Ignorant, like a child: Why Avatar is bad for us

Avatar looks pretty cool. And that’s it.

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.

What would Norma Desmond think of 3D in the movies?

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.

Kevin Costner, not an Indian. Graham Greene, not the author.

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.

That’s a bingo.

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.

Rick Blaine: more interesting than a Na’vi.

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.

The dragons can beat up the helicopters.

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.

My favorite blue movie character.

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.

James Cameron, bagging that gold.

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

12 Replies to “Ignorant, like a child: Why Avatar is bad for us”

  1. Well thought-out, wonderfully written AND GREAT VISUALS. This is, in my humble opinion, one of the best reviews you’ve written to date!

  2. Well said Mr. Silverstein.

    “And by the way, does Jake have a personality?” – too funny.

    I must admit, I did end up seeing it twice – 2nd time only to have the Imax experience, although it was a let-down. It wasn’t filmed with an Imax camera so it’s basically just a bigger picture, but with muted/washed colors. It didn’t look nearly as cool as my first regular digital-viewing. So the terrible script/plot/dialogue was much more apparent. I actually cringed as the lines were being delivered.

    The effects are a novelty, the story is a literal tragedy.

  3. Mickey Lipkin sent me this review. I agree totally. I saw the movie last Saturday and started looking at my watch after an hour. Comparing this movie to Casablanca is a travesty. It’s a waste of time. Terrible script. I told Mickey I should introduce you to my son, Taylor. He is a video music director in LA. His website is http://www.taylorcohen.net. Who knows, maybe there could be some symbiotic relationship that could benefit both of you. Keep up the good reviews.

  4. Well said, sire. I must admit I am pretty sympathetic to most of what you said. However, me being, well, me, there are a few things I want to push back against. Plus, it’s always kinda fun to play devil’s advocate.

    (1) I think you kind of copped out on the racism question. I’m not that I think any discussion of this film need to address it, but rather you began a discussion that seemed like it was going somewhere, but then sidestepped the difficult part of that topic by saying the question was just indicative of broader narrative problems. (Side note: I’m going to really nitpicky for a second and point out that you misused the word ‘systemic’ there—did you mean symptomatic?) I think this sidestepping particularly bothered me because the basic narrative pattern you (correctly) attribute to the film is arguably a racist narrative pattern. I guess I was just left wondering why you brought up the race issue only to avoid talking about it, when you could have just said “I know there’s issues about the politics and potential racism in the film, but that’s not my concern here.”

    (2) You entertain the thought-experiment of what would happen were this script/story be put in front of a workshop. But I really don’t think this is a particularly useful way to look at what is basically an action film, albeit one with a sci-fi/fantasy bent. What would happen if Raiders of the Lost Ark had put through the workshop process? Or the first Star Wars even? Or Die Hard? Or (to use another Cameron movie) Terminator 2? Wouldn’t there probably be a similar kind of reaction (to varying degrees) with all those? Granted, the writing is better in most of those movies than with Avatar, but not by much, really. Especially Die Hard or T2, both of which are fantastic films. Just sayin’.

    (3) This kind of leads into my main point, I think. In response to the statement that one shouldn’t see this movie expecting much of a story, but really just for the effects, you write, “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?” On that last point (the length) I am in agreement. But I want to try to defend a bit the sentiment that both myself and your dad were expressing, and I am going to try to do this by way of analogy. As you well know, one of my favorite all-time movies is Airplane! Now, presumably people sitting down to watch this movie for the first time, or when going to the theaters to see it when it was released, weren’t expecting much by way of story. (That is, assuming they had some general idea of what kind of movie it was.) Why? Because they knew or at least expected it to be a straight comedy, the point of which was nothing but to make you laugh—a comedy where the story is essentially incidental. But by your logic, we would similarly be entitled to ask the question: then why tell a story at all? If the story is just an excuse for the jokes, by not just tell the jokes? Well, I’m not a comedy expert, but I think it’s fair to say that by having a story and recurring characters and such, it makes the comedy more coherent and easy to digest, and makes the non-sequiturs even funnier, etc etc. A film that was literally just a series of gags may not keep your attention as long b/c you have nothing to latch onto at all—not that you need much for the kind of humor Airplane! so wonderfully conveyed, but it helps (for whatever reason) to have something. I think a similar argument could be made about a movie you go to see for the visual spectacle. Like with comedy, there is nothing inherently wrong or aesthetically deficient with a movie whose primary aim is visual spectacle. Or, to put it a bit more romantically: a movie that wants to transport you to another world of visual splendor and wonder. But, again, to have just the effects would lose the audience, and so you need a story that engages them on some level, however minimal and simplistic. That’s why you need a story—it’s a good way to achieve other ends.

    Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attack the crappy writing and all that, and I think your analysis of that is good. And there are certainly movies with great writing that also have that visual feast element, but just because it lacks very interesting writing and story doesn’t mean it hasn’t accomplished something worthwhile. As I told you, I didn’t love the movie, and was kind of bored by the plot, but I still enjoyed watching it, because it was a beautiful thing to behold, and say what you want about the silliness of the plot (of which is there is much… silliness, that is), there is something magic in the imaginativeness of that world Cameron and all his people created.

  5. Great review, Jack. I met you many years ago and know your parents as well. I totally agree with you. And Avatar did have the most annoyingly asinine plot. It was Fern Gully with 3-D.
    Sheila Barry (Lipp)

  6. Darren – “The story is a literal tragedy.” — also too funny.

    Jeff – Thanks for the read!

    Sheila – I never saw Fern Gully, but I have a friend whose immediate reaction post-Avatar was “nothing but a glorified Fern Gully.”

    Torff – And the big one…

    1. Thanks for the tip on “systemic.” You’re right…I did flub it.

    2. I didn’t feel I had much more to say on the racism angle that had not already been said by so many others. I gave the link to the Newitz story for that very reason.

    3. Those action films you listed, while potentially formulaic, at least approach their formula with zest and originality. Die Hard has memorable characters with terrific performances: John, Holly, Gruber, Sgt. Al Powell, Argyle, Johnson & Johnson, Carl and Carl’s little brother, Mr. Takagi, Ellis, Paul Gleason in full Paul Gleason-mode, and the black code-cracker who undoubtedly possesses one of the coolest, unknown backstories of any action film character (I mean, how did this L.A. Laker-loving computer dork American black man hook up with this super slick team of European thieves?). It has memorable lines (“Now I have a machine gun…” “Yippee ki-yay…” “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse, EXCEPT…”) It has memorable scenes. It has one of the great screen villains of our time. And even within its formula, knowing that MacLaine will win and Gruber will lose, it has a terrific death scene for our boy Hans.

    I don’t think a workshop would futz too much with some of those other plots. Yes, there is a paradox in T2, but that is the case with all time traveling films. And Star Wars and Raiders would hold up pretty well. I cannot think of anything in either film that is particularly egregious.

    And as we discussed last night, Airplane! has exactly the kind of story it needs to have. The same can be said for something like The Cocoanuts or nearly any non-Duck Soup Marx Brothers film, in which the story is an excuse for gags and bits. It has enough story to service the Marxes. There were just sooooooo many ways Cameron could have constructed a narrative in order to highlight his visuals. And ways that would have still turned a profit, even if it was not a 2.5 bil gross and counting.

    4. Thanks for the devil’s advocacy. Always welcome.

  7. Jack:

    This is a thoughtful review and convincing. It is so thorough that it seems petty to add yet another critique from another point of view, or rather, from another question: Why Avatar isn’t Good for Indigenous People who are LIVING and FIGHTING Right Now. The First and the Third Worlds are locations where indigenous people are constantly battling the same kind of battle for land and rights that is portrayed in the film. The comparisons to the original colonization and defeat of the Indian nations in the US are misleading in this sense, since they indicate that the problem is largely one of the past. In so many cases, the problem of indigenous people staying on their lands right now is compelling and immediate. The film indicates that their right to their land is a lost cause and that it is a matter of time before the big guys with big power behind them succeed. There is no sense of other possible outcomes: the participation of NGOs, sympathetic states, and political organizing generally.

  8. It’s amazing how fast the supposedly transformative Avatar has faded out of the public consciousness, even as the rest of the entertainment industry has fallen into lock-step behind it. Now every supposedly “original” property is watered down to the blandest pablum in order to offend as few people as possible. And become the first acts in their own Epic Trilogies. Star Trek, GI Joe, Prometheus. On and on it goes. Making a good movie is not dangerously close to incidental and may soon reach the point video games passed a long time ago, when untested ideas are an active danger to the bottom line. If this is what life is like with Cameron as King of the World, I say we storm the Bastille.

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