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“Avatar:” On Second Viewing… February 8, 2010

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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I’ve been posting and tweeting a lot about Avatar, if only because it’s now the highest grossing film ever — or not, depending on how you calculate it (NYMag‘s Vulture blog has the best solution, which now places Avatar at around #3 or #4) — and only recently has it been unseated from its #1 spot in the weekend grosses (Dear John of all movies!). It also has a whole lot of representational baggage, meaning there are a many ways to interpret it, each one related to some political project or another.

After 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 as many critics saw it. Does it impress on second viewing and on the biggest screen imaginable?

Yes and no.

Visually, Avatar is, yes, even more impressive on a bigger screen. I really have to remind myself certain parts are CGI (the water! the rocks!). It’s $500 million well-spent.

The disaster and fight scenes similarly stand up. Even while knowing Hometree will fall, I was quite astounded at how realistic and bracing its demise appeared. The final fight scene is still gripping, and you feel compelled to root for the blue people.

But the writing and hackneyed themes were even more grating. The first time around, Giovanni Ribisi’s “corporate evil” character (Parker Selfridge) did not annoy me, but the second time around, I thought: is this best the rendition of a morally corrupt corporation James Cameron could render? The colonel (Stephen Lang’s Miles Quaritch) is similarly devoid of flavor. Even the name of the natural resource, “unobtainium,” is by far the most uncreative thing about the whole enterprise. Yes, it’s a real scientific word, but within the moral message of the movie, it has all the subtlety and artistry as the image of one dozen army gun ships decimating a giant tree.

Then there’s the dialogue. Clunky and unnecessary. The “vlog” motif still reads as a trite gimmick from Intro to Screenwriting. But even regular scenes are eyeroll-inducing. Take the scene in which Sigourney Weaver’s Grace Augustine marches up to corporate HQ to tear Giovanni Ribisi a new one. There are so many things wrong with this scene: 1) why is Grace blowing up at Parker now, as Jake Sully’s appearance surely isn’t a complete surprise after his brother’s death; 2) again, why the blow-up, since Jake has been en route to Pandora for years; 3) his brother is dead, surely she understands the avatar technology and realizes she has no choice; 4) Parker’s lecture to Grace about “unobtainium” is supposed to come off as patronizing, but in fact is unnecessary — he speaks the lines as if Grace has no idea what unobtainium is — of course she knows! Parker then narrates what the avatar program is for: to find a peaceful solution to the problem of removing the natives. Of course, but by the end of the movie, Jake Sully “reveals” that the Na’vi don’t want anything the humans have. But Grace had been living among them for years: she never knew this? Same with the corporate heads. Surely after years of trying to get the rocks they could’ve figured that one out.

I’m actually not the type of critic to poke holes in movie plots. The problem is this: with Avatar‘s budget, these problems could have been easily fixed. A subtler, more engaging script could have emerged with a passing glance from any screenwriter. But James Cameron is powerful enough to exact control over the directing and the writing, meaning he simply didn’t want anyone to tell him there are many parts of the script that are just bad. It’s the Tyler Perry syndrome: when you’re the boss of everything, you fall prey to your bad ideas and artistic flaws.

All this points a larger problem I still have with Avatar: its blatant privileging of visual spectacle over solid ideas and engaging writing. All of the “problems” people have mentioned over the film have to do with this intellectual laziness, which would be fine for Transformers II, but is far beneath an investment as otherwise well-executed and carefully planned as Avatar.

Cameron extols the many “layers” of Avatar. But in truth the story, like its characters, are entirely one dimensional. The reason why there are so many different readings of the film is precisely because the film travels from topic to topic — and so many! including colonialism, corporate malfeasance, environmentalism, gender, disability, technology, desire, religion, militarism, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, public relations, etc. — without probing deeply into any of them. People get upset because issues they hold dear are treated with such indelicacy. The film’s take on race and colonialism, for instance, is a caricature of how those relations actually happen: Sully’s “going native” is not really intelligible, because his character is a blank slate (no past, no history, no opinions); Cameron’s “natives” are too easily digestible, a chip off well-worn stereotypes; the military corporation is run by pure-evil white men straight out of Boiler Room and Apocalypse NowAvatar, for all its issue-oriented pretensions, is actually quite shallow.

Does this mean Avatar is a “bad” movie? No. It’s a fine movie; it’s the best entertainment around. But it does not live up to its thematic aspirations. It’s clearly a film Cameron conceived of as grand in visual spectacle and thematic resonance. It only achieves one of those — masterfully — and falls way short of the other.

PS – Academics should know we aren’t the only ones who can deconstruct movies. Movie producer and YouTube director Mike Stoklasa (RedLetterMedia) has an ingenious video review that breaks down the film’s clunky, derivative messaging. It’s also an interesting example of how “deconstruction” is not just a liberal tool to show how lame Fox News is.


1. derek - February 9, 2010

yeppers, tis true. I will say the plot problems in the narration are also what screenwwriting teachers often say about exposition in a movie. They don’t like it.

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