Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Whole New World ...

Saturday morning I decided to watch a bit of one of my favorite movies - Terrence Malick's masterpiece, The New World. It had made it onto the AV Club's top movies of the decade, which made me remember, hey, I love that movie.

If you're not familiar, The New World is a re-telling of the John Smith/Pocahontas myth - which sounds like it has to be some kind of colonialist b.s. Fortunately, Terrence Malick is all kinds of cool - not only a visionary filmmaker, but a deeply-spiritual storyteller whose movies explore the relationship between humankind, God, and nature. With Colin Farrell (one of our most underrated actors, in my opinion, probably due to his propensity for mullets) and Q'orianka Kilcher (Jewel's cousin!) in the lead roles, this movie spends little time on the whole "Indian-princess-throws-herself-on-white-man" part of the story, and focuses on the spiritual life of the hero and heroine. Sounds like it could be boring, but trust me, it's not.

Then, Saturday afternoon, I went to see James Cameron's Avatar. You may have heard of it. Imagine my surprise when I realized I was seeing the exact same movie that I had watched that morning -- only with blue CGI aliens instead of people. Colonialist gets lost in woods. Colonialist is going to die. Colonialist is saved by hot native chick. Hot chick's father tells her she has to teach the colonialist "our ways." Then there's some running around in the forest and stuff blows up.

Now, I don't mind a story re-tread (Owen Gleiberman at addressed Avatar's lack of an original story in this recent column). "Stranger in a strange land" is one of the classic plots, going back further than old Ulysses sailing around and visiting the lovely ladies of the Mediterranean. However, there was just something about Avatar that didn't jive with its message. Both Avatar and The New World explore how newcomers take the first steps to destroy a lush and natural world, even as they enjoy its wonders. And each film explores (one more deeply than another) the spiritual devastation this wreaks upon its heroes. That's a great, green message that all of us can learn from.

It seems to me, however, that Cameron undercuts that message by creating a whole world from computers, including the bodies of our hero and heroine. Just as he's saying, "learn about the world, and how everything is connected," he sends moviegoers the implicit message, "but, hey, if you don't, with my computer-generated wizardry, I can create a 3D world that's brighter and more awesome than anything on earth. And it will have dragons."

So while Malick is really trying to get us to see the world around us, constructing a story not only from the relationships of the main characters, but also from shots of waving grasses, trees creaking in the wind, and rivers as smooth as glass; Cameron takes moviegoers away. We don't really learn to see when we watch Avatar (although true-seeing is one of the film's themes) because what we do see onscreen makes it unnecessary for us to use our imaginations.

So if you have the chance, rent The New World, to see, in the words of the, how Malick, "treats the humans and their environment with equal interest, showing them all as part of an unstable order. ... throughout, Malick integrates every visual and audio element of the film into a meditation on one difficult question: 'Shall we not take what we are given?'." And then go see Avatar, and see if it moves you to consider your earth in a new way, or just makes you say "gee-whiz."

(I really enjoyed Avatar, by the way. You know, dragons are awesome. And it would be fun to ride one.)

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