When "Avatar" hit the screens last holiday season, I wasn't interested. Even when it hit big after all the naysayers said it couldn't return the money invested in it, I still wasn't interested. 3D? What did I care? People crying because they couldn't be Navi on Pandora...whatever. I wasn't even going to purchase it on DVD or Blu-Ray, but my family gave it to me as a gift. And so I finally watched it.
This movie is predictable, stereotypical, revisionist, ridiculously pious, self righteous, childish and pedantic. But it is also thoroughly enjoyable if one is willing to turn off the higher functioning areas of one's brain.
Basically this Cameron's "Titanic" but this time with a happy ending.
I'll look at the biggest problems I had with the film first before getting into the truly wonderful things about it.
1 - White Man's Guilt
The film is really childishly focused on relieving guilt, justifying and historically revising our collective history of enslaving native populations. Cameron has jam packed the Navi people with so much historical significance, I didn't feel as if I were watching the story of a true race. I felt as if I were watching Celts, Native Americans, Africans, Indians, Chinese, Afghanistans, Iraqis, Vietnamese, and Palestinians all mixed together but this time, they are able to fight back against their invaders. However unbelievable that may be. The Navi race had no personality except for ripoffs from the aforementioned cultures.
Cameron could have really done something truly courageous and looked at imperialism with a truthful eye. But he is incapable of doing it. The most horrible thing about this fact is not because he is unable as an artist to do so, but that he is craven enough to know that it would affect the returns on his film. He gave up truth for profit. He knows that film audiences would not want to watch a race be bulldozed over by an invading force or acknowledge that this happens with the full consent of the invading force's everyday citizens. So instead he makes ineffectual jabs at these realities only in passing while in the other hand applying salve to the audience's guilt.
Cameron wants it both ways and ends up with a stew of a mess. In the end the technological differences between the Humans and the Navi were so vast it was ridiculous to think they could win the fight. It just ended up looking like the equally ridiculous Ewok fight in "Return of the Jedi". Indeed, I kept waiting for the Navi to start singing the jub-jub song at the end of the film.
2 - Military People are ridiculously stupid.
Cameron has gotten a lot of mileage from this meme of his. Its in "Terminator" all the way to "Aliens" then "Titanic" and finally "Avatar". In each of his films the bogey man is always the military. But the fact that he showcases their technology in an almost pornographic fashion belies the fact that he really likes their style. I always get the feeling that Cameron is rather ashamed of his military fetish because it isn't considered cool by his liberal friends. This is a filmmaker who is at the forefront of technology and more often than not the people at the cutting edge are a part of the military. I'm sure that Cameron has plenty of contacts among this group. He has to or he wouldn't be able to do the research that interests him (deep sea exploration) or engaging in technological fortune telling in his films.
He could have portrayed a military in this particular film as a group torn apart between honor, duty and profit. This type of problem is current and would not be missed by today's audience. But then again the military in "Avatar" are not official armed forces, they are really mercenaries. They are in Pandora solely for profit and farm out their tech to the highest bidder. This could have been a valid reason why they were so willing to rip apart the Navi but it isn't addressed in the film. We just get the time honored Cameron meme "Military is BAD".
3 - One Gary Stu to save them all!
Cameron really loves using Gary Stu/ Mary Sue characters in his films. Again I think he uses them cynically because creating a saintly character will give him a better bang for his buck rather than a flawed character.
I, jackass that I am, truly thought Neytiri was the star of the show. After all she appears early in the film and Jake Sully wasn't that established yet as the lead. She saves him, she teaches him about the Navi, she becomes the driving force behind the plot of this film. I thought to myself, "Nice, a riff on Pocohontas". And as things began to go downhill for the Navi, I kept expecting Neytiri to step up and into her father's shoes as a tribal leader.
Did that happen? Hell, no. Instead we get Jake Sully usurping Neytiri's place. He turns into the savior. He turns into that Turok Makto when by rights it should have been the natural outcome of Neytiri's character journey. So after being portrayed as a wise and courageous hunter of her people, Neytiri just becomes the girlfriend. She forgets all her dignity as a capable tribal leader to sit like a brain dead cheerleader behind Jake on his big bird.
Because Jake Sully is all that, not only is he a good human but he is even a better Navi then Neytiri. Grrrrrr.
Well those were the biggest flaws of the film. And in any other film made by less capable people, it would have been a disaster. Cameron has managed to sidestep these large drawbacks with wonderful imagery.
The art design and computer rendering were first rate. Every part of Pandora is beautiful to behold. Never once did the issue of uncanny valley pop up to break my suspension of disbelief in this world. Even the history of the world was well thought out and integral to the plot. The reason for humanity to be in such a place inhospitable to our survival was plausible if ridiculously named (unobtanium).
The crowning achievement were the Navi. They were just humanoid enough to be attractive and alien enough to be believable. Even though their background was a mish-mash of different cultures, I cared enough about them and their survival. The motion capture was just right. They managed to imbue Sigourney Weaver's distinct mannerisms into her Navi hybrid fantastically. I never once thought that I was watching a cartoon, it was only Weaver I saw on screen.
The love story...
And this is where Cameron excels in his storytelling. No matter how wild a situation his lead characters are in, his portrayal of their regard for one another is always true. I never doubted Jack and Rose's love in "Titanic". Nor do I doubt Jake Sully and Neytiri fell in love in this film. The proof was in the scene where Neytiri saves Jake from asphyxiation. Both characters see each other in their real forms...Jake as human not Navi. The love is still there even despite the vast differences. Nor did the scene show up Neytiri as a computer generated image, she is just as real next to the human Jake as she is next to Navi Jake.
Since I didn't see the film in theaters, I can't vouch for the 3D effects used in the film. But I'm sure they were done with as much care as the filmmakers put behind Pandora.
This film is an entertaining experience even if it is weighted down by inept messaging. Considering what is out there passing as films today, audiences will take what they get. And everyone accepted this film wholeheartedly.
Labels: commentary, culture, movies, reviews, technology