Posted by: Jeff | January 20, 2010

Avatar (w/ Spoilers)

So I finally got a chance to see Avatar in 3D this past weekend.  And I have to say – I didn’t like it.

Visually, the movie was stunning.  The flora and fauna of Pandora were reason enough to spend $12 for a matinee showing.  But the film itself?  Meh.  There was so little original here that it’s difficult to even grasp on to anything to review.  I’d previously heard the plot as “Fern Gully meets Dances With Wolves“… but honestly, leaving it at Fern Gully would have been plenty accurate.  The entire length of the film, I felt like I’d seen this movie before.  And probably liked it better with a singing Robin Williams as crazed bat.

Even the dialogue was unoriginal – did I really hear a helicopter gunner yell “get some”?  And I could swear some of those voiceovers were lifted from a bad video game interlude.  The human robot things were basically a revamped version of the ones used in the third Matrix movie – or even District 9.  And did anyone else flash images of celebrating Ewoks at the end?  Seriously – aside from the graphics, what about this movie was new or original?

The archetypal devices in the plot have been over-used, like a rusty chassis that Cameron painted over with a shiny veneer, hoping to distract viewers from a boring and played out story through the liberal use of pretty colors and vibrant three dimensional shapes.

Yet this doesn’t entirely explain why I did not like Avatar.  Beneath the boring redundancy, there was also something more insidious about the plot.  The basic premise – that a young white male could gain access to an exotic and mysterious culture, and over the course of three months learn its language, customs, traditions, and skills; win over the reigning beauty; and become their leader (nay, their savior).  It just seems so horribly jingoist.

It reminds me of a criticism of development assistance that I read recently:

“A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it’s a blank empty space and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it. And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us. This power, this power to help, is just about as dangerous as hard power, because very often it arrives with a kind of zeal that is assuming ‘I will do it. I will solve it for you. I will fix it for you,’ and it rides roughshod over your own best efforts.”

But wait, I thought this was an anti-colonialist (or at least, anti Iraq intervention) film?  Well, it didn’t even do a good job at being consistent with that messaging.

Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks (1953) that the legacy of colonial control is in part racial hierarchy.  This hierarchy is not always manifest solely through laws of segregation or slavery.  No, hierarchy is also about access to identity.  Whites can freely become exotic, empathizing with the plight of the minority while maintaining the ability to withdraw back into the world of privilege.  Blacks, on the other hand, are largely stuck – upward mobility is always gained with the caveat that the skin is still not white.

Sully became one of the Na’vi in a very short time, indicating implicitly the evident simplicity of the Na’vi culture.  This limited complexity made it easy for Sully to join the culture – but the fact that he always had a body rooted in the white man’s world made his escape a permanent possibility.  A life of danger and peril is less dire when one has the option to simply walk away.  The Na’vi had no such choice.

Contrast this with District 9.  In the process of becoming a prawn, Wikus has no escape.  He now knows precisely what it means to be oppressed.  His life becomes one of fear and desperation. Rather than taking over prawn society and leading it to some newfound freedom or liberal revelation, Wikus is trapped as a victim of both circumstance and social prejudice.

District 9 is thus both jarring and uncomfortable.  Through the experience of Wikus, we know oppression.  We recognize the full emotional weight of hierarchy and discrimination, and we have no escape.  This is a movie with artistic merit.  i09 puts the distinction like this:

Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it’s like to be a Na’vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode. Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He’s becoming alien and he can’t go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he’s hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a “cure” for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

I don’t think James Cameron is necessarily racist, and I certainly don’t begrudge him for making a movie to showcase this new technology.  Hollywood has been trending toward vacuous special effects blockbusters for some time now, and one director is not to blame.  The film may have racist undertones, but I don’t think it was intended that way.  They simply served up what they thought America wanted.  So it’s no real surprise then that in the end I think District 9 was the far superior movie – a pretty impressive feat given that it was made for 1/10 the cost.



  1. District 9 is a much better movie. However they both set out with different mind sets when they first stated the films. D9 a political statement on society, while Avatar was a social commentary on the “video game society” many live in.

    Cameron: “…from a character perspective, we were showing that Grace doesn’t care about her human body, only her avatar body, which again is a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning online and in video games.”

    That being said, I liked it – didn’t think it was amazing though. But he just set out to showcase his camera and special effects to the world. Great post, but don’t look too far into it.

    • Hmmm… the quote from Cameron is interesting, but I really don’t agree. I thought Sigourney Weaver’s character was perhaps the most one-dimensional. And given the quote, the casting doesn’t make sense – why cast a woman who looks great for being 45 or whatever if she’s supposedly not taking care of her human form? She seemed to be more grounded in reality than Sully was, and she’d been doing the whole avatar thing for much longer.

      And the use of her character was baffling – was there any point to her re-admission into the Na’vi tribe? And why in the world did they agree to that? It would have been interesting to see how that decision went down. And what of these schools that the humans supposedly set up? The colonialism metaphor was like a feint that had no substance behind it, and Grace’s character was like a sketch – she existed, but served no real purpose other than to be someone that Sully could talk to when using the webcam-as-monologue thing got tiring (right away).

      I understand that Cameron was using the film as a vehicle or showcase for the new technology and film-making ingenuity – and I certainly can’t blame him for that. But the over-the-top “Avatar is the best movie of all time” headlines seem totally unmerited. And Cameron’s snide remark that any list of the greatest movies of the decade that was released before Avatar came out must be premature seems smug and totally self-indulgent.

      All in all, I’m glad I saw the film, but I hope that the technology is utilized in the future on projects with a lot more weight and merit.

  2. They would have won me over quite a bit if they’d made the humans more than just one-dimensional imperialists. Unobtainium is a precious mineral that the humans neede, but why? Explain that to us. Make me care about the reason they needed to displace an entire civilization of people to get to the mineral. Make the humans more…human, I guess. If I had been able to feel any ounce of affection or sympathy for the humans, I would have been more engaged and the movie would have been better. Instead it was riddled with cliches. The visuals are phenomenal; that alone doesn’t make it a great movie.

  3. Also, deep thought: other than the technology breakthrough, what really differentiates Avatar from a standard Michael Bay film?

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