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“Avatar” Inspires Visually, But Leaves Me Cold December 22, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Original at SpliceToday. Writer’s note: The following review is a bit harsher than my first thoughts on Avatar, mainly because I realized that my lack of emotional involvement in the story was more meaningful than I’d originally thought, signaling the film’s ethnic and political paradigms were not as sophisticated as its visuals.

I’m a pretty lenient grader. I tend to evaluate films on their own terms. I watched Transformers II and managed to keep my lunch down. I even defended The Women, Lord help me. I’m not a snob.

It’s not as if I hated Avatar. I liked it. Avatar is a great cinematic experience. Everything you’ve heard is true: the visuals are spectacular and engrossing. Many times I completely forgot I was watching computer-generated images. Even now I think of Avatar not so much as digitally rendered and impressively filmed and created.

But I didn’t love it, and that’s a problem. I feel the need to counteract a lot of the raves I’ve been hearing and reading.

A film is more than visuals, I don’t care how sleek they are and how many innovations it pioneers. A great film needs a good story, and here I found Avatar ultimately lacking. (Not like my opinion matters: Avatar grossed $230 million in its opening weekend, meaning it’s well on its way to the $800 million it’ll need to make its huge investment back).

I wasn’t expecting 2001: A Space Odyssey. I went into Avatar knowing the story would be fairly predictable — the good guys would win. You don’t spend $500 million making and marketing a movie to take chances with the narrative. You hew to convention.

The problem is, Avatar left me cold — and I wasn’t the only one. Sure, the fanboys at the midnight screening I saw loved it. But they also laughed through every sentimental scene: the “blue people lovemaking” scene elicited pure guffaws. This was more than a case of immature college boys with low emotional IQs. Unlike the similarly conventional Titanic, James Cameron does not lay a strong enough emotional foundation for his story. Our lead Jake Scully is blank canvas. Sure, we hear about his thoughts through his video diaries — a plot device, by the way, usually tossed aside for being too expository — but we never get a sense of who he is. We don’t know his thoughts about the planet before he arrives, only he wants to escape Earth. He’s a willing solider, but he’s open to new experiences. This is all we know. His eventual transformation, then, has no emotional heft. His love for Neytiri is empty. This character oversight calls into question the entire premise of plot. No one seems to be talking about this.

Let’s move on. How about the much-ballyhooed environmentalist narrative? It’s true Avatar is a green film, in a fairly inventive way. The idea is: everything on Pandora, planet of the blue people, is literally interconnected and pregnant with history, like nerves in the brain. Destroying one tree harms all living things. Nice message. Yet for me the film’s exoticization of Pandora means this message doesn’t hit home. Pandora is so unlike Earth we cannot link the two conceptually.

What about the anti-corporate and anti-colonialism message? These are solid messages, but again, the whole thing feels so stale, so 19th century, and something I’ve seen in films before. Indeed, in a critique a little harsher than I would give, sci-fi blog io9 lays out the problem with Avatar‘s take on colonialism:

“These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed.”

That’s more blunt than I would put it. Still, I would agree Avatar doesn’t really care about the Na’vi, the blue people. They are simple and stereotypical: connected to the Earth, pure, noble, the noble savage. It’s not the worst stereotype, but it makes for pretty uninteresting cinema. (Also, can we put aside the myth of “native” peoples being more connected to the Earth than modern civilizations? Read Jared Diamond’s Collapse and find out how ancient civilizations similarly abused the environment, albeit in much less grand ways.)

Am I saying Avatar is “racist”? No!!! First of all, the blue people are ambiguously raced enough to deflect criticism. Good move, Cameron. What I’m saying is we’ve seen this before, and it’s getting old. It’s Pocahontas all over again, or, as io9 points out: Dances with Wolves, Dune, The Last Samurai, Enemy Mine, and, most acutely for me, District 9. That’s right, they made this same movie a few months ago!

All this would be fine if Avatar was just another $100 million sci-fi flick looking to get fanboys excited and buying more video games. But this film is supposed to “change cinema” and they spent a good half billion making sure it does. So why not shell out a few extra thousand and get a good writer to thicken the story a bit? Like I said, I don’t need Stanley Kubrick. How about giving me some tiny innovation? Like maybe the natives of Pandora are divided over what their planet means and how their environment works? Or maybe our protagonist isn’t a man but a woman who falls for a native blue male? Or maybe the big bad corporation isn’t all white (with a few Asian) but instead more multicultural — maybe the evil general’s a black dude (or a black woman!)? Maybe Neytiri isn’t a religious icon (a voodoo warrior?) but a scientist like Sigourney Weaver’s character? I don’t care, just give me some narrative complexity!

I know what you’re thinking: don’t expect complexity from a blockbuster. Fine enough. But like I said, I’m capable of lower expectations. Transformers II wasn’t all bad for summer popcorn entertainment. Yet when a movie has pretensions of cultural worth, I expect it to be creative — and not just visually. I want something emotionally deep — even Titanic can bring an audience close to crying — not a carbon-copy of a dozen movies I’ve seen before and ruled out as dull or problematic.

Should you see Avatar? Yes. Go see it. You will enjoy it. It’s a sight to see. You, of course, must see it in 3D, and, after seeing it in a regular theater, I’m pretty sure you need to see in IMAX (which brings up a whole other set of issues). I’m not saying Avatar isn’t a good time, an awesome spectacle, or even well-crafted. I’m just saying I expected more, because I was promised more — over 10 years in the making! — and, no, I don’t think it will change cinema.


1. Joe Diorio - December 22, 2009

I saw Avatar last weekend when a snowstorm left me stranded in Lynchburg, VA. It took my mind off the dreary weather for 3 hours. And you’re right … it’s Dances with Wolves (in space).

Aymar Jean Christian - December 22, 2009

Yes, I also thought it was entertaining! In fact, I plan to see it again in IMAX. Sorry about your being stranded, in Lynchburg of all places, but yes, “Avatar” is perfect snowy weather entertainment (though I saw it just before the storm).

2. “Avatar:” On Second Viewing… « Televisual - February 8, 2010

[…] seeing Avatar the first time I came away a little disappointed. But I decided to view it again in IMAX 3D (my first viewing was on a smaller 3D screen), to see it […]

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