Just to be clear, I’m not opposed to sentient, even highly-intelligent life on other planets living in harmony with nature and a tree Goddess. I can dig on aliens who say prayers over the animals they kill (hey, I’m part Native American, I get it). I understand foreign fauna who cry when they have to do the unspeakable–killing another living being and–shock!–feel bad about it. All of which Avatar has, in all its blue-green, CG-built, 3-D glory. Of course, it’s one thing if you’re killing animals for food. You *should* feel something akin to colonial guilt when you take the life of your fellow Pandora wanderer.
But when it comes to Space Marines who just killed Gaia, f*** ‘em.
At least, that’s how it works in James Cameron’s warped, simplistic, Greenist fantasy. The man knows how to spend money, and he spends it wisely amping up the effects and kludging out the notoriously problematic 3D. What you can’t spend money on, but doesn’t come free, is the ability to write a decent script, one that balances the need for a mainline movie-fare plot with some level of moral ambiguity, rich character development (not caricature regurgitation), and delicate thematic foundations. Here’s an idea: how about making your villain a guy who is simply trying to make the world a better place, but manages to screw over the world in the process, as opposed to making him 100% asshole without a shred of redeeming characteristics or sympathetic reasoning?
In case you haven’t seen Avatar yet, the aforementioned piehole villain is what Cameron ended up slashing his budget on, and his presence in the film severs a necessary artery of willing disbelief. We gave Cameron the benefit of the doubt, allowed him to shuttle an endless (and meaningless) spiritual mumbo jumbo onto our plate in exchange for some truly revolutionary graphics, mo-cap work, and a barrage of visual spectacle. So far, okay. Then, on top of the moral preening, we are presented with a cast of characters who, to the man, with the very slight exception of the hero, are one-dimensional, wrapped not in their own packaging but in Cameron’s. He commits the mortal movie sin of making his characters say, act, and believe exactly as he does, or to behave in ways Cameron believes and wants us to believe are morally reprehensible.
Disregarding the flawed premise that Cameron actually has a valid, or even discussion-worthy philosophy underpinning his writing sins, we must face the inexorable truth: his characters are simply uninteresting.
To catch up you up, Avatar is about a crippled Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is enlisted by two wings of a distant future bureaucracy, military and scientific, to embody, via mind-link technology, to a DNA-replicated, lab-grown alien body. The alien is of the Na’vi race, a twelve-foot tall blue oddly-beautiful clan of forest-dwellers who reside on Pandora, a planet rich with phosphorescent plant-life, huge trees, and prehistoric-animals. The scientists, including Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), want him to join the Na’vi, learn their ways, and attempt a peaceful negotiation with them, with the end goal being acquisition rights to a mineral of unimaginable value (with the unlikely name unobtanium, as in, unobtainable on Earth 1). It just so happens the Na’vi’s treehouse is growing over Pandora’s largest lode of unobtanium, and where the scientists are looking for a diplomatic solution, the military, headed by the psychotic Major Assman (Stephen Lang), just wants to blow it up and take it by force.
Sully learns the way of the Na’vi, who commune directly with every living being on the planet via twisting tendrils in their tails, don’t trust the Sky People, but they accept Jake into their clan and he grows more and more sexually confused as he falls in love with a pretty girl Na’vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
When negotiations break down and the Major Asshat starts bulldozing everything in sight, Jake flips sides–choosing to fight with the Na’vi, leading the gentle forest-dwellers against the might of the US military.
You get the idea.
The list of ridiculous, I-wish-this-were-parody features Cameron built into Avatar made the viewing of, and subsequent mulling over, a puzzling adventure, one in which I found myself reverting back and forth from mesmerized interest in the visuals to perplexed amusement at the obvious and simplistic views presented as some kind of Gaia-canon.
The Na’vi are intelligent, perhaps even more so than humans. Yet they eschew technology and development in favor of spiritual connection with the planet. Their weapons are sticks and arrows, their main transportation is either by running, flying on the backs of bird-creatures, or riding on the backs of horse-creatures. They possess tribal instincts, with a hierarchy of patrimonial civic leaders headed by a matronly spiritual leader. They are, in other words, Native Americans.
Yet just like the Ewoks on Endor, they manage to fight and defeat a planet-busting military-industrial complex, a war machine of impeccable efficiency with mechanized death squads, impenetrable armor-plated tanks, superfly hovercraft, and deadly weaponry–and they do so with sticks, arrows, and pteradactyls.
Color me skeptical.
Comparisons to current military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq don’t hold up under scrutiny. Next to Major Hat-Of-Ass and his offensive, the US military looks like a bunch of Greenpeace activists writing the next Port Huron statement. The military of Cameron’s digital dream is bent on one thing–conquest, and follows no rule except one: Rule Pandora. Apparently, committees and Congressional hearings and military tribunals don’t exist in the future.
Given the Na’vi’s lack of technological development, and the butt-whupping they receive before Jake Sully rallies them all to jihad–I mean, totally respectable fight against the oppressors–they must gather all the beasts and fellow Na’vi from the four corners of Pandora to help. While I suspect Pandora is a smaller planet than our Earth, it surely must take more than a half a day to travel all the way around. But apparently, not only do they manage this incredible feat, they do so without transportation technology. They don’t even have Greyhound.
See, in Cameron’s world, if you are human, you’re either barely worthy of contempt, or you’re just plain psychotic, dangerous, and worthy of death. If you’re a Pandoran savage, on the other hand, you’re inherently noble (even if you are a vicious, needy savage). The myth of the noble Indian really, really, really didn’t need Cameron’s belabored update.
In Cameron’s world, it’s okay to kill something, but only if you use a bow and arrow and a knife and are a twelve-foot tall alien. In Cameron’s world, slavery and military subjugation is wrong, unless you are biologically connected to and can control other living beings with your tail. Then it’s okay. In Cameron’s world, there’s only one branch of the military, only one fighting force, and only one person who controls every aspect of its deployment and personally supervises unmitigated, unilateral slaughter. And his name is Major Ass-for-a-Face.
In Cameron’s world, science and observation leads to understanding and respect for other races and species. In Cameron’s world, primitive tree-huggers defeat star-traveling, atom-smashing, gun-toting butt-munchers. In Cameron’s world, there’s only one Unobtanium deposit, and it’s under a f***ing sacred tree.
I think you get the point.
Edit: It struck me that perhaps I was being too hard on Cameron. After all, no one really expects subtlety and nuance from a man who spends $300 million to make what boils down to a creature feature. But then I have to ask, after plunking down $12.50 to help him recoup his costs, is it too much to want at least a fraction of genuinely original, thought-provoking movie sci-fi from one of the acknowledged craftsmen of the genre?
The answer is no, it’s not.