Friday, July 14, 2017

Cirque du Soleil: the one ideal incarnation for Avatar

While at the movies Wednesday night I saw an advertisement for Toruk, the upcoming Cirque du Soleil show inspired by Avatar. Whether it fits into the narrative of Avatar, or even has any narrative to speak of, is not certain. What is certain is that the acrobats are dressed up like Na’avi, and they do their leaps, twirls and somersaults through a stage manifestation of the Pandora forest.

What’s also certain is that this is a great way to use the world of Avatar.

In less than five seconds of this ad, I went from rolling my eyes about the concept (which I’d heard of only a few days before) to saying “Hell yeah, what a good idea.” I’d probably see Toruk, and not only because I’m overdue for my first Cirque show since the early 2000s, when I saw two in fairly close succession. One of those was the Las Vegas show called O, which involves a swimming pool built into the stage floor. It left an impression on me, and I still have a soft spot for the troupe despite the persistent suspicion that they might be sort of lame.

What’s also certain is that this is a far better way to use the world of Avatar than to have 11 more sequels coming out by the year 2030.

That’s only a slight exaggeration of how many more Avatar movies are on the horizon. Officially, it’s four. One would certainly hope James Cameron will have said everything he needs to say about this world after four more, but if the fourth still makes good money, who knows how much longer it could go.

And if the fourth still makes good money, I suppose we won’t have a problem. But that’s what I’m considering highly unlikely at this point.

You might logically say that Cameron had said everything that needed to be said after one Avatar movie. Some would argue that everything that needed to be said about Avatar had been said in Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas, calling into question the need for even a single Avatar. Though since the movie became the biggest box office hit of all time and stayed that way for six years (until Star Wars: The Force Awakens), it’s reasonable to conclude that there was a legitimate hunger for Avatar’s offerings, at least at some point.

But as I may have discussed on this blog before – and if not, I’m overdue – Avatar has endured poorly in our popular consciousness. Many of us (including me) only saw it that one time, and even those who loved it at the time do not really go to bat for it these days. You don’t hear anyone with an obsessive ongoing relationship with Avatar, like they have with something like Star Wars, for example. And while that’s an impossible standard for anything, it seems reasonable that a film that had made more money than any other movie, and has four sequels planned, would be one of the most capable of meeting it. In fact, would need to come close to meeting it to justify the expenditure on four more expensive sequels.

Part of the reason no one talks much about Avatar could be that the Na’avi themselves seem like a short-sighted creation. There are a couple reasons for this. One is the unfortunate white savior/exotic savage dynamic that’s intrinsic to their conception, with Cameron trying to cast Jake Sully (or himself) as the outsider who can come in and rescue a bunch of noble natives who are being abused by big corporations/military institutions. Even if it’s the good fight from a liberal perspective, it has bad optics. Then there’s the idea that the Na’avi just seem goofy, with their blue skin and big eyes. Maybe we got into bed with them only because they were part of a mind-blowing, sumptuous 3D experience, and we always would have preferred characters who were a bit less like humanoid lizards with mystical tendencies.

But what makes “us” want to disassociate ourselves with the Na’avi also makes them perfect for Cirque du Soleil. When we go to the circus, or the ballet, or any other art form that celebrates the physical movements of the human body, we want a world that’s a bit mystical and fanciful, where blue skin and lizard-like movements are a help rather than a hindrance. We want to see majesty on display, and we’re a little less beholden to the narrative utility of the majesty we’re seeing. It’s not important that the characters seem adaptable to other environments, as, for example, the Star Wars characters have been repurposed for umpteen other uses that have enabled the ubiquity that supports umpteen sequels.

So while I’m not at all sure the Avatar sequels will make their money back, I feel fairly confident Cirque du Soleil will do just fine. And they may be smart with their timing as well. It’s still a few years before we get Avatar 2, so in one sense this seems to be coming out of nowhere (out of the blue, har har). But it might be better now than after the movies come out, because it’s very possible we’ll become saturated with Avatar and may not respond well to that. There definitely won’t be any hunger for a Cirque du Soleil incarnation of Avatar if we’ve roundly rejected the cinematic version.

I like Avatar enough that I want it to endure as an institution, something that maintains a certain level of cultural cache rather than being consigned to the dustbin of cinematic history. But the way to do this is not by sequeling us to death, by releasing a bunch of merchandise of blue Na’avis who look enough like each other that we can’t really tell the difference between the girl one or the boy one, and our kids don’t want to play with either of them. The best way to do it is through something like Cirque du Soleil, which will encapsulate some of the things we liked about Avatar while excising some of its more problematic elements.

But there aren’t billions of dollars bound up in a traveling circus show, so fat chance of that. 

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