Avatar (2009)

James Cameron's ego and superego stroll casually through your imagination.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.

"I...am...Day-Glo Man!"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.

"And if you press R1 while you're turning, you can make square corners and wipe out pedestrians like ten-pins."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.

"I call her 'Flicka'."

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.

Robotech wants its money.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.

Visual Effects Director Michael WhelanIgnore 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.”

"Do I have ink on my face?"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?

"Well at least that damn cat isn't around..."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.

"Come together...right now...over me."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.


10 thoughts on “Avatar (2009)”

  1. Well said, sir.
    When I saw the thing (at my girlfriend’s insistence*) I wandered around the lobby for awhile in the middle, knowing I would miss nothing. My summary thought at its conclusion was “I’m not very impressed by the graphics because I play video games. I’m not very impressed by the story because I’ve seen “Dances with Wolves.”
    I was impressed with the price tag to get in, though. I can buy the DVD for the same freight now.

    *This was odd because she has no imagination and cannot therefore abide any movie she doesn’t think is ‘real’. Naturally, she enjoyed ‘Avatar.’ ???

    1. And that impressive ticket price was the whole point, right there. That’s the whole point of this latest 3-D fad, just like the last one. Hemorrhaging cash as it is, we can expect the movie industry to turn out ever greater piles of warmed-over crap and dress them up in ever more elaborate trappings. If the last wave of 3-D movies is any indication, all of these are going to look mighty silly in about ten to fifteen years. Assuming it doesn’t already.

      1. Well, actually, in this case, I don’t think it’s going to be any sillier down the road, I actually removed the glasses a short way into the film and watched it without any particular loss except some occasional blurriness. The 3D mostly gave it depth, which is hardly necessary, rather than the hilarious ‘poking you in the eye with stuff” you tend to get in 3D pictures.
        Which is probably why 3D is pointless on a cost-benefit scale for me.

        1. I see what you mean. Being the cheap bastard that I am, I ignored the theaters entirely and watch the film sans-glasses on my piddling little 17 inch monitor, expecting a festival of yucks. But apart from a floating particles of condensation in the opening scene (when Jake the Snake slithers out of cryostasis) I saw few if any obvious instances of 3-D trickery. Certainly nothing to compare to the infamous Hay-Fork-in-the-Audience’s-Face from Friday the 13 Part 3-D, which is still the first thing I think about whenever I hear this technology discussed. But I’m happy to hear that, despite his CGI tourettes and terrible love of war, Cameron’s still a subtler director than Steve “I’m safe for television now” Miner.

  2. Well, I can’t argue with anything you’ve said (though I suspect negative reviews of Avatar will become the new hotness soon). For myself, I found Avatar predictable and kind of dull, and it should have been shortened by at least an hour (if it was to be made at all, which wouldn’t sadden me if it wasn’t). Everything happened exactly as I predicted it would from the first preview trailer. And yeah, the whole “Avatar” thing itself seemed ridiculously over-complicated. I thought they would use it to infiltrate the tribe, but no, it’s just cos the Na’vi only like other Na’vi? Or something?

    I would like to disagree slightly about Terminator 2. While a fine film, I think here is the true root of Cameron’s technophilia. In the first Terminator (IMHO Cameron’s best film) the basic premise was man vs. technology, with the technology clearly superior (in durability certainly). Could man use his brain to survive and triumph?

    The second version, though, was robot vs. robot. Not so much strategy, planning and use of brains, but which robot could hammer away the longest and outlast its rival. In contrast to the first film, the humans in the second were so peripheral, they almost could have been entirely removed with nothing significant lost. The point there I thought was not, can humanity outwit technology, but, who’s got the better technology? By removing any human element, the drama becomes weaker.

    It’s like the argument over Deckard in Blade Runner: if Deckard IS a replicant, then Rutger Hauer’s final act is drained of any significance or meaning.

    Sorry to be so long-winded, but I enjoyed your review and it got me thinking. Thanks!

    1. No, thank you. For thinking. And being long-winded. Both encourage further thought. Your analysis of the implications of Terminator on Terminator violence is well seen and welcomed. While I wouldn’t call T2 the “root” of Cameron’s technophilia, you’re right in see that film as a fine (in the “exhibiting careful, sharp, and/or keen artistry” sense of the word) articulation of that technophilia, the point at which Cameron shed the last shreds of ambivalence about the human race’s relationship to its technological monsters. The monster of the first film (Ah-nold) is effectively housebroken, even as Sarah Conner moves towards the nadir of monstrosity. Her calculated plot to kill Miles Dyson is itself a calculated plot to reverse the moral polarity of T1. Humans purposefully dehumanize themselves in order to accomplish their (however lofty) goals, even as machines appear to self-humanize.

      Which is a whole pile of crap in its own right. I never believed for a moment that the T-800 “learn[ed] the value of human life,” though I’m sure James Cameron believed it. Probably believes it still today. Far from removing the human element from its drama, I would say T2 did something much more insidious. In it we see the world view of a technofetishist who, somewhere along the line, for reasons we’ll probably never know, lost all faith in the human race. (Working in the American movie industry of the 1980s would probably do that to the best of us.) The film says, “Our technology is repugnant and evil because we ourselves are repugnant and evil, and that’s that.” A glib, pop-psychology answer that begs its own question: “Are we? Really, are we?” We may all have the potential to be Jeffery Dahmer, but very few of us take the final step of actually filling our freezers with wayward American youths. T2, and the Terminator saga as a whole, could’ve addressed that “Really?” or the related question of, “What is it that makes a human being take the final step and become a Terminator in spirit, if not in actual fact?” On the DVD commentary, Cameron hints that this question was his primary one during the making of T2. But, as you say, he (and all of us, really) got distracted by the robot fighting. ‘Cuz robot fights are awesome, especially if you’re fourteen years old, in spirit or actual fact.

      1. Very interesting take on T2. I may have to watch that again. Since the film is told from Sarah Connor’s perspective, the whole “she dehumanizes herself” aspect kind slipped by me (as she was able to provide her own justification to the audience). We are encouraged at every step to sympathize with her, even though she’s clearly a lunatic who would (in a real-world situation) be far more dangerous to her son than his foster parents (whose main sin seems to be the ultimate kiss of death from Hollywood: they’re boring).

        My main beef with the film is that it’s basically a remake of T1, with more expensive effects and the human conflict removed…but like I said, I’ll watch it again. (I’ve got it somewhere…)

  3. For what it is worth, I have a copy of a version of the script from 2004 that is much better than what we we’re given. I suspect major focus group-itis. The version I read (and liked) had a far more hostile plant eating humans left and right with no doubt about the self aware nature of the attacks. Different types of animals were ganging up to jump the fence, plants would excrete poision that eats through armor, etc. Also, the indiginous people were far more ruthless. More like one would expect in a movie about the Viet Cong. Also, the humans were far mor sympathetic in that they were desperate for the mineral to save Earth. Finally, the script ended with Pandora creating a bio-weapon which would wipe out any human who came back and possibly all of Earth.

    1. And you know…if they’d left that bio-weapon in, the ending might’ve actually made sense. More since than a flock of dragons repelling a score of twenty-second century space marines. It certainly sounds like something Eywa would conjure up at the eleventh hour. Did the “bondage” thing ever come up? ‘Cuz that would be freaky. Hate to think I’d actually managed to see into Jim Cameron’s head.

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