At first blush the two pictures couldn't be more different--one is a gigantic Hollywood production with a quarter of a billion dollar budget and fifteen-year development period (two months of which were devoted to live-action photography); the second is a tiny independent production with a thirty thousand dollar budget (barely enough to cover the cost of laundering the former's dirty underwear), two months pre-production period and eight days to actually shoot the movie.
Avatar's commercial run had all the impact of a detonated nuclear device--it's difficult to avoid the fallout from the promotional blitz that surrounded this picture, and as difficult to ignore the scavengers gathered round, picking on the corpses (winning all those Golden Doorstop© nominations won't make it any easier for the dust to dissipate, not for some time). Altar, safe to say, didn't make as much of a splash--a few theaters, a few favorable notices, a few film festivals, and the movie has since dropped from sight as thoroughly as its protagonist did from the outside world.
Avatar makes grand statements about the need to protect our environment (particularly our rain forests) and preserve our tribal cultures (Pandora is of course Earth, and the Na'vi are really our long-oppressed aboriginal tribes). It casts a blanket condemnation on large companies, particularly their security forces, and deliberately invites comparisons between RDA (the movie's rather blandly named villainous corporate entity) and private military contractors operating in Iraq like Blackwater (Not a little ironically one can also compare RDA to News Corp., Rupert Murdoch's anonymous-sounding multimedia conglomerate that in turn owns 20th Century Fox, this picture's production company).
Altar--well, you can't be sure exactly what it says. That a man cannot escape his destiny (Anton starts the film in a small room, ends the film in a different small room); that love is a luxury few can afford; that moral responsibility begins with sacrifice, then eats away inside of you for a long time, perhaps all your life. Barely anything earth-shaking or consequential, just little observations that might apply to one's personal life.
The two are not as grotesquely mismatched as you may think. Both are digital films, both feature temperamentally passive protagonists (Jake (Sam Worthington) in Avatar, Anton (Zanjoe Marudo) in Altar) pitted against forces beyond their control, or comprehension. Avatar's director James Cameron is famous worldwide for his fascist directing style and outrageous temper tantrums; I haven't heard any horror stories about Altar's director Rico Ilarde--but then all directors must act like dictators if necessary to finish their films. Ilarde's a veteran of both the commercial and independent filmmaking scene; I'm sure he's had to raise his voice now and then.
Avatar is filmmaking on an epic scale; Cameron amassed an array of groundbreaking techniques (Cameron's recent work has often been accompanied by a number of patents, for inventions developed during the making of the picture) to create and shoot the images he throws on the big screen. The camera swoops and falls and dives, especially in the scenes where Jake rides a Toruk, a giant birdlike predator; the camera takes in impossibly huge images, like the craggy islands that float above the planet's surface, or the thousand-foot-high Hometree that the Omaticaya tribe live in. I've always suspected that Cameron's model for much of his action filmmaking was Akira Kurosawa, especially in the way he tries to keep crucial movements on-camera and within a single shot (the Terminator punching through a windshield; Coffey's sub surging after Brigman's; Harry hanging from a helicopter, grabbing Helen's hand as her limo dives into the sea; the camera making a sweep of the length of the Titanic as passengers run from one end of the ship to the other). To get that shot he will act like an emperor, not giving in an inch until he has what he wants. With the freedom of an almost completely virtual environment his style has changed; now the model he seems to be following is that of Robert Zemeckis, who in his version of Beowulf (2007) showed an utter disregard for the laws of gravity and physics, his camera arcing through the space between Beowulf and Grendel like a third character with its own set of superhuman abilities.
Ilarde with his more modest budget can't afford to express that kind of freedom. His is more of a resurrection of the camera style of Howard Hawks (by way perhaps of John Carpenter and Walter Hill) with his classically simple set ups, his refusal to go shaky-cam even with a relatively lightweight digital camera in hand, his precise editing rhythms. He does use digital software--some wire erasures, some smoke and dust clouds, a pair of glowing eyes--but chastely, like lightly applied makeup. Not to say that Altar is all anachronisms, a throwback--Ilarde's images, as I've noted in other articles, combine Hawksian mis-en-scene with J-horror atmosphere and a digital-indie clarity to depict a protagonist that is pure Filipino male. There's a playfulness to his filmmaking, as well as an edge--he's hungry, his films have never been an outright hit (though the commercial ones have made a respectable amount of money), he's out to prove something both as an artist and a commercial filmmaker. Again, another observation I've often made about Ilarde: he's too much fun, too in love with genres like action and comedy and horror (and too fond of mixing them up in bizarre combinations) to be a pure indie artist, the same time his filmmaking is too visually subtle, his material too esoteric, to relegate him to the commercial directors' pile; like his films, he's an oddball hybrid, a scrappy one.
Perhaps the crucial difference between Avatar and Altar is this: with all that money and technology at his employ, Cameron has finally broken the bonds of mere practicality and created action sequences that are, well, unsurprisingly weightless. The Na'vi are totally imagined? Then their massacre totally feels as if it doesn't matter. The Hometree's destruction is virtually rendered? Then the event is virtually free of tragedy. Cameron worked long and hard and expensively to create the tools that create his world (rendered in bright Day-Glo colors, with people dyed Toilet-Duck blue running about) forgetting to give that world emotional heft, a way to affect us as people, as fellow human beings. Ilarde has no other choice but to affect us--he has no other world to offer other than our own, inhabited by people recognizably sad and funny and sexy and afraid, like us.
It doesn't help matters that, for all of Avatar's one hundred and sixty minute running time it's surprisingly light on characterization (well, perhaps not that surprising--Hollywood megaproductions (Transformers 2, Sherlock Holmes) seem to go over the two hour mark nowadays, making one wonder: why are they taking more and more time to say less and less?). Hence the RDA gang, with Stephen Lang chomping on choice bits of scenery and Giovanni Ribisi spreading across the screen like the oiliest of smears--I'm no fan of the military, but even I find myself objecting to Cameron's treatment of his villains. To add insult to injury, RDA's game plan makes little sense--how can they even attempt a policy of “winning the hearts and minds of the natives” when they're bulldozing rain forest without the natives' permission? Why all the withering condescension towards the Na'vi when they know some of their own have defected to the other side, with knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses? Bad enough RDA security is revealed to be so racist--do they have to act retarded as well?
On the other hand the Na'vi are so pure, so noble, so in touch with nature you can't help but feel a little nauseated--they seem ready to zoom straight to heaven, pneumatically sucked up by the sheer force of their virtuousness. Their tactics make little sense either--why hide in a gigantic tree which, strategically speaking, is just one big fat target? Why if everything is interconnected worldwide is the Tree of Souls so important--can't they just go to another tree and plug in? Doesn't the biosystem employ multiple redundancies, for a more stable network?
(Actually, I can answer that last question: the Tree of Souls is important because the movie needs a vulnerable spot where the good guys can stage a “do or die” battle--yet another occasion where plausibility is sacrificed to corny effect)
And why (please skip this paragraph if you haven't seen Cameron's movie (which is unlikely) and plan to do so (which I don't recommend)) if Jake or his human friends are aware of the RDA security forces' strengths and capabilities, don't they plan for the possibility of losing? Which does basically happen. Which is only turned around at the last minute when the entire planet fights back--which, if you want an overall message, isn't exactly the positive one Cameron had in mind: never mind losing the immediate battle, Mother Nature is sure to step in and help win the war. How passive, how perfectly suited to the Na'vi's faux “child of nature / noble savage / guerrilla warrior” philosophy. Might add that another child of nature, Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Nausicaa, knew better; that a military victory meant hard choices, painful sacrifices, and doing less than admirable things to win (one notices Avatar's similarity not just to Miyazaki's Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, 1984), but to the filmmaker's Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997)--not that I think Cameron was canny enough to watch these films, but that Miyazaki's influence on environmental drama is so pervasive even the self-proclaimed King of the World can't avoid it).
Ilarde's characters by way of comparison are equally cartoonish but at a brief ninety minutes the shallowness isn't as grating--it's a horror / action / romantic comedy and pretends to be nothing more (no demands for golden statues, no claims to be a Big Event) and nothing less (no compromising with flashy filmmaking or elaborate digital effects).
That would be Altar's final virtue--its sense of proportion. Ilarde gives the film the right weight and heft, adds just enough of a subtext emphasizing a personal theme (the responsibilities of an able if modest Filipino) to give it a depth of flavor, an emotional sting, a touch of piquancy that lingers in the mind long after the credits roll. With Cameron sense of proportion is the first thing that flies out the window--he's a believer in Bigger is Better, the More the Merrier; a rather simpleminded philosophy. Does he deserve the billions of dollars in boxoffice, the dozens of honors bestowed upon him? Absolutely. It's what he wanted, it's fitting and proper that he gets it; good luck in the long run, when the buzz dies down and the next dozen multimillion dollar productions roll in, bringing their own turmoil and excitement.
By movie's end, Cameron's overblown video game has most audiences cheering for its heroes (they beat the bad guys after all, and Jake gets his girl). The conclusion to Ilarde's film leaves us in an altogether different mood: a little troubled, a little sad, a little sorry for our hapless, helpless hero--human-sized emotions allowed to take root and flourish in a relatively quiet, human-sized picture. Altar or Avatar? Given a choice, I'd take the former--it's more moving, after all.
First published in the March 2010 issue of Rouge Magazine
First published in the March 2010 issue of Rouge Magazine