Avatar is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, even though you’ve absolutely seen this story many times before. Is that a coy contradiction? Is it a negative statement? I hope not. I think you can love something while still seeing and understanding its flaws. Bottom line up top: I loved watching Avatar and I entirely recommend the experience. I saw Avatar on the IMAX screen in 3-D, and I can’t imagine wanting to see it any other way. This movie is meant to play big. It’s supposed to fill your peripheral vision and take you to places no one’s ever been. It does that. It takes you to an imaginary planet called Pandora, drops you directly into the atmosphere, and alongside lead character Jake Sully, forces you to experience a new world for the first time. The world is convincingly detailed and absorbing. If only for the thorough immersion in a foreign landscape it affords – hell, if only for the strange and intimidating animals that populate it – Avatar is a good movie, even a special one. But is it a great movie? I’m not sure. What we ask our greatest movies to do is to make us believe in things that aren’t real and to care about characters who never were. For the most part, Avatar made me believe. I only wish it could’ve made me care more. That didn’t stop me from loving the movie, but it does keep me from loving it unconditionally.
James Cameron has entertained and influenced a generation of film nerds. I’m very much one of them. His two Terminator films, in particular, are a model of how to balance explosive action filmmaking with relatable and sympathetic characters. Aliens, his entry in the Alien franchise, remains my personal favorite of the four. The Abyss is an underrated film, full of suspense and wonder and blessed with arguably Cameron’s best lead actor, Ed Harris. True Lies remains a pleasant diversion, a mix of old-school Hollywood playfulness and new-school Hollywood spectacle. Titanic is not my favorite of his movies, but a serious filmmaker wouldn’t overlook Cameron’s ability to mix effects with story and to orient both characters and audience in a believable landscape. If you’re interested in action cinema, it’s foolish to overlook Cameron. He’s just plain a canon filmmaker when it comes to action and believable sci-fi environments. One could convincingly argue that he’s not much of a writer of dialogue, as Titanic in particular suggests, and Avatar unfortunately corroborates, but Cameron can make the places seem real in a way that few other filmmakers can, to the point where it’s easy to forgive the frequent clichés of speech.
What makes Avatar a problematic movie is that the clichés extend beyond the dialogue to the story itself. A corrupt, greedily imperialistic society sends a pale-faced emissary into harm’s way – the hero gets to know and fall in love with a native culture of differently-colored people who worship more earthly and simple spiritual things. Because this is a Hollywood film, that love is personified in female form. While the hero proves himself and wins over the family of his love interest, she has another suitor who becomes his fierce rival. Eventually, the hero is faced with the decision to stand with his adopted culture or to return to the civilization he once knew. A friend of mine described Avatar as “Dances With Wolves on mescaline.” He’s right, and it’s unavoidable: Dances With Wolves is certainly a movie that Avatar thematically resembles to a tee, but this kind of stuff goes all the way back to John Ford and Anthony Mann (see Broken Arrow), and has only continued and proliferated, in the Western genre particularly, as feelings of racial apology have increased over the years. It’s not limited to Westerns and Native Americans – movies as diverse in content as Witness, The Fast And The Furious, and The Karate Kid Part 2 all traffic in similar scenarios – but Avatar so specifically evokes the Native American situation that it just has to be discussed in any serious discussion of the movie. The Na’vi, the nine-foot-tall blue-skinned alien race who are at the center of Avatar, ride horse-like creatures barebacked, wear their hair in ponytails and their loincloths in thongs, and pray gently to creatures they’ve killed for food. Their leader is played by Wes Studi, Hollywood’s go-to Native American actor, who really deserves to work more often in more varied parts. (His wife is played by CCH Pounder and his chosen successor played by Laz Alonzo, both great African-American actors whose casting adds another layer of racial confusion to the film.)
My issue is this: The treatment of the Native American people by the United States is something that this country has never properly addressed. It involves crimes of race and history that there may never be any atoning for, even if atonement were possible. It’s not an escapist topic. You can’t disappear into a movie if you’re thinking of the mistreatment of the Native American people throughout the entire movie. If Cameron wanted to probe these questions with Avatar, he should have acknowledged the complexity of the issue. Unfortunately, when it comes to matters of race and history, Avatar’s conclusions are disappointingly simplistic. I don’t want to spoil any of the plot details here, so if you disagree with me, please feel free to let me know in the comments or at the provided addresses where we can continue the discussion. But when I started thinking about the politics of Avatar, I started to think that it makes District 9 look like all the more of an impressive achievement. If you feel the need to slip real-world subtext into your escapist science-fiction film, you ought to make sure it’s subtext worth stating (or re-stating) in the first place.
The other, possibly greater, problem for me in unreservedly adoring Avatar is that its lead characters didn’t resonate within me as deeply as the protagonists of earlier Cameron films did. Since there is a love story at the heart of Avatar, this is a problem. Think of the tragic one-night-only true love of Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in The Terminator, the fierce maternal instinct that bonds Ripley to Newt in Aliens, Virgil Brigman pleading with Lindsey Brigman to return to life in The Abyss, young John Connor pleading with the T-800 not to leave in Terminator 2, even Jack risking everything for Rose in Titanic. Some writers believe that an audience must fall in love with the two participants in a movie love story in order to truly buy into it. I suppose that’s true, but for me, all I ask is that when I watch the movie, I believe that the two people love each other. I’m no Kate Winslet fan, but DiCaprio makes me believe that he loves her in Titanic, so I cared. I certainly believed in and related to all of the other examples I’ve just quoted. I really can’t say the same for Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
She’s nine feet tall, blue, and as much like a cat as a person. He’s confined to a wheelchair and quintessentially human. The one moment where they appear in frame together, a dramatic moment late in the game, is unavoidably humorous. I was taking the movie pretty seriously by then and I still couldn’t suppress a chuckle. A Woody Allen/Diane Keaton moment at best. Short guy/tall chick is just internally received as comedy by modern filmgoers; that’s just how it is. Believe me, as a vertically challenged man myself, I wish it weren’t.
Here now, some words from James Cameron himself, in the pages of this month’s Maxim, when asked about how much effort was put into making Neytiri look hot:
“…We figured the story wouldn’t work if you didn’t want to do her.”
That’s a somewhat telling statement. I will admit that I spent about an hour searching for a glimpse of blue nipple, but to me, the most exciting moment of the movie in that regard was when Michelle Rodriguez showed up in that tank top. And I’m not much of a Michelle Rodriguez guy. As talented and convincing as the voice actors are and as brilliantly believable as the movements of the Na’vi are, there are still moments where you break free of the illusion and remember that you are watching a computer-aided performance. For me personally, that moment was the sex scene. Again, I chuckled ever so briefly – I felt for a moment like the entire packed theater was watching that weird Japanese anime porn. The thought of that scene scored to the end-credits Leona Lewis love ballad just seemed comical to me. As much as I liked everything else about the movie, nothing beats the real un-animated Zoe Saldana. And so on.
All of that constructive criticism out of the way, there is so much about Avatar that I loved. The magnitude of imagination on display from Cameron and his technical crew is astoundingly thorough. I loved the meticulous design of the various spaceships, equipment, and weapons. Predictably, I loved the creatures the most. At its most transcendent moments, Avatar feels like an Animal Planet documentary filmed in your wildest dreams. I loved the dragon birds and the snake panthers and the rhino dinosaurs and the jellyfish spirits. The human cast is uniformly good, despite my earlier stated reservations about how some of them were used. In particular, I loved seeing Sigourney Weaver in a movie like this again – there are few actors who can be so firm and sympathetic and genuine amidst such unbelievable backgrounds. And those backgrounds, particularly in the IMAX/3-D format, are breath-taking. You truly feel the depth and scope of the world created. As dangerous as the jungles and skies of Pandora prove to be, you still feel like diving right in. That’s not just a case of me loving the format – the craft gone into the movie is what achieves that; the format only accentuates the effect. Cameron has done something special here.
Avatar is a movie that demands to be seen by everyone who truly loves movies. It’s one transitional moment in a probable string of many future transitional moments for this mode of mass entertainment. The writer in me sees the flaws, small controversies, and problem areas, but the rest of me is damned if any of that stops me from enjoying what was otherwise such a great trip to the movies.