James Cameron lost something sometime in the middle nineties. I don’t know what it was but I know where it went: into Terminator 2, the last good film to bear Jim’s name, the place where his wave crested. It had already rolled back by the time True Lies came out, and while I liked True Lies well enough (enjoying, as I do, any slapstick send-ups of the Action movie, with its pretensions of the mythic…there’s even a soft place in my heart for Last Action Hero, and I’m not ashamed of it) who the bloody hell follows up Terminator 2 with a screwball comedy about a secret agent ubermensch and the Jamie Lee Curtis who loves him?
(Answer: a man who gets his Great Ideas from the Governator.) And who follows that with Romeo and Juliet at Sea? With Titanic, Cameron threw all pretense of originality over the side along with Leonardo. And bless his heart for sending the foppish pretty boy to a well-deserved watery grave. But Titanic also proved Cameron’s real talents lay in fields having nothing at all to do with making good films. The man is first and foremost a technician. Give him a some hardware and a chunk of time and he’ll go Rain Man on that shit…but God help you if you’re a flesh and blood human being. Bless Linda Hamilton for dropping the man faster than a hot rock from the Temple of Doom. Bless her also for warning us all about what he was and where he was going. And curse everyone else for not paying attention. Titanic also taught him that America’s film critic community is so coddled and concentrated on writing proper ad copy that they’ll let any half-hearted, hackneyed sci-fi flick slide, so long as you make it pretty.
At least I don’t have to worry about spoiling anything for you. If you haven’t seen Avatar yet you’re probably like me, possessed by the vaguely suspicious feeling that you need to keep up with the cultural zeitgeist…for some strange reason. So you probably already know Avatar takes place in a dystopian twenty-second century where human space exploration has (inevitably) given way to colonization and exploitation, particularly by “the company.” Which one? Who gives a fuck? For all James Cameron cares it could be the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, but I might as well build up my Philip K. Dick cred and label it “LIES Inc.”
As we open, LIES Inc. is in the process of strip mining a verdant forest moon of Endor Pandora which, the grizzled Colonel Quaritch (Stephan Lang) informs us, is the kind of place where, “Every critter that crawls, flies or squats in the mud wants to kill you.” Even the atmosphere is four-minutes-and-you’re-dead toxic to Terran life. From a military-industrial perspective, the presence of a mysterious and (apparently) valuable element named “Unobtanium” is Pandora’s only saving grace. If only the recalcitrant, cat-humanoid natives, the Na’vi, could be mollified. Or driven off their land.
To this end, the Company’s science division, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), has figured out the most expensive, round-about and wasteful way to bridge the cross-species divide ever conceived. Using human and Na’vi DNA, the science guys (and gals) have managed to grow their own clutch of soulless Na’vi bodies. A Matrix-esqe series of wall-mounted pods allows human “drivers” to insert their minds into these “Avatars” and walk about Pandora free-as-they-please…provided they survive encounters with the local fauna.
Paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) rolls into all this with a dead brother on his shoulder and no more of an idea about what’s going on than I did months ago, when I dismissed Avatar as Pocahontas In Space. Jake’s dead brother happened to be a twin, allowing Jake to instantly bond with his Avatar. Invigorated by his new body, Jake takes up position as Dr. Augustine’s token security escort, secretly charged with spying on the Na’vi for Colonel Kurtz Quaritch. After a few minutes of gawking at scenery an action sequence strands him in Pandora’s planet-forest. With the sun going down and Dr. Augustine’s team leaving Jake (or, at the very least, his Avatar) for dead, it falls to a hot native with a bow and arrow and slow-motion ass-kicking effects to rescue Jake from his (and his fictional, future society’s) inherent idiocy.
This is Neyteri (Zoe Saldana, last seen here playing Young Uhura in J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek mutilation), who will be our Pocahontas from the remainder of the film. After a brief confab at the Na’vi’s giant treehouse of a village, Neyteri’s charged with teaching Jake the “dreamwalker” the Na’vi’s stereotypically native ways. “Then,” village medicine woman Mo’at (CCH Pounder, last sceen [by me at least] voicing Amanda Waller on the Justice League cartoon series) informs him, “we will see if your insanity can be cured.”
Those who guessed far in advance that the answer is an emphatic, “Yes, and he’ll do it all through the transformative power of Love,” earn plus five Experience Points. This is the same hero’s journey Joseph Campbell identified back in 1930s, a formulaic foray through the same Noble Savage myth this culture has been singing to itself since the 1680s. But Cameron does not care a fink for originality or innovations…unless they’re innovations in digital photography.
Plenty’s been written about the film’s special effects. All agree they are masterful. Most use that as an excuse for ignoring the film’s technical flaws and blatant ideological hypocrisies. Every military-industrial shill in the film, from Colonel Quidditch to Parker Selfish Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi, channeling every studio executive Cameron’s ever worked with) is unrepentantly evil and racist, while every member of the science staff is unabashedly pacifistic and open-minded. We’d come down hard on a giant monster movie for such a blatant whitewash of the human condition, but because this is the game-changing, life-altering, award-winning film of the decade, I’m supposed to ignore the character’s illusions, and delusions, of substance. Only Weaver, the consummate professional, manages to carry that illusion of depth throughout the film and ironically enough she does it by channeling James Cameron. I believe Dr. Augustine can be both a perfectionist harpy (in the lab) and staunch humanitarian (in the field) because, unlike Jake the Fake, she neither swallows the corporate coprolite nor blindly accepts the Na’vi’s faux-spiritualism at first glance.
I say “faux-spiritualism” because the Na’vi’s system of nature/ancestor worship is nothing more or less than the same Hollywood Deism I called out in I Am Legend. (And Nathan did a much better job of calling out in his review of Signs.) Those of you who guessed that Eywa, the Na’vi’s god, would put in an eleventh hour showing, and that her participation would turn the tide of some climactic action sequence just when all looked darkest and Our Hero was about to lose Hope, give yourself plus ten XP.
Ignore all the world-spirit/All-Mother crap. Eywa is nothing more or less than a biosphere-wide, technorganic Internet, complete with its own pseudo-scientific explanation (delivered by Dr. Augustine, natch). Despite the sheer volume of reviews cluttering this film’s IMDb entry, I’m surprised no one else seems to have noticed this not-so-subtle twist, which handily neuters any “environmental” messages this film might’ve once had (even if only in James Cameron’s mind). On Pandora, naturally occurring fiber optic cables jut from pretty much every life form in sight, the Na’vi included. They don’t break horses, or the dragon-like ikrans that share their tree space – they “bond” with them, the way a certain symbiote once tried to “bond” with a certain Spider-Man. An intelligent film might’ve explored the creepy questions of domination such “bondage” brings up, but we’re not watching a film like that are we? We’re trapped in a film so dumb it lowers the intelligence of its viewers. It certainly did a number on Roger Ebert, who unfortunately got duped by the well-meaning but unthinking propaganda about this film having some kind of “flat out Green and anti-war message.”
Bullshit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Technofetishism is the only God in Jim Cameron’s house, or in his films, and he’s no one’s idea of a Screaming Greenie. Unlike some personal saviors I could name, Technofetishism is a demonstrable fact of everyday American life (how’s your iPad working out?) that bestows direct financial benefit upon its adherents. It certainly saved Cameron from an obscure death somewhere in the Canadian wilds, unmourned and unremembered as Wolverine’s past. It launched his film career and sustained it even as he went about alienating everyone he ever knew or loved who possessed a shred of honest-to-Eywa talent (Weaver excepted). Now it’s rocketed him back to the top of his chosen vocation. He’s the Emperor of Ice Cream, and toadies are no doubt even now falling all over themselves to brownnose him and bless his digestion. The real question is, What’s the real difference between Pandora’s native inhabitants and the humans who bulldoze them? Jake Sully would seem to indicate the answer is, “Not much.”
But we’ll get to that in a moment. Time to throw a “bullshit” flag on the “anti-war” bit of Ebert’s (and, by extension, everyone’s) analysis. I don’t care if James Cameron kisses a picture of Dick Cheney every morning after he comes back from the bathroom. In the medium of film, James Cameron loves him a good war. He just had to invent the technology that would let him film it the way he wanted. And if you doubt that the man who gave us two Terminators, True Lies, and Aliens loves blowing stuff up, just look at Robotech-retro warsuits he dreamed up for this wacky parallel dimension’s Space Marines.
Now, if this film had come out say…eight years ago, it might’ve been a timely. Hell, it might’ve been a monument to the Culture Industry’s pretensions of social protest, a legend in its own time instead of its creator’s mind. But in 2009 (or 10), it’s too much, too late…and too dumb, really. I’m amazed intelligent lefties (like Ebert) are so desperate for any film that represents their our views (any of them) they’ll be pleased with this gibberish. Shows you how far along we really are. Eywa bless the future, eh?
This movie is far too self-consciously aimed at creating a new, international brand name to be anything other than a two and a half hour commercial for itself and it’s world. Cameron’s admitted as much, and the Avatar video game(s) are all the tangible proof we should need. Like Lucus and Spielberg before him, Cameron has come out of his technical closet. No one, not even the King of the World, escapes their past, and what can we expect from the man who famously (and safely away from the public ear and eye) said that “We don’t really care about robots from the future”? He cares even less for blue, cat-faced aliens, stacking the cliche-deck in and out of their favor so his film will remain safely (and tediously) predictable. And then he kills an hour and a half sweeping the camera across the Michael Whelan painting that is Pandora, before delivering the ra-ra, can-do, God-has-a-plan-for-us-all ending he believes we expect. Or deserve.
Excuse me, Jimmy, but I’m not the one dreaming of metal skeletons walking through walls of flame. I didn’t have to. You did it for me, and in this post-apocalyptic twenty-first century you have fallen down on your job, abdicated your crown. Instead of dreaming up ideas you’re dreaming up techniques, and we are all left a little bit poorer. The only God ’round these parts is 20th Century Fox. To pretend otherwise is absurdly disingenuous.
And putting all of this on Sam Worthington’s shoulders is just plain dumb. Ruining Terminator: Salvation apparently wasn’t enough: he had to go and leave this film behind in his continuing quest to be an Action Hero. If Avatar is this generation’s Star Wars, Worthington is gunning for Harrison Ford’s crown. He’s already leading the pack, playing a sociopathic fool who conveniently picks up and lays down moral convictions whenever it suits them. Dead brother? Fuck ‘im. New legs? Already got ’em. Along with a shinny, new, cat-lizard body. The Marine Corps? Fuck ‘im too. A few millimeters of Na’vi flesh and the Service might as well not exist. Why in Eywa’s name would the Na’vi trust him with leading a Boy Scout troop, to say nothing of leading a rebellion against the Evil Galactic Empire? Who can say how long Jakesully’s love for Pandora will last?
We’ll find out sometime before 2014.