Avatar

Sorry, Native Americans!
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2009
Director: 
James Cameron
Starring: 
Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi
The Setup: 
James Cameron’s giant 3-D sensation is a thinly-veiled Native American apology story.
Discussion: 

Okay, so Avatar! The movie that is supposed to change the very face of cinema as we know it! James Cameron’s first movie after Titanic! I became really interested in this after the first trailer appeared and went over with a splat, and the special 15-minute preview had people coming out saying it looked REALLY… FUCKING… DUMB. Then you had the expected positive early reviews—studio plants and morons, to be dismissed—and the people I chose to believe, who said that the pretty pictures get tired after thirty minutes and what you’re left with is two hours of really tired, cliché-ridden white liberal guilt over Native Americans in the form of a Dances with Wolves and Ferngully rip-off. So I was of course interested, but expected to hate it and be very dismissive.

So imagine my surprise when I found myself not just liking it, but QUITE liking it [but not loving it—let’s not get carried away], and pretty much completely behind James Cameron’s attempt to show us all something a little different.

First things first—does it change the face of cinema? No. It is just much more detailed and rich CGI than you have ever seen before, but that’s about it. If people want to talk about Cameron changing the face of cinema, they should talk about The Abyss, in which he used CGI in a way it had never been used before, laid the cornerstone for the CGI apocalypse we’re experiencing today. Anyway, all this is really are pretty pictures, but these are REALLY pretty pictures. We’ll get into further issues as we go along.

So suddenly-everywhere star Sam Worthington is this marine. His brother was suddenly killed, and since Sam has similar DNA, he gets to take his place. This detail is important to establish that Jake is not part of the mission, he just jumped in and is subbing. The deal is that there’s this distant planet Pandora where there is this mineral Unobtainium [I’m serious] that is worth a lot of money. We never find out what else mankind needs it for—lots of money? Is that it? Anyway, the largest store of it is right under the big tree/town of the Na’vi, this race of big blue aliens who are an obvious analogue to Native Americans. The humans grow half-Na’vi/half-human people that they can inhabit via computer hookup. The humans are split into two camps: the good scientists, who just want to study the Na’vi and learn their ways and respect them and reach a peaceful resolution, and the evil military, who consider the Na’vi a bunch of stupid “savages” and, since they won’t get out of the way, want to just kill them and their dumb tree and take the mineral. I am not known to get sentimental over betrayals of the military, but it must be said that the military are portrayed here as particularly one-sided, stupid, insensitive, greedy, and all-round venal. They are just the age-old cliché of the military as invading brutes who understand nothing but force and have no respect for any beliefs but their own.

So Jake is sent in with the scientists, but the big bad Military guy—he really looks straight out of Street Fighter—cuts a deal on the side that he’ll report back to him with any of the Na’vi’s weaknesses so he can blast them when the time comes. He promises Jake his legs back if he cooperates.

Jake ventures into the jungle, is soon separated from his crew, rescued by Neytiri, the hot female Na’vi, who is going to kill him, but receives signs that he is some sort of chosen one. She takes him back to the elders and quick as a flash they decide to let him join them and learn their ways. The next hour is devoted to Jake becoming one of them, learning that they apologize to the animals they kill [“Sorry ‘bout that! My bad!”], and goes on and on about “The flow of energy” and “the spirit of animals,” and “a network of energy that flows through all living things.” On this planet, however, that is to be understood literally, as all of the trees and plants are connected through a vast neural network, and all the animals and Na’vi have USB plugs at the end of their braids, that literally plug into the alien horses and dragon-things they ride. Jake passes many tests and is finally fully accepted into their tribe and engaged to Neytiri. Once Jake says “Everything is backwards now… it’s like what’s out there is the real world and in here is the dream”, you know part one is over, Jake’s allegiances have fully shifted, and it’s time for the conflict to take over!

So the military dudes have discovered that Jake has gone native, and use his video diary [Jake is dumb enough to use his military-provided video diary and think it’s private] saying the Na’vi will never surrender as excuse to just try to kill them and take their land. You ca see where everything is going from here—in fact, you could probably write the script right now and be 89% accurate, as not one thing happens that hasn’t happened in every single movie like this. We do have some special phrasings meant to slam home some contemporary resonance, such as “Fight terror with terror” and “Shock and awe.” Things end up pretty much exactly as you’d expect.

But you know what? I didn’t care. In fact, I barely noticed [maybe this is because I’ve thankfully avoided seeing Dances With Wolves]. I’m usually dismissive of pretty pictures with uninteresting character or story, but for me the visuals were so amazing—and the new world they describe so thoroughly imagined and full of variety—that I was really just carried away by the imagery. It is a successful conceit—to provide a new way of looking at movies to show us a new world full of wonderful creatures and amazing plants. The 3-D is nothing new, but this level of DETAIL in it is, and the new planet provides lots of use for it, to the point where the story just became so much background noise. In fact, the very cliché nature of the story WORKS for the film, as you don’t really have to follow it, and thus are more easily taken in by the stunning pictures. This also makes it essential to see this movie in 3-D at the theater, as this film will be POINTLESS on video; all of a sudden the sameness of the story will be apparent, and you’ll just have this rote Native American apology story. I’ll be very interested to see how this does on DVD, for that reason.

What strikes me as interesting about these movies is their unarticulated purpose, which is apparently to assuage white guilt about the way we have treated indigenous people throughout history. You sit there and watch a fantasy about how the indigenous people are just soooo great and in tune with nature—they apologize to the things they kill!—and so much more balanced than us evil greedy capitalists who don’t care about all that and dismiss others’ beliefs and just want money! So you sit there in the audience and think “Well, this big white imperialist society [that I am a part of] may mow down indigenous peoples in its greedy quest, but I’M not like that. I’m on the side of the nature-lovin’ indigenous peoples!” …And then, in this fantasy, the indigenous peoples win, and you feel kind of vindicated and rewarded for your allegiances, and ultimately feel like there’s no real problem at all. We pushed Native Americans off their land, but that was eons ago, and we’re all more enlightened now, so it probably wouldn’t happen again. But look, whatever you think about the Iraq war, the fact is that those people didn’t have anything to do with 9/11 and didn’t have weapons of mass destruction [which WAS quite apparent at the time], and all these well-intentioned whiny liberal movies didn’t do much to stop THAT, did it? The public just sort of went “Oh dear, oh dear,” but largely stood by and let it happen-–I think largely because of the anaesthetizing effect of movies like this, and the feeling walk out that we’re all smarter than that now, or that this situation is different, or that the administration may pursue that aim, but YOU didn’t vote for them, so you are still on the side of the indigenous peoples, and ultimately that’s what counts. You need do nothing—but sit back and watch more movies!

The other interesting thing is how these movies—from Return of the Jedi on—tend to portray the good guys as simple people who live in caves or jungles and strike back with rocks and arrows and ingeniously simple improvised devices—like the Iraqi insurgents, for example—and the evil enemy uses high technology, massive bombs, remotely-controlled drones or huge tanks that can mow down legions of the unprotected, while keeping the evil invader safe behind walls of steel—like the US Military, for example. In fact, this film explicitly uses footage of US troops as a model for the scenes of the invading forces here, and we have those clear call-outs aligning the bad guys here with the Iraq war. So how is it our popular culture teaches us all to be on the sides of the low-tech indigenous peoples, and frames it PRECISELY in ways that allude to real-life conflicts, yet the net effect is to leave the populous feeling like there’s no real problem and nothing to be done? All the exact mechanics are obscure, but somehow movies like this, while seeming to rouse people to action and “right-on” liberal opinions, actually anesthetize the public, make everyone feel that everything is pretty much okay, and one need do nothing.

There’s also a curious little subtext running through this movie about infidelity, which I believe is unintentional, since it shows our heroes in a negative light, but it resonates so much with the content of the rest of the film, it raises a strange little wrinkle. First, when Jake is matched with his dragon-thingy, he is told that he must choose it and it him, and they will be united for life. However, later on Jake gets a flashy new dragon-thingy… and we never hear any more about his original. Did it spend the rest of its life wasting away, pining for Jake who left her by the side of the road like so much detritus? The other incident is that we are told that the Na’vi also choose a mate for life, and that Neytiri is already betrothed to someone, whom I assume to be the big Na’vi warrior dude. Yet she nor the movie bat an eyelash, real or narrative, when she hooks up with Jake and becomes “joined” to him. What about the other guy? He can just piss off? These issues are never resolved or reflected upon, and might come off as just a storytelling glitch, details that got lost in editing the sprawling movie, if they didn’t dovetail so nicely with all of the other content of the movie that revolves around betrayals, allegiances made frivolously and tossed aside, and broken promises. So it leaves the unintended impression—which actually works by deepening the movie—that even our heroes are unfaithful to their ideals to some degree, make promises of allegiance they later just forget, that we all make compromises and all of us are in some way complicit.

Okay, but aside from all the heady issues, what’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that it’s quite something to see and is successful at wowing one with its visuals and vision of an interesting new world, and the rote story actually helps you park your brain in neutral and just be drawn along. But you MUST see it in the theater in 3-D, or I wouldn’t bother seeing it at all.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, in 3-D. If it’s not in 3-D, don’t bother. Once it’s on video, forget it ever existed.