Monday, December 28, 2009


Watching Avatar, I was reminded of all the reasons James Cameron's films were so important to me as a boy and later a teenager. I am now something close to an adult viewer and I felt strangely in commune with my adolescent self. "I would've loved that," I thought, watching the giant dinosaur-bird-thing demolish the giant helicopter-warship-thing. My old self, I thought, would not have known what to do with the blue alien sex love scene but, again, I think he would've liked it.

Avatar feels like a great launchpad for a revisiting of Cameron's oeuvre. It's got everything that makes his movies great and everything that makes them silly.

Cameron's films will forever connect to the fourteen-year-old boys of the world. As an action director he is visceral and kinetic in the best way: his films are exciting and breathtaking and always feel "new" (even the old ones, still), but for all his talk of reinventing cinema, he speaks in a very old and trusted language. Where Michael Bay reaches his audiences (somehow) through noise and static, Cameron's genius lies in his ability to tell a fluid story with his camera. It feels great to be talked to again. With the language of film, Cameron is a master poet.

So no, I don't think anything has been reinvented here, except for a lot of special effects.

Those special effects, though, are not to be denied, and are the reason every professional filmmaker is currently dropping Avatar as the revolution Cameron claimed it would be. I am generally suspicious when I read an interview with a geeky filmmaker talking about all the special effects he needed to tell his story. In this case, however, I believe Cameron knew exactly what he was doing in the twelve years since Titanic.

Cameron made an appearance at ShoWest (the National Association of Theater Owners' annual Vegas tradeshow) in 2005 to announce that when he finished Avatar, there would have to be thousands of digital, 3D-equipped screens around the country. Have you noticed the proliferation of "digital 3D" cinemas in the past five years? There you go. This is why.

I have now seen the film twice: once on a full-sized IMAX screen with 3D glasses and a $15 ticket, and again on a screen not much bigger than my televison, with poor sound and poorer focus and only two meager dimensions. I can say that while the picture obviously wasn't as nifty the second time around, it still worked, and I still loved it. And that's because Cameron knows how to tell a story.

The key to enjoying Avatar is the same as it was with Titanic: these are both epic, three-hour disaster movies with a lot of amazing effects, but unless we want to see the boy and the girl in each other's arms, we won't care if their lives are in danger. It's about the difference between threatening the life of our main character and threatening the life of the person we know the main character to love (see also: Aliens, Terminator 2). What sets Avatar apart is that in this case, the girl our main character loves happens to be a ten-foot tall blue alien, and that's where special effects become necessary instead of decorative. "We figured the story wouldn't work if you didn't want to do her," says Cameron in a refreshingly candid interview for Maxim. This is about as perfect a definition of 'pathos' as I've ever heard.

The girl here is Neytiri, whose tribe lives in a very large tree on a distant moon called Pandora (cough). The Na'vi are a peaceful, spiritual race who communicate with all the flora and fauna on Pandora through what Glenn Kenny describes as "organic USB ports". From within their ponytails sprout bioluminescent feelers that hook into similar antennae in the animals or just wrap themselves around a tree branch, leaving the whole orgiastic population literally connected to nature. The humans that intrude on their land deplore them as primitive and undeveloped, but why fix what isn't broken?

The humans have come because they (I hesitate to say "we") have wrung the Earth dry of its natural resources and intend to mine Pandora for a powerful ore called "unobtanium" (which is a ridiculous name even if Cameron is just paying homage to a classic trope). There's a particularly strong deposit of the rock underneath the Na'vi's tree, so the humans are going to bust up the hood whether or not the Na'vi are still hanging around.

This is where our hero Jake (of the "Jarhead Clan") comes in, wirelessly piloting a genetically-engineered Na'vi body and earning his keep with the natives. Jake is the "diplomatic solution", charged with persuading them to move from their giant sacred tree so they don't all get killed when the humans swoop in to knock it down. From here, the story goes exactly where you expect it to if you've seen (obvious comparisons) Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas/The New World or Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.

What impresses about Avatar, and what transcends the sentimentality that so many haters claim turned them off from Titanic, is the fiercely political message. The film is anti-war, pro-environment and very nearly anti-human. As Jake earns his place with the Na'vi and his allegiances begin to sway, the audience sways with him until we are rooting for the blue guys. There is a faction of about four or five humans that have defected, but when it comes time for the climactic battle to save Pandora, it's the humans in their warplanes we must be rooting against.

What bothers me is hearing 14-year-old boys in the theater cheer on the devastation - "Yeah, get some!" I heard one say as a Na'vi warrior put an arrow into the heart of a faceless GI. Coppola said that all war movies are inherently anti-war, but as The Hurt Locker effectively illustrated, the anti-war sentiment is going to be in the eye of the beholder. I think Cameron gives it his all to set up this battle as not a good thing, but there will always be a boy in the audience who just thinks war is cool.

Early in the film, Jake is being attacked by a gang of ravenous, fanged Pandoran wolf-creatures. He's saved by Neytiri, who smacks him when he thanks her. "This is a bad thing," she explains. "They did not have to die." That's anti-war movie-making in a nutshell. Is it a good thing that our hero was saved? Sure. But it's also a terrible thing that the war had to be fought in the first place. If he hadn't gone trespassing in the Pandoran jungle, nobody would've died.

In the next hour leading up to the final battle, Cameron references Vietnam, the Trail of Tears, the wars in Iraq and finally 9/11 as the humans come in and collapse the Na'vi's towering tree in a cloud of fire, smoke and floating ash. Is it cynical to imagine Cameron, who has allegedly been assembling this film since 1995, sitting in front of his television on September 11, 2001, thinking "I can use that..."? I suppose it's more likely he thought, as most of the world's artists did that day, "I have to use that - it's now my duty."

How you can sit through all this and end up excited for the battle is beyond me, but I suppose that's the way boys are. The action sequences are quite awesome in the literal sense of the word. I only hope that those in the audience shouting "Awesome!" are not missing the point. They are cheering on a story based on the darkest sides of our humanity. By the film's end, Jake is referring to the humans as "the aliens". We are the invaders, the murderers, who killed our planet and want to ravage another and another after that. Awesome.

This is the first part of an open-ended series revisiting the work of James Cameron. To read any more I may publish in the future, click through his tag.


  1. Great review. Pretty much sums up why and how AVATAR works, in spite of its flaws: it taps into the emotional response vone of our inner 14-year-old. I got a couple head rushes that I haven't gotten since, oh, maybe the one-on-three T-rex smackdown in Peter Jackson's otherwise-bloated KING KONG.

    I will say that you decline to mention that there's something rather condescending about the depiction of the Na'vi. They assert themselves the way Native Americans do in post-modern, liberal-revisionist westerns: as noble, exotic, personality-free People of the Earth. (Or Pandora. Whatever.) That's some Ed Zwick shit there, and Cameron should know more.

  2. I must agree. I might defend this by saying that Cameron is clearly doing it on purpose. That "Trail of Tears" shot is obviously allegorical and intended to provoke the same reaction we might get from a picture of the actual tragic migration. Ham-fisted, maybe, but not regressive in the way Zwick is.

    In the shades of gray that color our hero's allegiances, in his transference between races and species, Cameron deals with this far more eloquently than Edward Zwick would've. That's faint praise, obviously.

  3. First of all, I know where James Cameron came up for the idea for this movie:

    OK,now that we've gotten that out of the way, here's what i thought:

    When I was at the theater watching the movie, I was so appalled by the racist, cliche, and oversimplified story that I had a hard time enjoying the graphics, (which i actually did think were stunning). But once I had time to give the movie some thought, I found myself astounded by the depth of the story that was told, although it is one that I do not think Cameron told intentionally.

    Avatar is a cathartic retelling of the west's violent, imperialist history. The towering psychological figures in the story are Jake Sully and Colonel Miles Quaritch. Sully and Quaritch are two sides of the American psyche (I'm somewhat generalizing here) separated and poured into two characters: one we hate because he represents everything we hate about ourselves as whites: anger, violence, racism, ethocentricity, and the other one we love because he is flawed like we are, but he is capable of redemption and of being forgiven - the two acts that would relieve our white guilt.
    So here is where the retelling comes in. At the end of the film, Jake saves the day. He is able to earn the trust of the natives, even though he betrayed them, gets them to let him lead their retaliation, above an ACTUAL Pandora native, and demonstrates his newfound connection with their culture by praying to their god for help, (and receives it too! from all their animal friends!). Jake saves the natives in the end. He is accepted fully into their tribe and gives up his human body. The "bad" whites are forced to leave the planet thanks to his leadership and the natives presumably live in peace ever after.

    Perhaps the most important scene in the film (well, maybe second only to Tsu'tey's acquiescence of leadership to Jake, effectively allowing Jake to retell the imperialist story), is the scene in which Jake fights the Colonel. At this point, we are made to hate the Colonel more than everyone else in the film (even more than the twit Parker Selfridge). He is purely evil, and as I mentioned, represents everything we hate about white people's role in imperialist history. He is anti-environment, militaristic, and most importantly, has no desire to understand the Na'vi as a culture. As enlightened 21st century whites, we understand, or think we understand, that a disinterest in the native's culture is the core of the problem. We now think we understand the people whose lives we invaded, but judging from the portrayal of the natives in the film, clearly a depiction of Native Americans or Africans, we have little or no concept of anything other than what we want to believe. ("I see you" - ha - oh boy do we ever want to believe it.) But this is irrelevant. the important thing is that we can pretend we understand them through a billion dollar, 3-hour movie where we literally murder our own guilt with a roomful of other cheering white people. The epic battle comes at the end, the one we usually only fight alone in our own consciences, and the part of us that can save the indians, the africans, finally beats out our anger, guilt, and complete disinterest in actually trying to understand them.

    The final message?: Feeling guilty really sucks, but instead of trying to actually help the people that are still being fucked over because of imperialism, let's spend seven dollars on a movie (or 15 if you want to see if in 3D!) so that we can pretend we get it, that it is over, and that we really COULD have been the heroes if only we had been alive to there in the first place when our stupid ancestors fucked everything up.

  4. For the uninitiated: I've been telling Kelly for a while that she ought to be a critic. Her ability to tear a film apart and put it back together is nothing less than frustrating for those of us who actually set out to do just that and all too often come up short.

    For you, Kelly: Once again, you've fucking nailed it. The only place I see a hole in what you've written is where you say that the depth of the film was something Cameron achieved unintentionally. You fail to back that up.

    You also need to clarify your usage of the word "we". The great problem with movies like AVATAR remains that a very large section of people will watch them passively. AVATAR screams out for analysis. It begs you to view it as political allegory. You and I digest it and think about it, but too many people do not.

    This is a paradox I intend to confront at some point on this site, specifically in reference to Cameron's previous work (finally found a copy of TRUE LIES on DVD, by the way).

  5. From the New Yorker, 10/26/09:

    Cameron's imagination was shaped by the Cold War; the threat of nuclear annihilation is a recurring theme. But he also admires the military and its accessories. "I suppose you could say I believe in peace through superior fire power," he told me.

    I don't see this as an anti-war movie. If Cameron was one of those 14 year-old boys, I imagine he would have had a similar reaction.

  6. I think this is a paradox in most of his work, and something I've been grappling with in trying to form a thesis that ties it all together. But you must agree that a belief in peace must also be an opposition to war, no?