The Floating Mountains of Pandora, just one of the wonders of "Avatar" (Images courtesy 20th Century Fox)
I left "Avatar" scratching my head a little. The movie is breathtaking. Director James Cameron and his crew have created a stunningly beautiful film, filled with images of fantastic animals, and incredible landscapes. For people of my age they conjure fond memories of the Roger Dean illustrations on Yes albums from the 1970s. What's more the visual feast just keeps coming at you for almost three hours and in 3D too.
The headscratcher is for all the money spent on this film, hundreds of millions reportedly, why wasn't some of that money spent on creating a better story?
It starts out with such promise: a marine who uses a wheelchair after some vaguely defined incident in his past finds himself transported to another world. He's there because he has the same genetic make-up as his scientist brother who trained to be an avatar driver to explore this planet, but was murdered. The avatars are very expensive and built specifically for each driver, so it's a lucky break for the human explorers to find someone who can take over the job.
Thus the grunt finds himself reborn inside the 10 foot tall body of a Na'vi warrior, complete with blue skin and a tail. He sets off and soon finds himself caught between the mining company from Earth desperate to get at the minerals under the Na'vi's sacred sites, and the Na'vi who he grows to respect and love.
It's not that the "Avatar" plot doesn't hold together. It's just predictable. Perhaps huge battle scenes are inescapable in movies like this, but it would have so wonderful to have them come up with some other way of dealing with the conflict. Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke" deals with many of the same issues as "Avatar" and came up with a much more novel solution to the conflict.
This is the second time in recent months that a movie with incredible visuals has been lacking a spectacular script. "9" suffered the same fate, although at a much smaller cost.
"Avatar" is definitely worth seeing, on as large a screen as possible, and preferably in 3D. But it's tantalizing to think about what might have been. And maybe that's just what we have to hope for in the future.
White Guilt Fantasy
Avatar is a classic scenario you've seen in Hollywood epics from Dances With Wolves, Dune, District 9 and The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.
If we think of Avatar and its ilk as white fantasies about race, what kinds of patterns do we see emerging in these fantasies?
A white man who was one of the oppressors switches sides at the last minute, assimilating into the alien culture and becoming its savior.
These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that 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.
This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.
I struggle with one small flaw - which is a bigger flaw for me (though I may still go see the movie) - wouldn't we as a race progress enough in 130 years to be against pushing out the indigenous peoples somewhere just for the resources?
That one question makes the plot a challenge for me. The good v. evil issue is always interesting and the Dances with Wolves analogy is probably accurate. But the very premise that "big mining" wants the locals out of their mine field...you'd think we'd get better, not worse.
Ah well - I guess I'll see it for the spectacle.
Thanks for your thoughts, Steve and Willie. Both of these issues struck me, particularly the "wouldn't we/they know better by then?" idea.
"Avatar" is a story which had huge possibilities for exploration: the ecological, the political, the interpersonal contact between intelligent species who could learn from each other. Yet we get almost nothing of that beyond a couple of cliched encounters.
It's sad. Pretty, but a missed opportunity.
I'd like to point out that Steve Real's comment is cross-posted from "io9":
I'm glad to see that other people have read the same critique of "Avatar" and are now starting to ask "the tough questions."
I could probably drag myself into a theater to see this film if it were much shorter. I've read several reviews, and the positive ones ran along the lines of "This movie is so shiny! Yeah, the story sucks, but did I mention the shiny?"
Why would I want to sit through that for almost 3 hours? My attention span is short enough that without compelling storytelling, I'll start to fidget after an hour, no matter what it looks like.
I am curious to see what all the fuss is about, because of reviews like this one. I'll readily admit that I like shiny as much as the next person. But I don't know that I want to spend all that money ($10 for a movie ticket? Seriously?) on something that, ultimately, won't be satisfying.