I'm still processing Up in the Air, which I saw this afternoon. I was looking forward to it, since it got such great reviews across the board. Similarly Avatar has gotten great reviews. As I'm processing, I find a link between these two movies. In a weird way, they're almost the same movie, with some of the same flaws and issues. (Lots of spoilers will abound here, so if you want to see these unspoiled, you know, take a hike.)
Both movies follow fairly privileged white guys, who, in the course of the movie, discover the error of their selfish, self-centered ways, see the light of a larger picture, a larger thing than themselves and try to change permanently. In one film that change is more successful than in the other. Both are pretty much fantasies. One features beautiful, otherworldly creatures, the likes of which you would never see in real life. The other features a lot of CGI. (Ba-zing!)
For me, both are in a way, less than the sum of their parts. Both scripts are, if you ask me, pretty well-written, relatively smart (though one is far cheesier than the other) and of pretty good quality. They're structurally pretty neat. Both have some twists of story and plot, one more effectively surprising, but neither are what anyone would call shocking. Both are more than competently directed. The performances, for my money, across the board, are pretty good. Maybe not all stunning or Oscar-worthy or whatever, but good. Even Stephen Lang in Avatar in a role that could have been a one-note, scenery-chewing monstrosity manages to be a smart, at least moderately complicated villain (with only a bit of scenery-chewing). Not an easy task. Similarly, Vera Farmiga takes an older version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and nearly makes her a person in her own right in Up in the Air. Both stereotypes that manage to be more than their surfaces.
But in their bones...they're both kind of hollow and empty. Some of Avatar's issues I referred to here. It's a weird combination of easy, knee-jerk liberalism/environmentalism, geek boy fantasizing and, yes, Thomas Garvey, not particularly subtle anti-Bushism. It feels like what it is: a script that was topical in 1991, sat in a drawer for a decade and was filmed with little or no updates. One of my favorite little bits is that, okay, we're 150 years into the future, but when we see the group of avatars playing a very recognizable game of basketball (because sports don't evolve over time), someone talks about how they've got skillz (you can just hear the "z"). Because slang also doesn't change or update in 150 years. It's stunning to watch, kind of thrilling to experience, but, in the end, there's nothing new or revolutionary in it.
Up in the Air, as the commenters say here, wants to have it both ways: the first half is basically a commercial for the perks of corporate travel, clearly paid for by American Airlines, Hertz and Hilton. With the incredibly dapper and smooth George Clooney doing the traveling, it's incredibly seductive. But then the second half is supposed to make us feel how empty and sad it all is. But without ever really leaving the comforts of the frequent flyer lounge. It wants to have it both ways, but winds up giving us neither, really. In a way, Ryan Bingham, George Clooney's character, wants to have it both ways: he's cut off all attachments, all meaningful connection to his family or anyone else and then is shocked, SHOCKED to find that he has no meaningful connection to his family or anyone else. All because of the love of a good woman (well, one that seems like a good woman). In the end, all you need is love and poor Ryan is left with his 10 million frequent flyer miles. And his job. And the life he's created for himself. Which consists of pulling the rug out from under other folks. Yeah, it's a bit shallow for us to feel like some tragedy has befallen Bingham when he creates actual tragedy for other people. But we also don't really feel sorrow for him. We feel sorry for ourselves, for the state of humanity. Here, I wrote about my flirtation with misanthropy and this movie really doesn't do much to alleviate that. Like Avatar, Up in the Air doesn't really paint the best picture of humanity.
The ads for Up in the Air call it a "film for our times." I think that's pretty apt and kind of depressing. Taken together, Avatar and Up in the Air do paint a picture of the American psyche at the end of the first decade of the 21st century and show us some of the thinking that got us here. Both show a corporate culture that values financial success and material wealth over humanity (or Na'vi). You can call it unobtainium or 10 million air miles, but the pursuit of empty things lead us to wreck and ruin.
But the most telling part is the fantasy: that within every corporate raider and tool beats a sensitive soul waiting to be released. Ryan and Sully are really fundamentally good people who want to do the right thing, given the chance. And they take those chances in both hands and grab hold (or link their brains directly into it). They sacrifice and lose along the way and only one ends up triumphant in any meaningful way, but they're not soulless corporate raiders. Not really. Inside of Bernie Madoff, there lies a George Bailey, just waiting to be discovered. It's what we want to believe about ourselves. Whether it's true or not.
I think that hope that we're not selfish, self-centered people is what's American. Not actually being better, but the hope that we can be better, the hope for redemption. Both of these movies show that hope and completely elide over the hard work that redemption requires. A few one-night stands, some loving from a comely native chick won't do it. Not in the real world. But it sure is nice to think about it.