On the John at the Movies
Why Avatar is bad for us
Originally completed March 3, 2010
About a third of the way into James Cameron’s 3D-blue-laced-“anti-war”-pro-war visual orgy known as Avatar, the character of Neytiri critiques Earth marine Jake Sully. The pair is galloping across these remarkable stretching tree branches on Neytiri’s home planet of Pandora, and she tells him something to the effect of: “You have a strong heart. No fear. But stupid! Ignorant, like a child.”
And I thought: “Hot damn! The best one line summary of Avatar is in the film.”
Because that’s what this movie is. A “visual feast,” yes, but empty, like a nine-course meal at McDonalds. Visualize that, and you know pretty much how I felt leaving the theatre: battered, assaulted, painfully full.
Part of my problem is the 3D. I suppose it is to Cameron’s credit that he does not employ it simply as a gimmick by, say, flinging arrows or dragons at the audience. He uses it to enhance his stunning creations and create an even “fuller” visual experience, and I must admit, there are times when the third dimension looks pretty damn cool.
But even when used honestly and somewhat effectively, this filmgoer still finds 3D to be unwelcome and unnecessary. Part of the magic of movies is that our minds experience two-dimensional images as three-dimensional. Therefore, any bit of visual enhancement in the 3D experience was, for me, off-set by the forced “realness” of the fake third dimension, similar to the “uncanny valley” theory in which robots that look “too human” are unappealing.
Would Avatar be the highest-grossing film of all-time if it weren’t for the 3D? My guess is no. That alone makes it something of a gimmick…
“Yeah,” my roommate Justin says after listening to my complaints, “and I suppose movies should not be in color, nor should they have dialogue or even sound, right?”
Good points, all of them, and suddenly I was Norma Desmond: delusional, out-of-touch, stuck in a time long passed. “We didn’t need dialogue! We had faces.” Amen, Norma.
So we’ll drop the 3D complaint and focus on the movie’s true fault, the one that would be a problem in 2D or 4D or 6D: the script.
NOT NECESSARILY RACIST, BUT LIMITED
Much has been made about Avatar’s racist undertones. Annalee Newitz summed up the discussion best in her Dec. 18th essay, “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?” The basic argument is that the film is a retelling of the story in which a white man joins a “native people of color,” learns their “ways,” feels guilty about the white man’s ways, and renounces that identity to join up with – and ultimately lead – the natives in a fight against the whites. Thus, he moves from one role of power (white man in a white man’s world) to another role of power (leader of the natives), a premise explored in such films as Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai.
Is Avatar racist? That is a tricky term. Students of “racism” rigidly define it as “prejudice + power” while “novices” are more inclined to group any race-based prejudice as racism.
So perhaps the best description of Avatar is “limited.” The charge of racism is actually symptomatic of the film’s larger flaw: an unwillingness to move beyond basic narrative patterns.
The film’s story is simplistic and vague, marching along at Cameron’s behest for purposes of reaching a conclusion that will leave the highest number of audience members ooh-ing and ah-ing and coming back with a friend.
But if James Cameron presented the script in a writing workshop, the following questions would have likely been posed:
Is Jake’s motivation for remaining in his Avatar state his newfound morality, the opportunity to stay with Neytiri, or the opportunity to walk again? What quality in Jake moves Neytiri to spare him, and later, to fall in love with him? Why is Neytiri such a badass when introduced but turns into another disobedient yet subservient princess archetype? Why would the Na’vi train Jake instead of just killing him? And when it became apparent to Col. Quaritch and the humans that Jake had switched sides, why didn’t they kill him?
And by the way, does Jake have a personality? If so, what is it? How can Jake achieve in three months what it takes Na’vi a lifetime to achieve? Why do the Na’vi arrows bounce off Col. Quaritch’s helicopter window, but later pierce those same windows? Why does Na’vi sex look more or less like human sex? Shouldn’t they be stimulating each other with their pony-tail neurons? Woody Allen came up with “The Orgasmatron” and Demolition Man had “Vir-Sex,” but Na’Vi on the planet Pandora in the year 2154 kiss like humans.
And since this is the entire Earth attacking Pandora and not just the U.S., shouldn’t there be non-Americans in command somewhere? Think about Return of the Jedi when the rebellion was planning the attack on the weapon system on Endor and that bizarre Asian-looking brown alien with the British accent was leading the discussion. 144 years after the present day, shouldn’t the Earth military coalition include officers from China, India, or the UAE?
Now compare Avatar’s story to the one told in fellow best picture nominee Inglourious Basterds. Both films are about justified revenge. Both films tell stories about a white man leading a group of oppressed people against their oppressors. Both films are rooted in a certain level of historical reality, one actual (but rewritten), one allegorical.
And while Cameron cannot even bring himself to rewrite a plot type, Quentin Tarantino is busy rewriting history, giving Nazi Germany the ending many believe it “deserves.”
Tarantino makes two twists. First, he creates a WWII picture about Jewish aggressors killing Nazis in one corner of the war. Second, he throws the Third Reich brass into the final act, wiping out der Fuhrer and Joseph Goebbels in a savage act of orgasmic gun violence a full ten months prior to their actual deaths.
With these two twists alone, Tarantino’s film is already infinitely more interesting than Cameron’s.
And here’s the catch: by rewriting actual events, Tarantino challenges audiences to reconsider their own beliefs about morality and violence. Viewing Inglourious Basterds last August, my usually dormant Jewish identity was insanely fired up; incredibly, I found myself getting off on the Jew revenge fantasy.
Yet when Shosanna and the Basterds tag team the Nazis and German upper crust in the movie theatre, the German victims are now as helpless as Jews in a death camp.
And now I’m thinking: well…is it okay because it is revenge? Or is genocidal mass murder always wrong? And suddenly my entire perception of violence and revenge – not to mention Nazism and the Holocaust – has been challenged.
That psychological and intellectual experience trumps anything happening in Avatar, especially when you consider the way movies enhance their visuals through depth of character and story. Meaning that while the Na’vi are a more stunning and original visual creation than, say, Rick Blaine, the psychological weight of Blaine’s character and the compelling story that contains him creates a more interesting and lasting visual. Due to its flimsy story, repeated viewings of Avatar will diminish our interest in the visual spectacle of Pandora and the Na’vi, whereas repeated viewings of Casablanca deepen our love of seeing Rick smoking his cigarette in his white tux.
HARMONIOUS LIVING IN A JAMES CAMERON MOVIE
Back to the story.
In an email to the Associated Press, Cameron said that Avatar “asks us to open our eyes and truly see others, respecting them even though they are different, in the hope that we may find a way to prevent conflict and live more harmoniously on this world.”
Yet the film does not present that vision at all. No conflict has been prevented, and no one is living “more harmoniously.” The Quaritch-led humans don’t respect the Na’vi at film’s end. They are just defeated and returned to Earth where they will presumably spend the next six to eight months figuring out a new way to attack Pandora. I mean, Earth still needs to obtain the unobtanian, right? War begets war begets war…this is hardly a final chapter.
And the Na’vi have not learned any new lessons about humans, or even themselves, other than that, perhaps, you can indeed counter-attack military force with giant flying bird-dragons.
Instead of telling the same old story, what if the Na’vi employed Gandhi’s method of non-violent non-cooperation, leading to a scene in which hundreds of Na’vi stand defiantly in front of the bulldozer and allow themselves to be plowed under? Instead of being able to maintain his preferred identity of “warrior,” what if Jake’s choice was between dying with the Na’vi in their non-cooperation movement or returning to his paraplegic human form, legless but alive?
Or what if, (and this is really pushing the catastrophe-loving Cameron), but what if the Na’vi still gained victory, but through peace rather than battle? Imagine the power in a climax in which the non-cooperating Na’vi line up to be bulldozed into the ground, until Giovani Ribisi’s corporate admin guy decides that he cannot have this kind of blood on his conscious, and decides to oppose the violent madness of Col. Quaritch. Cameron has already allowed Michelle Rodriguez’s character to abandon the genocide, so it is no stretch that other soldiers and corporate-types may be similarly swayed.
Or what if prior to the final invasion, Jake and Sigourney Weaver captured the Ribisi character and turned him over to the Na’vi, where, bound and jailed, he slowly learned to respect the Na’vi and the beauty of Pandora? Then, like the momentum shift in 12 Angry Men, Jake, Weaver, Ribisi, Rodriguez, and that goofy-looking gangly white guy get the rest of the military charged up in favor of the Na’vi, and the soldiers all turn on Quaritch, just as the football players in Varsity Blues or the gangsters in Training Day or Four Brothers or the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine abandon and turn upon Jon Voigt, Denzel, the British black guy from Love Actually, and the Chief Blue Meanie, respectively.
The humans on Earth are still screwed, because they don’t have resources and their planet is “war-torn” or whatever, so it’s not as if Ribisi is acting selflessly. Instead of killing the beautiful Na’vi or being defeated and returning to Earth, Ribisi and co. get to live in peace on Pandora while their loved ones on Earth die off. Imagine the scene where Ribisi calls his wife and tells her “I’m never coming home” as their baby cries in the background.
Now that’s a great freaking story! And it’s a film that forces viewers to really consider the consequences of our human lifestyle (since, after all, the majority of us would be left to die while our “leaders” flourished on Pandora). Meanwhile, Cameron would be ending his film with something other than the celebration of warfare he claims to oppose.
“Yeah,” my dad says as we are walking out of the theatre, “but what did you expect? You don’t see this movie for its story. You see it for the effects.”
Then why even tell a story? Both Pops and my buddy Ric stated that Avatar is like watching “a really cool video game.” So why not just make a really cool video game? (And of course, Avatar: The Game was released a week before the film.) Or why not shorten the film by an hour if your lone intention is visual creation?
Better still, why not make the world’s most expensive music video? I’m thinking something like Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, only with Na’vi on Pandora hanging in the Tree of Voices and riding the dragon-birds, all set to wicked-fast techno music. The bottom line for me is this: If you insist on telling a story, I insist it be a good one.
But then Avatar would not have grossed over two billion dollars, because a film that admits to being nothing but visuals is not as popular as a film that pretends to be about the story it’s not really about; because a film that challenges your beliefs is not as appealing as a film that reaffirms them; because a film that relishes in the simple pleasures of (as Ebert would say) Blowing Up Lots of Stuff Real Good will always outgross one that finds peaceful resolution to conflict; because a film that pretends to oppose warfare while actually delighting in it simultaneously gives the audience the bloodlust they crave and the moral escape clause of “No, no, the story is anti-violence.”
To me, this is far-and-away Avatar’s most troubling aspect. It is not the film’s perceived racism or simplistic, asinine plot, but rather the fact that Cameron has purposefully delivered a film he knows will be box office gold because it contains simple, unchallenged ideas with potentially racist and sexist slants and an unabashedly pro-war ideology, all of which is wrapped in a shiny new package of 3D blueness.
As the fellow says, “2.5 billion dollars in world-wide gross revenue can’t be wrong.”
Copyright 2010, jm silverstein