'Avatar,' 'Young Victoria' offer vivid glimpses of other times, cultures

Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington shine in "Avatar," even though they do much of their acting through motion-capture animation.
Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington shine in "Avatar," even though they do much of their acting through motion-capture animation. (Weta/Twentieth Century Fox)
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, December 18, 2009

"The Young Victoria," a sumptuous period drama starring Emily Blunt as the teenage girl on the verge of assuming the British throne in 1837, will swan into a couple of art houses Friday, just as "Avatar," the multimillion-dollar special-effects extravaganza thundering our way for more than a decade, will swamp the nation's multiplexes. "The Young Victoria's" producers include film royalty (Martin Scorsese) and actual royalty (Sarah Ferguson), but "Avatar" was made for a king's ransom: Its budget is reported to be anywhere from $230 million to $300 million, not counting marketing costs. And its writer-director, James Cameron, has promised that its seamless mix of live-action, computer-animated and 3-D technology will redefine cinematic grammar.

Let the record show that each movie succeeds on its own merits, and in accordance with the conventions of its genre: "The Young Victoria" as classy, sophisticated portraiture that effortlessly limns history and epic romance (the movie was written by "Gosford Park's" Julian Fellowes); "Avatar" as a science-fiction-fantasy-action-adventure that energetically earns every one of its hyphens.

"Avatar" makes no great literary claims -- its dialogue is eye-rollingly corny and its plot has been cobbled together from any number of forgettable B-movies. But, like "The Young Victoria," Cameron's film swiftly and completely transports viewers into another world, in this case a distant moon called Pandora, in the year 2154. At their best, both films create a fully immersive experience, plunging viewers into the past and the future with dazzling detail and immediacy.

Filmgoers watching "The Young Victoria" or "Avatar" will find themselves exceedingly well served by each movie's surface pleasures: the damask splendor in one, the psychedelic jungles in the other. But anyone attuned to subtext will also find that they represent a fascinating continuum through culture and history, starting in Her Majesty's veddy proper 19th century and finding its interplanetary end in Cameron's 22nd.

Focusing as it does on Victoria's early years and courtship with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), "The Young Victoria" conveys only the most subtle whiffs of the British Empire that would flourish so aggressively over the course of Victoria's reign, which ended with her death in 1901. In concentrating on her early years, when she first takes up with the forward-thinking Albert, "The Young Victoria" spotlights the promises of progress and enlightenment, and anticipates more troubling notions of hegemony.

So the ruthless and often rapacious depredations that characterized British and European colonization during Victoria's Pax Britannia are relegated to mere whiffs in "The Young Victoria," where her uncle King Leopold I of Belgium plays matchmaker in the 1830s. But viewers familiar with the next generation may well recognize him as the father of King Leopold II, who as a contemporary of his British cousin, and with the aid of his vicious private army, established a colony in Congo, where he enslaved millions in order to extract valuable rubber and ivory. As a love story would have it, we see only cooing and courtliness, even if their union would have such consequence.

Dark hearts

Ensuing years have cast King Leopold II as the worst villain of a colonial era characterized by the systematic oppression of native peoples in Africa, the Middle East and India, where the Victorian East India Company plied its trade in textiles and tea. It's a story writ large and intergalactic in "Avatar," the plot of which centers on a mercenary named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is sent to Pandora to help a corporation called Resources Development Administration extract a precious substance called "unobtainium" from the native Na'vi, a tribe of blue-skinned, cat-eyed ectomorphs.

When Sully, in a voice-over, describes himself as "a dumb grunt going someplace he's going to regret," he could be Joseph Conrad's Marlow as he embarks on his Congo journey in "Heart of Darkness." And when RDA executives and their fatigue-wearing minions describe the Na'vi as "fly-bitten savages" and "blue monkeys," they recall Marlow's own dehumanizing description of Congo natives as "mostly black and naked, [moving] about like ants" and "black shapes."

When Sully finally goes native, it isn't in the spirit of Conrad's anti-hero Kurtz, who in "Heart of Darkness" fancies himself the godlike white ruler of an inferior race. Indeed Cameron's subtext throughout "Avatar" is righteously anti-imperialist, with the RDA and its forces painted as greedy, unfeeling goons and the Na'vi as spiritually evolved and enlightened. Just in case filmgoers don't get Cameron's political drift, he makes sure to underline it, invoking such Bush Doctrine phraseology as "shock and awe" and "fighting terror with terror."

The supreme irony, of course, is that while Cameron inveighs against imperialism in its economic and militarized forms, he commits exactly that on such a grand geo-cultural scale. As an example of Hollywood product at its most bombastic -- there's nothing like a few good explosions to transcend pesky language barriers and subtitles -- "Avatar" may be the ultimate weapon of mass distraction.

The self-crowned "King of the World" has always fancied global domination; Cameron is building on what he already proved with his 1997 movie, "Titanic," which has made nearly $2 billion worldwide: that the verities of doomed love, physical adventure and a big boat sinking succeed whether viewers speak English or not. "Avatar" is just the newest, loudest, shiniest iteration of America's last remaining reliable international export at a time when our global economic role has been to buy other countries' stuff cheap at Wal-Mart.

An old-style epic

By way of invidious comparison, consider "Red Cliff," a historical epic by Hong Kong action maestro John Woo, which is playing in a few of the same art houses that are showing "The Young Victoria."

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