Twelve years ago, James Cameron made the world’s most expensive movie, which turned out to be the world’s highest grossing movie (unless you adjust for inflation, of course). A vast majority of its colossal budget went to the painstaking detail of historical authenticity; custom carpets woven by the same companies that outfitted the real Titanic, handmade mahogany furniture built from 1911 blueprints, and costumes fit for the wives of turn-of-the-century rail barons.
Unfortunately, Cameron then populated these precisely replicated sets with 1990s characters speaking lines from his 1990s worldview. True stories of romance and heroism were ignored so that a fictional tale of forbidden love in a fabricated class war could be told. Needing more villains for his melodramatic conclusion, Cameron rewrote the historic words and actions of real White Star crew members seemingly at random, erasing or misrepresenting their legacies.
Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, Titanic went on become a global phenomenon, which teenage girls would buy tickets to see again and again. The tremendous scale of Cameron’s artistic vision overshadowed his flat characters and cheesy dialog to create an overwhelming spectacle. These same strengths and weaknesses are also apparent in Avatar, but with more of a videogame feel.
Fortunately, the futuristic storyline doesn’t tarnish any historic events, but it still has a kind of ham-handed revisionist feel to it. Apparently, in the year 2154, intergalactic space marines will still remind each other that they “aren’t in Kansas anymore.” More anachronistically, their caricatured commanders will quote George W. Bush in strategic briefings, refer to any conflict as being a war on terror, and attempt to “shock and awe” any insurgents they run across.
Yes, James Cameron has many political axes to grind in this very beautiful film, and no matter how awe-inspiring the scenery and action gets, there’s always an obtrusively highlighted moralistic footnote to distract the viewer. That said, the visuals are undeniably amazing. From the opening scenes on board spaceship to when the crippled marine named Jake first takes control of his genetically engineered avatar body, the sets and gadgets are incredible.
And once Jake actually leaves civilization for the glowing, fog-shrouded rainforest of Pandora, things get even more eye-popping. Six-legged monster jaguars prowl through bioluminescent foliage and scare up orange helicopter lizards, while blue-crested pterodactyls weave over and under floating mountains dotted with inexplicable waterfalls. Jake experiences all of this by Tarzaning around in the hyper-athletic body of a twelve-foot-tall blue alien, and as soon as he abandons his pasty-white paralyzed human husk for such physical perfection, it’s clear that he’s never going back.
A lot of people have pointed out that Avatar is the same storyline as Dances with Wolves (including the director), but it also borrows heavily from FernGully, Dinotopia, and Pocahontas. Not the actual true story of Pocahontas, of course, but Disney’s animated New Age eco-romance. This post-modern version of a gone-native John Smith and the wise warrior woman who guides him in primitive tribalism seems to be Cameron’s main source for Avatar.
In fact, the similarities are painfully obvious: Our expressionless hero tags along on an expedition that leaves him lost in the incredible jungle and found by the chief’s daughter. Taken back to camp, her father, played by Cherokee actor Wes Studi (Pocahontas’s uncle in the live-action Terrence Malick revision of the story), condemns him to death, and just as the peaceful and tolerant forest folk are about to gut him like a fish for being a slimy paleface, our extra-terrestrial Pocahontas steps in.
It seems that the wise tree-based spirit of their ancestors has spoken, and this outlander should be made part of the tribe. The chief’s daughter then is chosen to lead the hero on his path to manhood (strangely enough), the penultimate step of which is to hunt and kill an emu-headed buffalo. As it lies dying she directs him in the traditional American Indian thanks-for-giving-me-your-life-energy prayer, but then they don’t actually seem to use any parts of the buffalo. After all, these double-fanged alien hunters are so in touch with nature that they must be vegetarian.
Cameron is very inconsistent with his portrayal of the Nav’i people. They are bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, and way more beautiful than any human being – but they freeze like panicked spider monkeys when in the path of, say, a falling tree. They enjoy an idyllic tribal culture led by female shamans in completely peaceful coexistence with all creatures, but they are also presented as a fearless warrior people who end up needing a human marine to lead them in a fight.
And fight they must, because evil corporations and military contractors are hell-bent on strip-mining Pandora, especially if it means a chance to violently displace some naked native peoples! Fortunately, Jake has a few allies among the despicable humans – some plucky ethnic minorities are willing to betray their whiter buddies, and the enlightened scientists of the expedition are eager to adopt the planet-worshiping spirituality of the noble blueskins.
This is one of the only films I’ve seen where science and religion are supposed to be on the same side, and James Cameron takes considerable pains to explain how all living things on Pandora are psychically connected by The Force™, creating a singular planet-wide intelligence that the matriarchal Nav’i priestesses call the “All-Mother.” This touchy-feely goddess is never actually a source of moral right or transcendent law, but since every tree is part of her ethereal being, obviously no deforestation can go unpunished.
And so, with the tribe’s poisoned arrows bouncing harmlessly off of the windshields of advancing death machines, Jake kneels in desperation before the holiest altar tree and begs for help in the impending battle. First his new girlfriend scolds him for asking Gaia to take sides, and then, pointless relativism once again established for the audience, they saddle up to lead a suicidal Last Samurai-style cavalry charge, pitting mounted pterodactyls against 22nd-century choppers in a gargantuan action sequence that is Apocalypse Now meets Return of the Jedi.
Of course, the living planet does hear Jake’s prayers and it sends wave after wave of forest critters to overwhelm humanity’s footsoldiers and clog the jet intakes of capitalism’s air force. Inexplicably, the wooden arrows suddenly begin to puncture the mercenary armor, but the tribe’s new chief still abandons his native weapons for an M-60 and grenades to more effectively slaughter his former compatriots and fellow men.
The film ends happily, with humankind limping back to a dying Earth, and the tree goddess permanently implanting Jake’s psyche into his avatar so that he will never again have to be a treacherous white man. James Horner’s least-inspired ethnic soundtrack transitions into a pop ballad as the credits roll, and the audience is left to consider all the lessons that they have been smugly beaten over the head with for two and a half hours. I had other questions.
If the humans have the technology to grow functional alien clones in vats and then project their consciences into these synthetic bodies from unlimited distances, why do they still strip-mine planets with giant yellow Tonka-truck bulldozers? And if the alien clans are so advanced that they can mentally connect with all living organisms on the planet and even the old tribal leaders have picked up fluent English, why do they still vainly shoot feathered arrows at those yellow bulldozers? And where do you even get feathers on a birdless planet?
The entire film is a no-holds-barred series of sermons on James Cameron’s favorite issues rather than a carefully considered story, and no expense was spared in the production of an entirely new world unintelligently-designed to fit a very old worldview. The marketing of the film has likewise pulled out all the stops. Giant print, radio, and television ad campaigns have been bolstered by appearances by the cast and crew at major comic and sci-fi conventions, exclusive trailer showings at sports events, and even extensive plot tie-ins on prime time network tv shows.
Reviews of the films are largely positive, but even the writers most impressed with the 3D effects of the film generally point out the very two-dimensional characters and storyline. Other reviewers have complained that for all the film’s apparent multiculturalism, it’s still the white guy that saves the ignorant savages. Many internet commentators have suggested that anyone who hasn’t seen film in 3D isn’t allowed to complain about it, since it’s about spectacle and eye-candy.
To some extent, I agree. The film’s only redeeming aspects are in the art and sound design, and the 2D version of the film is in many ways very different from the 3D experience. For starters, the movie was designed for 3D. All the shot composition has been worked out to take advantage of z-space. When I watched the climax in 2D, I actually found it very difficult to keep track of where everything was spatially organized.
When the viewer can see depth, it’s very easy to figure exact distances between the antagonist, hero, and objective as they drive each other back and forth. In two-dimensions, there aren’t enough establishing shots to maintain a clear picture of that. Furthermore, the scale of different objects and characters could have been more dramatically emphasized if the storyboards were drawn with 2D in mind. Without clear action lines and points of focus in 2D, shots lacked impact.
Also, the graphics seemed far less revolutionary on a flat screen. In 3D space, all the CGI elements had quantifiable depth, solidity, and mass. It was hard to pick out lighting inconsistencies, poor shaders, or texturing flaws when my brain was presented with fully 3D objects interacting in 3D space. Presented with only one perspective, I was less overwhelmed with the rendering. It was still immensely impressive work from all the studios involved, but without the extra dimension dazzling me, I did notice shading errors, distracting reflections, matte lines, and flesh and skin that just wasn’t quite convincing.
I don’t really see the film as breaking any new ground. In fact, the structure of the script, character arcs, and dialog are a major step backwards for James Cameron, even taking Titanic into consideration. The protagonist drifts, waffles, and is tossed back and forth by the plot, initiating nothing. The antagonist is confident, honorable, and consistently makes things happen. Everyone else is a stereotype, looking for a personality and telling the audience point-blank what to feel. There is a lot of technical excellence in this film, but the advances are minor or inevitable improvements to existing techniques.
With Avatar’s budget, Cameron has dwarfed the cost of Titanic, and with a new line of toys, games, and books for all ages, has an reasonable chance of attaining similar returns. It seems that Cameron’s sanctimonious hatred of corporate development and capitalism is as inconsistently applied as the existential pantheism of Pandora. This film cannot be recommended for humans.