MOVIE REVIEW: “Avatar” (2009) [SPOILER LITE]
Wow, what a gorgeous movie! Seriously, I’ve seen a lot of movies in my day (More than eight, definitely), and I have never seen a film in which the scenery was this sumptuous. Oh, sure, I’ve seen movies with considerably more lush set design, costuming, what have you - the 1984 version of “Dune” springs to mind - but, the exteriors just completely blew me away in a fashion that I haven’t felt since “The Fifth Element” (1997) or back in ‘77 when I was ten and saw Star Wars for the first time. Seriously, the visuals are totally worth the hype, and I suddenly get why director James Cameron felt he needed a completely new generation of CGI technology to pull this one off: This *could* have been done using previous technology, but it would have taken two or three times as long, and it wouldn’t have had the depth, the heft, the scope of the film we see here; every time we cut to the jungle and the aliens it would have looked like we were visiting Toontown. It is a gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous film.
It’s a pity the story isn’t quite up to the visuals.
We’ve all heard the film referred to as “Dances With Smurfs” and a dozen other disparaging names - our own erstwhile leader, Republibot 1.0 alluded to it being essentially an extended dance remix of “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest” (1992) - and while these are not inapt comparisons, they do miss some of the spirit of the thing, the raison d’etre if you will. Which isn’t to say that this is a fantastic movie by any means, but if we’re honest, “Star Wars” and “Fifth Element” weren’t exactly fantastic films either, now were they? Beautiful to look at, full of the Gee-Gosh-Wow, lots of excitement, lots of exotic locals and things, but, at root, Star Wars is basically just a dumbed-down remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Hidden Fortress” (1958), “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is basically just yet another remake of “The Enemy Below” (1957) and Fifth Element is basically just a hyper-goofy Heavy Metal magazine story come to life. It’s not so much what they rip off, it’s what they bring to the ripoff that counts.
So, yeah, “Avatar” does rip off “Dances With Wolves,” (1990) “The Emerald Forest,“ (1985) and a dozen other movies, as well as the “Joseph in Egypt” story from the Bible, the probably-mostly-mythical Pocahontas story, there’s a bit of “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988) in there, some “Apocalypse Now,” (1979) you name it - the movie is a grab bag of a zillion better films stuck together like a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t entirely fit, and then forced to hold together by the glue of some admittedly amazing animation in the hopes that the audience won’t notice the seams. And mostly they won’t. My friend chip once referred to “Independence Day” (1996) as what he calls a ’notecard’ movie - a film where the writers and producers sat through all the most famous alien invasion movies and wrote down all the best scenes on note cards, then wrote a script to tie all the note cards together. This movie is like that.
The film starts off with Sam Worthington, a paraplegic ex-marine coming out of cryonic suspension on a starship in orbit around Pandora - a planet-sized habitable moon of a superjovian planet in an unnamed solar system that takes five years to get to from earth. He’s shuttled down to the surface, and suddenly we’re in the Vietnam war - a huge forward base with lots of choppers, lots of aircraft coming and going, lots of people in Marpat BDUs, all with facemasks, though, because the Pandoran atmosphere is lethal to humans. We are told in short order that an unnamed Earth corporation is mining “Unobtanium” from Pandora, which goes for a kerjillion dollars a pound. They may as well call it “MacGuffinium” for all it’s worth, aside from being a motivating force that drives corporate greed, it plays no real part in the plot. We never even find out what Unobtainium is used for. The local aliens - nine foot tall blue humanoids with felineoid faces and tails - don’t like Earthers stomping through their jungles, ripping ‘em up, so they fight back, but being as they’ve basically got a stone-age culture, they don’t stand much of a chance.
“The Company,” meanwhile, has hired a large private army of ex-military folk (Mostly Marines and US Army, we’re told) to defend the base and fight the locals as necessary. As a concession, the company is also sponsoring a small cadre of scientists who are studying the moon and its citizens via the “Avatar” project. As would be expected in a jingoisticly liberal flick such as this, the evil military types and the noble scientists don’t get along well. Sam Worthington kind of bridges the gap between their viewpoints, at least for a time.
Worthington is plugged into an “Avatar” - a local alien body grown from DNA - that he controls from the main Corporate base camp. When he’s plugged in, he can walk, talk, smell, taste, whatever, just as though the body was his, even though his brain is in an air conditioned lab miles away.
Through a conveniently quick misfortune, Sam Worthington gets lost in the woods on his very first Avatar mission, but is found by Pocahontas - ahem - excuse me, an alien princess. She was gonna’ kill him, but one of “The Seeds from the holy tree” landed on her arrowhead, which she takes as a sign, and faster than you can say “I’ve seen this before several times,” he’s provisionally adopted by her tribe, and she’s given the job of teaching him their language and ways. Yawn.
Where it gets cool is that Sam Worthington isn’t actually *IN* the avatar body, so at night when the body goes to sleep he wakes up back at the base, and is debriefed by the locals. The military-for-hire wants the intel for their ongoing war, the scientists want the intel for…ehm…their science, and for a time he’s living in three worlds: the aliens, soldiers, and brainiacs, none of whom really like him all that much. But of course this is a movie, so, as with every sensitive young man onscreen who feels himself pulled in multiple directions, eventually he has to choose one (Or in this case, two) over the other (third) one.
Which one will he choose? Well, duh!
Conflict ensues. It’s amazing, exciting, pulse-pounding, gorgeous, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, despite the fact that it’s kind of a lot of like things we’ve seen before. As new as the visuals are, they’ve got a long genetic ancestry, and the story itself is actually more atavism than an actual avatar.
The aliens are at once fascinating and disappointing. The CGI and motion capture are stunning, and they make anything Robert Zemeckis has done up to this point look like a pile of crap. (Well, really, it always did look like a pile of crap, but this makes it look even moreso) Sadly, though, their society is an unfortunate pastiche of American Indian and a smaller dose of South American Rainforest Indian. Despite their wonky biology, there’s nothing particularly alien about these aliens - they’re not fleshed out as ‘real’ characters who think in some truly alien manner, rather they’re just a kind of generic “Noble Savage” stand-in for, well, what? I was going to say ‘stand-in for the primitive peoples of the world,’ but, really they’re just stand-ins for Noble Savages, which is a pretty outmoded concept, however romantic it might be. You want aliens who act and think alien? Minbari, Narn, Wraith, Vulcans, Asgard, Cylons (Both new and old versions), hell, even the goofy-assed Klingons are more alien than these guys, and at a fraction the cost.
I say “Sadly” not because I’m a racist (I’m married to an Indian, actually), but rather because this obsession with some kind of long-lost perfection, this ignorant west-coast liberal view of primitive peoples becomes a kind of shield that prevents you from every knowing or even seeing them. Instead, all you see is your own preconceptions, caused by your own guilt, and that, my friends, is every bit as reflexive and insulting as the jackass racists who just don’t like Indians, or blacks, or Hispanics simply because they’re different. It is, admittedly, less destructive, however.
Seriously, these folks are perfect. They live in tune with nature, they have a perfectly orderly existence, they all worship the same god, they know their place in the grand scheme of things, they’re nonviolent unless attacked, they’re allegedly quite wise, beautiful, they’re a species of Adams and Eves living in a blissful utopia that is, like all utopias, pretty damn boring. We get no sense of these people’s inner lives, their hopes, their dreams, their petty annoyances, there’s no fat guys who hog all the food at the communal means, no elderly people who fart all the time, no crazy people, no gay aliens, no minority aliens of different colors, no one who’s got a bad shellfish allergy, no damn annoying little kids who keep stealing the priestess’ favorite set of beads, nobody’s got the crabs, no one falls off a rock and busts their arms and suffers in agony for the rest of their lives because they lack the basic medical knowledge to fix it, there’s nothing. Nothing at all. No imperfectins. At first I was annoyed by this utter lack of characterization, but then I realized that “Noble Savages” can’t actually *Have* characterization, since character is defined - at least in the arts - by its flaws, and if they had any, they wouldn’t be noble, now would they? Once I realized that, I was even more annoyed: Here we have an alien race that is as annoyingly perfect as Gene Roddenberry wanted his 24th century humans to be, and every bit as dull. They live in heaven, so what’s the need for dreams?
The serpent in the garden is, all too obviously, us, or perhaps I should say “U.S.”
On the one hand, the movie makes a point of telling us that these troops are *not* the US military, rather they’re ex-military who’ve been hired as a security force for a megacorp. On the other hand, they walk, talk, act, and dress just like the military (Aside from generic non-US rank insignia). Cameron has always been oddly obsessed with the military, specifically the Vietnam-era military which really doesn’t exist anymore. When I saw “Aliens” (1986), my friend Lee, who was an ex-marine, a Vietnam vet, and, coincidentally, part Indian, said he enjoyed the movie, but the portrayal of the marines was just ludicrous. “It’s set, what, a century or two in the future? And they act like they just came out of Vietnam. That makes no sense. If you look at how different Marines were in in World War II or Korea, or the Civil War, there were massive, massive changes between how Marines thought, acted, and were expected to act. They don’t even act the way they did in Vietnam now! So expecting them to be exactly the same as they were in 1973 in the 22nd century is just ludicrous.” I paraphrase a bit, it’s been 23 years, but that was the gist.
We see that again here: Vietnam-style ground pounders in a Vietnam-style war that just keeps escalating. They even use Vietnam-era terms: a really big bomb is referred to as a “Daisycutter” (Which was the civilian name for the device by the way, not one the Military ever used).
Thus, the movie attempts to have it both ways: we’re told these are *not* American troops, while showing us the exact kinds of things that American troops are continually accused of by the media. It’d be annoying if it didn’t happen so much. I’m kind of dead to it by now.
Sam Worthington is good in his generic boy-next-door role, though he doesn’t strike me as particularly memorable in his human iteration. That’s probably intentional, such as in 2001 (1968) when HAL 9000 was more human than the human characters, who were all rather mechanical and generic. He speaks with a northeastern accent that might be Boston or Newark - hard to tell - but he can’t keep it up, and keeps sliding into a mild Australian accent. (And what’s up with the increasing trend of casting Brits and Aussies as American leading men, anyway?) He’s entirely believable as a paraplegic, however, and the best, most subtle special effect in the movie is when we see him in shorts in one scene, with a beefy upper body, and skinny, atrophied legs.
Stephen Lang is pretty good imitating Robert Duval from Apocalypse Now. He brings a nice swagger and forthrightness to the role in the early scenes, a amiable craziness of a guy who refuses to get his facial scars fixed because “I kind of like ‘em.” He’s a guy who says he’ll take care of his own, and he obviously really means it. Alas, he’s also a stereotypical bloodthirsty bastard who not only massacres Mai Lai in this movie, but he pushes for doing so. His descent from tough-as-nails career officer who’s found a second career as a mercenary to Captain Ahab, bent on the destruction of his own personal blue alien whale isn’t handled all that well: He’s just likeable at first, hateable later on, with no transition. This would be forgivable if we *discover* he’s been a monster all along, but in fact, no, we get none of this. This would be a nice contrast with Sam Worthington’s character, who, I guess we’re supposed to see as having been a monster, but becoming a decent person over the course of the movie, but, eh, I dunno, it’s a muddle. Well acted, but a muddle. His death lacks a certain kind of impetus, it feels anticlimactic after watching his unquestionable badassery leading up to that point.
Sigourney Weaver essentially reprises her role as Dian Fossey, though admittedly a somewhat pissier, feistier version.
Wes Studi plays Russel Mean from Dances With Wolves, essentially, as the leader of the aliens. Wes is my favorite American Indian actor at the moment, but he’s not given enough to do here. He’s quite good in his scenes, however. And he’s racking up some genre credits, isn’t he? “Mystery Men,” “Kings,” this…
CCH Pounder plays Ertha Kitt from “Eric the Viking.” (1989)
Michelle Rodriguez plays Vasquez, the Cyber Gunner from “Aliens,” though in a somewhat more fleshed-out form. In fact, this movie is the first time I’ve ever really liked Rodriguez, even if her part as the one soldier with a conscience is a bit of a cliché.
Joel Moore plays Tom Green as a scientist.
Zoe Saldana plays the Mary McDonnell role of “Stands With A Fist” from Dances With Wolves, though, admittedly, it’s a meatier performance.
My point here being that all the actors are playing essentially characters culled from other films, though all the actors do the best they can with the material, and some of ‘em do really well, it’s basically a clip-art kind of production.
Curiously, for a movie that tries so hard to be politically correct, the Alien Princess role is surprisingly old fashioned, with her being repeatedly imperiled, screaming, and having to be rescued by her big strapping marine. They try to take the curse off of this by having her save him a few times, but it still feels kind of ‘girl tied to the train tracks’ on occasion.
I admit to being particularly fascinated by the Pandoran biology, though I don’t think it entirely made sense. (“Hey, lets throw extra legs on a wolf!”) The entire thing had a very strong “The Dark Crystal” (1982) vibe, including one scene that I think was a deliberate homage. The neatest idea in the movie - probably the only genuinely original SF concept in the movie, really - is that all Pandoran plantlife is bioelectrical, and interlinked. Thus, a plant has an electrical connection by its roots to any neighboring plant, and they have a connection to the plants next to them and so on, and these plants can and do trade information, presumably most of it fairly boring stuff about where it’s raining and which blade of grass just got pooped on, but it is, in essence, a world wide network of sensors, some of which evidently have memory.
This “World Wide Weed Web” (I just made that up) can be plugged into directly the aliens and most of the higher animals, through some precarious-looking neural fibers that hang off the backs of their heads, and share memories of their ancestors, instantly domesticate and bond with animals, get weather reports, and so on. Curiously, during the hot and funky CGI alien love scene, they do *not* hook their neural fibers up to each other, which is weird. I’d think that’d be the major thrill of sex in their society ("Did you go all the way?" "No, we just had sex." "Oh, well, better luck next time." "Yeah, thanks."), but, eh, whatever.
This is a really, really, really neat concept, and one I’d never have thought up in a million years. I was impressed. I had great hopes that they’d do something super-cool with this, as per Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” (the book, not either movie), but no, they take this amazing concept and turn it into a literal interpretation of the sad old trope of the Noble Savage’s Connection To Nature.
This comes to a peak when Sam Worthington talks to a “Holy Tree.” This isn’t as annoying as it sounds, actually it’s a good scene - these kinds of trees evidently function as nodes in the World Wide Weed, terminals, if you will. He mentions that Earth is completely deforested, that there’s no green anywhere in the wild, that it’s a dying world. This really doesn’t make any sense, as we’re told he lost the use of his legs while fighting “In the bush” in Venezuela; it’s implied (though never stated) that he’s a jungle fighter. Well, how can he be a jungle fighter if there’s no jungles left on earth? So rather than do something really cool and expand our minds by giving us the new concept they’ve got in their hip pockets, rather they just beat us over the head with the same tired old evangelical environmentalist message.
You know what? Screw Mother Nature! I’m sick of that bitch calling the shots, and I’m sick of her stooges trying to make me feel bad because my ancestors came down out of the trees and learned how to grow their own food rather than relying on her inconsistent whims. Seriously - if you’ll allow me an aside for a moment here - once you learn how to use tools, evolution is done with you. You cease to be shaped by your environment, and you start to shape the environment yourself. Only 14% of this planet is even remotely nice to live on to begin with. If I had my choice between living in a neat place like New Orleans, and getting my drowned ass handed to me on a plate by a hurricane in one of Mother Nature’s unpredictable manic-depressive hissie fits, or going to live on a nice Babylon 5-styled LaGrange colony, or under a nice dome on some other planet, where the weather is always pleasantly air conditioned, and there are no vermin or irritating bugs, only things we choose to take with it - well, hell, kids: no contest. I’d be gone in a minute. Mother Nature kicked our asses for three million years, until we wised up (literally) and turned the tables. The evangelical environmental movement (My own name for it) is basically a bunch of goons that want us to go back to Mother Nature beating up on us - they actually buy all this “Noble Savage” crap, which no American Indian I know does - in hopes of slinking unseen back into the garden of Eden.
Well, I’m sorry, kids, last time I checked, the Garden had a scary looking dude with a flaming sword outside it saying we couldn’t come back in.
Anyway, back on track:
There’s some interesting imagery in the film, but subtle and gross: Most interesting to me is the recurring “Tomb” motif in the film. Sam Worthington is repeatedly shown in very small, confined spaces, either waking up or going to sleep. All of these are roughly coffin-sized, and of course every time he “Dies” in one of these, he wakes up in a new life. Coming out of the Cryonics unit, we’re told “New world, new beginning.” Of course he’s continually reincarnated as an alien, then as a human, then as an alien. This fits in with the concept of “Born Twice” that keeps turning up in the film - once when you’re born, once when you’re accepted into the tribe. In keeping with his ass-kicking Messianic qualities, Sam is born thrice, but I won’t spoil that one for you.
A very clear parallel is made between the destruction of Hometree and 9/11. This really could not be any clearer, and the imagery is selected specifically to drive that home - the tree falling, the screaming, disoriented crowds, the debris and smoke and ash in the air. The point of this would seem to be - again, I’m not sure - that we brought 9/11 on ourselves? That if we’re not careful, we can do to others what they do to us? What? There’s a lot of incompletely-thought-out metaphors and concepts in the movie, which is surprising since it took such a long time to put it all together.
The “Military for Hire” is *probably* intended as a commentary on the increasing corporatization of our overseas wars. As a conservative, this is actually something I, myself, am concerned about - I’m uneasy with it - but the movie goes too far when it recycles the same old “Blood for Oil” rhetoric, which, of course, sounds good and all, but isn’t true: American Companies generally haven’t been getting as much oil from Iraq as other nations have. We’ve mostly left it alone. Sigh.
The technology seen in the movie is kind of paradoxical. On the one hand, it’s all surprisingly believable and low-tech. I love the Osprey/Huey copters, but the great big “Sampson” gunships clearly wouldn’t fly, and the bomber they use at the end is traveling so slowly that people can stand on top of it with just a heavy breeze, so obviously these people have antigravity technology. Well, ok, so if you’ve got Antigravity, then what do you need rotor blades for? The Mecha are all super-cool. There’s a great scene of weightlessness in the beginning that was worth the price of admission all by itself, and the holographic control screens are all pretty neat. There’s no time-lag between the Avatar Booth and the Avatars themselves. Think about that - the person is in a booth on one half of the world, controlling a body on the other side, so he’s sending impulses, and getting them back from thousands of miles away. There really should be some lag time, you know? At the very least, the Avatar Body should get a little clumsier the further away it gets, but, no. Curiously, no one discusses simply Jamming the Avatar transmissions themselves.
Though they never mention it in the movie, Pandora orbits a planet called “Polyphemus” ( always liked that name. He was a Cyclops) in the Alpha Centauri system, 4.3 light years from earth. The star and the distance are real, everything else is fake. We’re told it takes six years to get there from Earth, and six years to get back, indicating slower-than-light travel. I always like that, it’s an underused concept.
The laws of physics on Pandora make no real sense. The entire planet looks surreal, like a Roger Dean album cover for Yes or whomever. Some of the vistas actually seem to be deliberate references to specific Dean paintings like this one http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Yessongs_Pathways.jpg . There’s a floating mountain range - evidently full of Upsidasium - which is cooler than hell to look at, but makes no real sense. We’re told it’s a low-gravity world, but that doesn’t justify what we see, and there’s no effort to make people move like they would in low gravity. Everybody walks just like they would on earth, with no bounce, and none of that ‘skipping’ motion the Apollo astronauts adopted.
There’s a good deal of CGI-nudity or near-nudity in the film, and one rather demure sex scene which (interestingly) we’re told is also what passes for marriage in alien society. Parents may want to consider these things before taking their kids to see the film, none of it is leering, but, you know, if you’re a prude, it’s best to know that before you go in. There’s also some language, worse than you’d hear on TV, but no F-bombs.
In conclusion, though I have a *lot* of reservations about the film, I actually found myself enjoying it, and I think I’ll go back just for the amazing visual buzz of the whole thing. I might even take my older kids. It’s a fun ride, and might provoke some discussion about the pros and cons of the environmental movement, and, of course, being my kids, they all like SF. If you take it as just a story, it’s fine, enjoyable, vaguely thought-provoking even, in a technical and xenobiological sense. If you take it as a piece of “Triumph of the Will” environmental propaganda - which is clearly the spirit in which it was intended - then you won’t like it as much. The simultaneous fetishization and derision heaped on the military bothers me, of course, but James Cameron is a weird cat and I don’t think he himself quite knew what he was trying to do with that. I don’t feel un-American for going to seen the movie, nor for liking it, I don't think going to see the movie was a sin as some people are saying, I don't feel like a traitor in the culture wars. It is, after all just a movie, and not exactly the brightest one on the block. The military getting out of hand is unflattering, and done in the most propagandistic style imaginable, but - to be clear - I do think it's ok to be skeptical about the armed forces, so this is a problem of execution, not one of concept. You can get some great films out of how war gets out of hand - “Apocalypse Now” - but here it’s all sturm und drang and offputting. I can certainly see some vets getting pissed off about it. I suppose in the end, I feel it’s a bit of a muddle. A bit too much of a muddle for me, personally, to take seriously.
Interestingly, if the movie were reversed - if Aliens were attempting to strip-mine earth - no one would have a problem with the story (Indeed, it’s the premise of “V”), and reversing that story - a film in which *we’re* the bad guys is actually an interesting aspect, one seldom done, but well-worth exploring. But did the evil humans have to be so closely associated with America? I mean, come on, guys - there’s lots of other countries out there. Can film makers stop aiming all their liberal white guilt at us, and give other countries a chance to suck? Please? Germany is overdone, of course, but I really think France is overdue for a crypto fascist movie like this that makes ‘em look bad. But let’s dog pile on someone else for a change, ok, Hollywood? Just for variety’s sake?
So, in the end, it’s not the movie I’d hoped it would be, but it wasn’t the movie I feared, but regardless of quality, I predicted that it would be a movie trading solely on spectacle and populist Kalifornia Uber Alles politics, and I wasn’t wrong in that. In the end, though, I feel way to wrap this up is to mention that every aspect of this film - All the military skepticism, the aliens, the environmental themes - were all handled better, more nuanced, and in much greater complexity and depth in the little-seen animated film “Battle For Terra” earlier this year. http://republibot.com/content/movie-review-%E2%80%9C-battle-terra%E2%80%9D In that film, we get aliens who really are alien and have a nuanced history with a secret and checkered past, but it’s handled with some grace and depth, with some shades of grey: The aliens are not all good, and the humans are not all bad, and in the end the story is about how they learn to work around their mistrust and differences and build something new and beneficial for both. That’s a great message, better than the message of Avatar, and at a fraction of the cost, and with none of the jingoism. Meanwhile, in Avatar, the humans are ultimately sent of, it’s assumed, to die, and the aliens get to keep their world. There is no rapprochement, no peaceful coexistence, no brighter tomorrow, just a return to the status quo.
That feels like a cheat to me. The status quo is what we’ve got already, so why make movies about it? We’re humans. Since we learned to walk upright, we’ve wanted better than what we’ve got, we’re all about progress. We’re about breaking stuff, sure, but we’re about fixing it and generally making it better than it was before. We’re also about building disparate communities, and it bothers me that in the end of this movie, no matter who won, the sides couldn’t learn to live together, because, by sharing our outlooks and histories, we become more than we are, and our children become better still.
But not in this movie. In this movie, racial (or species, I guess) purity must be maintained, there can be no sharing, no growth, no future, no hope, no evolution. Instead - to paraphrase Rudy Rucker - all the waves that break upon the shore of time will be the same size, forever.
That kind of outlook seems, to me, contrary to what America stands for, and to me that’s the part of the film that really offends me, even though it’s clearly unintentional: that the races shouldn’t mix, that aliens shouldn’t hang out with humans, and by extension, black people shouldn’t hang out with Jews or whites. That bothers me in its fundamental wrongheadedness.
That bothers me a lot.