Five Thoughts About Avatar.

If you’re trying to decide whether or not to see Avatar, consider this: the climactic scene of the film features hand-to-hand combat between a man in a robot exoskeleton and a six-legged alien panther.  Whether you find that prospect intriguing or silly will largely determine your response to the entire film.

If you’ve already seen the film, or you’re not too concerned about spoilers (and, I gotta say, there’s not too much to spoil), then click below the jump for a few of my thoughts on the film.

1.  Avatar is, from a visual perspective, one of the most awe-inspiring films ever made. My hatred of 3D technology is a matter of public record, but even I have to admit when I’m wrong.  Instead of being a gimmick, the 3D technology here is used almost as an extension of the depth of field, to create a separation between foreground and background that’s surprisingly subtle.  It’s used in nearly every single shot, but often only on bits and pieces of a particular frame.  The effect adds a depth to the visuals that is, frankly, stunning.  They also appear to have solved many of the problems with the glasses that made them so painful for me in the past.  (I should point out that I saw sitting dead-center in the theater, and I’ve read that the technology suffers both from flanking and from being to close to the screen.)

But I saw the film in 2D, too, and the visuals are strong enough to carry it in that medium alone.  James Cameron knows that it’s okay for things to not seem realistic if they can be beautiful instead, and the alien jungle moon of Pandora (think the redwoods crossed with the Amazon) is so fully realized, and so full of marvels, that even on repeat viewings you’ll find yourself astonished.  The motion-capture technology used to animate the faces of the alien Na’vi works well enough to be believed, and though it’s application here isn’t as impressive as it was in The Lord of the Rings, that’s mostly because we had no human actor to compare Gollum to.  The computer graphics are so seamlessly integrated that it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what was added in (although at any particular moment I’d bet on computer generated).  It is worth seeing for the spectacle alone, and that spectacle almost makes up for the film’s other failings.

2.  Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana are having a hell of a year. Worthington was little-known even in his native Britain Australiabefore the release of Terminator: Salvation earlier this year, and though critics were generally unkind to the film, the consensus seemed to be that he definitely out-acted Christian Bale.  Saldana had a small role in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, but was definitely not a household name before her one-two punch of Star Trek and Avatar in 2009.  Worthington’s solid but not particularly exciting, and I’d like for somebody to let him start using his native accent because his American one is terrible.  But Saldana’s a great actress, charismatic and convincing even behind the CGI, and I really hope she starts starring in her own films – in her roles so far she mostly props up the male characters around her, and it’s a shame.

3. I can’t fucking believe they used the Papyrus typeface for the subtitles. As if they were designing the flier for a small-town high school play instead of a half-a-billion dollar motion picture.  Even Comic Sans would have been preferable.

4.  The screenplay is bad. Really bad.  However bad you’re thinking it is, it’s worse.  The dialogue is wooden and trite.  The storyline is predictable – .  The characters are one-dimensional.  The themes are unsettling.  (More on that in a minute.)  It is at least as good an argument against writer-directors as the abysmal Lady In The Water was, and it’s only Cameron’s directorial skill that rescues the film from being the biggest laughingstock of the last ten years.

5. The film is not explicitly racist; this isn’t Birth of a Nation.  But it relies on any number of outdated and offensive racial stereotypes, without which the story does not work. The plot, as summarized by io9’s Annalee Newitz, is “a classic scenario you’ve seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.”  The Na’vi – in religion, in dress, in weaponry – at first seem to be a blend of all the cultures European colonists were confused by in 1650, from Native Americans to African tribes.  But the narrative trap laid by Cameron is actually more cunning: the Na’vi actually don’t even have a culture, in the sense that we use the word.

Instead, they are the literal, biological manifestation of Cameron’s idea of the noble savage, which is based on a superficial reading of some strains of Native American mythology with a bit of Judeo-Christian morality thrown in.  The Na’vi live in a state of grace, literally inside a tree, uncontaminated by the war, pestilence, and evil that the invading humans bring with them.  They don’t merely commune with nature – using a sort of planetwide neural network, they actually establish a physical connection with the plants and animals around them.  Men are biologically compelled to pick their favorite female, with whom they will form a lifelong, monogamous relationship.  Though they are scantily clad, their genitalia remain tucked chastely away (and are presumably rather puny, relative to their body size).  They are a race of Adams and Eves: they want for nothing, because everything has been provided for them; they need neither faith nor intelligence, because everything they believe in, Cameron has made reality.

This brand of primitivism – which sees native peoples not as real human beings but as embodiments of a perfect ideal – is both moronic and narratively dull.  That’s why Avatar has to take it even one step further: when trouble comes, and the Na’vi way of life is truly threatened, they are absolutely helpless until the arrival of a white man.  And not just any white man – an American Marine, full of pluck and derring-do and a cheerful contempt for these silly scientists with all their tests and samples. Jake Sully (check out those initials!) is chosen to lead the Na’vi not only because he has more experience with human technology but because he’s just better than they are: a better warrior, a better flier, a better leader.  He even takes over the role of spiritual leader: when he asks Eywa (the god of all living things) to help him win the climactic battle, the Na’vi chuckle at his naivete – but the gesture saves the day.  It’s a bait-and-switch: the film first claims to be enlightened and post-racial, then merrily goes on to prove that the white guy is superior to everybody else anyway.

It’s fair to wonder whether Avatar really deserves this level of scrutiny – it’s not a process that we routinely put blockbuster action films through, although maybe it should be.  But ultimately it’s important to analyze the racial assumptions the film makes, if only because Avatar – like Crash before it- absolutely begs to be taken as a Big Important Movie About Race.  But when you tease out and fully explore the allegory, it says more about Cameron than it does about race.  Avatar is a movie made by a man maniacally bent on proving how not racist he is; in the end, of course, it does exactly the opposite, right down to the casting choices.  (As the blogger SEK points out, nearly all the speaking roles among the humans were played by light-skinned actors, while all the speaking roles among the Na’vi were played by dark-skinned actors.  It’s evident that Cameron knows what his savages look like.)

There was, of course, another 2009 film that explicitly set up the metaphor of humans-as-whites and aliens-as-blacks:the cheaper and much, much better District 9.  (Coincidentally, the climactic battle of that film also involved a mech suit.)  District 9 also made some uncomfortable racial statements, but at least I felt that it was trying to engage with racism and racial stereotypes on a serious and intellectual level.  Avatar doesn’t want to make people think about race.  It wants to make them feel better without the trouble of thinking about it.

(Incidentally, James Cameron also comes off as being an egomaniacal asshole in this New Yorker profile, and between that and Avatar, he’s pretty much been knocked off the list of my personal heroes.  Sad when that happens.)