“Avatar” is a visually spectacular entertainment with a broadly anti-imperialist message. Who could ask for more, especially when most Hollywood blockbusters are such sorry messes nowadays? When my colleagues in NYFCO named it best picture of the year, I wrote: “Apparently this is some kind of anti-imperialist parable. I wonder what would have made James Cameron develop such a movie–leaving aside the question whether he has the ability to hit the target. More later.” Well, later is now.
With a plot that owes much to “Dances with Wolves” and the far superior “Emerald Forest”, this is a movie that champions the cause of indigenous peoples on a distant planet called Pandora in the distant future. Despite being in the distant future, not much has changed in terms of how imperialism deals with indigenous peoples. A multinational (multiplanetary, actually) mining company is running amok on Pandora, digging up an ore called Unobtainium. As it turns out, that term has a hoary past that long predated James Cameron’s movie as the wiki article indicates.
Engineers have long (since at least the 1950s) used the term unobtainium when referring to unusual or costly materials, or when theoretically considering a material perfect for their needs in all respects save that it doesn’t exist. By the 1990s, the term was widely used, including in formal engineering papers such as Towards unobtainium [new composite materials for space applications].
The word unobtainium may well have been coined within the aerospace industry to refer to materials capable of withstanding the extreme temperatures expected in reentry. Aerospace engineers are frequently tempted to design aircraft which require parts with strength or resilience beyond that of currently available materials.
Since the planet is inhabited by 9 feet tall blue people called the Na’vi armed with bows and arrows who don’t exactly appreciate their territory being despoiled by profiteers, the mining corporation has recruited a Blackwater type military force to defend their interests.
One of the ex-servicemen who have just been rocketed into Pandora is the star of the movie, a former Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who like so many returning from Iraq or Afghanistan in recent years has lost the use of his legs in combat. His disability does not prevent him from being used in an “Avatar”, a Na’vi body derived from their genes that can host Sully’s mind when he is asleep in a special chamber. His first encounter inside the Avatar is a liberating experience as he not only recovers the use of his legs, but enjoys the powerful physical abilities of these gifted creatures.
Sully becomes a secret agent for the mercenaries at the urging of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the movie’s villain who repeats the kind of stale formulae about defeating the insurgents heard from Generals reporting to George W. Bush and more recently to Barack Obama. The other chief villain is the mining company’s on-site manager Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) who will remind you of the Paul Reiser character in James Cameron’s “Aliens”, another rousing entertainment. Reiser played a sleazy corporate hack who sought to bring back a monster to earth that could be used to breed living weapons of mass destruction.
Eventually, Sully falls in love with a Na’vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who has been assigned by her tribe to train him in their ways. When the mining company and the mercenaries conspire to destroy the Na’vi’s habitat in order to expropriate their wealth, Sully switches sides and becomes a guerrilla warrior fighting on behalf of native peoples and Mother Nature.
I use the words “her tribe” advisedly since there is very little attempt made to distinguish the Na’vi from the American Indians who were exterminated by the millions in order to pave the way for the growth of the modern multinational corporation. They wear loincloths, use the bow and arrow, and the men wear what appears Mohawk (Kanienkeh) haircuts. When out on a hunt with them, Sully observes a warrior giving thanks to an animal that he has just shot with an arrow. This is a behavior associated with bison hunting on the Great Plains, of course.
Since so much of the movie’s appeal was to be linked with its rainforest-like backdrop, filled with exotic flora and fauna that were figments of the movie’s artistic/technical team’s gifted imagination, it was a natural choice for filming in 3D. Put succinctly, the experience of seeing the movie in 3D is one of the more thrilling experiences I have had in a movie theater in quite some time. Credit must be given to James Cameron for using this technique, because it helps to realize his vision of an unspoiled environment under threat from corporate predators. In some ways, the opulent landscapes and the exotic creatures that populate them hearken back to Walt Disney’s Fantasia, another movie that celebrated the power of the visual imagination.
I am old enough to remember Hollywood’s last foray into 3D. When I was 10 years old or so, there was one 3D movie after another landing in our local theaters. Just as was with the case in “Avatar”, you had to wear special glasses to get the effect. A wiki article on 3D movies states that 1952-1955 were the “golden years” of 3D. Three of them I remember vividly. In “Man in the Dark”, there was a brain surgery intended to remove the main character’s “criminal instincts”. There’s nothing like the sight of a scalpel coming directly into your forehead to creep out any 10 year old. In “Fort Ti” (Ticonderoga), the Mohawk Indians—unlike the Na’vi—were bad guys. A highlight of the movie was a tomahawk coming straight at you, a gimmick used repeatedly. Finally, there was the classic “House of Wax” that made you feel like you were inside the burning museum in the garish climax.
“Avatar” is nothing like these cheap thrills. At the risk of sounding like a PR agent for James Cameron, this was a movie that never once used 3D other than in the way it was intended—or should be intended. Namely, to recreate a real world that has depth and complexity. Since the world is imaginary to begin with, the only way to describe this experience is how Marianne Moore once described poetry: “imaginary gardens with real toads”.
A brief word about David Walsh’s review of “Avatar” that appeared in today’s World Socialist website. Although I genuinely admire Walsh, I have to take exception to his review which boils down to disappointment that the movie was not more like “Burn”, for example. He complains:
That [the movie’s rousing climax] is not enough, however, to make up for the film’s fatal artistic and psychological weaknesses. A work of art makes a difference to the extent that it brings out what is not obvious, and encourages a critical attitude toward conventional thoughts and emotions.
Asking James Cameron to create a “work of art” is an unrealistic expectation. It would be like asking Stephen King to write a complex psychological study set in an urban milieu (although he has made such attempts, usually with mixed results.) Cameron is an unabashed entertainer and should be judged on that criterion alone. From this critic’s perspective, a harsher judge of Hollywood most of the time than Walsh, the movie succeeds.
Speaking of success or the lack thereof, I want to conclude with some words about “Star Trek”, the 2009 movie that attempted to provide a back story on the origin of the characters in the spirit of “Batman Begins”.
Unlike “Avatar”, this is an elaborately plotted screenplay with frequent flashbacks. Additionally, it involves the heavy use of exposition which is meant to fill in the details of a story burdened by the sort of time travel beloved by Star Trek writers. Keeping track of what phase of the time warp you are in becomes as much of a chore as reading Heidegger.
What gave Star Trek movies and the TV show so much charm in the past was their refusal to take themselves too seriously and to use their stories set in outer space in the distant future as a way to provide wry commentary on current events. As quintessential 1960s pop culture, the William Shatner/Leonard Nimoy vintage took up issues of xenophobia, class oppression, warfare, etc. in terms of the liberal humanism of the show’s creator, Gene Rodenberry.
There is no humor, nor is there social commentary in J.J. Abrams’s movie. It is basically a revenge tale involving Romulans and Mr. Spock, the Vulcan who has inadvertently destroyed their planet. The bulk of the movie consists of elaborately orchestrated battles between the starship Enterprise and the Romulan craft which I found tedious in the extreme. They have a mindless milling character associated with video games and movies such as “The Transformers”. After an hour or so of space ships firing on each other, I began to fog out.
Abrams is best known for his ABC television series “Lost”, which also involved byzantine plotting and the overuse of flashbacks. He is also the producer of “Cloverfield”, a movie widely regarded as utter garbage.