ABC News has a doozy of an “article” titled “The Politics of ‘Avatar:’ Conservatives Attack Film’s Political Message“. I use the quotations marks around the word article, because Huma Khan’s piece is not really a work of reporting; it’s a big megaphone to amplify conservative voices, whether or not they have anything to say. Their views are not held up to scrutiny, as to whether or not they are a valid assessment of James Cameron’s film, nor are they balanced by any opposing liberal views. In other words, it is yet another in an unending series of examples of the so-called “liberal media” bending over backwards to appease conservatives by giving them free reign to vent, in the process legitimizing their views. After all ABC News wouldn’t post this kind of stuff if it didn’t contain some validity, right?
Yeah, right. I was going to do a point-by-point take-down of the three-page piece, but I just don’t have the stomach to flog a dead horse that’s already such an emaciated skeleton it’s ready to collapse into a heap of dust at the sound of my approaching footfalls. Instead, I will make some general observations.
First, nobody makes a good argument against the themes in AVATAR. True to form, the conservative critics are simply ticked that the themes are on display at all.
Second, although Cameron wraps his ideas up in a science-fiction context, which theoretically should allow him some latitude in expressing his ideas, there is a tendency among conservative critics to read the film as a direct one-to-one metaphor that can be criticized for not accurately reflecting reality.
For example, African Studies scholar Travis Kavulla complains that the film “gives a false sense that natives are always in harmony with nature.” Um, Travis – no, it doesn’t. AVATAR tells us only that the Na’vi – a race of aliens who exist only in the film – are in touch with their planet, which has it own unique eco-system, which includes something akin to planet-wide nervous system. Cameron can portray the Na’vi however he wants because he is creating something fictional, not recreating reality.
Even better is Jonah Goldberg’s complaint that AVATAR is an attack on the Bush administration:
“… The guy is not even president anymore. … It’s bravery at the cheapest for Cameron to think, if he thinks that, this took courage on his part to make.”
Accusations of cowardice are rather amusing, coming from Goldberg (who, in an online contretemps with Juan Cole, tied himself into knots trying to explain why he supported Bush’s War on Terror while declining to enlist himself – even though he is of age to serve). However, the real source of mirth is the implication that Bush should receive hands-off treatment because he is out of office. Neglecting for a moment that Goldberg and his ilk would never apply this approach to Clinton or any democrat, one need only imagine what Goldberg would have said had AVATAR come out during the Bush presidency: then, no doubt, it would have been a crime akin to high treason to trash a sitting president. In short, there never is a time when attacking a Republican is suitable for public discourse. It’s either too soon or too late; unlike Goldilocks, it is never just right.
I could go on, but it’s really not worth my time, except for one more, parting shot:
AVATAR is a film that goes out of its way to cloak its message its message in science fiction trappings. We recognize the forces of evil by their actions, not their identity; they are not labeled as conservatives or Republicans. Yet for some mysterious reason, conservatives critics see the greedy corporate bastards who rely on ruthless military action to achieve their goals at the expense of innocent others – and in seeing this, they recognize themselves.
Their defensive reactions ultimately say more about the degraded state of their own minds – and their souls – than it does about the film. One wonders: if Heart of Darkness were published today, would they be blasting Conrad’s anti-colonialism as trite and simple-minded hippie tree-hugging philosophy? And would they look deep into the dark heart of the mad Kurtz and see a kindred soul? UPDATE (January 8, 2010): Due to technical difficulties that have recently restricted access to the Internet, the above piece was written in some haste, omitting a couple of points I should have made.
First, I think the following quote from John Podhoretz at the Weekly Standard is worth singling out for particular scorn:
“The conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism-kind of,” […]
The very language betrays a hint of silliness, veering from emphatic (the anti-Americanism is “deep”) to wishy-washy (“kind of”) in a single sentence. More important Podhoretz overlooks the fact that there are no American soldiers in AVATAR, only mercenaries from Earth, whose nationality is never specified. Soldier fight for reasons of patriotism and national defense; mercenaries do it for the money.
Only in the cuckoo crazy conservative world of Podhoretz and his ilk could defeating mercenaries be read as “anti-American.” Stop and consider the premise underlying this thesis: aggressive military action in defense of coroporate profit, regardless of the harm to innocents, is equated with “Americanism,” and being against this is somehow un-American. You have to wonder what kind of “America” Podhoretz imagines he is living in.
The second point I overlooked is more of a Big Picture type: the real reason conservatives gasbags are ganging up on AVATAR is that it is popular. They may whine that the film is simple or not nuanced, but this is mere camoflage; what really bugs them is that people are responding to it in an overwhelmingly positive manner.
Why is this an issue? Because one of the myths of conservatism for the past few decades has been that movie ticket sales are down because Hollywood has lost touch with real American values. Never mind competition from television, home video, computer games, and the Internet; the conservative party line is that American is a bastion of conservative values, but Hollywood is preaching a liberal message that appeals only to hippies on the West Coast and the liberal elite on the East Coast. They like to point to weak box office performers like REDACTED as proof of this belief, and rather unconvincingly claim that blockbusters like THE DARK KNIGHT offer support for Bush’s War on Terror. When a truly conservative manifesto like AN AMERICAN CAROL tanks, they blame liberal conspiracies to suppress conservative voices. And when something like AVATAR comes along and makes millions, these pseudo-intellectuals suffer from an overdose of cognitive dissonance.
Personally, I thought James Cameron was a bit too ham-handed with his message in AVATAR, but now I am starting to enjoy that fact. Had Cameron been subtle, no doubt his conservative critics would be accusing him of insidiously indoctrinating American viewers on a subliminal level. With the message right out there in the open, there can be no doubt that America has embraced the film’s themes without falling for any subterfuge. It turns out that viewers will patronize a liberal-minded film without apology and with no need to tone down the message to appease the apologists for colonization, greed, and mindless military action.
It’s enough to make the gas bags’ heads explode.
This article has been edited since its original posting, to correct errors and clarify meaning.
For many months now I have been looking forward to the release of James Cameron’s AVATAR. But with all the hype, much of it coming from Cameron himself, I was prepared to be mesmerized by the visual display, but to feel let down by the storyline. Thankfully, the visual elements lived up to the hype, and the story exceeded my expectations in a great holiday science fiction/fantasy film experience.
AVATAR is set in the future in space. As the story begins, we are introduced to Jake Sully, a marine who has lost the use of his legs and is confined to a wheelchair. He awakens from the suspended animation of space travel to arrive at the planet-like moon Pandora where he is given the mission of controlling a biological avatar genetically engineered with a combination of human and alien DNA from the Pandoran race of the Na’vi. Earth is in need of new natural resources, and Pandora is teeming with one particularly valuable one. A major corporation has been working with a paramilitary unit to gain the trust of the Na’vi in the hopes of convincing them to move away from the part of the land most rich in the precious metal, and with the clock winding down on the diplomatic efforts, the use of military force to secure the resource is threatening. Sully “drives” his Na’vi avatar and gains the trust of a tribe, at first to provide intelligence data in order to secure the planet’s resources; however, as his time with the Na’vi continues, he begins to sympathize with the race and their way of life. This complicates his military mission and sets the stage for the unfolding drama of the film.
As many commentators have noted, the visual elements of AVATAR are impressive. In 1968 viewers were amazed at the realistic depiction of space flight created for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and in 1977 they were awed with STAR WARS’s swashbuckling variation on the theme. Cameron achieves a similar visual wonder with his new system of motion or performance capture, computer-generated animation, and digital imagery. Many previous attempts at generating the human form have been less than impressive, always having a very contrived look and feel to them. Although there have been exceptions, such as FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN, Cameron has taken this further, to the point where audiences forget that with the shift from the scientific and paramilitary compound to the realm of Pandora and the Na’vi, they are actually shifting from watching live action to watching human-like forms created in a computer.
Not only are the Na’vi rendered impressively; they live their lives and tell us their story in a lush fantasy realm of Pandora’s natural beauty. James Cameron and his cinematic team have brought the best of fantasy art’s depictions of alternative worlds to life with imaginative forms of landscapes, plants, and animal life. One minor critique from this reviewer comes in the form of the portions of the planet that have luminescence: although this feature is breathtaking at first, Cameron spends a little too much time on this aspect of Pandora’s landscape – to the point where it almost feels like an obsession with 1970s black light posters.
In terms of the storyline, I was expecting something that would struggle to keep pace with the visual effects, and which might come off more than a little “preachy” in terms of its anti-colonialism. As mentioned in the introduction, the story was better than I had hoped, and although the film does critique the West’s unfortunate history of colonialism, the abuse of indigenous peoples, and the plundering of natural resources, for those not overly sensitive to much of the contemporary angst and self-loathing that is expressed in Western self-critique in popular culture, it does not hit the viewer over the head and fits within the current cultural zeitgeist as the West reassess its historic past in interactions with those of other cultures.
Some of the more interesting features of AVATAR for this reviewer are its cultural and religious aspects. With the Na’vi, James Cameron has created an entire culture with a language, a way of life, a relationship with the land, and a religion or spirituality. This provides one of the entry ways for critique of the West, when we hear the corporation and the paramilitary organization with whom they are working refer to the Na’vi as savages and primitives who must obviously be backward because they live in trees rather than modern dwellings with all their technological comforts.
The religious beliefs of the Na’vi are belittled by most of those from Earth as well in favor of some kind of secular utilitarianism, with the Na’vi and their planet’s resources used as means to an end, rather than by way of contrast with some kind of monotheism. But Na’vi religious life, and its connection to nature, receives some level of respect from the scientific researchers as might be expected with a film that provides a duality and contrast between the evil corporation and paramilitary and the more benign group of scientists. Much like secular anthropologists who have studied Earth’s indigenous tribes and respected their beliefs even while viewing them as unenlightened and unscientific, the researchers in AVATAR do much the same with the spirituality of the Na’vi, even as they come to reassess the “validity” of these beliefs through their own experiences with the Na’vi and the land.
In regards to Na’vi religion, some commentators have referred to it as pantheism, but this is technically inaccurate. The Na’vi believe that Eywa, the divine “All Mother,” is connected to and in some sense “in” all things, but the “things” of the planet are not identical to Eywa and the All Mother is not the only reality. AVATAR’s religion may be more properly understood then as a form of panentheism and animism, the belief that deity resides within the world, including its animals and plants, but not that deity is the only reality.
An Internet search of “AVATAR and religion” yields a variety of perspectives, including many from those unhappy with the film’s religion. In one sense, it not well received due to the current culture wars between conservatives and progressives, but even so it would appear to fit well within the context of twenty-first century “progressive spirituality,” which meets current needs, according to scholars like Gordon Lynch, such as “the need for a credible religion for the modern age; the need for religion which is truly liberating and beneficial for women; the need to reconnect religion with scientific knowledge; and the need for a spirituality that can respond to our impending ecological crisis.” Religious conservatives on the right chafe at AVATAR’s depictions of deity and nature, but they might also pause to consider that it may have arisen as a response to perceived shortcomings or deficiencies in more traditional forms of Western religiosity.
Finally, a few words need to be said in relation to the title of the film. AVATAR refers to a well known concept in cyberspace wherein a person creates a virtual embodiment of the self that represents them in the digital realm. The term “avatar” is a Sanskrit word that refers to the incarnation of a Hindu god, but in common usage today it refers to our use of virtual forms of embodiment. AVATAR takes the concept of virtual embodiment further than previous treatments of the concept, moving beyond mentally inhabiting digital representations in a computer-generated reality such as THE MATRIX, and beyond the mental control of robotic avatars in SURROGATES, to neurologically inhabiting and “driving” biological entities as the “alien” persons and living their lives through an embodied state.
This unique form of avatar incarnation can lead to interesting personal choices. At one point in AVATAR, Sully states that for him his alternating experiences between his personhood as Sully and his Na’vi identity have switched: who he is as Na’vi seems more real than who he is as Sully. In other words, he comes to prefer and identify more with his avatar than with the identity “driving” the avatar.
There are real world implications for this aspect of AVATAR. When we consider that millions of people inhabit cyberspace and utilize an array of avatars, and that according to Tom Bukowski’s anthropological exploration of Second Life, “[e]mbodiment can be physical, but ‘we are also bodies in a social and cultural sense, and we experience that, too’”, it should come as no surprise that many people struggle with a sense of identity, many times preferring their avatar and the alternative worlds they inhabit to the physical bodies and worlds in which they live. With this in mind, although AVATAR is a science-fiction-fantasy film, it touches on very real questions, as virtual worlds continue to overlap with the non-virtual, whether in the cinema or in cyberspace.
The critical commentary is still coming together for AVATAR, from those who love it and consider it one of the best science fiction films ever made, to those who hate it and consider it to be yet another product of the progressive left in their conflict with cultural conservatism. Beyond these extremes there is much to be appreciated in the film, and it is exciting to speculate upon what Cameron and others will achieve, cinematically and imaginatively, with the digital technology that has been created.
It’s not easy being the self-proclaimed King of the World. How do you live up to the grandiosity of your own proclamation, after captaining TITANIC (1997) not only to the top of the all-time box office chart but also to multiple Oscar wins, including Best Picture and Best Director? The simple law of averages, the ebb and flow of life, with its inevitable ups and downs, almost assures beyond doubt that your next film cannot possibly top its predecessor and will, most likely, be perceived as a disappointment.1 If you’re James Cameron, and you’ve tucked away enough money to support yourself for a decade, you take so much time getting your next feature film to the big screen that, when it finally arrives twelve years later, it is virtually a come-back effort. This clever career move allows AVATAR to be judged as it deserves to be – on its own considerable merits, rather than a follow-up to the biggest blockbuster ever made.
AVATAR is an enormously entertaining piece of screen spectacle that goes a long way toward redeeming the somewhat debased concept of a Hollywood blockbuster: It is epic in scale and lavish in production, filled with qualities that can only be purchased with big bucks, and yet it never feels like a hollow money pit. It is loaded conventional commercial elements guaranteed to sell tickets worldwide, yet it does not feel “targeted” in the sense of simply throwing in a sop here or there to a particular demographic, regardless of whether it improves the film as a whole. Its scenario is built around familiar and easily accessible storytelling tropes, yet the film never feels dumbed-down or calculated. And though there may be merchandising tie-ins (including a videogame), AVATAR feels like a self-contained entity with its own internal integrity, not a two-hour-plus commercial.
In short, AVATAR aptly demonstrates the difference between Cameron and, say, Roland Emmerich: both are capable of piecing together the elements required to create a box office blockbuster, but Cameron knows how to make the result look like a seamless whole, conceived and painted on a canvas of its own dimensions, rather than a jig-saw puzzle of bits cut to fit together into a pre-sized frame.
WHITE MAN’S BURDEN
The story focuses on Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former marine who takes the place of his dead brother on a scientific mission on another planet, Pandora. The goal of the mission is to win the hearts and minds of the local population (the Na’vi) by interacting with them through “avatars” – bodies genetically engineered from a combination of human and Na’vi DNA. Jake, being an identical twin, is a perfect match for the avatar that was created (at great expense) for his late brother; also, being new to the mission, he is completely ignorant, which allows Cameron to fill him – and thus the audience – in on the details.
It soon becomes apparent that the Avatar project is a lame duck. Project leader Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) may legitimately want to establish peaceful communication with the Na’vi, but the economic interests funding the project have other priorities, namely mining a mineral (rather goofily called “unobtanium” – a pun so bad you expect it to be explained away as a bad joke by the characters). If Dr. Augustine can get the Na’vi to move out of the way, fine, but the working assumption is that the ultimate solution will be enforced relocation if not outright genocide.
As you can probably guess, the film follows Sully’s path from being a disinterested grunt to being reborn as a native sympathizer with a reverence for the natural wonders of Pandora. It is only here, in the thematic aspects of Sully’s journey, that Cameron flirts with disaster. Success in Hollywood – and the freedom that comes with it – often leads to pretension; it’s as if a filmmaker feels the need to justify huge ticket sales by proving he has something to say. Cameron is certainly no stranger to this syndrome, as the THE ABYSS (1989) showed (even TERMINATOR 2 couldn’t help getting a little preachy, with its talk of men creating evil things like SkyNet because they were incapable of creating life – i.e., giving birth – like a woman). In AVATAR, Cameron once again preaches an ecological theme with little subtlety; fortunately, here the alien setting – and the computerized special effects – help sell his message.
Other critics have already noted the similarity to 1990’s Best Picture DANCES WITH WOLVES (underlined by the casting of Wes Studi as the leader of the Na’vi). AVATAR is another film about a white man who “goes native” and switches sides – a theme also explored in DISTRICT 9, earlier this year. Interestingly, unlike Wikus in DISTRICT 9, Sully does not start out as a racist who hates the alien “other”; he’s just doing his job, gathering information that will help the inevitable military solution go more smoothly, in exchange for a promise of having his legs restored. (We are told that this type of surgery is easily within grasp of medical science but outside the pay range of a working soldier – or in this case, mercenary.)
Among other things, what these films have in common is a tendency to invert the cliche: instead of portraying the “other” (be it an alien or an Indian) as a utterly despicable, they are idealized as utterly righteous. Thus, in AVATAR, the Na’vi (who clearly stand in for Native Americans or any other indigenous people threatened by technologically advanced invaders) may be “primitive” in their use of tools, but they are morally advanced, clearly superior to the humans in every way. Not only are they tree-worshippers motivated by spirituality rather than greed; they don’t suffer from any of the less savory aspects one might expect to see in a small, tight-knit tribal community with a single over-powering belief system. (Although there appear to be gender roles in the leadership, there is little evidence of overt sexism, with women warriors taken for granted. There is also little sign of internal dissent, nor any hint of free-thinkers being persecuted for questioning their leaders, whose pronouncements are basically accepted as if they were the Word of God.)
In other words, once Sully’s mind enters his Avatar body, there is almost literally no reason for him not to join up with the Na’vi. His switch is less a choice than an inevitability, pre-determined by Cameron’s screenplay, which could easily be faulted for the simplicity of its presentation – and in fact has been, in a thoughtful review by Annalee Newitz, titled “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like AVATAR?”
Newitz objects to the familiar scenario: a white man, burdened by guilt, learns the errors of greedy capitalist ways and leads the oppressed racial minority to victory. In her estimation, this is simply a gloss on the old fantasies of colonization:
Sure, Avatar goes a little bit beyond the basic colonizing story. We are told in no uncertain terms that it’s wrong to colonize the lands of native people. Our hero chooses to join the Na’vi rather than abide the racist culture of his own people. But it is nevertheless a story that revisits the same old tropes of colonization. Whites still get to be leaders of the natives – just in a kinder, gentler way than they would have in an old Flash Gordon flick or in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels.
Seen in these terms, AVATAR is guilty as charged. Although Cameron treats corporate greed – as practised by white men – as unambiguously evil, he still focuses on a white male hero who is better at being a Na’vi than the Na’vi themselves and who ultimately saves them when they are incapable of saving themselves.
However, two points are worth making in AVATAR’s defense:
First, the film presents Jake not just as a heroic leader but also as a symbol who inspires the Na’vi to realize what they are capable of. The man himself, to a certain extent, is less important than the way he is perceived. Jake himself realizes that he, alone, is not enough to tip the balances – which is why he hitches a ride on the Great Leonopteryx, a task previously achieved only in legends of Na’vi leaders known by the title Toruk Makto. AVATAR is not saying this proves Jake is the reincarnation of a legendary figure, a hero whose destiny it is to lead the Na’vi to victory; he is still just Jake. He simply takes on the appearance of the mythical hero, and that appearance (rather than the reality) is what makes the difference.
Second, AVATAR is a fantasy. Yes, it is dressed up in science fiction finery, but underneath, it is a fantasy. Unlike films that deal with some semblance of reality – like, say DANCES WITH WOLVES – AVATAR cannot reasonably be criticized for being “unrealistic.” It is under no obligation to present a believable, warts-and-all presentation of the good and bad aspects of primitive tribal life. We may recognize parallels between the Na’vi and Native Americans (even the name suggests a similarity), but the film is violating no truth by presenting an air-glossed view of its aliens.
In fact, one might argue that a large part of the reason for making a film about aliens (instead of one about Indians) is that it allows the filmmaker the latitude to avoid the messy complications and ambiguities of reality. Instead, it can reach for the mythical grandeur that can only by achieved when dealing with larger-than-life archetypes. Part of what makes Sully’s journey so moving is that he is not merely switching sides; he is ascending to a higher order of being, becoming something better than he was. Whether or not this is believable, it is tremendously moving, and Cameron knows how to milk it for the emotional impact that makes AVATAR more than a special effect spectacle or a simple slam-bang action movie – all while serving up as many special effects and as much action as you will see in any other blockbuster.
So, sure, in AVATAR, killing and gutting animals is presented not as a leftover bit of barbarism but as almost a religious rite. As an animal rights activist and a vegetarian, I object to sanctifying this sort of behavior, but as a viewer I see it as part of the film’s fairy tale nature, and let’s be honest – it’s not as if they animals being killed are real – or even look particularly real.
LIVING IN THE DIGITAL WORLD
For all the talk about technological advances, AVATAR’s motion-performance capture and digital effects create the same old glossy sheen we have been seeing for well over a decade, rendering the characters in terms that usually look beautiful but not always believable. This becomes immediately obvious when Jake first awakens in his Avatar form: lying on a bed in the human hospital, he resembles an over-sized cartoon pasted on top of the live action. Fortunately, this has the (perhaps unintended) side effect of removing the story one more step from reality and thus attenuating the questionable aspects of the storyline, which become part of the film’s fantasy world.
To be fair, the effects often do look quite realistic, but usually this happens when the Na’vi are seen blending into their native surroundings. Especially in close-up, with shadier lighting that softens the bright blue of their skin tone, Jake and the Na’vi do look as convincing as any actors in makeup ever did.
The computer-generated imagery assist Cameron in achieving something seldom seen in his previous films: true visual beauty. As a director, his strength has always been the muscular way he presented strong action-packed story lines, using the camera to capture the narrative and the pyrotechnics without ever displaying much in the way of recognizable vision. Admittedly, there were a few flashes in TITANIC (a drowning victim floating in a silent underwater ballet, dress billowing with a beauty that belies the sadness of the image), but in AVATAR, for the first time, Cameron presents a film loaded with breath-taking imagery that overwhelms the senses on an immediate, primal level, regardless of how it advances the plot. The miracle here is that Cameron achieved this pictorial beauty without falling into the trap of letting it overwhelm the story-telling; the balance creates a near perfect piece of audience-pleasing entertainment.
LOVE AND WAR
Part of that balance involves a love story – an element that has been a part of Cameron’s films since THE TERMINATOR (1984). Canny commercial filmmaker that he is, Cameron knows that women will patronize action movies if they are given some emotional anchor; however, he has gotten into trouble in the past when he pushed the love story more into the foreground. THE ABYSS’s death-and-resurrection scene – with Virgil Brigman refusing to give up on the apparently drowned Lindsey Brigman – pushed histrionics to the point of bathos; TRUE LIES combo of marital discord and anti-spy terrorist was a muddled mess. No one thinks TITANIC’s Romeo-and-Juliet storyline was the most well-written cinematic love story, but at least there Cameron had the wisdom to ground it in a real-life disaster that lent the love story a gravitas it otherwise would have lacked.
You always suspected – and dreaded the suspicion – that Cameron was pushing toward the day when he could abandon the action altogether and simply tell a love story. With AVATAR, for the first time, you start to view this possibility with anticipation rather than dread. The romance between Jake and Neytiri (STAR TREK’s Zoe Saldana) is engaging on its own terms, regardless of the anticipated third-act conflict.
But don’t fear, action aficionados; we have not reached that point yet. A large part of the reason AVATAR holds interest is that Cameron continues to abide by the rules of his unwritten contract with the audience. He knows that romantic subplots and thematic concerns can increase audience identification and heighten rooting interest, but he also knows how to use that identification and interest to involve you in the battle scene you know is coming. Sure, it’s heart-warming to see Jake fall for Neytiri; it’s even more fun to imagine right-wing pundits suffering an epidemic of exploding heads as they see their former favorite war-monger2 go all Al Gore on them, but in the end we know that our patience for sitting through the love story and pro-ecology talk will be rewarded with a big bang (well, many big bangs) in the third act.
If there is a weakness here, it is that Cameron seems oblivious to the subject of collateral damage. Yes, we enjoy seeing Jake and his comardes turn the tables on the invaders, and we want to see them destroy the enemy airships, particularly the big one targeting the Tree of Souls (the center of the Na’vi’s spiritual life). Unfortunately, the fact remains that the ship crashes and blows up in a mass of flames in the middle of the Na’vi’s beloved forest – a monumental piece of destruction that is shrugged off without interest. We’re simply supposed to cheer, not stop and think, “But wait a minute – what about all the trees and animals that just got torched down there?”
To his credit, Cameron uses the action to comment on current events. The felling of the Na’vi’s homeland may recall uncomfortable memories of 9/11. More interestingly, the battle between the technologically superior humans and the natives defending their homeland stirs up interesting ideas about the morality – or lack thereof – involved in occupying someone else’s land, without ever specifically referencing Iraq or Afghanistan.
If anything, Cameron does not go far enough in this direction. After the initial battle has been won by the humans, you might expect Jake to conclude that straight-foward conflict is a no-winner and instead encourage the Na’vi to engage in guerrilla tactics, hitting soft targets in night-time raids and causing so much trouble that the greedy capitalists eventually decide it’s not worth their trouble to stay.
That, however, is a long-haul strategy not conducive to a quick, slam-bang finish, so Cameron opts for more of a ZULU DAWN approach, with the primitive local relying on sheer numbers to outweigh their opponents’ technological advantage. (As an added plus to balance the two sides, the planet of Pandora itself seems to chip in, with the local fauna – some of it enormous and quite ferocious joining forces with the Na’vi; as cornball as it sounds, it works like a charm on screen – not only exciting but even tear-jerking.) The David-and-Goliath battle, with viewers rooting for the out-matched little guy fighting off the big, bad invaders, may stretch credibility, but we are so invested in the outcome that we believe it anyway. (It is also amusing to imagine, as I often did while watching the locals defeat the superior forces of the invaders, that Cameron had made the whole film simply to remind us of how ridiculously unconvincing is the final battle between the Ewoks and the Empire in RETURN OF THE JEDI.3)
With all this thematic quibbling, why does AVATAR work so well? Because in a very real sense, these details do not matter, except as fodder for after-screening discussion. While the film is unspooling on the screen, it holds you under its spell because, whatever his weaknesses as a philosopher, Cameron is a master filmmaker who knows how to manipulate the elements to involve the audience, and once you’re engaged in the story, small flaws become eclipsed by the emotional impact achieved through a combination of engaging characters and exciting action.
Cameron is aided here by strong performances. Worthington initially looks a little bland to play a lead, but this turns out to be a clever gambit; he’s a bit of a blank, an unknown, who grows on us as we get to know him better. Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang give good turns as the insenstive corporate drone and his military enforcer, respectively; so much so that you almost wish Cameron had injected a little ambiguity into them, allowed at least a touch of sympathy. Sigourney Weaver is stalwart as Dr. Augustine; she works through the cliched arc of disliking Jake (the newcomer who has not properly trained for the mission) to respecting him while making it seem natural, not an obligation of the script. (I will continue to object to the Na’vi avatar of Weaver, however, whose thin frame and elongated limbs suggested an awkward teenager with even more awkward facial expressions.) And I must say it is nice to see Joel Moore graduate from the low-budget little-seen horror of HATCHET (2006) to a solid supporting role in a major nationwide release.
James Horner is back on board, providing the score, which is as big and bold as the images require. If the closing credits song suggests a deliberate reprise of TITANIC’s Oscar-winning formula (your ear keeps expecting Celine Dione’s voice to break through), well, at least this is the only time AVATAR falls prey to looking like an imitator that fails to match its enormous predecessor.
James Cameron faced a virtually impossible task: fashioning a follow-up to the biggest motion picture blockbuster of all time. Somehow, he succeeded, on both a critical and commercial level. AVATAR is too riddled with small imperfections to be reckoned a cinematic masterpiece; nevertheless, it is one of the most impressive science fiction films ever made. We may admire its glossy CGI and marvel at Cameron’s ability to beat the apparently unbeatable odds, but these are relatively minor achievements. What’s truly great about AVATAR is not that it’s a career achievement or a technological breakthrough. The real miracle is that we can forget all that baggage and simply enjoy it for the artistry visible on screen.
AVATAR (2009). Written and directed by James Cameron. Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso. FOOTNOTE:
Cinema history is checkered in this regard. On one hand, there is Robert Benton, who followed up the Best Pic winner KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979) with STILL OF THE NIGHT (1982), a failure in both box office and critical terms. On the other hand, there is Peter Jackson, who followed up LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING (2003) with KING KONG (2005) – a film that made hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide, yet which was still perceived as a disappointment compared to the expectations it had generated.
I’m probably not being quite fair to Cameron here. He’s not truly a war-monger, but despite giving occasional lip-service to anti-violent sentiments (as in T-2), his films portray armed conflict as being the best, quickest, and most effective way to settle a dispute. Even AVATAR, for all its ecological posturing, builds its plot around the basic assumption that negotiation and diplomacy are non-starters, on both sides; the only way to settle things is through battle.
Some may question whether the reference to RETURN OF THE JEDI is intentional, but I suspect it is. AVATAR is loaded with similar references. Besides DANCES WITH WOLVES and JEDI, the Na’vi ride winged creatures that suggest The Dragon Riders of Pern, not to mention DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS. The concept of a primitive alien culture whose essence survives death by being absorbed into a plant-like network is lifted from George R. R. Martin’s novelette A Song for Lya. Cameron even lifts from himself; fortunately, he is clever enough to invert the repetitions, so this time we have the hero hanging off a missile on a jet plane rather than the villain as in TRUE LIES, and in the final face-off between an alien and a human in a mechanical exo-skeleton (a la ALIENS), we are rooting for the alien.
The Wall Street Journal offers an early look at James Cameron’s AVATAR – or, more precisely, a look at some films with elements that prefigure AVATAR. The hit parade includes DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN, ALIENS, DANCES WITH WOLVES, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS and LORD OF THE RINGS.
If we had to pick the five greatest theatrical experiences of our adult life (eliminating childhood, where even the lights going down could give goosebumps) then catching TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY on opening day back in July of 1991 would rank highly among them. It’s an amazing thing to walk out of a theater with your head buzzing after witnessing something utterly, totally, and demonstrability different, and TERMINATOR 2 was exactly that – an action epic with an unlikely emotionality at its core, a special effects extravaganza that utilized brand-new technology and combined it flawlessly with reliable, older methods, and, perhaps most amazingly, a sequel that outdid the original in every imaginable way.
The success of The Terminator in 1984 served as a calling card for the talents of both star Arnold Schwarzenegger and writer-director James Cameron, with both having labored for years in low-budget genre efforts before joining forces on a vehicle that called on each of their strengths; playing a (nearly) emotionless cyborg negated the stars thespian weaknesses; the director’s skills, honed working on the special effects for numerous ultra low-budget productions (including numerous Roger Corman efforts and some nifty matte paintings for Escape from New York), allowed Cameron to create viable future tech for very little money. The film was a smash, and the fortunes of both men rose at a geometric rate for the remainder of the decade, creating almost ridiculously high expectations for the inevitable sequel.
Following months of pre-release hype surrounding both the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to his most iconic role and the use of the groundbreaking digital morphing effects, TERMINATOR 2 did finally debut to virtually universal critical and audience acclaim. Though its action set pieces are justifiably famous, it is the deliberate pacing of James Cameron’s editing that has you gripping for the figurative edge of your seat long before the bullets start flying. Even the major action beats utilized longer takes and far less cutting than you’d find in a similar blockbuster. Cameron always keeps the special relations of both people and objects easy to follow; unlike headache-inducing shows like Transformers, the editing rhythms carry through and establish momentum throughout the film’s running time (watching Michael Bay’s film is like being in the car with a 16-year-old learning to drive a stick shift), and you always know where everyone and everything is in relation to everything else – a depressingly lost art. And though digital effects (in their infancy in 1991) are utilized whenever Robert Patrick’s T-1000’s shifted its liquid metal shape, the rest is achieved through expert models and gasp-inducing stunt work.
Just as important to TERMINATOR 2’s success are the principal actors, almost all of whom make something quite special out of their roles – whether, in the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, they were returning to roles they had previously created, or newer editions to the cast. Under James Cameron’s careful direction, Schwarzenegger has always seemed livelier and more comfortable, able to take gentle pokes at his image without degenerating into outright mockery. His reading of certain lines – like his response to Edward Furlong’s shocked exclamation that he was prepared to kill a man in broad daylight (“Of course, I’m a Terminator”) is priceless, and his performance is peppered with unexpected character moments.
Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is simply amazing to behold, incredibly fit and muscular without being freakishly so. She was one of the more unusually attractive actresses of that era, and Cameron photographs her with a mixture of love and awe – similar to the way Michael Bay photographs an aircraft carrier. The authority that she carries holds the film’s more questionable plot turns in check and more than makes up for TERMINATOR 2’s only real shortcoming, the irritating, lispy performance of Edward Furlong as John Connor – the future leader of the Resistance that we wouldn’t follow across a room.
After the bankruptcy of Carloco Pictures many moons ago, the home video rights to TERMINATOR 2 have leapt from one company to another – and from VHS to Laserdisc to DVD and now Blu-Ray – with decidedly mixed results. After one of the earliest “must have” special edition releases on Laserdisc, all subsequent releases have built off this foundation – including commentary tracks featuring nearly all the production personnel, an extended (and superior) 153min cut of the film (the theatrical ran 137min) that reinstated Michael Biehn’s appearance as Kyle Reese, and literally hundreds of documents and photos from the production. The DVD releases saw the debut of an “extended special edition” running just a few minutes longer than the special edition, and including only two additional scenes – the T-1000 using his fingertips to scan John’s bedroom, and a coda taking place in a futuristic Washington D.C., with Sarah as a grandmother watching as her son, Senator John Connor, play with his daughter in an idyllic park, the Skynet threat finally defeated.
Lionsgate’s new Blu-Ray represents a noticeable improvement over their previous Blu-Ray, taking advantage of the soon-to-flop Terminator: Salvation to re-master TERMINATOR 2. While only those intent on heavily scrutinizing the image on large displays will notice most of the image upgrade, the drastic improvement that the lossless audio offers is immediately evident (back in the Laserdisc days, that first metallic crunch of the Terminator foot crushing the skull always knocked us out of the chair, and we were glad to have that feeling once again).
There has been a lot of grumbling in regards to the use – or misuse – of digital noise reduction on the title, and we wish that we could offer a more definitive answer. TERMINATOR 2 was never a particularly naturalistic-looking film; virtually the entire show is shot with heavy blue filtering, giving even human features near-metallic sheen. We suspect that some people may be mistaking this (and it is the way that the film was originally shot) for a DNR byproduct, though I’ll leave it to people with displays 65-inches and over to determine. The transfer looked good to us.
The extras represent a best-of compilation of previously offered items, with both the original commentary plus the slightly newer commentary track featuring James Cameron and co-writer William Wisher that had been offered with the “Extreme Edition” DVD release – it’s more interesting than the somewhat jumbled cast-crew track by virtue of concentrating on Cameron’s point of view (it is also scene-specific whereas the other is not.)
All extant versions are here as well, though you still have to put in the code 82997 to access the Extended Version; the two scenes that make up the difference between the Extended and Special editions are available separately on the disc and both represent solid cuts (the fingertip scan looks sillier than it probably read and mucks with the pacing, while the D.C. coda is embarrassingly stiff.)
Much of the previous BTS content had been carved up for picture-in-picture content that can be set to run with the film. All the theatrical teasers and trailers are also present (in HD) including the terrific “I promise, I will not kill anyone” spot. If you haven’t already bought the previous edition, this represents a pretty good value for money – particularly for the terrific lossless audio track. If you’re worried about heavy use of DNR, you can check out a very comprehensive screenshot comparison at DVD Beaver. Recommended.