability of the human body left behind become an increasingly important issue. The story comes to focus ever more on the nuisance and danger of having a human body, and it culminates in its abandonment. 

If the protagonist’s journey echoes that of the viewer, what are we to make of that final transformation? One might say that it simply takes the logic underpinning the cinematic adventure (the transition from the everyday world into an alternative reality) too far so that instead of heightening the vicarious experience the viewer has through the protagonist (and through the 3-D glasses), it actually serves as a painful reminder that such total transcendence of the everyday is simply not available in the cinema. Our connection with the protagonist does not go as far as physically and permanently being able to leave our regular lives and bodies behind. Of course, the film’s action ends precisely at the moment when the protagonist has achieved what is impossible for us to do: The last shot of the film is of his eyes opening and staring at us (and Neytiri - but that is another story); then the story ends (although as soon as the credits begin there is more material from the story world projected on the screen; once again this needs to be considered separately). 

When the protagonist has finally done what is impossible for us to do (to abandon the old body and permanently inhabit a new one), our connection with him has to be severed. After all we are only viewers - and the fact that he stares at us, mirroring our own staring at the screen, tells us that this is all we are, and the contrast between his uncovered eyes and our own eyes, covered by 3-D glasses, confirms our essential difference. At the same time, the protagonist’s face points forward to the moment when we remove the glasses and thus enter into a much more unmediated relationship with our surroundings again. In other words: when Jake awakens in his new body, he prefigures our imminent awakening into the reality of our own body and our actual surroundings. If Jake’s story ends with leaving behind what he has come to regard as a lesser existence, we also ultimately have to recognise that watching a film is a lesser reality than our actual bodies and social connections.

Avatar, dir. Cameron (2009

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