“Yousa people gonna die?”
In his introduction to Science Fiction Art: The Fantasies of SF, Brian Aldiss writes:
“Science Fiction is a romance with the near-possible. Fantasy is a flirtation with the near-impossible. But science fiction is a part of fantasy; and who knows any longer what is possible or impossible? We are left with romance. Here it is, in a riot of colour and imagination.”
Avatar, writer-director-übernerd James Cameron’s latest 300 million USD sci-fi/fantasy epic, is not just a riot; it’s a full scale uprising of color and imagination. It’s like staring at an “Astounding Science Fiction” cover for eight hours while somebody drips LSD on your eyeballs. It’s almost impossibly, illegally, blasphemously gorgeous to look at. Which is a shame, really, because the story is utter bollocks, and its central themes are confused at best, trite at worst.
Cameron has always been a filmmaker with grandstanding ideas and magnificent zeal, and here he outdoes himself by creating a numinous and oneiric universe, complete with its own mythology, evolutionary biology, and language. The problem is that the two most essential facets of film, story and character, have taken a back seat here—in fact, they seem to be riding on a different car altogether. I was reminded of Richard Attenborough’s eccentric billionaire in Jurassic Park, in complete awe of his creation even as things fall apart all around him, taking simple solace in his defensive mantra: “We’ve spared no expense.”
In the year 2154, Earth has run out of all natural sources of energy, and colonized the dazzlingly verdant moon of Pandora in the Alpha Centauri system (you’d think they’d call it something else, like Elysium, just to be on the safe side, but no). Pandora is a hotbed of the energy-rich mineral unobtainium, and the largest quarry happens to be located underneath an enormous tree inhabited by an indigenous tribe, a blue-skinned, three-meter tall humanoid race called the Na’vi. To ensure security, the mega-corporation in charge has enlisted gun-for-hire ex-marines who, as one might surmise, are not the most peaceful of emissaries. So, in order to foster communication with the locals, the colonizers have introduced the Avatar program: genetically engineered Na’vi/human hybrids, controlled by the humans (this part is hazy—the humans seem to go back to their own bodies when they sleep and vice versa, so when do they sleep, or was this dream motif intentional?). Using these, they have managed to bond, to a certain degree, with the Na’vi, learning their language and culture, and studying their environment.
Enter Jake Sully (Sam “Best Agent in the Business” Worthington), a paraplegic war veteran whose twin took part in the program, but inconveniently got himself killed before he could mindmeld with his avatar form. Sully is a genetic match, so he jumps at the chance to spend a few years on Pandora as one of the aliens and makes a Faustian deal with the evil Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who promises him a new set of legs if he’ll infiltrate, and spy on, the Na’vi. Sully’s loyalties are soon tested when he is accepted by the Na’vi as one of their own and starts to get some tail (quite literally) from the tribe’s princess, the sinuous Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
And that’s all there is. There is no curve-ball, there is no twist: you’ve heard it all before, and when you did, it was better. Avatar is a completely by-the-numbers tome that borrows quite liberally from age-old sci-fi tropes, such as Edgar Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels or C.J. Cherryh’s Faded Sun Trilogy. One might be inclined, in fact, to go so far as to state it represents the total, totalitarian triumph of the surface and the cosmetic over content. But that would be unfair because the technical achievements in this film, while in no-way earth shattering, are, in themselves, art.
The vistas created by Cameron and his team of boffins are imperial to behold. Mountains float in the clouds over an endless chasm, covered in lush flora, with endless waterfalls like drapes of silk. A tower of boulders reaches up to the heavens—a quite literal stairway. Massive granite bridges, looking almost like ribs, surround an almost cardiac tree, with its eldritch light the nexus of all life on the planet. These images are imaginatively rendered with an uncanny eye for detail and color, and remain in total contrast to the barren wasteland that is the center of the humans’ mining operations. The fauna are silly, but really rather splendid. There are hounds of the night that resemble Zuul from Ghostbusters, horses with the head of an ant, enormous insects that propel themselves with the same principle of Da Vinci’s helicopter (though I did wonder—all the mammals on Pandora have six limbs, yet the Na’vi are tetrapods. It doesn’t really make any sense from an evolutionary standpoint—yes, I am employing my powers of ratiocination for absolutely no reason whatsoever).
And it’s not just the background plates or the creature design. The action is incredible, especially the final setpiece as Sully, riding an incarnadine dragon, leads the assault of the Na’vi against a fleet of gunships (the Valkyrie squadron—just in case it wasn’t obvious enough). It’s poetry in motion.
The Na’vi, in particular Neytiri, have exceptionally expressive features. They’re not weightless amounts of digital data—when they appear on the screen, it looks like they’re really there (though, admittedly, they don’t have as much tit-a-tat interaction with the human actors). The avatars actually resemble their human counterparts. You can tell which one is Sigourney Weaver (the head of the research operation) and which one is Joel Moore (flexing his acting chops as the lovable nerd), and they don’t have the zombie-eyes of the characters in Robert Zemeckis’s The Polar Express or Beowulf. Finally, for most of the movie, the 3-D—a cinematic fad I detest more than any other—is completely unnoticeable, which raises the question, Why shoot it in 3-D in the first place?
Film has to have substance, it requires an engaging story, consistent themes, and those are absent in Avatar. The first ten minutes or so are full of dreary exposition, but the following two hours or so is like a montage. It’s long, but it feels rushed. Once Sully takes on his avatar form, we are presented with brief scenes that must have hung for years on Cameron’s wall written on bits of post-it. “The scene where the dino-tiger chases Sully.” “The scene where Sully learns to fly.” “The scene where Sully and Neytiri fuck” (some great space smurf nip slip here—if you’re into that sort of thing).
But these snippets never quite come together to form a coherent whole—it’s like watching an effects reel for potential distributors, only this time, rather than hearing the producer’s unctuous pitch, we are treated to Worthington’s dull voiceover. And, boy, that is one intolerable constant, filling in the gaps in the story, real or otherwise. That Sully comes to be accepted as one of the Na’vi’s own is self-evident in the images on the screen (a wonderful—but frustratingly brief—bird’s-eye-view shot of the tribe gathering around Sully’s avatar, and forming a spider-web-like connection). Worthington’s telling us that it is, indeed, what the tribe is doing is superfluous. Cameron, under the rock hard carapace of his ego, seems to be content with narration, as long as it can lead to the next F/X showstopper.
And just when it needs to pick-up speed and get the bloody hell on with it, the movie inexplicably grinds to what feels like an interminable halt. Secrets come out, tears are shed, and there’s a lot of wailing on the soundtrack. (Aside: I find James Horner’s work generally pleasant and agreeable, but he’s produced a truly risible score here, one that sounds like a cross between The Lion King and The Best of Zamfir. It lacks the charming intimacy of Howard Shore’s “Concerning Hobbits” (from Fellowship of the Ring, natch), or the apocalyptic urgency of John Williams’s “Duel of the Fates” (The Phantom Menace), both of which he seems to try to emulate.)
Cameron has a few good ideas, but they’re half baked. The Na’vi live as one with their environment, the plants and the animals, and their lives are kept in equipoise through a network of energy that physically runs through all living things on Pandora. But this notion of the entire moon as one holistic organism—basically a riff on Lovelock’s gaia hypothesis—is as quickly discarded as it is introduced. And besides, wouldn’t that concept automatically extend to the humans? Survival is a primal instinct, and some might say an elementary right. Having beaten the colonists (oh, come on—did you even think that wouldn’t be the case), the Na’vi purge them from Pandora. Wouldn’t a more humane approach be some sort of agreement with this moribund race—co-habitation, perhaps?
Here, and I’d wager unknowingly, Cameron alludes to Hegel’s concept of the “Other,” finding his own unique solution to the philosopher’s Herrschaft und Knechtschaft Motiv, the parable of the Master-Slave dialectic. Briefly, according to Hegel, for self-consciousness to really take place, for eventual synthesis to occur, the individual requires an Other, a consciousness totally different from its own. The master-slave dialectic is omnipresent on Pandora and, despite being quite low on the food chain, the Na’vi, being the only sentient life-forms (I am using the word in its most traditional meaning, fellow pet-lovers), are the obvious masters. Their dominance threatened, they fight the invading hordes and rid their world of them. But wouldn’t their philosophy dictate a more Marxist outlook? It’s rather bizarre that a race whose philosophy centers upon the universal connection of all organisms is all too eager to let another race wither and die. This might come across as a slightly lofty quandary to handle in what is essentially an action flick for the masses, but remember how George Lucas tackled a similarly complex subject with such wit in Revenge of the Sith, a movie that keeps on growing in my estimation. In that film, the Emperor is obviously evil, yet the Jedi also think that the democratically elected Parliament is useless and want to overthrow them. Lucas eventually understood, with Sith, that our post-9/11 world is way too complex. Cameron, on the other hand, seems to live in his own universe.
The second overriding theme is even more muddled and heavy-handed: an allegory of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The invasion of a mineral-rich “backward” land obviously mirrors the popular reasoning for the Iraq War, and the privatized security with no respect for decency brings to mind memories of Blackwater (there is a nice scene earlier in the film where Sully touches a huge flower, and it retracts its stem in panic. Amused, Sully keeps disturbing the rest of the flowers for no reason other than his own enjoyment—an inspired, indirect, reference to the Abu Ghraib photos). The characters talk about the previous campaigns they’ve been on: Venezuela and Nigeria (hint, hint). The point is bludgeoned home with the evil characters using such infamous terminology as “shock and awe,” “hearts and minds,” and “fighting terror with terror.” All well and good until the whole thing culminates in one of the most magnificent battle scenes ever put on film. The dumbing down and polarization of Western society means political debate has become comparable to this final battle: shoot at your opponent for as long and as hard as possible and you’ll win. Willingly or not, Cameron resolves his own political debate with a fist fight.
Avatar is a good film. Had he stuck to his strengths, Cameron could have even made it his masterpiece. But he bites off more than he can chew and, eventually, produces a sumptuous feast for the eyes that’s as dumb as a rock. Then again, you don’t go to Hooters for the food.