Digitized images, idealized nature: an illusory blend

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / January 10, 2010

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If it’s true that great art is inspired by other art as much as by nature, “Avatar’’ - purely from a visual point of view - is exemplary. The floating Hallelujah Mountains of the fictional moon Pandora, where many of the action scenes are set, derive straight from the high and handsome mountains that have been a staple of Chinese ink painting for centuries. One of the favored ways of rendering mountains in the Chinese tradition is to separate the peaks from the lower slopes with passages of mist or cloud, so that they seem unanchored from the earth below. Director James Camer on has simply given this wonderfully evocative pictorial device a more literal and photographic veneer.

Similarly, many of the ferocious creatures that populate Pandora derive from the Western pictorial tradition of the “grotesque’’ - especially the tradition of inventing entirely new creatures by cobbling together the body parts of already existing ones. Look at any version of a Christian subject like “The Temptation of Saint Anthony’’ by Jacques Callot, Matthias Grünewald, Martin Schongauer, or Lucas Cranach and you will see exactly the kinds of cut-and-paste creatures that burst out of the Pandoran undergrowth or tear down from its skies.

But as much as from art history, the look of “Avatar’’ derives from nature documentaries. These have enjoyed a golden period since the 1990s thanks in part to advances in camera technology (time-lapse and infra-red photography, hidden and portable cameras) but also to new levels of ambition in storytelling. In some of the most wonder-inducing scenes in “Avatar’’ I half expected the brief pauses of silence to be interrupted by the hushed but rapturous voice-over of David Attenborough.

But of course, the creatures of Pandora, the floating mountains, and the rest of the film’s fantastical landscape have not been filmed “on location’’ out in the wilds: rather, it’s all digitially rendered. Seen through 3-D glasses - and despite his halo of technological artifice - Cameron’s fastidiously engineered world was astonishing, magnificent.

But did I actually like “Avatar’’? Not really. In “The Lord of the Rings,’’ for all Tolkein’s fantastic inventions, you can believe in the weather, which is always sensuously and specifically observed. In “Avatar,’’ we barely notice it: instead, it’s all generalized sunsets and digitally enhanced “studio lighting.’’

Similarly, the movie’s story line - which sets the commercially-motivated rape of nature in conflict with sentimentalized notions of indigenousness - lacks a context (call it an ethical weather system) in which we can even begin to believe. Instead, it takes place in a goulash of New Age clichés about “energy’’ in nature existing in concert with indigenous spirituality.

These ideas can be traced back, if one can be bothered, to Rousseau’s “noble savage,’’ but Rousseau was at least able to give his sentimentality a provocative, accusatory form. Cameron’s finger-wagging is laughably ineffectual.

Some see the movie as a kind of children’s morality play for adults. They’re wrong. “Avatar’’ is not for adults: it’s emphatically for children - or for the child in us who wants to believe that every moral confusion, every wrong committed against an “innocent’’ world, can be set to rights by sentimental thinking and an orgy of well-directed violence.

With “Avatar,’’ Cameron has not brought us closer to nature - not even in allegorical terms. By pandering to our thirst for the spectacular, he has made us forget what nature is really like - indifferent, amoral, and seldom picturesque - which in turn makes it harder for us to picture ourselves, sustainably, in it.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

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