Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar: movie review

I have never written a movie review before, but I'll give it a shot, simply because "Avatar" has raised many political issues in addition to esthetic ones.

First of all, except for some pretty impressive technological feats, the movie is quite derivative in several aspects. The idealization of cultures that are "close to the earth" (in this case, a far-away moon) has been around a long time -- the 1990 Kevin Costner film "Dances With Wolves" certainly comes to mind as a model. Next, the lush and natural scenery and computer-generated exotic creatures appeared early and often in "Jurassic Park" (1993). Finally, the bad-guys' vast and ponderous machines of destruction appeared at least as early as "Star Wars" (1977). (Also, even I remember the headless fighting machine controlled by a single person, responding to hand and leg movements like a gigantic punching pantograph. Didn't Ridley -- Sigourney Weaver's previous avatar -- use one in Cameron's "Alien" or some "Alien" redux?)

What seems to create the biggest stir in "Avatar" is its politics. James Cameron, the director, has supposedly stated in an interview that it is about how "greed and imperialism tend to destroy the environment." (The only reference I have for this quote is a column by Will Heaven in the Telegraph (UK). Heaven thinks the film is "racist" -- a charge I dispute below.)
With or without Mr. Cameron's confirmation, this is clearly the major theme.

The film is not exactly subtle. In case you haven't seen it yet, the plot is set up in the first few minutes. A large party of spaceships from Earth have arrived on a distant earth-sized moon called Pandora. Pandora is a lush tropical paradise of wonderful plants and creatures vaguely reminiscent of early Earth. The CG rendering is absolutely gorgeous -- perhaps the highpoint of the film. The intelligent creatures, called Na'vi, are very tall, exquisitely slim and catlike bluish hominoids. They are clearly in tune with their roots. This is a pun in the sense that they have a way of connecting their appendage of root-like animated tendrils with parts of various plants and animals to achieve some sort of interspecies non-verbal communication. Human scientists later claim that the Pandora's entire tree system is interconnected by an astronomical number of rootlets as well.

Unfortunately for Pandora, humans have discovered it contains large deposits of something they are willing to do just about anything to obtain, a valuable but rare chemical called, naturally, "unobtainium" -- just about the only intentional bit of humor in the whole film.

Most of the flotilla consists of military equipment and personel, but there is also a small group of scientists who are taken along for PR and more sinister purposes. The scientists, headed by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) have found a way of combining Na'vi DNA with the DNA of certain humans to create clones that in most respects are Na'vi but are controlled by the minds of these humans, who remain, entranced, in high-tech pods; thus, the clones are the eponymous avatars. The scientists believe that these avatars will be used to negotiate with the Na'vi for the right to excavate unobtainium. Of course, we all know that this is not going to happen -- else why the mercenary troops and ship after ship of weapons? In fact, one of the clone controllers is not a scientist at all, but Jake Sully, a paralyzed Marine whose recently deceased brother was an actual scientist with the avatar project. Jake is soon recruited by the military to scope out the Na'vi while he is controlling his Na'vi avatar.

Without going too far, let me just say that Jake, while mingling with the Na'vi, learns to respect their oneness with Pandora and its lifeforms, and their noble-savage ways. His education is in the hands of Neytiri, a female -- who is also a person of high rank among the Na'vi. He and she fall in love -- he "goes native" as they say. Eventually Jake must try to save the Na'vi -- and indeed the whole of Pandora -- from the destruction he knows will come at the hands of the expeditionary force of earthlings. In fact, Neytiri teaches him so well that he becomes a leader of sorts, and tries to energize both the Na'vi and the rest Pandora to stave off the inevitable attack by the usual high-tech "star-troopers."

What could be wrong with this pretty simple plot, pitting a cruel, mechanized, environment- destroying military against a peaceful hunter-gatherer society of beautiful and ecology-respecting cat-people?

There are two main criticisms I have encountered. First, that the Na'vi are portrayed, in a condescending way, as primitives who are naive about technology and desperately in need of a leader sophisticated in the devious ways of earthlings, to alert them to their danger. This leads to the second objection: the Na'vi can only be saved by a member of the "highly advanced" race of invaders; namely by Jake and his avatar. As some put it: the dark-skinned natives must be saved by a white man with a guilty conscience -- a "traitor to his race."

Well, I just don't buy this rather knee-jerk left-oid critique. It misses the point of what the picture is and what Cameron is trying to do. "Avatar" is a very high-tech example of good old agitprop: propaganda -- pushing of ideas -- expressed so as to appeal to the emotions. Its message and basic story are not particularly subtle -- about the level of a comic book -- but it is constructed in a very deliberate manner to evoke a sympathetic response. Here are some key points.

1. The bad guys are really bad. In fact, they are unabashedly modeled on the "Ugly American", 21st century version. The head military honcho, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is a combination of the worst small-town racist macho cop you've ever seen in a movie, with the original unstoppable Terminator. The entire force exudes the worst of U.S. military bravado, and cruelty. Make no mistake: these are not generic earthlings we're talking about, this is explicitly the U.S. military in its "shock and awe," blast the towel-heads fullness. ("Shock and Awe" and "War against Terror" are phrases that I recall actually hearing in the movie.) They are comic-book bad, and they have modern technology on their side, which makes high-tech look bad also. That's the way Cameron sets it up, and that's the way a lot of people feel.

2. The Na'vi are really good, in the sentimental way that lots of people now feel about indigenous cultures. Of course it's unrealistic: Africans helped sell their fellows into slavery; Native Americans burned forests to concentrate game -- there are plenty of examples. That doesn't matter for agitprop -- it's making the point, in easy-to-understand terms, that it's good to work with your planet, not against it.

3. Liberal guilt is good -- any manifestations of a guilty conscience arising from actual guilt is a very good thing. After all, would you recommend the alternative: doing evil and not feeling bad about it, and not atoning? It is standard fare in morality tales for people to become redeemed via righting wrongs for which they felt responsible -- in fact, were complicit. Jake had to try to help the Na'vi after it became clear that his avatar reports were being used to destroy the Na'vi -- that's the way these stories work. Would it be better if he said: "Screw the gooks"?

4. The Na'vi had no idea how cruel the earthling mercenaries could be, and how powerful. How exactly were they to learn? By being totally crushed? How could Jake actually atone for his actions unless he offered to help? Jake, through his avatar, had become one of them. He was not superior in either his bravery or his strength, and he looked just like any other Na'vi. He had learned from Neytiri how to conquor the flying creatures (Banshees); she also told him that five Na'vi had, in the past, conquored the giant flying creature called the Toruk, so he knew from her that it could be done. When he finally tames one, it is not unprecedented, but it gives his warning about the earthlings more verisimilitude. He was just one of many Na'vi warriors who fought the armada, and he wasn't the overall leader, who was the heir designate and major warrior Tsu'Tey. (Tsu'Tey later dies heroically in combat). I don't think Jake's role is any more cultural elitism than Martin Luther King improving his status as a leader by studying Ghandi or theology at Boston University. It is, after all, important to know your enemy. Both King and Ghandi knew that non-violence would work for them. I don't think it would have worked against Hitler or Genghis Khan, and Jake knew it wouldn't work for the Na'vi. He knew, as did the Na'vi themselves, that salvation lay with Pandora itself. It was neither Jake nor the Na'vi alone who saved everyone, it was the myriad creatures of Pandora that came to the rescue and turned the tide (as did the bacteria in "War of the Worlds").

It is, of course, possible to have created a totally different story, one in which there were no avatars and the imperial fleet was destroyed solely by a moon conscious of itself. At one point I thought that, instead of a big battle scene, the Pandora organism itself would cause the ground under the feet and machines of the imperial army to simply liquify and, like quicksand, swallow them. In a way this would have been a much nicer ending, but not because Cameron's version is at all racist. I actually liked the idea of the avatars, of the love story with Neytiri (and her strength and skills), and of Jake's guilt and redemption. Comic books and agitprop have to target the sentimentalities of their audiences.

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