Avatar (2009)

Director/Screenwriter: James Cameron

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By Roderick Heath

The entertainment value of entertainment sometimes seems to have become less and less valued. A more broad-minded way of looking at genre fare has entered contemporary criticism, transformed by an academic reading of subtext and semantics that can often invert the presumed value of high and low culture in movie-making, with the potential message-making power of generic films acknowledged. An instance of this can be seen in numerous commentaries I’ve read on 2009’s diptych of scifi allegory, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and James Cameron’s Avatar, many of which made both films sound like sticky tracts on racism and environmentalism rather than the rip-snorting action flicks they are. Nor is it hard to see why this element still tends to be emphasised: an action-adventure film still can’t really be just an action-adventure film without having some variety of pretension attached to it to justify its existence.

All of this is a long way of saying that I didn’t know until I’d watched it that Cameron’s Avatar is vintage Cameron, probably his best film since The Abyss (1989) and an unabashed scifi swashbuckler.

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Here’s the plot. A couple of hundred years in the future, humans are now engaging in gleeful colonial rape of neighbouring planets, executed by the people who obviously never took a cultural studies class at college. The people who did are represented by Sigourney Weaver, as Dr. Grace Augustine, a humane scientist who’s trying to communicate with the understandably xenophobic natives of Pandora, the Na’vi (Native, get it?), who, with their glamorous blue complexions and long, pendulous bodies, resemble nothing so less than a race of Kate Mosses. She does so by creating hybrid bodies, or avatars, that can be mentally controlled by human operators. The mining company whose concerns take precedence over all projects, represented by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi, caricaturised, if not ineffectively) and their hordes of mercenary bullyboys, led by the formidable Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), want the Na’vi shifted from their home over a particularly large and juicy seam of “Unobtainium,” an obscure ore that, like everything else on Pandora, seems part of its amazingly interconnected ecosphere, which, Grace realises, resembles a colossal brain.

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Into this scenario comes Jake Scully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine whose identical-twin brother, intended to be one of the anthropologist avatar operators, dies just before embarkation. Thus, Jake, having the same genetic make-up, can plug into his brother’s intended body. Grace is initially appalled by having a solider imposed on her team, and Selfridge and Quaritch immediately presume him to be a malleable tool to gather information. But Scully takes to his new part-time body like a duck to water, and his mysteriously anointed status, bestowed by the Na’vi’s nature-deity, which proves to be rather more than a merely ethereal being, gives him a foothold in the Na’vi tribe. Quicker than you can say “A Man Called Horse,” Jake is trained by whippet-hipped Na’vi chick Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in Na’vi ways, earns induction into their tribe and religion, and gets busy Na’vi style with Neytiri. And, when the time comes, and the humans’ bulldozers and gunships come rocking in, Scully’s loyalties are, of course, brought into desperate question. When Quaritch kills Grace, Jake and a few human confederates, including tough-girl helicopter pilot Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) and nerd Norm Spellman (Joel Moore) are left with few options. Will Jake man up and show the Na’vi how to fight off the invaders? Well, duh.

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Avatar has much in common with the last major Hollywood swashbuckler, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), in the way it contrasts and intertwines yearning, conscientious, scientific spirit and Enlightenment idealism with martial vainglory and ra-ra action: if it’s not half as smart and nuanced as Weir’s film, it executes action better. Of course, the uptown guy in me kept thinking that it was an inferior variant on Malick’s The New World, with hero Jake and Neytiri taking the place of John Smith and Pocahontas and utilising a battery of special effects to evoke the same feeling of wonder and awe in the natural world that Malick was able to conjure with some stalks of grass. Where Malick turns the familiar into the spectrally strange, Cameron specialises in turning the utterly alien into the cosily familiar.

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But, if it’s a stock story, the film knows it, and stock stories have always been a motif of space opera upon which to hang evocations of wonderment. There’s a reason why such a plot has survived a couple of thousand years: scenes of Jake taming and riding a kind of dragon to rouse the Na’vi to follow him is pure Joseph Campbell (or is it Robert E. Howard?), backed up by the Dickensian character names. It’s long been Cameron’s stand-out trait to fuse intriguing genre ideas pilfered from a multitude of sources with a rocking matinee pace: just because it’s older doesn’t mean The Terminator is any different in this regard, even if, like Spielberg and Jackson and George Miller and many others, Cameron has long ago left behind the bargain-basement gore and cruder provocations for blockbuster blandness, a development that film fans can never quite forgive. But Avatar sports great ideas, with its concept of a biological version of the internet conjoining organisms in a web of awareness and reliance, lending the hippy-dippy nature mysticism an unexpected solidity. And, of course, the metaphoric potential for on-line networking and gaming, and traditional cinephilia, in the avatar concept will launch a thousand term papers in the near future.

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Although Avatar is indeed cutting-edge technical cinema redefined, Cameron remains utterly, blissfully indifferent to many modern Hollywood faults, like its love of excessively tight framing, space-distorting editing, and wobbling cameras that destroy most contemporary would-be thrill rides. His sense of spectacle is just as cleanly organised and visually easy to read as it was 20 years ago. If you don’t have a taste for action and spectacle, that’s all well and good; I’ll see you later at the Tarkovsky festival, no fear. But then again, a shot of one of the Na’vi’s six-legged riding beasts running away from battle engulfed in flames evokes the stumbling horse in the battle scene of Andrei Rublev, and like that film, it raises the question of whether the divisions of pagan nature-worship and more polite creeds might be wrong-headed, with an overall concept of humanity and nature fatally out of balance. Avatar is also, like The New World, about the American dream of an Eden, and, like The Last of the Mohicans, a fantasy of cross-cultural merging that promises the growth of a new and better kind of man by embracing values rejected by the Old World. When Wes Studi turns up playing the Na’vi chief, I nearly laughed out loud, not knowing if this was a cunning or corny casting cue. Both? I could say that of the whole film. But Studi isn’t playing Magua here, the embodied spirit of the savage in man: that part is reserved for Lang’s Quaritch.

Ironically, and amusingly, that Old World is now one of super-technology and asshole corporate types, and the New conceptualises god as a unified natural scheme, pantheism with some organic cyberpunk jive thrown in. Some right-wingers have criticised Cameron for offering greenie propaganda, and they have a point—in fact, it’s utterly, thumpingly obvious—but Cameron is a bundle of contradictions as a director. He doesn’t analyse the divides between his preoccupations, but sets his disparate selves in highly unironic conflict, which is perhaps why he’s so popular. A supreme Hollywood technocrat who began in special-effects production, he’s also an unabashed romantic who gives us a love affair between two animated cat-people that’s warmer than most of those found in modern romantic comedies. A fetishist of military lingo, hardware, and attitude, he often deals out ruthless punishment to soldierly and authoritarian types for blind arrogance and aggression. A pillar of Hollywood cultural imperialism, he, like George Lucas, constructs fables of embattled outsiders fighting to overcome unstoppable monopolies and spends huge sums of money on making films that metaphorically reflect the exploitation of third-world populaces.

Cameron’s not very subtle—anyone who’s seen his award speeches knows that—but he is a canny filmmaker and curiously ardent one: Avatar, even more than Titanic, flies a long way on pure enthusiasm. If it’s a better film than Titanic, a film I liked well enough for its visual beauty, strong stars, and felicitous quotations of ’30s screwball comedies and Victorian melodrama, it’s because Cameron’s love of antisocial rebelliousness and resolutely contemporary sense of character and dialogue fit far more easily into the not-too-distant future than into the not-too-distant past. Where he never had a hope of successfully grafting his American love of the fighting chance onto a situation defined by accepting the inevitable, he’s in his element with Avatar. In engaging with his conjured alien milieu, he maintains a depth and care in his scifi and metaphorical concepts that eluded the less detailed, more self-congratulatory analogies of District 9, whilst also cranking his narrative up to an action climax that is too long, but brilliantly done. What’s inherently likeable about Avatar is that it wears its values on its sleeve: it’s not busy hiding behind a glaze of hip alienation and elusive visuals.

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It’s not perfect. Not nearly. Cameron’s habit of writing dialogue that drops like lead weights now and then hasn’t altered, his storytelling in the first third is occasionally choppy, and if the imagery doesn’t tap into your sense of wonder, the obvious narrative will leave you cold. The special effects are indeed amazing in their immersive detail, but the film’s greatest avatar is Stephen Lang: building on his impressive, if brief, turn in Public Enemies, his face carved to an Easter Island idol under a mean crop of white stalks standing at parade attention, his villain is the best kind—one you both enjoy enormously and badly want to see get it in the neck. Requiring no more props than some make-up scars, Lang as Quaritch offers a hybrid of every gung-ho hard-ass in screen history and the mean gym teacher from your nightmares, embodying everything malevolent about the über-macho type. His and Scully’s relationship, defined at first by patronising paternalism, and then, finally, by nakedly bellicose warfare, evokes the clash of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River. Like that film, it’s fundamentally about the irreconcilable clash of force and felicity, frontier and civilisation, but it also reveals changes in the popular zeitgeist ever since: the world’s gone native, and the best cowboys have joined the Indians.

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Worthington himself is, well, worthy: his capacity to play undoubted masculinity with low-key soul is intact, and it’s to her amazing credit that Saldana projects as much charisma CGI’d nearly out of existence as she did in her other scifi hit of 2009, Star Trek. But it’s Lang who animates the film and drags it toward sheer mythic confrontation. Of course, I can see through all of Cameron’s tricks, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I enjoyed them enormously, though, admittedly, my expectations were mild. Avatar will probably win a lot of Oscars and make a mountain of money. For once I won’t mind. l

  • Encore Entertainment spoke:
    21st/01/2010 to 3:12 pm

    Glad to read a positive review amidst all the recent hate [this is positive right ? :)]. Although I do prefer Titanic, the film is quite good. Not my favourite of the year, but like you I wouldn’t mind to see it raking in the awards.

  • Rod spoke:
    21st/01/2010 to 6:45 pm

    Yeah, it’s positive. No, it’s not the greatest film ever made; but, it’s fun and fairly smart. I haven’t watched Titanic in a long time, so I have no fresh reference to contrast the pair of films. I did return to The Terminator not long ago, and found it holds up very well.

  • Lissa spoke:
    21st/01/2010 to 7:45 pm

    Great review, Rod! Saw this in IMAX 3D today and was so filled with it, I couldn’t even discuss my thoughts till I had processed it. The hate-filled “reviews” didn’t sit well with me even before seeing the film, but now I can see that it’s all misplaced and misguided. It’s all about why we go to movies: to enjoy the couple of hours (or 3) we spend in the theater, to be provoked by themes or visuals (in this case, both) and to be entertained, for the most part. Avatar does this in a big way – and if you’ve seen it in IMAX, I mean BIG! I’ll be going back again, at least once more. It deserves another look-see just so I can catch what I didn’t the first time ’round.
    I found myself marveling at the technology – both in the film itself and of the film itself – till I scolded myself to pay attention to the story. That might be the one danger of this movie; it is an utter immersion into technology on so many levels, the movie itself might get mired in its own unique features. However, once I settled into expecting the fantastic, it wasn’t hard to get right back on track.
    Phenomenal film, very well reviewed – thanks, Rod!

  • Rod spoke:
    21st/01/2010 to 8:10 pm

    Glad you liked this review and found it captured your experience, Lissa. I didn’t have any trouble concentrating on story, in fact there were a few moments when I wanted it to get a move on. But once it hit its stride…yee ha.
    While I’m at it, that’s another misleading quality in many reviews I read, writing as if the film was in essence some work of digital installation art rather than a punchy action movie with fancy visuals.

  • Rick spoke:
    22nd/01/2010 to 7:55 pm

    an action-adventure film still can’t really be just an action-adventure film without having some variety of pretension attached to it to justify its existence.
    And to justify the existence of the critic, who didn’t go to all that school for nothing. (he says as he prepares his review of Avatar exploring it’s Christ-figure subtext).
    Like you, I found it not the best film in the world, but a hell of a lot of fun. And neither will I mind it pulling in a ton of cash.

  • Rod spoke:
    22nd/01/2010 to 8:27 pm

    Oh, the ironies surely compound rapidly, Rick. Of course, I’m not condemning such readings, and Avatar certainly supports them with a great deal of self-awareness, but it’s peculiar in light of the fact that an aspect of such films that used to be considered a secondary, sneaky pleasure has become now a dominant way of talking about them. And it comes across as a kind of hostile defensiveness to all the rather unimaginative and not terribly accurate put-downs of the film rendered by self-appointed culture snobs, which run along the lines of, “Bah! Who needs Avatar when you can watch (INSERT FANCY FRENCH TITLE HERE)”, a kind of collegiate elitism which really bores me, and also often strikes me as ignorant of the deep roots this type of storytelling has. I suppose we’re all so cynical of the CGI spectacle genre today that even when it’s well done it tends to instantaneously split audiences into swooning fans and luddite haters, but the truth is that Avatar ought to gain its best comparisons with old Errol Flynn and Tarzan movies and the sci-fantasy traditions of Burroughs rather than, say, Transformers 2

  • Hokahey spoke:
    22nd/01/2010 to 8:31 pm

    “Cameron’s not very subtle—anyone who’s seen his award speeches knows that—but he is a canny filmmaker and curiously ardent one: Avatar, even more than Titanic, flies a long way on pure enthusiasm.”
    Well said, and I agree. And the film’s enthusiasm carries it a long way. Cameron can’t help straying into silliness, but he delivers. Cameron delivers a fascinating visual world, interesting characters, a compelling conflict, and rousing action. He know how to make a captivating film. Captivated, I went along for the ride and really enjoyed it.
    And I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughtful, insightful review.

  • Rod spoke:
    22nd/01/2010 to 9:00 pm

    Cheers, Hokahey. And well put, too. Avatar does, indeed, manage to balance some substantial major characters amidst its hoo-ha. Scully’s a detailed protagonist and it’s witty that the Na’vi seem more recognisably human than the humans. Whilst Quaritch and Selfridge are caricatures, they’re not inaccurate ones, in that they capture a certain mindset, and they have a potency of arrogance to them that’s familiar from so many real-life incidents of the past few years that makes them transcend cardboard villain status. I had an interesting insight last night watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the history of American National Parks, detailing the fight to save the Smoky Mountains from loggers in the 1920s: the lumber companies went on a rampage to fell as much timber within the park’s boundaries as they could before the park was instituted. It made me think about this film and realise that it wasn’t such an unlikely vision of what exploiters would get up to if let loose unchecked on other planets.

  • Hokahey spoke:
    23rd/01/2010 to 9:04 am

    Interesting about the real-life connections to this movie, and I like how you pointed out that the network of Unobtainium beneath Home Tree is something that is an integral part of the environmental system – not something that could be removed by other means. A critic suggested that in such an advanced period of technology, the miners should be able to remove the stuff without destroying Home Tree. But that’s not the issue here. As much as the Na’vi don’t want their treehouse destroyed, they don’t want the Unobtainium removed.

  • Rod spoke:
    23rd/01/2010 to 7:11 pm

    Yes, there is that, and also the fact that destroying the Home Tree is as much about establishing human dominance and prerogative as it is about gaining the easiest way to the Unobtainium – shock and awe indeed.

  • Jeremy spoke:
    31st/01/2010 to 9:53 pm

    Despite its failings (which may have added to its success) I liked Avatar.
    I think the comparison with the excellent New World was acute, but was surprised that you didn’t mention the similarity to the less than excellent Dances With Wolves – the world’s longest film, ever. Both these film’s evoke regret, but accept the demise of the native American’s as inevitable.
    For me Avatar is a very American film, part of a continuing and evolving conversation about the American frontier. It is not, as some on the right have chosen to see it, anti-military or anti-Iraq War; it is no Soldier Blue.

  • Jeremy spoke:
    31st/01/2010 to 9:54 pm

    Unobtainium!
    Did he have to?

  • Rod spoke:
    1st/02/2010 to 5:18 am

    Hello Jeremy. Long time no read. Yes, yes he had to.

  • Stephen spoke:
    10th/02/2010 to 10:00 am

    “…an action-adventure film still can’t really be just an action-adventure film without having some variety of pretension attached to it to justify its existence.”
    “sheer mythic confrontation”
    A very good point and an excellent description. For me, Avatar was an almost masterpiece, only hampered by its colour by numbers plot mechanics.
    I too have long been dismayed by the snobbery towards action films and indeed children’s films.
    I wish I had the patience and the persistence to write more thorough and involving pieces like this one, Roderick. Thank you.
    Btw has Marilyn written anything on Avatar? I always enjoy her stimulating dissertations.
    If you’re interested in another positive write-up on Avatar I wrote something here:
    http://checkingonmysausages.blogspot.com/2009/12/
    avatar-2009-james-cameron-in.html

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/02/2010 to 10:47 am

    Hi Stephen,
    No, I haven’t. I haven’t seen the film yet, though that will change shortly. I certainly am curious about it and agree that film snobbery just doesn’t have any place among true cinephiles.

  • Stephen spoke:
    10th/02/2010 to 10:51 am

    Well Marilyn,if you write anything on it I will certainly be interested in your take on it.

  • Patrick spoke:
    10th/03/2010 to 9:17 pm

    I hadn’t seen this movie at the time this was posted, hey, I’m only a couple of months late to the party, but have to say I think you nailed just about everything I thought after seeing this one (today). Nice to see a critic who doesn’t have to apply the same criteria for judging a movie that they might use for Rules of the Game to a mass entertainment movie. It really was a good show.

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