James Cameron’s love of technology is enough to sell Avatar to fans awaiting his first techno-feat since 1997’s Titanic. But will they understand the awful thing he’s done with it? Avatar’s highly-touted special effects depict an army from Earth traveling to Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centuri-A star system, to mine rare ore from under its inhabitants, tall, blue-skinned creatures with tails called the Na’vi. These F/X show Cameron’s ex-Marine hero, Jake Sully (the great everyman Sam Worthington), taking part in a quasi-military program where he enters the alien society via a hybrid body (an avatar) made from human and Na’vi DNA. Cameron’s “fully immersive” 3-D technology is irritating to watch for nearly three hours. And then there’s his underlying purpose: Avatar is the corniest movie ever made about the white man’s need to lose his identityand assuage racial, political, sexual and historical guilt.
Only children—including adult children—will see Avatar as simply an adventure film; their own love of technology has co-opted their ability to comprehend narrative detail. Cameron offers sci-fi dazzle, yet bungles the good part: the meaning. His undeniably pretty Pandora—a phosphorescent Maxfield Parrish paradise with bird-like lizards, moving plant life and floating mountains—distracts from the inherent contradiction of a reported $300-$500 million Hollywood enterprise that casually berates America’s industrial complex.
Cameron’s superficial B-movie tropes pretend philosophical significance. His story’s rampant imperialism and manifest destiny (Giovanni Ribisi plays the heartless industrialist) recalls Vietnam-era revisionist westerns like Soldier Blue, but it’s essentially a sentimental cartoon with a pacifist, naturalist message. Avatar condemns mankind’s plundering and ruin of a metaphorical planet’s ecology and the aboriginals’ way of life. Cameron fashionably denounces the same economic and military system that make his technological extravaganza possible. It’s like condemning NASA—yet joyriding on the Mars Exploration Rover.
While technically impressive, Avatar’s basically a daft version of the Transformer movies’ sci-fi, techno fantasy. Michael Bay’s extraordinary gift for flashy spectacle found perfect expression in the gargantuan slapstick comedy of technology run amok; his teenage characters’ rapport with cars and machines showed an ambivalent relationship with the things that expedite human activities yet threaten our peace and our history. Avatar, however, invents an alternate world to make the airy-fairy pronouncement: “There’s a network of energy that flows through all living things.” Alien-girl Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) teaches Sully how to bond with a tie-dyed, eagle-like creature by docking his wriggly tail into it. “Feel her!” Neytiri urges, and Cameron emulates the boy-plus-car symbiosis of Transformers—but with pulsing loins, veins and orifices. Better than Titanic’s kitschy romanticism, it is Cameron’s most sensual incident since the husband-wife airlift of True Lies yet, strangely, this sexualized conquest suggests latent fascism in his style.
Set in the near future, Avatar is a throwback to the hippie naiveté of Kevin Costner’s production Rapa Nui (directed by Kevin Reynolds). While prattling about man’s threat to environmental harmony, Cameron’s really into the powie-zowie factor: destructive combat and the deployment of technological force. At first, Sully, a “warrior and dreamwalker” like The Matrix’s Neo, is shown as a fierce, sculpted meathead with a wounded look in his wide eyes. Cameron lights Worthington superbly in tremendous, empathetic close-ups, yet when Sully’s involvement with the avatar project increases—as hair and beard grow in—his humanity becomes nondescript and he identifies with the Na’vi. Going native allows Cameron to move on to the violent technology he really loves—though never scrutinizing Sully’s new bond with an angry red dragon or how Sully’s temperament becomes dangerously enflamed.
Here’s the hypocrisy: As Sully helps the beleaguered, virtuous aliens fight back and conquer the human invaders, Avatar puts forth a simple-minded anti-industrial critique. Despite Avatar’s 12-year gestation, Cameron’s obviously commenting on the Iraq War—though not like his hawkish Aliens. Appealing to Iraq War disenchantment, he evokes 9/11 when the military topples the Na’vi’s sacred, towering Tree of Souls. The imagery implies that the World Trade Center was also an altar (of U.S. capitalism), yet this berserk analogy exposes Cameron’s contradictory thinking. It triggers the offensive battle scenes where American soldiers get vengefully decimated—scored to the rousing clichés of Carmina Burana.
Avatar’s going-native F/X fantasy infantilizes Cameron’s technology-infatuated audience; they’ve never read Joseph Conrad on colonialism or feel any compunction about balancing politics and fantasy. There’s even a Busby Berkeley-style tribal dance to divert them. Also, Avatar’s techno-exoticism involves blue cartoon creatures, not brown, black, red, yellow real-world people. It’s the easiest, dumbest escapism imaginable.
Directed by James Cameron
Runtime: 162 min.
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