“Avatar” is beautiful and otherworldly, but the film is so grounded in down-to-earth concepts that it restricts the viewer’s imagination rather than broadening it. An infinitely better and more complex recent space opera, “Mass Effect 2,” comes in the form of a video game. Is it art? Yes.
By Justin Marble
Over the centuries the relationship between popularity and artistic merit has been fascinatingly out-of-kilter. James Cameron’s sci-fi epic “Avatar” has smashed every box-office record out there though it’s devoid of any kind of aesthetic or narrative complexity whatsoever. The movie is pretty to look at and even fun to sit through, much like a roller coaster ride. But the story, characters, and themes of the movie leave little for the mind to chew on; for a film that purports to be about a completely new world, everything is familiar, generic, safe, and obvious.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be so troubling if Cameron’s Golden Globe acceptance speech for Best Director didn’t include him reciting the Na’vi aliens’ catchphrase (“I see you”) as if it were some type of philosophical breakthrough.
The truth is that the first space opera since “Star Wars” isn’t in theaters. It’s in Xbox 360s. The game is called “Mass Effect 2,” and it is infinitely better and more complex than any extraterrestrial epic out of Hollywood since George Lucas went bonkers. Am I actually recommending we search for art not on celluloid but in a video game? Yes, yes I am.
Perhaps that’s unfair. Unlike toy-commercial blockbusters like “Transformers” or “GI Joe,” “Avatar” at least attempts to have a theme, even if it was, well, dumb.
The humans in the story, led by a corporate bigwig and a military general (who—brace yourselves—are jerks), want to mine a valuable resource called “unobtanium” (really?) out from under the entrenched, indigenous Na’vi. Our hero, the Generic Soldier, uses new technology that allows him to inhabit a Na’vi body in an attempt to convince them to move. Eventually the heartless general and greedy profit monger grow tired of this and decide they are going to move in with their mechs and destroy the poor Indians—sorry, Na’vi.
A political allegory! Fascinating. Obviously, the humans here are stand-ins for 18th century imperialists, or maybe Manifest Destiny Americans, or, if you’re feeling current and dramatic, Bush. If you’ve seen “Dances With Wolves,” “Pocahontas,” or “Dune,” or have a functioning brain, you can guess what happens next. Generic Soldier falls in love with a native and decides to use his new avatar body to save the Na’vi from destruction. Well, at this point the allegory gets shucked off in favor of some battle scenes.
I don’t want to be the art-house critic who despises anything with a hint of fun or anything that has gained a fair amount of popularity. I can appreciate a good space opera. “Star Wars” was the first time I really began to think about film in a serious way. And I enjoyed the hell out of this summer’s “Star Trek” reboot.
But I must question if we are asking too little from the film experience and, specifically, from the space opera. Some people view movies as a form of escapism, and the space story is the ultimate form of escapism: we literally leave our world behind and see technology and planets that we have yet to discover except in our minds. There’s an innocent beauty to it.
The significance of “Avatar” lies in the technology Cameron invented to help tell the story. It will allow movies to be bigger, shinier, and in three dimensions. But what if that technology is the wrong direction, a dead end? What if we shouldn’t be thinking bigger, but smaller?
For years video games had no stories. There were levels, and at the end you had to save a princess or stop an evil robot, but that was it. They were entertainment, not art. As games began selling more, budgets increased. Game companies began investing in people who knew how to tell stories. Yet these games, appealing to a popular audience, took their cues from Hollywood’s big-budget blockbusters. Today the vast majority of games still do.
But “Mass Effect 2” takes the storytelling control away from Hollywood, away from the James Camerons of the world. Bioware (the developers of the game) have created an experience that is unique to the individual player. And the implications of this control are far more fascinating than the passive experience of sitting in a dark theater.
The original “Mass Effect” was much like a Hollywood epic. Bioware created a universe set in the 22nd century (like Cameron’s “Avatar”) where the discovery of something called a mass relay (a big teleporter floating in space) allows instant travel to other galaxies. Humanity made contact with aliens, but we were technologically outmatched. Other races had discovered mass relays before us, and we were marginalized in intergalactic politics. Yet when the player’s character discovers an evil alien’s plot to wipe out the galaxy, he saves the day and humanity becomes the dominant race.
It’s pretty silly, like a blockbuster tends to be. But “Mass Effect” was also a role-playing game (known as an RPG to gamers). You chose how your character would respond to certain situations. You could play him as a xenophobic murderer who wanted humans to take over or as an intergalactic peacekeeper who wanted to foster mutual survival and benefit. You could develop relationships with your crew, and your choices could also lead to some of their deaths.
“Mass Effect 2” carries your unique story into the second game (which is to be the middle entry in a trilogy). The choices you made years ago affect the universe you see in this game. Humanity may have one voice among many on an inter-species ruling council. Or it may be the sole voice. People you helped may return the favor. Or they may be dead. These choices come up again and again, but Bioware introduces a moral and philosophical complexity that goes far beyond “Avatar”’s childish good guys and bad guys.
The ending offers an opportunity to take over an alien base with advanced technology. Yet the post is fueled by human lives—people that have been boiled down to paste. Does the end justify the means? You’ll see your choice, and the consequences, play out. These choices continue to affect the game, crafting a unique story that culminates in a “suicide mission” in which you and your squadmates may not make it out alive.
Everyone knows the scene in the war movie where a wounded soldier sacrifices themselves for the cause. It happens a few times in “Avatar.” Michelle Rodriguez, playing a rogue, human, helicopter pilot, gives her life while fighting the evil general. Yet her character is so very boring, dull, and one-dimensional that we don’t really care. We’ve become desensitized to these types of things because of overuse and poor writing.
Let’s contrast this with Garrus Vakarian, an alien security officer you meet way back in “Mass Effect.” You can talk to him, learn his back story, even shape the way he views the world. He can become bitter and jaded at the bureaucracy and red tape surrounding his job or a force for justice. Over hours and hours of gameplay, he can be by your side, fighting your enemies with you. In my game, during our final mission, he was shot while attempting to do his duty. He was shot because I decided to place him in that situation.
In a beautifully rendered scene, with lighting and camera movement, this artificial, computer-generated model gasped its last breath. Like all great moments in the “Mass Effect” games, my character was allowed to respond how I chose (via a conversation system that allows you to select responses). I was emotionally affected in a way I didn’t think was possible while playing a video game. He doesn’t always have to die. But the choices I made up to that point meant he was a goner.
I regretted those choices. I wished he hadn’t died. It was a stupid game, something I was playing for fun. But I felt a real connection to something completely fake—something animated. Bioware achieved something Cameron didn’t. Games achieved something film didn’t. It was because the story had become my story. I wasn’t being lectured to from on high about the trappings of imperialism, shown things by an all-powerful director, manipulated to feel emotion for a silly-looking, blue alien. Or maybe I was, but because I implicitly participated in it, it resonated more. I’m still not sure.
The end of “Empire Strikes Back” is pretty depressing when you’re 10 years old. Lando betrays his friend. Han Solo is frozen in carbonite. Luke gets his hand cut off, and finds out Vader is his father. The film ends with the main characters looking out into space, a black abyss. It’s art. It takes risks. “Mass Effect 2” is similar. Your victory is Pyrrhic and small considering the large scope Bioware gives the series. Your friends may have died. The main evil you have faced off against is still out there, still threatening.
“Avatar” takes no risks. Evil is soundly defeated and punished. There’s no moral complexity, nothing to think about it when it’s over. Sure, minor characters die, but their sacrifice is not treated as being significant, and we are unaffected because they are nothing more than devices used to further the all-important plot. At one time (pre-prequels), Lucas understood character. Bioware does too. Cameron does not.
For me, the metaphor for the artistic imagination is space. There is no greater natural blank canvas than the night sky. We don’t know what lies beyond our planet, beyond our system, beyond our galaxy. It is the unknown. A good chunk of the genre of science fiction is based on this premise. Yet we have become passive participants in the death of the imagination, the death of space. A story that has been told many times before, gussied up in 3-D, is the greatest box-office earner of all time. It is only going to change if we create the next stories ourselves.