I’m not opposed to either fantasy or special effects, and I think my movie-loving record testifies to that (I still hear John Williams in my sleep) however,…
I went to see Avatar last night because it was at the local theater. I almost never get the urge to walk out of a movie, but twenty minutes in I found myself wanting to leave, but curious to know if it could get any worse, or if by some miracle the film would redeem itself. I did the only sensible thing. I took out my notebook and started jotting things down in the dark.
I’ll share some of the notes (first page : Vietnam. Alice in Wonderland. Camera = spectacle. Every adventure/fantasy trope). But let me sum up the film by saying this first:
There are two reasons this film was nominated for an Oscar:
-Technical innovation and a big budget. These two things often go together. Many people in Hollywood know James Cameron has a big budget and a lot of influence. It’s the same as Titianic.
-A shot at “self referential” filmmaking by having a story (film, illusion) about people who are dealing with whether or not the truest form of themselves is their “persona in a story” or their flesh and blood person in everyday real life. Great theme. Great idea. Hire a better screenwriter.
The movie fails, however, on several accounts. Here are the big ones:
-Bad plot. Dances With Wolves (with a touch of Gorillas in the Mist, reinforced by casting Sigourney Weaver as a nature-loving scientist who-spoiler alter-dies) in a GI Joe setting, with aliens who are tall, smurfy Indians. And I use the term deliberately. Not Native Americans, but Indians. Portrayed somewhere on par with Disney’s Pocahontas.
-Dialog that was expository at best and pandering at worst. If this is a work of cinematic art, stop telling the audience what’s happening. We can see it. Also, there was enough strong language in the film that I would have a hard time classifying it as a kids’ film. Yet, the cartooniness and the simple plot made me wonder. It’s as if the film was intended for children, but not quite suitable.
-Poor treatment of the subject matter. Admittedly, the colonialist vs natives things is hard to do well. But the entire treatment of stereotypical “us vs. them” and “the other” being the native, nature loving, spiritual, jungle-dwelling, sexy people was, frankly, offensive. One cannot argue the film is about race. It’s referred to in the dialog, i.e., “How does it feel to betray your own race?” If you’re gonna go there, you need to do a better job. The shallow treatment of race, and the connotations used wanted to be Dances With Wolves, but all the same problems with Kevin Costner’s film still apply. A film made by American (colonialist) caucasians, for American caucasians, in which the caucasians are villified, but the hero is still a caucasian who is special, and saves the native people. The movie is not color-blind or even color-appropriate. It comes and goes strictly from an American caucasian point of view. The aliens are still the “other.” They’re heroic, sure, but not normal beings. They’re still outsiders. Aliens. They look funny, even if it looks cool.
To add to this: the whole plot point of who the “real” Jake Sully is gets complicated. A formal analysis of his character would take too long…but I encourage viewers to really pay attention to who is “real” and who is still a video game character/alternate persona/dream world creation of his own…
-The last major flaw I can’t help but address is the foregrounding of violence. The peace loving people are called into battle in order to “bring about balance.” I get it. I have a pacifistic nature, and like my friend Chris’s bumper sticker that says “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” But I understand that sometimes force is necessary. However, in any action film it is not as necessary as it seems to be. This entire film was made as spectacle for passive viewership. No one in the audience is supposed to be thinking. Viewers are called upon to respond emotionally, that is all. Get mad. Be sad. Be scared. Get excited. The violence was gratuitous, and it was also inappropriate to the supposed point the film was trying to make. There were direct references to wars on terror. The “bad guys” (the military) responded to terror with terror. We get it. Valid point. The military is tied to corporate interest (violence and greed). Nice reference. But as usual, the Hollywood message is terribly mixed. The bad guys are violent, but the good guys and girls (interesting gender qualifications there…) are justified, but still very violent. This is a film that vilifies violence by being a violent spectacle. It vilifies greed by raking in millions of dollars…
Some other highlights from my notebook (I’ll correct my spelling. I don’t write well in the dark…)
-Floating mountains are lovely, but where does all the water for the waterfalls come from?
-Go there in your dreams. I like it, but “noble savage?” Stereotype.
-Flying = transcendence
-Sex in the sacred place. Sex as the most sacred act.
-Braid connect thing-intimate communication? Sexual connotation
-Surrogate sex – like cybersex?
-Spiritual leader does act of forgiveness 🙂
-Environmentalism: technology helps understand nature instead of nature helps understand technology?
-White guy better go save the native people!
-He still thinks like a Marine
-Dead tree + phoenix bird:)
-Did he really just say “shock and awe?”
-Yeah chick rescuer-liked strong/active female characters
– Animal = machine; avatar/avatar vs mechanical avatar
Plus a couple of pages of scrawl I can’t make out at all. I think there was some nobility in Cameron’s attempt at a story with contemporary applications, but it was not realized and is in no way deserving of the accolades that it’s been given.
So here’s the apt metaphor: This movie is nothing new, it just has a pretty cover. It’s the new Pepsi One. Still Pepsi. Still bad for you. But, there’s some scientific innovation to make you look at it differently, and the label has been redesigned. Your teeth will still rot, and you’ll still be one step closer to diabetic every time you drink it. Avatar is blatant spectacle that promotes intensely passive spectatorship. It’s not anything new. It’s just got some pretty pictures.