Okay, so Avatar. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to be spoiled by anything, you should probably skip this post. I’m also going to say that a lot of the issues I bring up in this review are partially or completely answered by an early script of the movie, but that some details are lost in the final product still causes so problems. I don’t hate the film, like some folks do, but I am going to criticize it a bit.
Unless you’d been living under a rock, you’ve heard of Avatar. The story that I had heard about this movie was that it was something Cameron had conceptualized for years and that special effects weren’t yet sophisticated enough to bring his vision to life. There were also many references to world building, a common practice for speculative fiction authors, and as a spec-fic writer myself, I was really interested in what Cameron was up to with this.
Looking at it from a world building perspective, there are some great things. It’s also a very pretty movie, but not a very compelling one.
Which isn’t to say that the film is bad: anyone who has seen it will utter some variation of ‘breathtaking visuals’ and, yes, the film is absolutely amazing in that regard. The CGI used for the alien lifeforms found on the planet of Pandora, in addition to the work done with the mechs and other tech utilized by the humans is brilliant. Unfortunately, pretty visuals will only carry a film so far, no matter how pretty or realistic they may be and when you combine it with the dearth of problems found within the film, it makes for a bad combination.
Top of the list would be the story. There’s really nothing more to it than a ‘white man goes native’ story. One reviewer used the term ‘Dances With Wolves in outer space.’ It’s pretty accurate, as the title of the film refers to the program that allows for humans to inhabit the body of one of the local Na’Vi aliens. Apparently these Avatars were used to try and establish relations with the Na’Vi by the scientific contingent, headed up by Sigourney Weaver’s character Grace Augustine.
References are made about ‘English schools’ and ‘diplomacy’ but it’s never really explained why the humans needed the Avatars to try and communicate with the Na’Vi: language isn’t an issue, as we see several human characters speak the Na’Vi language perfectly, so it can’t be that. Fitting in with the natives doesn’t appear to be the reason, either, as the Na’Vi are quite capable of identifying outsiders.
The only real explanation I can think of regarding why the Avatar program exists is because it allows for humans to breathe the air without the use of a respirator of any kind, and in fact is partially the reason for the program in the scriptment I mentioned earlier. That said, though, the express purpose of the Avatars aren’t well explained in the film, so audiences are left to wonder why exactly we have humans jumping into Na’Vi bodies. The importance of the program is certainly impressed on the viewers: it is incredibly expensive and each Avatar is matched to a specific genetic profile. But why the program exists in the first place is missing and it is a huge detail that bugged me throughout the rest of the movie.
There’s also the connotation with the term ‘avatar.’ Most folks know of the word as being an image for, say, message boards or as a character in a video game. The term also has a more significant meaning, as the term has its origins in Hinduism and is typically used to reference a deity descending from heaven to earth. That the Avatar is a white human (and are referred to as ’sky persons’ by the Na’Vi) makes for some disturbing connotations. I am fairly certain that the use of the ’sky persons’ name is deliberate and ties into the Hindu version of the word. Really, the Avatar program bugged me in many ways.
The problems that I have with it get compounded when you look at how the actual Na’Vi are depicted in the film. They appear to have elements of North and South American indigenous people, or rather, they draw upon commonly held beliefs regarding those cultures and how they are depicted in media, as they appear to be cut from the same noble savage cloth as Iron Eyes Cody. They have a mystical connection with nature. They are split up into various tribes, replete with chief and medicine man. They use bow and arrows and are seen as mighty hunters.
When they talk, it is in a halting manner. For example, when protagonist Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) gets separated from the group he was serving as a guard, he gets attacked by some of Pandora’s native creatures and is saved by Neytiri, a native Na’Vi. Just prior to this, there’s a scene where Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) is about to shoot and kill Jake, but stops after she receives a sign: a seed from the Home Tree stops and rests on her arrow. Upon saving Jake, he asks why she bothered to save him and her response is a simple ‘You have a strong heart.’ And nothing further is ever elaborated on for the rest of the movie.
Even the scene where he is accepted as a member of the tribe and must learn their ways (in a scant three months, no less!) has a lot of implied action going on, but nothing is ever actually established, as all we get is Neytiri going ‘There are signs!’ What these signs are and the significance they have is left incredibly vague, even when the Home Tree seed is revealed for what it is.
Skimping on the details is fine and totally understandable for a film. I’m not expecting an indepth tour of the world of Pandora, complete with a 4 hour lecture on all of the Na’Vi’s customs and beliefs. You have to make some sacrifices in order to have a solid pace, particularly in a movie as action packed as Avatar. The problem that I have, though, is that it does it all over the place to the point where the plot is having some serious problems in making me care about what is going on.
Going back to the Na’Vi for a minute. I’m really not a huge fan of how they were depicted in the movie or how Jake Sully’s character is portrayed. Again, this is a white man in a Na’Vi body who, within three months time on planet, becomes adept enough to win the respect of the tribe he is with and then goes on to become Giant Smurf Space Jesus when he hijacks that huge turak beast near the end of the film. It’s almost the reverse of Robinson Crusoe’s Man Friday: instead of the savage native being brought in and domesticated in the ways of proper society, we have the white man assimilate into the tribe learning their ways and becoming their master.
And that wouldn’t even really be a problem had Cameron handled things slightly differently with the Na’Vi! I was really excited about the Jake Sully character right at the start of the film: we’ve got a guy who is in a wheelchair, making him a somewhat unexpected hero. He has very obvious physical limitations and the potential to do something with that was huge. I had thought that we were going to see some very obvious problems shown with both the humans and the Na’Vi. With Jake Sully being a literal broken man, he could become whole by joining a human half with a Na’Vi half.
That would require different characterization for the Na’Vi, of course, but would also lead to a message that would have been just as powerful as the ‘Save The Rainforests’ message we were given in the film. Rather, it could have been seen as a celebration of human innovation and technology (tying in rather nicely with the CGI accomplishments in the film) while also preaching a respect for the environment.
Instead, Jake’s handicap is used as a plot device, in order to initially force his cooperation with Colonel McBadAss Miles Quaritch in gaining intel on the Na’Vi. I thought there was going to be some sort of exploration between Jake being able to walk in his own body versus his Avatar body. A deeper film might’ve also taken a look at the concept of humanity and identity, again looking at the dynamics between Jake’s own ’self’ and his Avatar body. But now I’m really getting off track here…
To put it simply, some very simple changes to the characters would’ve made for a far more interesting and engaging story. The Na’Vi as flat, one dimensional characters are boring and make for an overdone plot and message being delivered. Again, the scriptment does a better job at things here, although the overall message is still the same. If this was the story that Cameron was waiting a decade and a half to tell, I can see why he waited for ‘technology to catch up’ as the story by itself is boring.
There’s also some major editing problems going on with the film which tie back into my earlier point about the film skimping on a lot of details. The most glaring one is an oddball scene where Colonel Quaritch is talking about ‘matching terror with terror.’ While the point could be made that he was referring to the random skirmishes between humans and Na’Vi, I didn’t really get that sense with his statement. To me, and this is probably going to get a collective groan here, it came across as being a thinly disguised political commentary that was only slightly more subtle than George Lucas’ forays into the same field. Then again, there was that one scene which featured a number of aircraft flying in and destroying a large inhabited structure, resulting in its collapse and thousands of natives dying and running away in a huge cloud of ash and dust. Not sure what that reminds me of and I’m not sure if it was actually supposed to be evocative of it.
Anyway, the ‘terror with terror’ comment in the original scriptment was referring to a jailbreak that Jake Sully engineered after a bunch of Na’Vi assaulted the human encampment and were captured. In the finished product, though, it comes off as some sort of made up bullshit that mirrors the whole ‘WMDs are in Iraq’ that members of the Bush administration conjured up into getting people to go along with their plan. That the principle antagonists in the film were a pseudo-military operation that was all but screaming ‘BLACKWATER! BLACKWATER!’ and a gigantor Megacorp (that has shades of Halliburton) being joined at the hip, I hope I’ll be forgiven for making that sort of connection.
If that sort of connection was not intentional, well, I’ll blame the editing problems and attempts at trying to carve things down for the masses as causing more problems than they solve. If it WAS intentional, well, I’ll just say that James Cameron is about as canny with his political commentary as the aforementioned Lucas is.
The other problem that I had with the film is with the worldbuilding itself. Maybe I’m being way too harsh here (actually, I probably am), but I hated the fact that a lot of the ‘innovative’ creatures on Pandora were simply simple variations of Earth animals, such as the multi-legged horses or the hammerhead rhinos. I loved the bioluminescence that dominated the scenery, I loved the organic USB hookups that many of the creatures had and how they ‘interfaced’ with the planet, I loved those little twirly/bright bugs that kept popping up and I would love to delve into the Pandora Bible Cameron drafted. But when I’m reading the details in the scriptment about how Jake Sully could’ve been riding some sort of manta ray creature instead of a dragon-like stand in, it makes me think that while Cameron blazed an amazing trail and went balls deep with it, he didn’t go far enough. Again, I’m probably being way too harsh here, but looking at some of the details in the scriptment just made me drool. Also? Unobtainium? Was it discovered by scientist MacGuffin? A cheeky name, for sure. I also liked the scientist who developed the Avatar program: a Dr. Lovecraft.
I will say that Avatar did keep me engaged for the most part and it was very easy to get carried away with what was going on at times. The visuals were amazing and the 3-D, rather than being gimmicky, was used in a wonderful fashion. The story, while trite, is still a very simple one that has been told many times by others and has been done better by others. Very much a popcorn flick and will hopefully garner a ton of special effects Oscars, but shouldn’t be a serious contender for Best Picture. If you’re not an overly analytical nerd like yours truly, it’s a wonderful film…and even if you are, it should leave you with a ton of stuff to come out with an analyze and have fun with.
I’ll give it a B+ on my totally pointless rating scale that I just invented this very minute.