The Sciences

Alice's avatar

Cosmic VarianceBy Daniel HolzMar 8, 2010 2:16 PM

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In honor of the Oscars, I spent last night watching a movie. It was set on another world, populated by exotic flora and fauna (e.g., a blue creature with a long tail). The good inhabitants of this world live as one with all nature, and refuse to kill or do harm. A caucasian human shows up, and saves the world from disaster by being brave enough to kill. The movie was in 3-D, creatively combining real-action and animation, and was lushly filmed with dramatic scenes of waterfalls and forests and mountains. The movie's title starts with the letter "A". Of course, I'm talking about Alice in Wonderland. What, is there some other movie you were thinking of? Spoilers follow (although it's not the type of movie that gets spoiled), so if you're hyper-sensitive about such things (as I am), cease reading now. Alice and Avatar make an excellent study in contrasts. They both use the same canvas, and there are remarkable superficial similarities between the two. However, I found Alice to be much more interesting and satisfying as a film. Avatar, as the entire world seems to have noted, has a completely mundane and predictable story, with a sound-byte message. Within about ten minutes of the film, you know more-or-less the full arc. It's a reasonable story, with lots of visual candy, and I can't say I was bored (which is saying a lot for a three hour film). But, at least for me, it left little mark. To go to such great lengths to build up an entire world, you'd think you'd have something profoundly new and interesting to say. Sean does a nice job of summarizing some of Avatar's failings.

I found Alice, on the other hand, to be much more entertaining. For any self-respecting science geek, having a movie which revolves around a vorpal sword has to warm the cockles of your heart. But there's substance behind all of the talking flowers and Jabberwocks. For example, consider the good and bad queens. They had interesting, quirky personalities, and didn't play directly to stereotype. In Avatar, these roles would have been completely one dimensional. In Alice, the Red Queen has moments of doubt, and seems genuinely surprised that she is not loved. Images of hearts proliferate, to no avail. The White Queen, meanwhile, swats at "dragonflies" while professing her love for all creatures. She seems somewhat annoyed that she's not allowed to wreak mayhem on her rival, as if she's struggling within the bounds of the "good queen" convention. There are subtle physical manifestations as well: her snow white hair is dark underneath, and she has slightly dark circles about her eyes. The distance between the two queens (and sisters) is not as great as it initially appears. These satisfying levels of grey give the characters more depth and nuance (something that is completely absent in Avatar). Alice demands that the viewer do some work; the movie does not present everything neatly wrapped with a bow. The moral of the film is left a bit hazy. It has something to do with letting your imagination run wild. Resisting convention. Living in the world you want, rather than the one you find. At the end of Avatar, the main character remains on Pandora. Alice, on the other hand, chooses to leave Wonderland and return to London. Which film is more courageous?

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