Until reading Manohla Dargis’ review in the New York Times, I had no intention of seeing Avatar. But her article affected me: I felt disturbed and violated. Her opening sentence: ‘With “Avatar” James Cameron has turned one man’s dream of the movies into a trippy joy ride about the end of life – our moviegoing life included – as we know it,’ is why. Those words in parentheses, an obliging repetition of the advertisements, obliterated my initial dismissiveness. So too, did its place as #24 in IMDb’s Top 200 List (well ahead of Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard). To say ‘Just another bullshit blockbuster to disregard’ is irresponsible in this case. 20th Century Fox and James Cameron are serious – $280 million is no joke, not even to them (it boasts of being one of the most expensive movies ever made). The aim for the filmmakers of Avatar is to revolutionize cinema through science fiction, to finish what George Lucas and Steven Spielberg began. They are desperate to do so in part because audiences are thinning. People look at their computers – and their even smaller portable gadgets – to watch the latest films, either downloaded through torrents, or streamed through websites. The intention of getting people to the cinema is noble (at least on the surface), but the product is decidedly ignoble.
What is meant to distinguish Avatar is its ‘revolutionary’ visual effects. It is a perverse return to the “Cinema of Attractions.” Audiences no longer cower at the sight of a locomotive roaring forth, then disappearing out of the frame as they did in the Lumière days (see Maxim Gorky’s The Kingdom of Shadows); nor are they terribly impressed by more modern illusions – explosions and UFOs have become quotidian, and as impressive on the computer as at the cinema. So they have made a picture that is entirely digital, a special effect in 3-D (ipods do not yet have that capability) lasting 2 hours and 46 minutes. The performance capture of live figures does give the computer-generated images (CGIs) an increased sense of realistic animation (and at least acting is not made entirely obsolete), but with the recent success of Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson | 2009), filmed in archaic stop motion, one wonders just how important these graphics are to cinema. The aesthetic is that of the scenes that interweave play in an advanced video game like Halo. Perhaps the filmmakers should concentrate their efforts on the gaming industry instead? The unusual (for me) 3D showing was interesting, but ill-suited to such a long feature. Focus is much more conspicuous due to the floating planes which sometimes force the viewer to confront out of focus objects in the foreground. It had a nauseating effect after a while.
A story is attempted, too. Indeed, Dargis calls James Cameron, who wrote and directed the film, ‘a masterly storyteller.’ Hardly (press here for IMDb’s summary). An underdog hero stands up for an underdog society, with the usual garnishments of rivalry, romance, betrayal, greed, redemption &c. But all this is very much in subordination to the video game aesthetic, the futuristic flying vehicles, robots and alien dinosaurs provide the absorbing action. A combination, and, in parts, blatant plagiarism of The Matrix, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park films, as well as the video game mentioned above, Halo.
The characterization is really dreadful. Our protagonist, and narrator via video log, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is an idiot without depth, only a bit of cheap and exploitive sentimentality make him sympathetic (his disabled condition, his assumed bravery as a marine). His scientist cohorts (led by Sigourney Weaver), to borrow an expression from the film, are ‘limp-dick’ nerds. The bad guys (played by Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi) are racist imperialists, inspiring no ambivalence whatsoever. I, personally, was glad of the dramatic relief provided by a young lady who walked up the aisle, using her mobile phone as a flashlight, in order to find her cheating boyfriend. She screamed: ‘You bastard!’ He told her to shut up, grabbed her, and dragged her out of the theatre. They could be heard arguing for several minutes.
Little attempt is made at developing individual Pandoran characters. In fact, they are the typical, patronizing Western representation of the “Noble Savage” – innocent, pure in lifestyle, happy, but ineffectual and vulnerable to contamination from outside influence. And it is only the outside influence of a white man that can save them. They are treated as spectacles, like Ishi. We think: ‘Listen to their cute pidgin English; more amusing still, hear that unusual language of theirs; how adept they are at foraging with bow and arrow; see them walk around near naked, only loin cloths and gold leaf shielding their private parts (and what a terrific rack Neytiri has!).’ This is classic Orientalism. Us: them. The same thing that allows people to dismiss important films like Nanook of the North (1922) by Robert J. Flaherty as racist. (Flaherty was an important influence on Robert Gardner, whose work has been recently discussed in these pages: here and here). Because James Cameron’s natives and their world are digital, he is not called a racist (not because they are fictional or fantastic – they bear many traits of hunter gatherer societies).
Cameron does make certain attempts at thematic depth, but these are all either flawed or facile. The most interesting of these is his application of Romantic elegies of nature to his fantasy world. Unfortunately, he makes shallow, vulgar, even perverted, this potentially intriguing idea. The special link his natives share to the land and its creatures is sexual – they forcefully mount beasts and physically connect to them by way of weird organs at the tips of their hairs. They make faces and sounds like those that signify a human orgasm. For Cameron, blithe sensual appreciation of the natural world is only cinematically articulable through bestiality.
The film also issues rather more pedestrian comments on nature: its beauty, and the threat to it of human folly. Dargis makes an interesting, though demeaning, comparison to Terence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World), whose works are largely characterized by their thematic focus on nature. But Malick is an artist and philosopher. He asks large questions and reflects on them without presuming to know the answers. Cameron does not even bother to ask a question. He only makes obvious statements. He’s no auteur, despite his affirmation to the contrary.
Why did Avatar cost so much? Computers needed to be bought, and so did the digital artists and token actors, and James Cameron needed to be compensated for making accessible his great vision. It also makes for a good advertising campaign: ‘What’s expensive, must be good,’ is common reasoning. Recently, the BBC reported that the makers of a YouTube video called Panic Attack, showing gigantic robots destroying Montevideo, have been given $30 million to make a feature film. Their impressive short was made on a $300 budget. Are these millions really necessary, even for this computerized imagery?
Avatar is another bullshit blockbuster to disregard, albeit a dangerous one. For a movie to be technically advanced and expensive to make is not enough. There needs to be substance. Avatar is hollow and horrendous, a ‘papier mâché Mephistopheles.’