CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Avatar (2009)
"Watching "Avatar," I felt sort of the same as when I saw "Star Wars" in 1977. That was another movie I walked into with uncertain expectations. James Cameron's film has been the subject of relentlessly dubious advance buzz, just as his "Titanic" was. Once again, he has silenced the doubters by simply delivering an extraordinary film." (Roger Ebert, "Avatar," December 11, 2009.)
As you will no doubt recall, the movie proved itself a veritable box office Goliath, and also earned positive reviews, at least in the majority. By and large, audiences loved Avatar as well. The film stands on the IMDB's list of best rated films (currently perched at 183 in the top 250).
Yet, Avatar's success does not mean that the film is non-controversial, as the above critical quotations make abundantly plain. Some critics and audiences view this James Cameron film as an anti-American political diatribe and despise it specifically on those terms.
Others simply can't bring themselves to approve of a film that proved so hugely popular. This is the so-called "Woody Allen" critique. These fans can't be part of any club that would have them as a member. Many geeks apparently believe they can differentiate themselves from "the mob" by rejecting Avatar out-of-hand....some of them without even seeing the movie in the first place!
And -- on the other side of the coin -- he clearly "sees" our uncomfortable tradition of destroying or polluting that which we discover on our brave explorations.
Business and military interests align to re-locate the Na'vi from their Home Tree in order to mine a rich deposit of the critical mineral.
Meanwhile, Grace learns that all the creatures of the planet, including the Na'vi share a link with Pandora itself, a planet-wide symbiosis forged by "signal transduction." The Na'vi see this bridge to the planet as a link to their God, Eywa.
But to gain the trust of the Na'vi, Jake must first tame a giant flying beast of legend: Toruk Macto.
"You are not in Kansas Anymore" - Avatar as visual experience
For once, CGI effects actually seem to comprehend the subtleties of flesh: the nuances of movement, expression, and even the "weight" of gravity.
No doubt the visual wonders of Avatar will one day be eclipsed, but for now (and for the foreseeable future, given the state of films this summer..), they are certainly state-of-the-art. In this arena, Avatar is never less than entirely convincing. You never feel like you're watching special effects or limited, animated digital figures.
Instead, you see characters, creatures and strange lands.
Although Lord of the Rings (2001) inventively blended pint-sized hobbits with human-sized elves and other humanoid beings, the general effect was still one of putting other life forms (Hobbits) into a world we recognize as ours. Avatar takes a different and far more impressive stance. It lands us in a world not made for us; and one in which human concerns are secondary.
And that's very much an example of form following content. Thematically the film is also about petty human concerns dwarfed by alien but ultimately more important ones. The universe isn't always about us, and we see that idea (that slap in the face?) reflected in the very colorful, very dangerous, very oddly-scaled world of Pandora.
Cameron also utilizes 3-D to reveal the depth and breadth of the Pandoran wilderness, escorting us into the greatest silver screen jungle since Kong's lush Skull Island in 1933.
Again, the level of detail and complexity in this landscape is simply staggering. I'm not exaggerating. We get the feeling here not of a small geographic region in sight of a limited camera -- a region encumbered by the exigencies of movie budget -- but of a whole world stretching as far as the eye can see.
The point of the height, altitude, speed and depth, of course, is total emotional immersion. And because of Cameron's integrated (rather than carnival...) approach to 3-D, in Avatar, audiences come to believe most profoundly in this fantasy world. Avatar is magnificently unbound from the sound stage (and human proportions), but not at all in the static fashion of the Star Wars prequels, where characters seem to be forever standing in front of green-screen compositions.
Now, I don't share many fans' hatred of those three Lucas films (I rather enjoy 'em, actually...), but they certainly appear shallow in conception and execution next to Cameron's rich, layered vision for Avatar. Here, every plant, every creature, every insect that swings, stampedes or skitters into view, captivates the attention and the imagination. Cameron doesn't just record another world for us, he creates an otherworldly ecosphere from top-to-bottom.
As a species we are always looking to explore what's over the horizon. And yet when we reach our destination, we yearn to make that new land ours; to harness the dirt and the water and make it serve our needs. This is a fact of life.
We don't always use our resources wisely, yet the hunt for resources will one day, I'm certain, carry us to the far reaches of this solar system and beyond. We are driven to explore. And apparently just as driven to use up that which we find along our journey.
Despite suffering a physical impairment, he broaches not just a new world, but the "most hostile environment known to man." And when he takes part in the Avatar program, Jake throws himself into his work. He learns the Na'vi language. He learns to hunt, ride, fly and live as another life form all together.
Again, Cameron reveals to us mankind at his most noble: questing and searching for meaning over the next hill. A wise person once noted that disability is just a matter of perspective, and in some way, Jake's journey reflects that truth. He first countenances, then embraces, a new way of living while also maintaining the finer qualities of our species (to love; to balance morality, and more). This is what evolution truly is: integrating new ideas and new concepts into the self as one's horizons expand.
It's easy to read the lines of the comparison. The Earth men are the Europeans, come across the ocean of space to take and develop the land. And the Na'vi are the Native Americans who see their existence and way of life threatened.
In film history, we've seen this very dynamic played out in Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990), Walt Disney's Pocahontas (1995) and Malick's The New World (2005), among others. It's not a new idea by any means, but that's acceptable because the presentation is new...and cutting-edge.
Star Wars wasn't new in terms of narrative, either, especially if you have any familiarity with the oeuvre of Akira Kurosawa. And Star Trek, of course, looks very much like a variation on Forbidden Planet (1956) Avatar harnesses the familiar metaphor of the Native American/European conflict to tell its tale, but does so in ways that boast resonance both as science fiction, and as a reflection on contemporary times.
In the case of Avatar, I would argue that the film succeeds rather admirably in making its case about the moral evils of colonization or occupation. It does so -- as is Cameron's tradition -- in entirely emotional, manipulative, and even grandiose fashion.
That's the very nature of the medium of film and Cameron exploits that nature. Ruthlessly. As an artist, he is not merely interested in making audiences think about an issue; he wants us to feel it, intensely.
Some people may object to this approach, but in doing so, they object to Cameron's singular gift as a filmmaker. Using breakthroughs in movie technology, he brings the experiential, emotional aspect of visual storytelling closer to the audience than ever before. He constructs these intense dramas (like Titanic) based on intimate human relationships and ideas (like the interconnectedness of all life) because he apparently believes in a unique axiom: the more advanced the film in terms of technical prowess and achievement, the more it can impact your heart.
Not that the emotional approach doesn't have downsides.
For instance, the villains in the film are not truly fully developed people, but rather true evil-doers. Giovani Ribisi plays a despicable character named "Parker Selfridge." Selfridge? Sounds like selfish. Or maybe his name is about what we hope to find over that next horizon or ridge: something for the self.
And the nasty Colonel Quaritch refers to the Na'vi as "blue monkeys" or as "cockroaches," and basically attempts to bomb the Na'vi back to the stone age. He's a racist and a destroyer, and entirely easy to hate.
Yet, to give Avatar some credit, it's pretty clear why Quaritch thinks as he does. It's not because Cameron is anti-military as some insist, but because Quaritch has had a very negative personal experience with the Na'vi.
On his first day on the planet, he was badly injured (and scarred) by them. Fear and hatred have thus colored his perception of the planet and its people. Quaritch can't put aside his negative experience with the Na'vi in the face of new thoughts, new ideas. He can't evolve. He stays as he is...never outgrowing his fear. He is thus an effective counterpoint to Jake in the story, if not a fully dimensional character in his own right. This echoes the character of Coffey in The Abyss as we discussed last week. Both characters effectively move the plot forward and effectively reflect a larger, symbolic issue (intransigence or stagnation in the face of facts, the self-destructive nature of nuclear war, etc.), but on some human level they aren't adequately developed.
Avatar: Does it hate America?
Even the Earth men's hunt for natural resources on Pandora -- with war backing up that hunt -- can be seen as a coded reflection of the belief by many Americans that the war in Iraq was launched so our nation would have direct access to Middle East oil.
On the contrary, all of these issues simple reflect what many Americans truly feel about the direction of our country in the last ten years. This commentary by Cameron is only anti-American if you assume that America never makes mistakes, that America is always right in the international actions it pursues, and that President Bush's decisions represent the full spectrum of American beliefs about this country.
I mean, is what Tom Tancredo suggested doing to Mecca the American way? Is pre-emptive war the American way? Is that the America that people defend when they claim that Avatar is anti-American?
And frankly, I'm baffled by people who want to view Avatar only as some kind of America-hating film anyway. Avatar is the same story, essentially, as Battle: LA (2011), a film which has clearly not been debated in such terms.
To wit: in both films a race of extra-terrestrials attack and occupy another planet to gather its resources (alternatively Unobtanium and water). And the natives in both situations strike back against the invaders, mounting a violent resistance to the plunderer. The invaders in Battle:LA are non-human. The invaders in Avatar are human. That's the only difference, in broad strokes, in terms of narrative.
So why is Battle: LA not anti-American, but Avatar is? Both films argue the immorality of occupation/colonialism and the imperative to fight back against invaders.
Go back and watch Planet of the Apes (1968) -- made at the height of the Cold War and the Vietnam War -- and honestly tell me that it is not a leftist film too; about man's self-destructive, warring nature. It ends with a symbol of America, Lady Liberty, destroyed. So is it anti-American too? If Avatar is, then Planet of the Apes is.
It's only because we live in such hyper-partisan times that Avatar is constantly saddled with the moniker Anti-American, when what the film actually concerns is a human truth: that our drive to explore and increase our knowledge is a double-edged sword; It keeps us alive, but also, often, puts us in conflict with each other, and with nature itself.
The right has not been alone in attacking Avatar for perceived "philosophical" flaws. The left (plus David Brooks) have really gone after the film as being an example of "The White Man's Burden." In other words, this is a film in which a white man saves a native culture and ascends to leadership of it. Apparently, that's insulting to ethnic minorities or something.
Again, this is a more simplistic view of the film than is merited.
Jake is not the typical "messiah" in that regard. Instead, he is a perfect man to lead the fight because he is also, like many of the characters in the film, separated and isolated from his true nature. His physical handicap has prevented him from being what he knows he can be; from doing what he knows he can do. The avatar program grants him the capacity to tap that potential and to become whole again.
The film is as much about the Na'vi (and the Na'vi experience) saving Jake as it is about Jake saving the Na'vi. He learns much through their interconnectedness, after all.
And why does Brooks assume that the film says "illiteracy is the path to grace." Nowhere in the film is illiteracy even broached. The path to grace in the film is through inter-connection; through the link and harmony between man/woman and the land. Because we cannot see this psychic connection, the Na'vi might very well call mankind "psychically illiterate."
Again, this attack on Avatar is too simplistic.
No, Neytiri finally takes out Quaritch. She is no mere "supporting player" (as Brooks puts it).
And who turns the tide towards the Na'vi in the battle? Again, it's not Jake or any other "white man."
It's Eywa, who through her powers of inter-connection, summon the forest animals to attack the occupiers. So again, it's not entirely accurate to say that Avatar suffers from this movie "Messiah Complex."
Even the film's ending is about this idea of crossing the next hill; evolving to the next point. Jake is able to cast aside his human body and become fully Na'vi. This is because he has embraced the better part of our human nature. He has overcome his limitations (physical and mental) and become what he had only once "dreamed." If you're James Cameron, you can't make this argument about human nature without featuring a human protagonist in the film.
In terms of the Cameron Curriculum, there's many points of commonalities between Avatar and Cameron's other films. For instance, the Na'vi saying that goes "I see you," (meaning "I see your true self") is carried forth from Titanic. In that film, Jack and Rose share an exchange that seems familiar. "You see people," says Rose. "I see you," says Jack.
Also, like Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator and even Titanic to an extent, Avatar features as a hero someone who is "blue collar," in this case a so-called "grunt." This also makes three Cameron films (Aliens, The Terminator and Avatar) in which a military man is amongst the protagonists, making it more difficult and less plausible for critics to argue that Cameron is somehow against the military.
And, of course, like out-of-time Ripley, an emotionless Terminator in T2 or Mrs. Tasker in True Lies, Jake is an outsider or fish-out-of-water in Avatar. In a way, he is both outside of the human race because of his handicap, and outside the Na'vi because of his nature as a "Sky Person." In many Cameron films, only those who are "outside" the dominant coalitions can bring a sense of balanced perspective to crises.
Earlier in the review, I brought up George Lucas and the Star Wars films. Avatar treads on some territory familiar to that franchise, namely a primitive people waging a war against a technological foe.
In Return of the Jedi the Ewoks battled the Empire, and in The Phantom Menace, the Gungans battled the Trade Federation. Lucas essentially played both of those battles for laughs.
By contrast, the final battle in Avatar is anything but funny: it's a harrowing, tense descent into all-out war. In Avatar, the primitive species carries the day only because of a gift from Pandora: the ability of all native creatures to communicate and connect with one another. That's something the humans can't do, at least on a planetary scale.
Interestingly, Eywa does not normally "take sides." She protects "only the balance of life." But in this case, man is so egregious, so awful in his attacks, even God herself must become involved. This is the environmental message of Avatar, another point that has enraged some people, apparently.
It's another critiique I don't really get. What could be more conservative, more traditional, than taking good care of the planet you happen to live on?
Avatar is a great film because of the advances it makes in terms of technology, because of the commentary it offers about the double-edged sword of human nature, and because, perhaps, people just can't stop arguing about it.
So many people "see" Avatar. Or at least they think they do. My recommendation to them is to watch the movie again, this time keeping in mind Neytiri's admonition for those whose mind is already sealed tightly shut.
"It's hard to fill a cup which is already full."
Next Week: Are you ready to go back to Titanic?