Film Review: Avatar

Avatar (2009, directed by the King of the World... err, James Cameron)

I have never been more perfectly ambivalent about a movie as I am about Cameron's masterpiece.

And make no mistake -- despite what you are about to read, I think it is a masterpiece. A flawed one, but a masterpiece nonetheless. 90-plus-percent of Avatar is revolutionary genius. The look of the film, the effects and the way they are delivered to the audience, the obvious thought Cameron put into the science of Pandora itself... all these elements are not just great, they bust through the envelope of what is possible in movies and challenge everyone else to catch up. Even some of the things in the film that bother other folks don't bother me (Sam Worthington's wavering American accent, for instance. I mean it's not like they went into any detail about his background beyond his having a dead twin).

(This seems a good spot for the obligatory plot synopsis: Humans find rare ore on distant planet and want to dig it up. Local tree-hugger aliens object. Monkey wrench gets thrown into middle of brewing war when a grunt Marine joins the team of scientists trying to study the aliens by downloading themselves into vat-grown alien bodies and walking among them, learns their ways and goes native.)

The 10 percent or so that make up the rest of the film, though, specifically the rampant, colonial lens view of the Na'vi as some sort of noble savage/Magic Negro hybrid... it's not merely bad. It's inexcusable. And I'm not sure how to resolve those two extremes.

The worst part of it is, I'm quite sure Cameron deliberately chose to fall back on hackneyed racist tropes for his portrayal of an alien culture. It was clearly a commercial decision to make the Na'vi look more human than the rest of the Pandoran ecology would suggest (even as that ecology, with horse, rhino and deer surrogates, is less 'alien' than it could have been), so that a human audience could relate to them better. It was also clearly a commercial decision to make their culture something a human audience (specifically a North American audience) would find somewhat familiar. The joking and semi-joking references to Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves etc. that you've seen and heard aren't actually slags on Cameron's story-telling ability (even if the person writing or saying them thought they were). Cameron used those templates, not because he didn't know any better, but because he did.

Which, again, makes their use inexcusable.

I'm not going to launch into a diatribe about Otherness and Non-Whiteness here, but these are attitudes straight out of the 1800s. Think about it this way: in terms of the science of Pandora, Cameron's work is grounded in modern science fiction, even if it does shade some things more towards fantasy. In terms of the Na'vi though, Cameron's work is grounded in the golden age of pulp.

It's as if Kim Stanley Robinson re-imagined Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, but left the various Martian cultures completely intact.

It's also equally baffling to me that in a film with Avatar's political subtext (from its depiction of the use of military force, to its shot of the burning Hometree that evokes images of 9/11), Cameron thought it would be a good idea to tap into the same racial constructs that enable lunacies like the Obama birth certificate nonsense.

Hell, what do I know. Based on the box office ($280 million-plus heading into this weekend) Cameron apparently made the right call. But I can't help but think that he copped out, that a Pandora containing an actual believable alien race and not a blue-skinned relic of humanity's colonial past would have been just as entrancing, and been just as big a hit.

And it would have pushed the envelope on what was possible in a science fiction film above and beyond the technology used to create one.

I guess in the end that's what bothers me the most about that 10 percent. It's not anger I feel, it's regret. Avatar is a masterpiece, but it's also a huge missed opportunity.

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