If you’ve seen Pocahontas and Fern Gully, the only thing worth seeing about Avatar is all of the pretty. Set in 2154, Avatar tells the story of a marine who winds up on a far-away planet called Pandora, which, conveniently, houses an element (called, I shit you not, “unobtanium”) which would solve all of mankind’s problems. The only catch is that Native Americans, I mean fairies, I mean indiginous people who live there – big lanky fellers called the Na’vi are living on top of the planet’s most rich deposit. The marine (aka John Smith… known in this movie as Jake Sully… and I’ll stop) is given the task of infiltrating the Na’vi by way of a remotely controlled Na’vi/human hybrid cloned body in order to learn their secrets and figure out their weaknesses. But, wouldn’t you know it, along comes the unattainable chief’s daughter, and everything changes, including a total upgrade of his cognitive capabilities. That doesn’t literally happen, he just starts off the movie as a grunt who is unable to think beyond the orders he is given, but by the end becomes a spiritually inclined individual with incredible interpersonal and problem solving skills.
What blows me away about this movie is how forgiving people are for its bad story. Even James Cameron acknowledges its similarities to Dances With Wolves. I concede that it is possible to retell a story and still do it well, but Avatar simply doesn’t. It is a checklist of all of the prerequisite scenes for going-native stories. They knew that they were going to have a “girl finds out that boy has been working for her enemies all along and is too upset to let him apologize” scene, and just focused on making it look good rather than be good. The same thing happens scene after scene, without any narrative surprises. I have been asked “What’s so bad about having a familiar story?,” to which I reply, nothing, as long as you do it well. Avatar doesn’t. Nonetheless, the world over seems forgiving of this giant, glaring flaw. So, again, I return to the pretty.
If you are of the mind that cinema can be considered art, it is, invariably, a strongly visual one. Does that mean that it is possible, nay, universal to entirely dismiss a poorly recycled narrative because of the visual innovations that a movie offers? Is a movie great simply because it does something first? If so, Chicken Little deserves the credit for being the first “RealD” movie. When it comes to appreciating the visual aspects of Avatar, I will gladly be the first one to stand up and yell “Yes, yes, oh Fillion yes, please give me more!” It is unquestioningly beautiful, but its near flawless appearance is not enough for me to ignore its hollow, soulless centre.
I agree that a lot of the themes of the film are also important. I am all for environmentalism and finding peaceful solutions to problems, but the issues are over-simplified. By making the issues so clearly cut and dry (for instance, we know that the attacking military presence is evil because the colonel leading the operation is calmly drinking coffee while the Na’vi homeworld is being destroyed) we disassociate from the character, because he is “evil,” rather than identifying with him, and understanding the direct impact of passive, technological warfare, as was Cameron’s intention. A similar head-drilling theme was the interconnectedness of life on Pandora. Rather than having the relationship between the inhabitants and the planet be a respectable enough reason to be worth saving, the Na’vi are actually electrically connected to their planet, using their hair braids as extension chords.
There’s a certain amount of irony to the fact that Avatar condemns human beings for trying to conquer what they believe to be lesser life, but makes a magical display of the forced submission of Pandoran animals. It’s only when Jake forges a dominant relationship with a dragon creature that his coming-of-age is complete. I assume it is meant to symbolize a harmony between the two (because you can own the earth, and still, all you’ll own is earth until you can paint with all the colours of the wind), but when one being takes neurological control of another, there’s some kind of -ism going on.
Feel free to disagree, as many do, but I stand by the fact that I am glad that the Avatar technology exists, but am waiting to see it put to better use. This picture sums up “Avatar” for me:
Pretty blue packaging, but, at the end of the day, inside is all cheese.
For further thoughts on Avatar, check out the follow-up response piece here.