Avatar

I finally saw Avatar (in 3D) without anyone threatening to beat me up.  It was everything I thought it would be.  The 3D was cool.  The glowing plants in the jungle were really quite pretty.  The special effects were spectacular.

But for all its spectacular spectacle, beneath the blue-skinned exterior there wasn’t really any meat.  It’s basically Ferngully meets Dances with Wolves.  It’s a crowd pleaser if the crowd happens to be a new-agey set of anti-war, anti-capitalist environmentalists or, in other words, Hollywood.  The native Americans Na’vi are perfectly in tune with nature, and Avatar’s director, James Cameron, treats them like directors have been treating native people in Hollywood for decades – as noble savages.  The word “condescending” leaps to mind.

The evil soldiers are made all the more wicked because they’re working for a private corporation whose sole mission is to destroy the natural world of Pandora in order to strip it of its precious minerals (or mineral, rather – unobtanium to be precise….)  They are not only violent and callous, they are also greedy and imperialistic and doing it all not for love of country but for love of money.  The only people who are almost as noble as the savages are the scientists – and the wayward marine and heroic protagonist Kevin Costner Jake Sully.

Anyways, I won’t summarize the story.  I still think you can enjoy the film if you go in with low expectations for the plot.  Like I said, the visuals are really amazing.  I haven’t seen a movie in 3D in ages and it was entertaining.  I wasn’t ever bored even if I wasn’t ever really emotionally engaged, and even if I thought the plot was a bit contrived and a bit too much of a cliché.  That didn’t take away from the cool monsters and the battle scenes or the glowing flora and fauna.

I think Jonah Goldberg is right on the money here:

What would have been controversial is if — somehow — Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts.

Of course, that sounds outlandish and absurd, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We live in an age in which it’s the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion. If the Na’Vi were Roman Catholics, there would be boycotts and protests. Make the oversized Smurfs Rousseauian noble savages and everyone nods along, save for a few cranky right-wingers.

I’m certainly one of those cranky right-wingers (wanna see my decoder ring?), though I probably enjoyed the movie as cinematic escapism as much as the next guy.

No, Cameron wasn’t trying to be controversial.  He was sailing in calm waters and he aimed to please.  And as an escapist jaunt in an alien world, it was a pretty good flick.  It wasn’t deep.  It didn’t have the emotional appeal of other epics like Braveheart.  And speaking of Mel Gibson films, it certainly paled in comparison in terms of quality or depth to Gibson’s marvelous Apocalypto.

It is what it is, and it can be a fun ride if you don’t expect anything more.  It is, as Douthat termed it, a “gorgeous disappointment.”

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37 thoughts on “Avatar

  1. But isn’t this what John Cameron has done in every single one of his movies? I loved Aliens, Terminator 2, and Avatar, but thought Titanic was over rated. But lets be honest, shallow spectacle is what he does. He is a visual artist, not a story teller.

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  2. 100% agreed E.D. I’d been sort of anticipating it in advance, telling myself that if Cameron had been brewing this movie for as long as he’d claimed he had that surely there would be something interesting about the plot. The Southpark slammed it as Smurfs in space and I felt my optimism drain away entirely because I knew, somehow, that they were right.

    That said, I entered the movie with rock bottom expectations for the plot and thus was delighted to find that I enjoyed the movie as a whole. Just as you said, if you expected nothing from the writing then the remarkable effects genuinely can lift your spirits. It was actually a very unusual experience for me because I’m so plot fixated that I’ve often been downright indignant after movies with great special effects because the writing was so idiotic. Despite the fact that we picked out all the plot movements sixty minutes in advance we still enjoyed the film. In a way perhaps the writing deserves mild praise; in an industry where the plot can not just be unhelpful but can actually destroy the movie *cough*transformers II*cough*2012 such bland predictable fare perhaps is laudable.

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  3. I was precisely whelmed by Avatar myself, but on reflection, I thought it warranted note for one thing in particular. It was the first (to my memory) large-budget, mainstream American movie in which the audience is set up to cheer, and does in fact cheer, for the fiery combat deaths of a significant number of American soldiers.

    Yes, the soldiers were never identified as American — they were, as you note, working for a big corporation — but all of the signifiers identified them as our boys. And, in the context of the movie, we wanted them to die. I’ll admit that I did. I was uncomfortable about it afterwards, and I don’t know what it means, but I did.

    For that reason alone, I think Avatar is a cultural watershed, and one I haven’t yet processed. At the risk of thread-jacking, I should very much like to know your thoughts about this.

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    • That’s an interesting point. However, I think when it’s done this way – in a sneaky way, not actually calling them American, not actually putting them in a similar situation to our own quagmires – that it doesn’t really count. In other words, if the best Cameron can do is set up a caricature of our military, and place it in such an appallingly two-dimensional setting (they’re killing a tree with bombs!!! And there’s babies in that tree!!!) that is more akin to the Indian wars of the last century than to any conflict we’re in now, then he doesn’t deserve credit for a cultural watershed moment.

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      • Maybe it’s more a matter of perception than I think it is. For me, the parallels were pretty clear. The movie traded heavily in stereotype and caricature, but the soldiers were, to me, way more American than the space marines of Cameron’s earlier Aliens, for instance. The big bad guy with the scars on his face was a villain, to be sure, but he was a villain intended to evoke the military characters in, say, Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now (albeit more poorly characterized).

        I felt like the script might be an attempt to answer a question like, “under what circumstances will audiences in a pretty openly imperial America cheer against their own soldiers?”

        As someone who a) attempts to navigate between Just War theory and Christian Pacifism, and b) has a sibling in the Air Force, the movie has given me pause in ways I did not expect. Maybe this is just me, though.

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        • No – I think those are very good points. I just think that it would be more interesting to take a serious look – even a science fiction look – at a hypothetical American empire and pose those same questions, with less black and white and a little more humanity on the human side (or American side, or whatever). I know this is asking a lot out of modern cinema, though. As someone on this thread noted, big CGI blockbusters and thoughtful plots are somehow considered mutually exclusive. So I think you raise good points, and I think that maybe this movie did edge its way into the territory you’re speaking of, but I think it could be done so much better.

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    • Hrm. I’m going through my databanks… would you count a handful of somewhat Reb sympathetic Civil War movies? (The Outlaw Josey Wales is first to mind but surely there are others.)

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    • See, now you got me thinking.

      How much of it is the whole “underdog” thing? America loves itself some underdog stories. Look at any given sports movie. You’ve got the lovable losers, you’ve got the corporate-sponsored villains (aside, you knew that Wesley was a bad guy in Twister ( a movie about tornadoes!!!!) because he had “corporate funding”), you’ve got a montage scene that shows the losers showing up and working out and showing that they have *HEART*, and then you have the big game where it all comes down to just one play involving the one guy who never got it right in practice but AT THE BIG SCENE, he catches the ball or throws it or something and wins the game. And everyone has newfound respect for the guys.

      Now stop sublimating. We’re no longer talking about sport but war!

      And we’ve got a bunch of lovable losers who are opposing someone with corporate funding. All you need is some ewoks ambushing some soldiers after pretending to surrender and otherwise thinking outside the box and you’ve got yourself a winning formula again.

      America *LOVES* underdog stories.

      Hell, you can have a theocratic society that kills homosexuals, stifles dissent, oppresses women, bans abortion, and otherwise acts completely illiberally and make it an underdog to a liberal society that recognizes same-sex civil unions, has free speech, allows abortion, allows medicinal marijuana, and even allows atheism and you will find a surprising number of heretofore liberal folks saying “but I gotta root for the underdog!”

      It’s written into our genes.

      We love us some underdog stories.

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      • No doubt. I think this is part of why identity politics is so resonant, and why even the most powerful, entrenched groups go out of their way to paint themselves as the victims of forces beyond their control.

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  4. I’m glad to hear your problems with Avatar. I’ve grown accustomed to these CGI blockbusters coming out every year and each time being told repeatedly by people who have seen them, “It’s really visually stunning. I mean, you have to turn off your brain before you go in because it’s stupid, and the plot sucks, and the dialogue is horrible; but, man, is it visually stunning!” One of the reviews I read actually said, “Avatar just wouldn’t work as a visually stunning movie if it wasn’t stupid.” The reviewer seemed to see ‘thought-provoking’ and ‘mindblowing visuals’ as somehow cancelling each other out, and I’m guessing therefore is unfamiliar with the film 2001.

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    • Well Rufus, I guess I am falling into that trap a bit here myself…It isn’t entirely mind-numbing, so you can watch it without constantly rolling your eyes, and it’s especially visually stunning, even compared to its contemporaries in the CGI world. So it’s worth seeing because of that. But it’s certainly fair to want more out of our big budget, CGI films. Is it so hard to hire a few decent writers? Writers aren’t paid anything anyways.

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      • Right, but at least you’re not saying that a visually stunning movie will by necessity be inane. By critiquing the plot and writing of a blockbuster you’re saying that it’s valid to critique the plot and writing of a blockbuster. A lot of reviews I see for these types of movies argue that it’s not valid to ask for good writing from a “popcorn movie”, so anyone who might criticize the plot and dialogue is a grouchy egghead who just doesn’t get it, man! But I think it’s totally valid to ask how they can spend $300 million on a movie and still have mediocre writing. I’ve wondered the same about several recent movies that cost a mere $100 milion.

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        • I’m trying to think of the last “popcorn” movie that actually inspired arguments about something other than whether it’s fair to argue about the plots of popcorn movies.

          Surely there was one after The Matrix… wasn’t there?

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  5. Pingback: Avatar and American imperialism - E.D. Kain - American Times - True/Slant

  6. ED, thanks for this review and based on it, I ain’t goin’. I’ll get it in a few months on Netflix and be grateful for all the money I’ll save. I am looking forward to Denzel’s new one, hoping of course, that the writing’s good and there’s actually a plot.

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  7. It annoys me that Goldberg and other conservative pundits I’ve read are too protective of their victim complexes to admit that no, actually, no one thinks the plot of this movie is deep or interesting, and liberals have been attacking its politics as loudly as conservatives have (if for different reasons). They have a strong narrative in “Hollywood is so out of touch with America that it thinks it can substitute faddish New Age politics for old-fashioned things like character and plot, but Americans, even the liberal ones, see through the smoke and mirrors and realize there’s no heart there,” but apparently they’d rather preach to the choir while pretending to be voices in the wilderness.

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  8. On Goldberg:

    The villains were a bit two dimensional, General = Bloodthirsty and Giovanni Ribbisi greedhead with a semi conscious. Nonetheless, they were plausible. Our species has been known fallible in the myopic destruction department.

    Second, the Chris tianity need fails to see the bottom line. The objective is a world wide audience. That audience is religious, but proselytizing — no matter the creed — would offend many and therefore hurt box office. But a spiritual element without espousing a major religion(and no I don’t think Hollywood Gaiaism counts as a religion — just comfort for those with a semi-conscious) Jonah should realize it’s all about making it rain.

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  9. I think the reason that New Age-ey religions are often used in these types of movies is because they offend the least amount of people. If the protagonist comes-to accept Christianity, this would clearly alienate a reasonable portion of the audience who have not done so themselves, and would come of as preachy to much of the rest. On the other hand, the Na’vi spiritualism is a complete in-offensive philosophy explicitly designed for broad appeal; who could resist their love of nature, symbiosis with animals, respect for elders, etc. Heck, if he wanted to Goldberg could make a pretty good case for the Jake Sully as Jesus allegory and still his beating heart. Instead, he offers a false dichotomy in saying that “We live in an age in which it’s the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion.” since no one actually speaks derisively of traditional religion in Avatar, or in any other blockbuster for that matter. Rather, the age we live in is one where it’s the norm to speak glowingly of things that are in-offensive … to sell products. Go figure!

    I am a bit curious about Goldberg’s made-up movie (which is apparently greeted with a made-up protest). Perhaps the reason viewers aren’t interested in a story where Christians subdue and convert the savages is because these things actually happened, and they weren’t very entertaining. I did, however, take great pleasure in pointing out the similarities between Jake Sully and John Walker Lindh to the discomfort of my fellow movie goers.

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  10. I havent seen the movie, but I dont really see from the previews a direct analogy to “imperialism” or even the much milder “american imperialism” variant thereof. From what I see in previews, its a tale about two societies that are very different superficially but also very similar in terms of their capacity for war. Ive heard that the Navi are portrayed as pacificsts and surely there are scenes in eth movie (which Ive not seen) to support that, but the trailer had Navi kicking all kinds of serious ass.

    Perhaps teh key to the movie is in teh red herrings – specifically, unobtainium. What is it? im sure Cameron is wise enough to never say – to keep it as generic as the suitcase in Pulp Fiction – but lets posit for a moment what it might be to be worth millions of dollars per kilo or whatever. Is it a cure for cancer? A source of clean energy? The key ingredient for FTL drives? Any f these things might indeed be well worth fighting for – and perhaps displacing natives for. Weve done far worse for far less.

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  11. Pingback: When the Message Doesn’t Matter « Just Above Sunset

  12. How is it that so many ‘smart’ men miss that the core conflict is between gracious people and ungracious people?
    The off-world corporatists are ungracious people willing to savage someone else’s world to line their own pockets.
    Those who dismissively identify the corporatists as emblematic of the world share, have only picked up on the truth of their own being: they have no problem reserving for themselves what they would deny others nor choosing for others what they would not choose for themselves. As with all morality tales and real life as shown throughout history, ungracious choices invite instructive consequences; gracious choices generate benevolence for sharing. The golden rule is golden because it guarantees gracious choices when honored. Wise men understand this. Smart men sneer and dismiss it. Avatar may be the first new myth for the 21st Century. I trust it will not be the last…

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