Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.66.2: AVATAR (a movie review)

© 20th Century Fox and UrbisMedia

© 20th Century Fox and UrbisMedia

NOTE: I didn’t see it on the “big screen” (but in HD on my new “JimboTron”), nor in 3-D. And I waited until I could get in from Netflix and made my own popcorn. It is not my sort of movie, but it received a lot of notice for its production innovations, and a lot of money from the box office. So, I feel I should review it.

After recent years of movies of bad-ass aliens who are even more frightening than the humans who invade their planets in quest of valuable ores and such, we were due for one in which the humans are the bad-asses and the aliens (actually, indigenous critters) are the nice guys.

And therein lies the problem with Avatar—for all the stunning visuals, there is the realization that you have seen this movie before, and before, and before . . . The Emerald Forest, King Soloman’s Mines, Hawaii, Shogun, Sayonara, The Inn of the Six Happiness, King Kong, almost any Australian or South African movie, and lets not leave out Dances With Wolves, the list could be much longer, but you can see the borrowed and stolen elements of all of them in Avatar. What might be one of the most technically-advanced productions in movie history, is also perhaps the most narratively-hackneyed movies in recent history.

At one level Avatar is an eye-popping romp through James Cameron’s imagination. It is visually a tour de force of the green screen and the virtuosity of the CGI designers and some new camera technology. But for all of that—and that might be enough for a generation weened on video games and explosive action films—it is otherwise rather lame and gratuitous.

The plot is a pastiche of borrowed clichés: Humans want to harvest some undefined mineral that is more precious than diamonds. But to get it, the “corporation” has to ravage the environment of indigenous creatures, the Na’vi, and most of the stuff sits right beneath the Na’vi’s giant sacred tree (wouldn’t ya just know it). Giovanni Ribisi plays the aptly diminutive greedy corporate ego* who has the assistance of the military (yes, there are always some hoohah, honcho military jerks as well who despise anyone not their own color) to enforce human domination. In the middle is Sigourney Weaver, the anthropologist, and her team, who speak a little Na’vi (sounds like Finnish to me) and wants to learn their ways and save them from extinction. Any uneven encounter that involves one race of technologically-superior, or more economically-consumptive people against an atavistic, religiously-righteous adversary and you have more than enough ingredients for that essential feature of drama, conflict.

One wonders what Cameron was up to in conjuring the Na’vi, a race of 9-foot tall Smurf-blue people (that make you wonder why they never invented basketball), but are into hair braiding and body art. Blue isn’t a color that occurs all that much in nature (but it sure looks nice). The Na’vi have feline facial features, which befits their ability to flit, Tarzan-like, through giant foliage (but evolution suggests they should have more compact bodies and longer arms to do that. Never mind, evolution gets messed with again with the other animals of the Na’vi forest. Quadruped Cycladic-like horses are transmogrified into nonsensical sexupeds, and aerodynamically-perilous pteradactyl-like critters are “domesticated” by having receptacles for the pigtails braids of the Na’vi. There are also little airborne “jellyfish” critters that float about and have some spiritual significance (I’m thinking little jellyangels).

Then there is the avatar idea. Weaver’s people are able to install themselves into their avatars (Na’vi-like versions of themselves) to supposedly join them and learn their ways, although the physics of this is vague and unsatisfying.** This is another well-worn plot device that we have seen from Homer to The Last of the Mohicans. The Na’vi are little different than every other movie aboriginal people you have seen—clannish, patriarchic, animistic (they even have the nasty, suspicious medicine-man type), but they represent us before we were, putatively, corrupted by secularism, materialism, and modernism. It’s a simplistic dichotomy, but the fact is that, as this is being written, there is probably an aboriginal tribe in the Amazon that is being “disappeared” to make way for farmland, grazing or mining. Still, Cameron doesn’t miss the chance for the cross-species or cross-cultural love affair. You’ve seen this dozens of times, too: Tarzan and Jane (sort of cross species), King Kong and some blonde [See DCJ Archive, 11. 5: Going Ape for Blondes 8.13.2004], the soldier and the beautiful Indian maiden (usually the chief’s daughter). In this case it is a human soldier (who happens to be a paraplegic, but not when he is his avatar) and a Na’vi chick martial artist.

Naturally there has to be a resolution of the conflict, and this is played out pretty much like a video game, with giant mechanical marching and flying war machines against giant rhino-like sexupeds and soaring pterosaurs piloted by Na’vis. Those dirty-rotten humans even blow up the giant sacred tree.

Hanging over it all is the time-honored human conflict between the secular and the spiritual, the profane and the sacred, the mechanical versus the biological. And we humans always seem fascinated by how our evolutionary differences result in such big differences in the regard we have for one another. In fact, making those differences a causus belli seems one of the most consistent results of that fascination both in our reality and our exculpating entertainment. Even if I agree with a good part of Cameron’s socially liberal POV, I have to admit that seeing it coming back at me in the form of this movie and its often-dorky dialogue is enough to pause me to reexamine my ideology. Then there is that irksome irony that the appeal of the anti-war movie is often the very drama of the warfare.***

At another level, Cameron has now directed and/or produced the two top grossing pictures in cinema history. He might not know much that is new, but he sure knows how to sell what he knows. In something I read he commented that he had been thinking about this movie since he was a kid. Maybe that’s the problem; it’s sort of a kid’s movie.

Cameron’s idea is that it is better to join the aliens than beat them. But that’s why I think Alienis a much better movie—the aliens in that one not only reflect what we have become, but they give as good as they get.
©2010, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 6.5.2010)
*Weaver always has some little guy to play against (Ian Holm in Alien, Paul Riser in Aliens, and both Mel Gibson and Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously). She makes it into the cast seemingly also for also having starred in Gorillas in the Mist. In Avatar, she has moved her anthropological interests on from simians to endangered blue people who also like to frolic in the forest.
**Explaining that the atmosphere on Pandora is poisonous to humans, so the humans have developed something called the Avatar Program, that combines human and Na’vi DNA to create remotely-controlled half-human, half-Na’vi critters who can safely breathe Pandora air is, well, pretty much not worth it.
***Although it hardly needs to be; see Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971)