Given the astronomical expectations for James Cameron’s Avatar—his first narrative feature in a dozen years, and the launching pad for a purportedly game-changing approach to the use of 3D and performance capture technology—it’s not surprising that the movie has split critics and viewers into two unequal but similarly passionate camps. On the one, more populous, side, are those who feel that Cameron has revolutionized the art form, creating a visionary work that will forever alter the medium. The film’s detractors, meanwhile, greet its much-hyped visuals with a collective yawn, arguing that its questionable technical achievements are overshadowed by its thin characterizations, hackneyed plot and heavy-handed dialogue.
The latter complaint tends to stem primarily from the explicit connections Cameron draws between his futuristic plot and the present day, particularly with regard to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the depredation of the Amazon rain forest by heavy industry. (Intriguingly, Avatar’s attackers seem to be alone in recognizing the film’s political content. The Christian watchdog site Movieguide warns that the film “contains strong environmentalist content and… a strong Marxist overtone,” which is more or less on the money.)
The laudatory reviews devote the vast bulk of their verbiage to the film’s aesthetic pleasures—the New York Times Manohla Dargis called it a “trippy joy ride”—and technological achievements. In his Los Angeles Times review, critic Kenneth Turan compared the film to The Jazz Singer, an ironic compliment given that that lead-footed landmark is, by and large, remembered only for its historical import (and, more to the point, its commercial success, which proved that audiences could be drawn by the novelty of synchronized sound). The major reviews of Avatar make vague allusions to its underlying allegory, but fail to address its non-allegorical references to preemptive strikes and insurgent rebellion.
There is much to be said about Avatar’s visual achievements, but what impressed me most was how unimpressive they were. Rather than constantly drooling over the textures of the film’s alien world, I found myself quickly sinking into it, accepting its reality rather than remarking upon it. For what it’s worth, I should mention that I saw the film projected in 3D IMAX, whereas my understanding is that most of the nation’s critics saw the film either in conventional 3D or standard 2D, the IMAX digital prints were not completed until a few days before opening. I have no way of knowing what effect that may have had on their reactions, and there’s an argument to be made that a solidly constructed film should play at least passably well across all formats. But just as viewers who watch Terence Malick’s Days Of Heaven on DVD are missing out on a key component of the film’s artistry, so are audiences who see Avatar in less than its full immersive glory. It’s possible that the artificiality of Avatar’s computer-generated images is more pronounced in other environments.
That said, Avatar has much more to offer than eye candy. Immediately before watching Cameron’s film, I caught up with Robert Zemeckis’ version of A Christmas Carol, projected in the same theater and filmed using a similar motion-capture technique (albeit one turned towards very different ends). A Christmas Carol’s use of mo-cap is at times mightily impressive, largely overcoming the problems Zemeckis has had with characters who come off like dead-eyed automatons. But when the film was over, I was thinking about the technology. After Avatar, I was thinking about the story.
For those who have somehow managed to escape Avatar’s promotional onslaught, Sam Worthington plays a paraplegic ex-Marine hired by an unnamed corporation to take his dead twin’s place in an experimental project in which human minds are transferred into bodies created from a hybrid of human and alien DNA (i.e. avatars). The brainchild of tough-talking scientist Sigourney Weaver (basically a two-fisted Dian Fossey), the project was devised to smooth relations between the corporation and an alien race called the Na’vi, whose planet, Pandora, is home to vast deposits of a valuable ore known as Unobtainium. (That comically on-the-nose moniker is the first sign that Cameron is painting with an exceptionally broad brush). As a gung-ho jarhead taking the place of a dedicated researcher, Worthington is woefully unprepared for avatar duty, yet he clumsily stumbles into a connection with the natives his brainier colleagues have been unable to forge. But while he pushes for a diplomatic understanding with the Na’vi, who have violently responded to the corporation’s encroachment, Worthington is also covertly funneling information to Stephen Lang’s bloodthirsty colonel, who is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to wipe out the Na’vi. At first, Worthington’s allegiances are evenly split, but as he grows to know the natives, particularly Zoe Saldana’s slender-hipped warrior princess, he gradually shifts his sympathies, eventually leading a full-blown attack against the unwanted invaders.
So far, so schematic. Cameron has never been a blindingly original storyteller, and Avatar is no exception to the rule. There are few surprises in the plot, few characters we don’t know entirely at first glance, and even those that do change do so in predictable ways, like the skeptical Na’vi warrior (Laz Alonso) who eventually comes to respect Worthington’s prowess on the battlefield. It’s fair to say that Cameron put more effort into refining the textures of Pandora’s plant life than the subtle nuances of his characters. But given that many of those characters are 10 feet tall and blue, it’s safe to say that emotional nuance is not where the movie’s interests lies.
Cameron is similarly blunt when it comes to the movie’s political overtones. But rather than a clunky work of agitprop the movie can—and, I think, ought to—be seen as a polemic, which makes criticism of its obviousness beside the point. Having Lang’s colonel refer to his plan to bomb the Na’vi into submission with the words “shock and awe” is not subtle, but it’s not meant to be. Cameron means to be confrontational, and to be sure, audiences looking for a diverting night out are not allowed to overlook the parallels.
It would be one thing if Avatar’s allegory stopped at a few repurposed catchphrases. But Cameron is after something much more ambitious, and substantially messier. At times, the corporation’s attempt to suppress the Na’vi resistance recalls the ongoing occupation of Iraq, and at times it evokes the jungle war of Vietnam. The attempt to wipe out an indigenous population to make way for the exploitation of natural resources resonates with the decimation of the rain forest and the genocide of Native Americans. The Na'vi belief in Eywa, an all-encompassing spirit that flows through every living thing on Pandora, parallels the holistic beliefs of the Plains tribes, although the Na'vi are hard-wired to their planet, which essentially functions as gigantic neural network. In essence, the movie boils down to a master theory of European colonialism: an imperialist master narrative.
In recombining elements of numerous historical conflicts, Avatar sides with the natives and against the corporation, whose employees resemble the U.S. military in all but name. The corporation’s ruthless lust for the resources buried under the Na’vi’s feet, its seamless integration of economic interest and armed aggression, serve as a barely veiled comment on the occupation of Iraq—one that Cameron makes it impossible to miss.
The money-hungry company, willing to sacrifice any number of lives in the pursuit of profit, is a frequent Cameron bugbear (think the Terminators’ Cybderyne, or Aliens’ Weyland-Yutani), but what’s different in Avatar is that their avarice is not the exception but the rule. Apart from a few outliers—Worthington, Weaver, scientist Joel Moore, renegade pilot Michelle Rodriguez, and a handful of barely sketched personnel back at base—the humans we see are overwhelmingly in thrall to the corporate ethos, to the extent that Cameron has no trouble bumping them off when the shooting starts. By the time of the final battle, our sympathies are lodged firmly with the Na’vi, to the extent that we’re encouraged to cheer every time a human takes a supersized arrow in the chest. The insurgents, fighting a guerilla war against an enemy whose overwhelmingly superior firepower is undermined by their arrogance, are the heroes. To borrow another phrase from the contemporary lexicon, Avatar, in a very real sense, sides with the terrorists.
The movie’s most seditious act is to evoke the specter of September 11, only with the terms reversed. The corporation’s most villainous act, overseen by a calmly coffee-sipping Lang, is the destruction of Hometree, the Na’vi’s ancestral home and the root of their connection to Pandora. Its support structures blown apart by missile fire, the massive tree, hundreds of feet tall, collapses in a shower of flame and debris, its incandescent embers wafting through the air as the bereaved Na’vi wail their grief. The resonance with the familiar images of lower Manhattan is inescapable (although for once unremarked upon), except that here, the U.S.’ stand-ins are the perpetrators, and not the victims.
Cameron’s willingness to question the sacred trauma of 9/11 is audacious, and his ability to do so in a $300 million tentpole movie is nothing short of shocking. If Avatar has a claim to revolution, that is where it lies. It’s not surprising that the studio has chosen to focus on selling the movie’s visual sizzle rather than its conceptual steak, but the extent to which critics have uncritically followed their lead has warped the movie’s reception.
At least some of the negative reactions seem to stem from a misconception about what kind of movie it is. The futuristic setting and snazzy hardware would seem to put it in a class with Cameron’s Aliens et al., but its tone is closer to that of a romantic epic. It’s more Titanic than T2, which may explain why its much-anticipated screening at the geek-friendly Butt-Numb-a-Thon, hosted by Ain’t It Cool News honcho Harry Knowles, was greeted with largely cool reactions (the so-called “fanboy backlash”). Although it’s been sold as an action movie with fantastic elements, Avatar is closer to fantasy than science fiction, and as such requires a larger initial leap of faith. It’s not a movie you can approach with cynicism, any more than you can The Wizard of Oz.
To be sure, some of the “show me what you got” attitude was primed by the movie’s advance publicity and by Cameron himself, who essentially promised moviegoers they’d come away from the theater with the scales torn from their eyes. But it’s always wise to disregard the advance hype, especially when it’s designed to cram an unfamiliar movie into a familiar package. After all, it was Fox, the studio behind Avatar, who promised viewers of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris that they were in for a lush romance starring George Clooney, which led to a violent backlash when they discovered they’d been tricked into seeing one of the most adventurous and challenging studio movies in years.
Avatar is hardly a perfect movie, but its virtues greatly overshadow its flaws—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it renders them irrelevant.