Avatar: my review (a horrible movie highly worth seeing)

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

There are many things to  be said about this movie. In a nutshell though, there are two.

Firstly, as a political phenomenon, it’s great (as long as we don’t look too deeply).

Secondly, from an aesthetic point of view, it is deeply and irretrievably flawed.

In plain language, I loved it right up through the second third. Had it ended when the great tree is tragically toppled in a climactic fireball, I’d have left smugly satisfied.

((If you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia, one of the greatest movies of all time, then you have already seen this movie in a far more delicate form.))

Political readings

Why do I think it is worth watching? It is because it makes certain political visions accessible to a generation and a public that would otherwise either not be exposed to those visions or find them unpalatable. Now suddenly they are not only palatable, but self-evident and attractive.

The film portrays excellently the interconnectedness of everything in the forest world of the Na’vi. They are highly connected to the world around them in a way the human protagonist, who suddenly perceives how inept and insensitive his vision of the world has been, can only begin to understand.

Through an extended process of learning to see through the other’s eyes, the selfish and ignorant, yet curious, kind, and courageous “jarhead” is slowly sensitized to the pain that his vision of the world has been causing to others whom it doesn’t regard as worthy of life. He learns that others, even if they don’t look like him or speak his language, can feel pain and pleasure and have rich, textured, valuable experiences just like he can.

Having learned to see the “human” in others, his attempt to show others what he has learned is utterly vain. The greedy, hubristic, men of war and profit are far too immersed in their own idea of self-superiority to pause and follow him outside the box of their normal prejudices. Instead, they scoff at his sensitivity for “just trees” and “just blue barbarians.”

So it’s nice and all that James Cameron and co. want to bring this feel-good message to a new generation for whom Star Wars and Dances with  Wolves are far too outdated and 2-D to deign watching. These are important messages, and it’s nice someone is making them available to today’s younger generations. Perhaps for the first time, these generations can recognize clearly in this movie their own military and begin to suspect that it may be up to no good, or ask themselves why precisely we’re killing all these “blue barbarians” over yonder anyhow.

On the other hand, the movie is full of contradictions. If there is a mild feminist narrative at work in the protagonist’s female counterpart, it is undercut by the triumphant patriarchy of the “I’ll save you” young buck, who still seduces the young virgin, beats up rival and arch-nemesis alike, saves the day on a valiant steed, and lives happily ever after.

If the movie is about “seeing the other,” the narrative vision never for an instant quits the American ethos and world-vision of superindividualism. Like Rudolphe the Red-Nosed Raindeer and the Ugly Duckling, it’s all about how the one dude who tries super hard can still at the end of the day say fuck you to all the others and have his cake and eat it too. If the “natives” are highly communal, our hero doesn’t learn a single lesson from them. It’s not a Three Amigos style theme about working together to defeat a common enemy while finding a mutual bond. No, here it’s all about having the biggest dick, leading the triumphant charge, and showing how much you really are the best. If the real-world hero dude is touchingly vulnerable, in a manner initially reminiscent of My Left Foot, this initial foible is left far behind in a mythical scene of healing.

But instead of having learned how human he is, the reverse is true. He now considers himself a demi-god, fully invincible, ready to charge anyone, and doesn’t blink an eye before clumsily (too say the least) and irretrievably contaminating local cultural practices (by sleeping with the chief’s daughter). He is the opposite of self-reflective, and unable to see beyond his own ephemeral pleasure. Initially an agent of espionage, duping the whole tribe as the ultimate poser, the ultimate mask-wielder, he apparently deems it morally teneble to mate with another being (indeed the future chief’s betrothed) in full knowledge that these beings mate only for life and that he is only using a disposable body which he has plans to evacuate in a matter of days.

But one gets the impression the spectator isn’t meant to think that far ahead, since it all becomes okay again when he finds some way to miraculously save the day. The message seems to be that it is alright to muck up another’s culture if you can play the part of the hero too.

And here is where the movie really contradicts itself: it is alright then, according to the ideology of the movie’s narrative, for the US to go messing with foreign societies as long as in the end we beat up the bad guys and bring democracy. Once again, we can all be superheroes, we just have to “mean well” and think highly of trees at the end of the day.

(Of course, our killer dragon would co-sponsored by Coke, Shell Oil, and Haliburton.)

Aesthetic readings

Here there really isn’t much to say. There wasn’t a single scene in the movie that was original in any way, and that hasn’t already seen numerous times in films as recent as Braveheart (“Tribes far and wide, follow me! Unite! I’ll lead you to victory against the great evil invader”) and far more distant (in many ways the whole movie seems like a remake of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi). (Granted, even these films are themselves borrowing from time-tested narratives, but at least in more creative ways.)

There was the bow-and-arrow scene from Deliverance.

There were so many rip-offs of Dances with Wolves that it must be paying royalties.

There were scenes straight out of The Matrix, including “Neo, you’re the chosen one” and the “down the rabbit hole” visual tube scramble, not to mention the whole body-mind-other body paradigm.

From a Brechtian point of view, since the film is at times overtly didactic, it fails to build up near enough pathos for us to care about any of the characters beyond a passing eye-blink. Yet all of them had incredible potential for character build-up and spectator empathy, from the Jane Goodall woman (who inadvertently but tellingly wields “science” as the trojan horse of destruction) to the burned out general Hollywood never tires of resurrecting, up to the Kevin Costner novice in the land of the other protagonist.

Unfortunately, trying to cram so many divergent narratives into a single film left little room for getting inside the head of any of the characters. It is a perfect recipe though for delivering up a hodge-podge of flat tropes-for-characters we’ve already seen and known far more intimately in some other film. And the protagonist is particularly flat, by far the least convincing of any of the cast. His role was very promising though, and perhaps somewhere a few reels of edited-out-for-time footage reveal that missing intimacy the spectator desperately needed to give a rip about what he thinks or does and whether he lives or dies; but we are unfortunately denied this position, making his final resurrection the most anticlimactic scene of the entire movie.

If you’ve read this far you’ll think I hate the film, but I would actually highly recommend it, if not for its visually stunning cinematography, at least for its feel-good rerun of a political message, which for the first half of the movie is palatable, and even pleasing, and certainly important in today’s political context.

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