The Myth of the Movie: Avatar, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore!

by Daniel Rourke

3D! According to the film industry, to director James ‘billions at the box-office’ Cameron, Avatar is the first ‘true’ 3D movie. It takes the experience of cinema to the next (natural?) level, and it does it in a way that makes the movie industry gasp. According to the industry, Avatar is the 3D film that other film makers will be watching for years to come; Avatar is the Citizen Kane of 3D cinema.

It is at this point that I could repudiate this position, arguing plainly, perhaps with examples from cinematic history, why Avatar is not a revolution, why beneath its faux-3D visuals it is the same old same old, re-wrapped and re-branded for the computer game generation. But, the truth is that I think Avatar is a triumph of film-making. Not because of its technical bravado or simple, effective characters, but because of something that Hollywood seems to have forgotten about itself: the mythic potential of cinema.

Although Avatar is definitely not the Citizen Kane of 3D cinema, it might just be its Wizard of Oz.

At its best Hollywood can be transformative. It can speak through its audience, mirroring the concerns of the generations. At its worst Hollywood is little more than a series of plucked-off-the-shelf set-scenes stitched end-to-end. Recent Hollywood vehicles that made a mockery of the art of film-making include Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Spider Man 3, Transformers, Indiana Jones IV and – dare I suggest it – both recent renditions of James Cameron’s estranged Hollywood franchise, Terminator III and IV.

Watching these movies is like being force-fed visual gruel. A luke-warm dribble of grey matter concocted to approximate the flavour and consistency of much richer, organically grown, cinematic equivalents. These films, each in their own way, do away with characters and conflicts, replacing them with up-and-coming stars and plot devices. Instead of scripts these films have sound bites, instead of cinematography and vision these films are filled with chase scenes and montages designed to pull the viewer from one meagre set-scene to another.

Ruby-slippers Of course it is unfair to generalise about all modern cinema. There are plenty of superb films that come out each year, and for every great film of the 2000s it is possible to find 10 awful films from the ‘Golden Age‘. What my argument centres around is a specific kind of film, the kind that we attach the label ‘Hollywood’ to, whether it was imagined and produced in Los Angeles or not. Films like The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars: A New Hope or E.T.. Films of mass appeal that culminate in a kind of cultural hysteria. Films that grow to encompass the mythos of their times.

Dorothy’s adventure through Oz is a great example of where a specific film and the mythos of cinema came together. In an over-hauling of the spectacle of cinema Dorothy’s journey to Oz mirrors the technical leap the film was built around. From the black and white plains of Kansas Dorothy is literally swept into the colourful land of Oz. Dorothy is taken from the cinematic old and brought into the cinematic new, her mythic tribulations aren’t just those of a fictional girl: they are the tale of cinema, of audience anticipation and the new wonders that Hollywood would show us if only we followed their Yellow Brick Road.

In Avatar James Cameron and his team have orchestrated a modern Wizard of Oz. Whilst following the mythic story arc of all great Hollywood blockbusters, Avatar maintains a pace and attention to necessary detail completely absent from the films listed above. What’s more, and this is perhaps Cameron’s cleverest slight of hand, the story that Avatar tells mirrors the unique experience that it wishes upon its audience. It is not just the residents of its utopian planet ‘Pandora‘ that are perceptively transformed: we the audience are almost literally taken with them.

The transformative insistence of the story plays out most readily when the hero, Jake Sully, speaks into his daily video diary. At one point, via admittedly clunky dialogue, he tells us face on, that the utopian life he has built on Pandora has superseded his human life as the “most real” of the two. Here Cameron’s fictional tale attempts to reach out from one 3D world to another. Here Cameron says to the audience to give themselves up, as readily as they can bear, to the mythos of cinema.

For me this is the pivot of Avatar’s success. Not for a moment do I believe that its computer generated beauty, and single-dimensional characters are the components that raise the film above 3D spectacle. It is the insistence, inherent in every frame of Avatar, that one give oneself up to the experience that drives James Cameron’s newest franchise.

Myths are stories that transcend the simplistic dichotomies of truth and fiction, of the contemporary and the eternal. A successful myth will embody a relationship between its structure and characters that mirrors aspects of human nature we all instinctively recognise. The truths of a mythic tale are transcendent truths, that is, they are as true in single contexts (e.g. this character is evil) as they are true eternally and in all situations (i.e. as human beings we all carry within us the capacity for evil). Avatar tells us nothing about human nature that we didn’t already know. Indeed, its character types and conflicts can be found again and again throughout the history of story telling. What Avatar does do is remind us of the mythic value of cinema itself, a myth that film producers and Hollywood executives would do well to utilise each time they plan their blockbusters.

Avatar-james-cameron The mythic truth of Avatar is this: that cinema is THE story-telling tool of the modern era. To use that tool; to abuse it for the benefit of film stars and profit margins alone is sacrilegious to the form. Avatar, and films crafted with similar care and attention, should be emulated by Hollywood not for their potential for profit, but for their ability to deliver to us the myths of our time. It is sad to note that Avatar’s success at the box-office will probably usher in a whole new generation of 3D spectacle from which rich story arcs and mythic character types will be amputated.

A good myth demands to be believed in, for its receiver to suspend every ounce of their disbelief in order that its ‘higher truth’ may shine through. As you watch the Baftas and Oscars this week, consider Avatar’s (possible) success as a parable. Like The Wizard of Oz, Avatar is a film that is asking to be bettered, a film that carries within itself the mythic ingredients necessary for the true Citizen Kane of 3D cinema to emerge.

Here’s hoping Hollywood responds to Avatar’s mythic resonance, rather than its box-office statistics. Here’s hoping that 3D cinema can bring us more of the amazing stories that Hollywood can proudly claim it has already delivered.

by Daniel Rourke