Saturday, January 23, 2010

Avatar: Technological leap and dishonest philosophy

When James Cameron's previous blockbuster "Titanic" (1997) swept the Oscars one of my ex-bosses wryly remarked 'third rate bollywood movie'. Cameron declared himself "king of the world" and numbed by the staggering success just went into hibernation. Cameron burst into the new decade with a more staggering success that has practically redefined movie making, movie marketing etc. Cameron's "Avatar", already crossed the $1 billion mark and set to surpass Titanic in collection, is a "phenomenon". From winning the Golden Globe for 'best picture' to being the cover story for BusinessWeek its Cameron everywhere.

Much against my inclinations I went to see 'Avatar' because the technology lover in me trumped the ideologue. The technology simply stumped me (that I saw the 2-D version). The philosophy, as expected, disgusted me. First the technology.

Creating distinctive flora and fauna for aliens, color co-ordinated alien worlds, creating an alien speak are all nothing unique, George Lucas has done it all before in his "Star Wars" movies. Cameron took all that to a plane that was exponentially grander than ever before. "From January to April 2006, Cameron worked on the script and developed a culture for the Na'vi. Their language was created by Dr. Paul Frommer, a linguistat USC.[7] The Na'vi language has a vocabulary of about 1000 words, with some 30 added by Cameron. The tongue's phonemes include ejective consonants(such as the "kx" in "skxawng") that are found in the Amharic language of Ethiopia, and the initial "ng" that Cameron may have taken from New Zealand Māori." Now that is imagination and dedication that far surpasses even Spielberg.

BusinessWeek (BW) gives a detailed cover story with an important caveat: "Reasonable people can debate the artistic merits of James Cameron's work". Eclipsing all the other achievements was Cameron's designing of his own cameras. The script was ready 15 years ago, what Cameron waited for technology to deliver what he conceived in his mind. He wanted to do a 3D movie in such a way that the movie would draw crowds by the millions and not merely thousands who come to gawk at a 'novelty' like they did for the previous 3D efforts. "In September 2006, Cameron was announced to be using his own Reality Camera System to film in 3-D. The system would use two high-definition cameras in a single camera body to create depth perception". Cameron did what Isaac Newton did (ah what a comparison but could not think of anything else). Newton found existing mathematical concepts insufficient to explain gravity and he invented Calculus. Cameron invented his own camera. Fox studios balked at the expense. Now Cameron became John Galt,"With the studio balking, Cameron had to turn himself into an inventor-entrepreneur. Using his own funds, he developed the technology to bring Avatar to the screen, betting that what he saw in his head would be so visually persuasive that, ultimately, he could sell his souped-up camera rigs back to Hollywood at a potentially considerable profit.....'I knew that if this failed my name would be dirt, but that's the nature of this business," says Cameron. "Every director knows that you can flame and burn like the Hindenburg, and do it very publicly." I am reminded of how John Galt and Dagny build a bridge.

Using motion capture suits for live actors and transposing the motions was famously done earlier in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the rings" for the character of Gollum. Cameron took it several notches higher "Headsets rigged with tiny cameras captured actors' facial expressions and eye movements, a jolt of reality that Cameron deemed crucial if he was going to make the film. Using software developed in-house, the crew imported the actors into Pandora's digital world while Cameron was shooting"

Having paid our dues for the technology lets turn our attention the despicable hypocrisy that masqueraded for philosophy in the movie. The plot is a thinly disguised diatribe against American action in Iraq. An imperialist power is set to invade another civilization for the sake of 'precious mineral', references to pre-emptive attacks are explicit. The alien civilization is portrayed as "Eden like", everything is beautiful and pleasing to the eye, no socio-economic imbalances in the society, every animal and plant is stunningly color co-ordinated all living in complete harmony, no contention for anything leading to any conflict, there is no predator, no prey, just nature in its simplicity and pure benign manifestation. If this is not 'utopia' I"d like to know what is. Into this world intrude avaricious corporates aided by trigger happy marines of an army. The commanding general has fearsome scars, a scowl and is so plainly villainous that all that is missing is a patch reading "I am the villain, hate me please". All characters are uni-dimensional. Except for the "tree huggers" all other human beings are just plain villains. Every alien is docile and nature loving.

Wikipedia has interesting data on how much it has cost mother earth to produce this extravagant propaganda. "Digital effects rendering was performed at Weta Digital's data centre in Wellington, New Zealand. The 10,000-square foot server farm makes use of 4,000 Hewlett-Packard servers, and occupies the 193 spot in the Top 500 list of the world's most powerful supercomputers. Creating the virtual world of Pandora required over a petabyte of digital storage.[83] Each minute of the final footage for Avatar occupied 17.28 gigabytes of storage."

The carbon footprint for 4000 servers is staggering, then pile on digital storage, upgraded equipment in every theater to screen 3D, add the thousands of 3D glasses made and discarded. Al Gore comes to my mind. After railing about Armageddon and climate crisis for years he felt it was necessary to have a heated swimming pool in his home thus running up electricity bills that are way above the bills of average Tennessee homes. Of course he makes up for it by buying Carbon credits whereby some poor African government would plant trees to offset the carbon that Mr Gore keeps emitting. Simple, I am rich and I am entitled to put trash out on the street but I ease my guilt by paying somebody to clean up.The movie has its ludicrous moments when legions of Navi try to bring back to life a gun shot wounded dying Sigourney Weaver, the voodoo rituals sans technology would bring out a collective chortle in the audience.

Having written a thinly papered anti-capitalist screed Mr Cameron went to Twentieth Century Fox to produce the $300 million extravaganza. Now that company is owned by Rupert Murdoch, publisher of Wall Street JOurnal and owner of Dow Jones, citadels of captalism. Of course there is also the small inconvenient fact that Mr Murdoch is your arch type media conglomerate who straddles the globe and, to borrow Chomsky's phrase, is busy "manufacturing consent", especially with his highly partisan Fox News.

News Corp (owner of Fox network) used every arm of its octopus like media power house to promote the movie. Mr Cameron, laughing his way to the bank does not bat an eye. "The Coca-Cola Company collaborated with Twentieth Century Fox to launch a worldwide marketing campaign to promote the film. The highlight of the campaign was the website Specially-marked bottles and cans of Coca-Cola Zero, when held in front of a webcam, enabled users to interact with the website's 3D features using augmented reality (AR) technology."...Hhhmm using Coca Cola to advertise a movie that decries plundering of nature reeks of crass hypocrisy.

Unlike these preening hypocrites mega corporations have opened up to support fund drives by employees for Haiti. JP Morgan matches donations dollar for dollar upto $250,000. Imagine that. A $5 donation by an employee becomes $10. A $50 donation becomes $100. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have pledged almost their entire hard earned fortunes to charity. Al Gore gave $300 approx to charity in 2000 when he was V.P. Starbucks goes above and beyond in promoting communities and fair trade in areas from which they source coffee beans (

Vietnam and now Iraq are convenient sticks to beat the US with. Yes the Iraq invasion can be dissected for many omissions but will Mr Cameron grudge the fact that in the entire Middle East women voted and contested in free elections only in Iraq which now boasts a constitution. Its the US army which flew to Tsunami hit Thailand and to quake torn Haiti. Its the US army that took a beating giving aid to impoverished Somalis. Its the US army that prevented whole sale slaughter of Muslims in the Bosnian mess.

Its the American capitalist model that has made this dream run possible for Mr Cameron, American corporations, American companies, American consumers are all the thrusters for the profit rocket that Mr Cameron is riding high.

Now my caution to American companies that make it possible for Cameron to exist and prosper is this: Remember the story of Gail Wynand, the man who thought he can abandon philosophy and reclaim it at will only to find Ellsworth Toohey at the wheel.

Sources: Business Week


1 comment:

Geethakrishnan said...

I didn't know Gore has a heated swimming pool! Hey, Tennessee is a very cold place. He needs a heated pool, doesn't he? LOL!