James Cameron’s Avatar is a virtual apotheosis of Hollywood mythopoeia. It is the whole worldview and memory of contemporary Hollywood, given shape in a narrative and pictoral form that is stunning in its finality and grandeur. It is like everything and there is nothing like it.
While it’s being sold as a quantum leap forward in special effects, Avatar is not so much something that has never been done as something that everything else has been trying to be or preparing for — in terms of technique and imaginative spectacle, anyway — from the Star Wars prequels to The Lord of the Rings to King Kong. It may not quite be the Star Wars or The Matrix of its generation, but it’s about as close to being both at the same time as anything is likely to be.
But it’s more than that: Not only is it Star Wars and The Matrix, it’s also John Smith and Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves and Fahrenheit 9/11, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rider Haggard, Hayao Miyazaki and Jack Kirby, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and Battle for Terra, Jurassic Park and Aliens. It’s noble primitives and warmongering Westerners, imperialist and expansionist guilt and no blood for oil, Cortez and Custer and George W. Bush in one fell swoop. It’s environmental apocalypticism, Gaia and the Force, Vulcan mind-melding and fal tor pan mysticism and Disney’s Grandmother Willow. It’s space Marines and military oppressiveness, mystic/enlightened feminist consciousness and interspecies romance.
Much enthusiasm for and criticism of Avatar is fragmented, parsing out the heart-stopping pictures, the hackneyed plot and the hippie politics. This, though, is to miss Cameron’s mythopoeic gift, which is precisely a knack for synthesis.
In Titanic, Cameron shrewdly reimagined the legendary tragedy as a tale of class conflict, gender politics and romantic freedom. In an inspired twist, the ship itself becomes an icon of oppression, fatally admired by Rose’s odious fiance (as per the “male preoccupation with size”), but seen by Rose as a “slave ship taking me back to America in chains.” The spectacle of the ship’s sinking actually embodies Rose’s emancipation, her slavery shattered by the liberation of her back-seat rendezvous with Jack.
In Avatar, even more than Titanic, Cameron has crafted a wholly integral mythology in which images, story and milieu are all of a piece: the immoderate beauty of his alien world and the dullness of his characters and dialogue, liberal white guilt and masterfully choreographed action sequences, thoughtful xenobiology and New Age eco-spirituality.
By now it should be clear that while I don’t think much of what Cameron has to say, I’m dazzled by how he says it. Above all, I am haunted by the visions of Pandora: its luminous flora and riot of color; its vertiginous, lattice-like towering trees, worlds unto themselves; its mist-shrouded floating mountains with their ligament-like vines and bottomless waterfalls.
The alien Na’vi — a race of superhumanly large, slender, vaguely feline humanoids with tails and blue skin, like “ElfQuest”’s “Glider” elves crossed with Nightcrawler from X2 — could only exist as computer-generated characters, and Cameron’s performance-capture process may be the best use of the technique to date.
Best of all, I don’t know that the euphoria of flight has ever been better realized than by the Na’vi riding the ptero-dragon Banshees. Pandora is like a Miyazaki world brought to life (with echoes of Nausicaa and Laputa in particular). All it needs is some vast flooded ancient ruins and the picture would be complete.
Cameron’s eco-spiritual and pacifist themes likewise resonate with Miyzaki, though without a tenth of Miyazaki’s humanism or nuance. In a Miyazaki film, conflicts almost always turn out to be more complex morally than they first appear; seeming villains are revealed as more ambiguous and human than we thought, and resolution almost never comes down to one side destroying or conquering the other.
Even this year’s computer-animated flop Battle for Terra, which featured a strikingly similar plot (human aggressors invade a resource-rich planet with a human-toxic atmosphere after exhausting earth’s resources, and attack the peaceful indigenous species; an open-minded alien female saves the life of a human soldier, who winds up switching allegiances and defending the planet against his own people), ultimately suggested that coexistence rather than sending the bad guys packing was the answer.
Cameron’s boomer bombast has no room for such subtlety. The forest-dwelling Na’vi are archetypal Noble Savages, living at one with nature and the planet. They’re spiritual, peaceful, feminist, practice sustainable living and have negligible carbon footprints. Intriguingly, they take sex seriously and mate for life; free love and hooking up is the one element of the flower-child heritage that doesn’t seem to have been adopted by the Na’vi.
In part because Pandora’s atmosphere is poisonous to humans, and also to minimize cross-species differences, humans interact with the Na’vi through “avatars” — specially engineered Na’vi chimeras channeling the consciousness of a human being plugged into a Matrixesque control pod. Avatar operators are normally trained specialists — but Cameron shrewdly cuts through the insider-initiate dynamic by making his hero, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), an outsider to the Avatar project who knows hardly more about Pandora or avatars than we do.
The twist is that Sully’s twin brother was a trained avatar operator — but he died, and only Sully is genetically compatible with his brother’s avatar, which apparently represents a considerable investment of time, expense or both. The dramatic payoff is that Sully learns about Pandora and the Na’vi as we do, on the fly.
For Sully, the appeal of standing in for his brother is obvious: His avatar body lets him get out of his wheelchair and walk again. For him, Pandora is the ultimate adventure, like a computer game that he actually lives. And that’s before he meets the Na’vi warrior-princess Neytiri (voiced and acted via performance capture by Zoe Saldana, who, having played Uhura in Star Trek, now has the distinction of being in both of this year’s “what the Star Wars prequels could have been” extravaganzas). Hoo-yah!
The Avatar project, though, has not gone to all this trouble and expense just so Sully can dance with wolves and get the girl. They’re after a resource called — I swear I am not making this up — “unobtainium,” a term that is sometimes facetiously used in engineering discussions in a way not entirely unlike how the term “MacGuffinite” has been known to crop up in film discussions.
Before you can say “no blood for unobtainium,” humans and Na’vi are on a collision course, one pitting bow-wielding primitives riding beasts of burden against a vastly superior technological military machine. Naturally, everyone who has seen Return of the Jedi knows how this story ends. It’s the same way Dances With Wolves would have ended if we could all have pretended that the Trail of Tears never happened.
The last several paragraphs may have given the impression that Avatar is heavy on exposition, with long monologues about midi-chlorians or unbalanced matrix equations or whatever. In fact, the film is remarkably light on its feet. It hits the ground running — almost literally, as Sully first rises unsteadily to his avatar feet and bolts out of the lab without waiting for the usual preliminary niceties — and when it slows down, it’s usually to smell the flowers (or watch them vanish at a touch) rather than to offer tedious exposition. Cameron may have spent fourteen years developing Avatar, but he never got bogged down in his own mythology the way that some filmmakers have done after awhile.
As remarkable as Cameron’s pan-Hollywood mythological synthesis is, he wraps it all in his best meat-and-potatoes, three-star sensibilities, with stock characterizations, trite dialogue and bang-on PG‑13 moviemaking aimed at absolutely everybody. The battle sequences are overwhelming but not as wincingly brutal as Lord of the Rings. The scantily clad Na’vi are sexy enough to be easy on the eyes but not too sexy for the comfort level of typical parents of twelve-year-olds. There’s nothing to intimidate even the most casual viewer.
One of Avatar’s most intriguing conceits is the biological connectivity of life on Pandora. A number of species on Pandora have a special appendage (the Na’vi version is like a ponytail) with tendrils capable of interlacing with tendrils from other species, opening a telepathic link between them. The Na’vi can even link to the Tree of Souls, where apparently the souls of the ancestors go, like Mount Seleya on Vulcan. They may even be able to commune with their deity, Eywa, more or less the Pandoran Gaia, or planet-soul goddess. (As a friend pointed out to me, all this organic connectivity makes for an intriguing counterpoint to the Avatar program’s technological mind-melding.) The New Age eco-spirituality of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within has nothing on Avatar.
In the end, if Avatar isn’t the Star Wars or The Matrix of its generation, that’s partly because the characters make so little impression. To borrow an observation from another friend, Luke, Han and Leia on the one hand, and Neo, Morpheus and Trinity on the other have become cultural icons — as have Jack and Rose, for that matter — and Jake Sully and even Neytiri aren’t in that league.
Sigourney Weaver plays the obligatory hard-nosed scientist, Stephen Lang the obligatory evil military man, Michelle Rodriguez the obligatory tough lady pilot, and Giovanni Ribisi the obligatory slimy corporate exec. Except for Weaver, I don’t remember any of their characters’ names. (Weaver’s scientist is called Grace Augustine. Whoa, that’s, like, heavy.)
Deep down, Avatar is bone-headed, but it’s also beautiful — not just exciting and technically impressive, like Jurassic Park, but wondrous and exhilarating. How many movies can you say that about? It may be an inch deep, but it’s a mile wide, it gushes and roars like Niagara Falls, and it’s a sight to behold.
Last week Peter Chattaway blogged an essay on Avatar and religion originally written for Anglican Planet (which is an awesome name for an Anglican periodical on so many levels, although I know nothing else about it).
A priest friend, frustrated by dodgy media coverage, recently sent me his own translation of the entire L’Osservatore Romano review, as well as of a segment that ran of Vatican Radio.
Was I wrong to contend, as I did recently in a response to a reader, that “Unlike Star Wars and The Matrix, Avatar doesn’t strike me as a film likely to burrow deep into the collective consciousness”? A recent story at CNN.com, “Audiences Experience ‘Avatar’ Blues,” at least raises questions about that assessment.
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I haven’t seen Avatar, I don’t like all the silly new age/eco stuff Hollywooders like to pass on as morality either; but I was reading your review and you mentioned that they were searching for a substance called “unobtainium”. I’m wondering if James Cameron stole this from the movie The Core. In the core the scientist who develops their ship to travel to the earth’s core develops a special subtance that gets stronger and powerful with heat. I think it is also Unobtainium. I think if this is true perhaps they should be called out on this.
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Steven, love your critique. However, this time I thought that I’d chime in response to this review. Not necessarily to complain but add to the discussion.
A slight disturbance set over me after watching Avatar. There is a whole lot more going backstage here. This is better articulated in Ross Douthat’s New York Times column “Heaven and Nature.”
The cultural impact is grave. The medium of cinema provides a wider platform and this subtle propagation of new-age thinking just romanticizes it further. I see two extreme points of today’s thinking facing head-on, scientism versus pantheism. With latter winning the battle (the rest of the trilogy should portray who wins the final war). There is little or no room for Christianity. And this brings a whole new range of problems.
I see pessimism and hopelessness of atheism in regards to the bleak future of humanity. Transhuman thought and initiatives being one of them. The final scene has the protagonist give up his body for the another. And this demonstration works! Not sure what, how or who makes this decision, but I see problems with this. Being a work of fiction, the specifics are rathery muddy, but I see signs of anti-life propaganda; euthanasia? eugenics? I might be reading extra but what’s up with this “man” chosen for another species?
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From your review of Avatar it seems you’re pretty thrilled with Cameron’s imaginary world of Pandora. I heard somewhere that another critic complained that Pandora isn’t a whole new world, that it’s just a “glorified South America.” What say you?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.