Digesting Avatar

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I must stand by my initial response to Avatar, which was that it was visually exciting, but dramatically leaden. It also fades from memory quite quickly, and sours a bit in the recollection. James Cameron’s film has, however, excited quite a lot of debate – despite mostly favourable, if qualified reviews (mine was very much in line with the majority, I think), there is already a backlash that shows how quickly cultural products can be mined for the subtexts and counter-readings that will be exercising students on film-studies courses in years to come. I can see it being used as a prompt for discussions of Hollywood’s myths of hegemony, race and history very soon, even though there are unlikely to be any campus lecture theatres to show it in 3D as intended. These post-hype analyses will not be dazzled by the arc lamps of spectacular, IMAX-sized action, which might make them more clear-minded and less likely to be swayed by special effects, but this is not necessarily a fair fight if one believes that visual spectacle is a part of a film’s lexicon rather than the fig leaf for an under-endowed plot.

Browsing the science section of a bookshop today, I came across this book, Avatar: The Field Guide to Pandora: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora. It’s one of four books I spotted as official tie-ins with the movie, showing the extent to which Cameron wanted his world-building to be a transmedia enfranchisement, but this particular book, pretending to be an anthropological study of the Na’vi as if they were a real tribe. (You might also like to read an interview with the USC Professor who created the Na’vi language, or go the whole hog and take some Na’vi language lessons: this is the sign of a franchise bedding in for the long haul.) All this anthropology won’t help to fend off accusations of racial reductionism. It seems to serve to portray the Na’vi as a perfectly formed, uniform race rather than a bunch of individuals. The observation that they “mate for life” does a lot of work – it sanctifies them as morally pure, romantic beings, ignoring the capacity of individuals to break those rules, defying conventions of race, caste, species and culture. I’m more interested to learn what the Na’vi might do with people who don’t mate for life: Hollywood has taught us to valourise individualism and to condemn the dictates of the hive-minded herd (to mix a metaphor). All of a sudden we have a film that wants our hero to submit to cultural conformity, even if he has to defy his own species to do so.

Lovers of Avatar might like to point out that it presents a truly radical vision of fluid identity. The hero, Jake Sully, changes species to effect a complete rejection of the militarised, ultra-capitalist adventurism of the human race. He leaves one body behind to be reborn in another, having come to identify with the Other he was raised to hate, fear and animalise. But this is what is so frustrating about the film: there is such juicy material at the centre of it which goes unexplored. When Jake first enters the Na’vi body, he gets a bit hyper. His senses are heightened and he becomes euphorically fascinated with his regained athleticism, the feel of the earth beneath his feet. He is almost immediately comfortable in his new skin, though, and the potentially interesting consequences of leap-frogging the Cartesian dualism, the uneasy fit between body and mind, are left behind as Jake becomes a slightly awkward interloper in the Na’vi way of life, rather than a fundamentally disjunct and disordered specimen coming to terms with what must be an incredibly unsettling experience. The visual spectacle of the film, so heavily predicated on novelty and immerson, might be designed to simulate the effects of new eyes in new environments, but it is hardly set up to effect the fearful aspects of such a dislocation. Again, this may be asking too much, but it could have been a more daring and complex route to take.

What follows is a digest of some stuff I’ve read so far in tracking the Avatar debate. If it all gets a bit long-winded, you can always just scroll down to the bottom where there are some nice pictures and a discussion forum.

Owen Glieberman at Entertainment Weekly sees the inevitable Oscar race between Avatar and Up in the Air as “the most symbolic since Forrest Gump vs. Pulp Fiction“. The story here should not be that this is a battle for hearts and minds between the bloated blockbuster and the quality indie effort, but actually that Up in the Air is what passes for “alternative” cinema in America these days.

Gareth James’s blog has an extensive review of the film, and the reviewer is none too impressed with the 3d:

[T]he foregrounded layers of action, from Jake Sully floating against a deeply composed background after a cryogenic sleep, or holographic computer displays, were initially impressive, but quickly became repetitive. […] The same applied to Pandora – the foregrounded movement of fauna, animals and flying weapons were superbly rendered, but the changing focus more often separated my attention from the action sequences themselves.

Sequences that were supposed to provide the film’s most breathtaking displays of virtuosity, including waterfall dives and flying duels, jumped out as attention-grabbing, but without ever drawing me into the action in the same way as the kineticism of the car chases that dominate The Dark Knight. As a result, the mounting effects never quite allowed me to move from respect into immersion – the physical discomfort of the glasses didn’t help here by the 2 hour mark, and at times I wondered whether I would have enjoyed the film more without the 3D.

Andrew Nelson draws out the generic parallels between Avatar and the American Western, taking the discussion beyond the oft-heard comparison with Dances with Wolves/Smurfs:

While the Western has always taken liberties with history, it is still, ultimately, constrained by it — and, in this case, the knowledge of what became of American Indians. In short, the Indians can’t win. Avatar, like most sci-fi, has no such constraints. The Indians can win, and in Avatar they do. A leader fortold by prophecy, faith in mother Pandora and lots and lots of arrows triumph over the advanced, technological marvels of mechanized warfare. At the end, the Na’vi expel the greedy capitalist technocrats from their homeworld, and the “man who knows indians” literally, magically becomes one of them.

Therein lies the ultimately paradox, or hypocrisy, of Avatar, the most expensive, techonologically-advanced commercial film ever made: it is critical of the very things that make it possible.

Incidentally, Marcus Parcus has an amazing side-by-side comparison of Neytiri and an issue of Marvel Comics’ Time Spirits. The similarities are really striking, and here’s a sample:

Dan Hassler-Forest at Dial 9/11 for Superheroes was very quick in producing a digest of some of the online commentary on Avatar, and I’m indebted to him for a couple of the links in this post, particularly in relation to the racist/colonialist readings of the film. Acephalous is perhaps the least equivocal, in a post entitled Avatar is a Racist Film. The argument is persuasive:

The film argues that once a white person truly and deeply understands the non-white experience, he becomes an unstoppable combination of non-white primitivism and white rationalism which is exactly what happens. In order for the audience to support the transformation of Jake Sully into Braveheart Smurf, it must accept the essentialist assumptions that make such a combination possible … and those assumptions are racist. In football terms, this is a variation of the black quarterback “problem.”

For decades, coaches and scouts wished they could find a black body with a white brain in it. (“If only someone could find a way to stuff Peyton Manning’s brain into JaMarcus Russell’s body!”) The essentialist logic at play there is obvious: black people are more athletic than white, and white people are smarter than black. No matter how descriptive these people thought they were being, in truth they were creating the conditions they claimed to describe: black quarterbacks were increasingly valued for raw athleticism, white athletes for their pocket presence and tactical acumen. That’s an expectations game based on racist expectations … and it works according to the same logic behind the narrative of Avatar.

Annalee Newitz at io9 (a site which has been increasingly impressive in its ability to mix a populist focus and thoughtful commentary) asks the question “When will white people stop making films like Avatar?” as a way in to the racial politics of the film, arguing that it “imaginatively revisits the crime scene of white America’s foundational act of genocide”. I don’t think I’ve heard it phrased so succinctly, and there’s also an effective comparison with District 9:

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.

So, if Avatar is annoying all of these bleedin’-heart liberals, why is it also enfuriating conservative critics? To be fair, plenty of them are not too fussed about it (Steve Zeitchik of the LA Times has a good round-up of the political opinions here), but there are some angry voices out there. Try John Nolte on for size:

“Avatar” is a thinly disguised, heavy-handed and simplistic sci-fi fantasy/allegory critical of America from our founding straight through to the Iraq War. Within 15 minutes, the “liberal tell” spoils every story beat of Sully’s character arc. He’s as dull a protagonist as you’ll ever see. Giovanni Ribisi’s sweaty weasel of a corporate executive never moves beyond that and Col. Quaritch is all ‘roid rage, no humanity and his Big Speech about the necessity of “a pre-emptive attack to fight terror with terror” was as surprising as Cameron‘s use of a military “shock and awe” campaign to level the Na’Vi’s precious “Home Tree” as a tacky metaphor for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

The Na’vi are an awfully stupid species. After years of dealing with the “Sky People,” for some reason they still haven’t figured out that arrows are useless against giant military aircraft. And is it okay to mention how hard it is to keep track of who’s who, because the Na’vi, uhm … all look alike? Twice I was sure Sully’s avatar had been killed. Twice I was disappointed. Cameron’s brainchild tribe is boringly perfect and insufferably noble … I wanted to wipe them out.

Think of “Avatar” as “Death Wish 5” for leftists. A simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy where if you freakin’ hate the bad guys (America), you’re able to forgive the by-the-numbers predictability of it all and still get off watching them get what they got coming.

I have to say I agree that the infallible nobility of the Na’vi is a bit wearing, and does the drama no favours. It would be a much more complex film if the Na’vi were more ruthless in their guerrilla tactics, and we were made to feel a bit more ambivalent about them. Jake’s transition might feel more hard-won and sincere instead of an obvious choice.

Jonah Goldberg is a little confused. Or maybe I’m confused by his claim that Avatar‘s popularity can be attributed to its synchronicity with a hard-wired human instinct towards transcendent religiosity. He seems to be asserting the continued relevance of religion in popular culture, without realising that the Darwinist explanation of religious persistence (communities that formed strong and exclusive groups were more likely to survive) is more likely to be an argument against the existence of God rather than an incentive to proclaim it. But according to Goldberg, since it adapts its ideology to appeal to the maximum number of people, it’s not a surprise that Avatar is a “liberal” film:

What would have been controversial is if — somehow — Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts.

Of course, that sounds outlandish and absurd, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We live in an age in which it’s the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion. If the Na’Vi were Roman Catholics, there would be boycotts and protests. Make the oversized Smurfs Rousseauian noble savages and everyone nods along, save for a few cranky right-wingers.

For an article that begins by calling Avatar an “apologia for pantheism”, Ross Douthat at the New York Times makes some interesting points about how the film chimes with a trend for mix-and-match, incoherent approaches to spirituality. I have a sneaking position that the subtext is that “Jesus is a much better option”, but it’s kept in check until the final paragraphs:

Hollywood keeps returning to these themes because millions of Americans respond favorably to them. From Deepak Chopra to Eckhart Tolle, the “religion and inspiration” section in your local bookstore is crowded with titles pushing a pantheistic message. A recent Pew Forum report on how Americans mix and match theology found that many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the “spiritual energy” of trees and mountains that would fit right in among the indigo-tinted Na’Vi.

Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.

For something a bit barmier in its conservatism, try Dr Ted Baehr’s description of Avatar as an abomination no doubt dreamed up by long-haired druggies:

For hundreds of years, the pagan, communist ideas expressed in this movie circulated among a threadbare group of outcasts with dirty fingernails and greasy hair, who shared their obtuse, occult ideas amongst themselves with manic, alienated glee. Now, James Cameron has made these insane views the major bulwark of a very spectacular movie, but the spectacle does not make these Neo-Marxist views any more coherent, rational or uplifting.

In “Avatar,” the dialogue is often funky, the ideas are self-contradictory and absurd, the characters are shallow and stereotypical and the plot is forgotten as Cameron shows off scene after scene of his special effects. If only someone had edited this movie, it may have been more interesting. Those who want to be blown away by special effects, or who are on drugs, may disagree. Ultimately, “Avatar” is bad news. What the people in the movie need to deliver them from their greed and the aliens in the movie need to deliver them from their severe group think is the loving salvation available only through the true God, Jesus Christ.

That settles it in, then. I might add that Christian message boards are not filled with Avatar-hate. One contributor at Focus on the Family‘s message board suggests that people might be flocking to the film because of “an underlying desire of people to see a people devoted and listening to their god, something we as Christians do not demonstrate as often as we ought, me included.” Truly, this film is baggy enough to allow a wide range of interpretations.

If you’re looking for a breathless, giddy appreciation of the greatness of Cameron’s film, you could do a lot worse than Mary HK Choi’s declaration of love at The Awl. I’m fascinated by Choi’s writing – it’s a combination of OMG excitability and perfect comic timing. I’m convinced she must be ghost-written by Douglas Coupland. While other critics were reaching for Smurfs and Ferngully for their descriptions of the Na’vi, her reference to them as “giant Matthew Lillards” is lovely. Anyway, she thought Avatar was totally awesome:

I can’t even tell you how insane I feel trying to rock up a buncha words to ya’ll in some sufficiently synergistic configuration that’ll convey what makes this movie so rad. I feel ridiculously ill-equipped. It’s a joke. The words don’t have one million motion-capture dots on its face with a squillion teeny cameras trained on just their eyeball areas with the whole thing plunged into a gigantic motion-capture volume set. The words won’t peel their skins off and spazz for you in waves and particles and alchemy and phosphorescent flowermagic and hypercolored superdinosaurs and I feel shameface about it because they’d need to ferry a petabyte of information to properly get my point across. I feel like I’m trying to tell you in mashed potato.

Is she kidding? Or just mimicking the hyperventilating fan the film aims to overwhelm with spectacular visual gadgetry? Either way, it’s a shame we never get to see her quotes on the posters…

Bob Rehak at Graphic Engine has a couple of posts that chart his anticipation of the film, and then his considered response. He is particularly insightful on the way Cameron manages expectation and corrals the responses to his visual effects by contextualising them in a plot that is about the performance of a foreign body’s anatomy. It’s worth a big quotation:

A biological vessel designed to allow visitors to explore an alien world, the story’s avatars are but metaphors for Avatar the movie, itself a technological prosthesis for viewers hungry to experience new landscapes. 3D, IMAX, and great sound systems are merely sensory upgrades for our cinematic avatarialism, and as I watched the audience around me check the little glowing squares of their cell phones, my usual dismay was mitigated by the notion that, like the human characters in the movie, they were merely augmenting their immersion with floating GUIs and HUDs.

Cameron’s nifty trick, though, has always been to frame his visual and practical effects in ways that lend them a crucial layer of believability. I’m not talking about photorealism, that unreachable horizon (unreachable precisely because it’s a moving target, a fantasized attribute we hallucinate within the imaginary body of cinema: as Lacan would put it, in you more than you). I’m talking about the way he cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as the human skin around a robotic core in the Terminator films, craftily selling an actor of limited expressiveness through the conceit of a cyborg trying to pass as human; Arnold’s stilted performance, rather than a disbelief-puncturing liability, became proof of his (diegetically) mechanoid nature, and when the cutaways to stop-motion stand-ins and Stan Winston’s animatronics took over, we accepted the endoskeleton as though it had been there all along, the real star, just waiting to be discovered. An identical if hugely more expensive logic underlies the human-inhabited Nav’i of Avatar: if Jake Sully’s alien body doesn’t register as absolutely realistic and plausible, it’s OK — for as the editing constantly reminds us, we are watching a performance within a performance, Sully playing his avatar as Worthington plays Sully, Cameron and his cronies at WETA and ILM playing us in a game of high-tech Russian nesting dolls. The biggest “special effect” in Cameron’s films is the way in which diegesis and production reality collapse into each other.

I don’t know if you’re the kind of reader who frequents message boards at The Internet Movie Database, but you might like to observe the ebb and flow of fans and haters over at the Avatar board, where the loyalty of the films protectors is matched only by the vociferous name-calling of the opposing team (some of whom refer to it as “Avatard”). It’s not always an ennervating debate, but it’s fast-moving and occasionally an enjoyable scrum. What is a bit stultifying is the widespread rush to berate anyone for “reading too much into it” or “thinking too hard about it”. This is really a bad swing to the daft side, even for movie message boards.

Perhaps the most surprising read I’ve had on the topic of Avatar is at the Avatar Forums, where the film is getting a rapturous reception. And for once, I don’t think “rapturous” is a misnomer. Following a tip-off from Cynical-C, I found that an alarming number of viewers were reporting feelings of depression, or at least a powerful sense of comedown after the visceral high of Cameron’s movie. Some seemed genuinely disturbed about having to leave Pandora when the lights came up, and many more are deeply enamoured of Neytiri (without ever mentioning Zoe Saldana’s fine performance (see below)):

i have hard a hard time concentrating, and have been up late on forums about avatar everynight, but its been a good experience i’ve been looking for a pandora here on earth, and emersing my self in the movie, and the values, and characters… i love it. Neytiri is so beautiful, and jake so caring and strong, its such a beautiful story i can’t stop thinking about it <333

The past 7 nights in a row my wife has asked me to have sex with her, and I just havent been in the mood. Scratch that. I’m incredibly horny most of the time, but I dont feel attracted to her anymore. The sight of her naked literally does nothing for me, and I’m frightened by that. Instead I imagine Neytiri. Her majestic grace and boundless beauty as well as the alien mystery about her. I want to fly off to pandora and live with her, to be with her always. I would worship her as she deserves. I’d do anything to just to touch her, to smell her.

After I watched Avatar at the first time, I trully felt depressed as I “wake” up in this world again.
So after few days, I went to cinema and watched it again for the second time to relieve the depression and hopeless feeling.
Now I listen to the soundtrack and share my views in this forum. It really helps.

A week ago I was an ex-military conservative Republican business owner. Now I’m a 10 foot tall alien that prays to trees. Weird.

These must be the perfect consumers, locked into a compulsion to repeat in order to assuage the sense of loss left behind by the experience. That kind of lasting immersion, overwhelming rational sense with the spectacle of an apparently habitable fantasy worldI’m sure this represents a tiny minority, but it’s another reminder of how the Net gives us a huge range of voices in response to popular culture, from the detached professional critics to the blissed-out or messed-up accolytes who feel the film in their bodies and minds. I’m not going to mock, not least because I’ve just spent ages reading up on the film myself.

Away from the amateurs, there’s a surprise rave from Roger Ebert, a completely unqualified gush of praise for Cameron:

Avatar” is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It’s a technical breakthrough. It has a flat-out Green and anti-war message. It is predestined to launch a cult. It contains such visual detailing that it would reward repeating viewings. It invents a new language, Na’vi, as “Lord of the Rings” did, although mercifully I doubt this one can be spoken by humans, even teenage humans. It creates new movie stars. It is an Event, one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.

But then, I guess this is one of those moments when Ebert is wielding his influence to tell his readers whether or not the film is good. He certainly nails his colours to the mast, but there’s nothing that helps us to understand, distill or illuminate the contents of the film. It seems that the bloggers have taken on that task. The Guardian, which saw Andrew Pulver giving Avatar a two-star review, and then Peter Bradshaw (“unable to decide if it wants to kick the ass of every alien in sight or get all eco-touchy-feely with them, it’s a Dubya movie trying its darnedest to get with the new Obama programme”) adding a star to the tally, has published a “review of reviews” (a bit like what I’m writing now). It’s not especially surprising, but it’s notable for a quote from Wendy Ide comparing the design of Pandora to “a futuristic air freshener advertisement with the colour contrast turned up to the max”, and for the excellence of the first post on its comments board:

While we are living through ongoing wars on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cameron returns to the same fixtures as before, despite the horrors of this conflict being displayed each evening on the news. Meanwhile this day-glo farce has been preceded by an actual contemporary Iraq war film, The Hurt Locker, by Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow. Why any man would attempt to allegorise the illegal conflict in the Middle-East with a cartoon that owes more to World of Warcraft than bodies returning to Dover Air Force base I do not understand. It is a failure of resolve, a disgraceful retreat into spectacle and the techno-fetishism of immersive CGI.

That’s quite a definitive statement. It actually originates on the poster’s own blog, and you can read the whole piece here.

I made two points in my earlier post on Avatar that I should update. Firstly, that the marketing was rubbish. I meant not that it wasn’t effective, but that the posters were pretty tacky, the website (until it recently got a huge makeover) clunky and ugly, and the trailers underwhelming. But, according to Andrew Hampp at the Advertising Age, Fox spent a massive $150 million on tie-ins and promotion to kickstart a fan-fuelled campaign:

Just how mass was the marketing? Fox didn’t even have a sponsored Twitter account to speak of, so the studio can’t even take credit for the film’s daily appearance as a trending topic on the microblogging site after its theatrical debut — a surge of organic word-of-mouth that certainly didn’t hurt.

Also, I noted the hypocrisy of a film about respecting the environment and its indigenous peoples being sponsored by Coca-Cola. Hampp catalogues the spending spree that brought in even more corporate sponsorship, including a deal with one of the arch-villains of the eco-movement:

The studio teamed with Coke Zero and McDonald’s for extensive promotions that gave fans access to the virtual augmented-reality world of Pandora. Consumers could download an AR application from AVTR.com and scan their Coke Zero can or 12-pack to take a virtual ride in the Samson helicopter featured in the film. McDonald’s took a similar approach with its Happy Meal and Big Mac tie-ins, creating a virtual “Avatar” space called McWorld, where fans could interact with other aspects of the Pandora environment. Both marketers had large-scale media buys to promote the tie-ins, including general-market TV buys from Coke and multicultural TV, print and radio ads from McDonald’s. LG and Panasonic pitched in for global tie-ins to cross-promote products with similar 3-D innovations, while Mattel partnered on the toy merchandising front.

You read that correctly – a film which propounds an eco message teams up with McDonald’s to promote it. In his rather snippy dismissal of the film (mostly on grounds of boredom and plagiarism), Gregory Weinkauf has a nice response to the Big Mac tie-in:

I know, I know: You love Avatar. You’d probably rather just “experience” it, and ignore any reasonable considerations about it. You’re probably even irate that anyone would dare criticize a movie with such a deeply heartfelt “green” message. So let’s make a deal. After your “experience,” please go to McDonald’s — oh, such a “green” company, if ever there was one (Hello, Brazil!) — and check out those Avatar Happy Meals. In particular, examine the mass-produced, non-recyclable plastic “Na’vi” figures with the four toxic button-cell batteries inside. Hold one of those things in your hand and think about it for a minute. And if you still love Avatar after that, by all means, please ship off for “Pandora.”

I haven’t noticed many reviews talking about the performances, perhaps because Sam Worthington is quite a non-descript performer – maybe that’s the point, that he’s blank enough to transfer directly into a new body without too much change of style. But I thought Zoe Saldana was terrific. That is, I think she was. It’s hard to locate which aspects of Neytiri are hers, and which are facets of the technology. We’re meant to believe that the technology “captured” rather than fabricated or augmented the actors’ performances (you can read an interview with James Cameron discussing it at the Digital Acting website), but I doubt that many awards panels are going to see it in those terms for a few years to come yet. Saldana’s mannerisms, body language and facial expressions rise to the surface of her digital overcoat: and yes, I’ve noticed the irony of a film in which people “drive” remote bodies, requiring the actors to themselves pilot digital figures.

And, in case there was an doubt that there was a sexualised aspect to the design of the Na’vi, here’s what Jordu Schell, one of the film’s concept artists, had to say about James Cameron’s instructions for the look of Neytiri:

At some point, he said something to the effect of…the audience has to want to fuck her. I mean, Jim is very plain in his language. So, I went, “All right?” So I made something that, I don’t know if I really particularly wanted to fuck it, but it was certainly a beautiful alien. He definitely, he wanted it — because he really prefers women that are kind of athletic, and buff and stuff like that, so I, you know, designed something with big hands and feet, a big presence that felt really big and strong. It certainly wasn’t [my preference]. I mean, I would have sculpted, I don’t know, Gretchen Mol or something. But I sculpted this big, tall, buff, kind of tough-looking, kick-ass woman.

This might take us back to the theme of colonisation, the intermingling of hatred and desire for the Other, the wish to dominate them physically, ideologically, culturally and sexually. Did Cameron use this angle to confront us with it, or indulge us? Come to think of it, take that last question and repeat it relation to just about any aspect of Avatar.

I’ll add to this post from time to time, but if you’ve sighted any great bits of reviews, negative or positive that you think I should include in this digest, please let me know and I’ll include it. I’ll leave a final word to Armond White, a critic who usually manages to wind everyone up with his contrarian, bipolar reviews (perfectly, he insists he’s not a contrarian). I usually disagree with him, but sometimes it’s good to hear what he thinks about stuff, if only because it can be bracingly nutty: hey, somebody had to stick up for Norbit. This time, he’s at least on a team other than his own by slagging off the preposterous white-guilt self-importance of Avatar, though mostly because it seems a bit, well, un-American:

Avatar is the corniest movie ever made about the white man’s need to lose his identity and assuage racial, political, sexual and historical guilt.

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.

The fantasy of Sully giving up the impediment of his (American) humanity is a guilt-ridden 9/11 death wish. References to “fight terror with terror” and “shock-and-awe campaign” don’t belong in this 3-D Rapa Nui with its blather about the Na’vi’s “direct line to their ancestors.” Once again, villainous Americans exhibit no direct communication with ancestors. That’s Cameron’s fanboy zeal turned into fatuous politics. He misrepresents the facts of militarism, capitalism, imperialism—and their comforts.

See anything you’d like to argue with?


Extras & Updates:

  • Kristin Thompson addresses the issue of acting, Oscars and motion-capture. James Cameron has shown his annoyance that Avatar‘s actors haven’t been recognised with Oscar nominations. Thompson points out that the performances are significantly altered by animators rather than being “captured” and preserved without mediation. Cameron is definitely being disingenuous here if he thought the Academy was going to recognise Zoe Saldana (though I’ll be the first to speak up for the quality of her acting) when they couldn’t even get over the controversy of a digital tear added to Jennifer Connolly’s face in Blood Diamond. Avatar will almost certainly win the visual effects award, and much of the credit for that will come from the work done to construct and integrate digital bodies. I can’t imagine them proposing two awards for one performance.
  • CNN has picked up on the story of fans of Avatar suffering depression after leaving Pandora. See the full article here, and notice how vitriolic and unsympathetic the comments are at the bottom. Most of the respondents have little time for these people, who they see as childishly credulous and feeble in the face of immersive entertainment. I certainly didn’t set these people up for mockery – it’s quite touching, if a little disturbing, that people can feel such deep engagement with popular culture, and it’s interesting that they are not expressing concern over the arc of the story or the fate of the characters (Avatar has an extremely positive ending), but instead longing for a place that they feel they have visited, and which embodies the opposite of all the things wrong with planet Earth. Pandora is a natural oasis where Earth is a ravaged and doomed shell of its former, Edenic self. This is doubtless the product of a neo-Luddite sense that the world has lost its pre-lapsarian innocence (ironic given the hi-tech equipment needed to make, view and then discuss online the film itself), but depression is not to be laughed at, even if it seems to have a trivial cause. If a film presents a fantasy that is so beguiling that it points up the failings and sorrows of reality, let’s hope it galvanises them into action to correct those problems, or at least to change their own outlook. There’s more on the Avatar depression phenomenon at The Huffington Post. See also this video from CNN:

  • You can follow Neytiri’s Tweets here. Sample: “Stuffing myself of good Yerik right now. Mmmmmmm I need to run this off afterwards LOL.” Not sure I recognise her voice in there. Maybe she’s been corrupted by her relationship with an Earthling…
  • Let’s face it, there’s quite a few implausibilities in this film, despite its claims to have crafted an authentically evolved alien eco-system. At the top of the list of unanswered questions must be “Why do the Na’vi have breasts? They’re not placental mammals.” On behalf of nipple-spotting nerds everywhere, James Lipton put the question to James Cameron, and you can read the answer in the Huffington Post.
  • Since I wrote this post, Catherine Grant’s stupendous Film Studies for Free (the clue is in the title) has outgunned me with a massive compilation of links and summaries of key aspects of the Avatar allegory debate.
  • If you want to know how performance capture works, the makers of Avatar have helpfully provided a promotional video from the set. It’s part of the techno-hype, but features interesting footage and side-by-side comparisons of the on-set footage and the finished animation:
  • Two very thought-provoking posts about the film come from Giovanni Tiso’s blog, beginning here and following up here. Comparing coverage of the Haitian earthquake and reviews of Avatar, Tiso locates a critical protectionism where interruptions of the public debate by those who urge more reflective commentary are branded as “grossly inappropriate”. It’s a very eloquent and interesting pair of writings, and a great refresher for anyone who’s getting bored of the same old debates going round and round.
  • AOL News has the story of some Palestinian activists who dressed as Na’vi in order to protest their oppression in the West Bank, hoping to draw attention to the similarities between their plight and that of Cameron’s aliens.  It’s a good strategy, but it’s rather sad that they have to make themselves up like a fiction people care more about in order to highlight something that is really happening. See more in this video:
  • See also this video of Stephen Lang, the film’s main villain, talking about the cast’s visit to the Middle East on a PR mission to accompany screenings of the film (note that the Palestinians in the previous entry had to see the film on a bootlegged copy), perhaps to offset the anti-militarist angle of the story.
  • I’ve offered just a small slice in this post of the masses of comment on Avatar, but still I bet you’ve all just been waiting for Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, to give his thoughts. Well, wait no longer. You can read his article about post-Avatar gloom here. As far as I know, he’s the first politician to wrap himself in the Pandoran flag, but let me know if you notice any others. Buffoon he may be, but he puts stuff into perspective at one point:

Avatar is rooted in just about every film Hollywood made about cowboys and Indians. And that is why all those who think this is an anti-American film are also laughably mistaken. Why is Avatar being cheered by audiences of rednecks in Kentucky? Because it is the all-American movie – and not just because the white, American hero is given a messiah role among the blue-noses. It is a feature of powerful military empires that they like to romanticise their victims and luxuriate guiltily in the pathos of their suffering. Think of the Roman crowds pleading for the lives of captured barbarians in the amphitheatre. Think of the statue of The Dying Gaul. The eco-conscience of Avatar is an example of how a dominant consumerist society is able to exhibit its better nature, to parade its guilt, to feel good about feeling bad. And I can’t believe that many of these gloomy post-Avatar Westerners, when they really think about it, would want to up sticks to Pandora and take part in Na’vi society, with its obstinate illiteracy, undemocratic adherence to a monarchy based on male primogeniture and complete absence of restaurants. The final irony, of course, is that this entrancing vision of prelapsarian innocence is the product of the most ruthless and sophisticated money-machine the world has ever seen. With a budget of $237 million and with takings already at £1 billion, this exquisite capitalist guilt trip represents one of the great triumphs of capitalism.

  • There’s no shortage of Hi-Res images of the Na’vi around the Net. It’s a sign that Cameron is confident enough in his visual effects to allow them to be subject to close scrutiny. CGI has made pedants of us all, inviting us to quibble over the precision of computer-generated skin, hair and eyes. It has been made to seem important whether or not light bounces off flesh in the correct, perceptually realistic manner, or whether musculature stretches and retracts authentically. So, for the CG fetishists out there, check out the HD shots below, and inspect every hair, tooth and paw for defects. You might like to compare them with the images I posted of Scrooge in last year’s A Christmas Carol, already looking outdated. Click on the image for a (much) larger view:

  • Avatar toys are selling out fast, if the UK’s Forbidden Planet website is anything to go by. Again, it’s a perfect bit of convergence, or synergy or whatever you want to call it, that the film assists its fans in piloting these little surrogate bodies around the flower beds or wherever they want to play out their Pandoran fantasies:

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27 thoughts on “Digesting Avatar

  1. Thanks for the credit sir. On reflection I am somewhat embarrassed by the overly aggressive tone of my blog piece. For what? Avatar does not really seem worth the effort.

    That being said the io9 piece really hit the nail on the head.

    Next year, or in five years, or ten, I wonder how well this movie will be remembered? An excellent summation of the range of opinion.

    • No problem, Somnopolis. I don’t think your piece was needlessly angry or knee-jerk. What’s interesting about surveying discussions of new films is how fast the debate moves. In academia, it takes months, even years for responses to new films to get published. The responses are very carefully filtered and considered, and that has its own virtues, but the blogosphere has its own dynamics, and immediate responses are usually sincere, and the advantage is that you can revise your opinions or respond quickly to feedback. Sometimes you have to shout a little louder (or include a picture of Zoe Saldana) to get noticed in the crowd, but it’s all part of the fun. These initial views are not more or less valid than the long term remembrance of Avatar, just different. I reckon it’ll go down as a technical milestone that people end up feeling little affection or emotion for. It’s probably unlikely to have the same impact on DVD (or whatever home-viewing fomat prevails), which is where it will spend most of the rest of its life.

  2. What is most interesting about Avatar is its stance as a standard bearer for a return to the cinema. The spectacle is *meant* to be enjoyed on the big screen. The incredible level of hype and plaudits mentioning how it is a ‘game changer’, or ‘an immersive experience’, insist on audiences going to showings of this ‘must-see’ movie.

    Avatar is a milestone, but perhaps not in the way it is claimed. I see it as a circling of the wagons against the encroachments of film piracy and the rising video game industry. My mention of WoW was intentional, as that is ultimately the audience Hollywood needs to fight for. Hence the telling repetition of ‘immersive’.

  3. Absolutely. It’s also tapping into that longstanding myth that virtual actors will soon be indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood actors. If the digital bodies of Avatar appear to be convincing, it’s partly because they’re asked to perform big action gestures in a fantasy setting. The Na’vi are very expressive people, and their expressions are (conveniently) legible and similar to human ones (crying, smiling, kissing etc.). When digital performers are asked to emote in minute, subtle ways, I’ll buy into the hype a bit more. I think Avatar’s visual effects are impressive enough without needing impossible claims to big them up.

    I’m bored of the phrase “game-changer”, too. It’s a term that fell out of the Avatar publicity tree and straight into critics’ pre-release coverage as well as their reviews, meeting virtually no resistance on the way down. Another good reason why we need all the “Yes, it looks good, but…” responses.

  4. Some of the users on the Avatar board are literally mad about the film, if you say something negative they pounce on you like you’ve just badmouthed their mother. It’s a bit like the New Moon board, just with a diffirent gender bias.

    A lot of people seem to be against over-analysing. Someone on youtube said the following about 2001: “To me, like any movie, it’s entertainment. It’s a good, surreal, bizarre, disturbing sci-fi/horror movie. Like Mulholland Drive (xcept 4 the sci-fi element). It was designed just to entertain, and I think interpreting the living hell out of it is not really senseful.”

    Fair enough for that person, though I’m strongly of the opinion that they’re very, very wrong.

    • Hi, Sam. Thanks for your message – I don’t know why I didn’t see it until now. I’m usually pretty quick at responding.

      It’s definitely true that every message board has a fair number of commentators using the “It’s only a movie” argument. If you haven’t already, be sure to the follow the link posted by Just Another Film Buff in this comments section below. It’s a lovely rant against just this kind of view.

  5. Thanks, JAFB! I saw that via Dan Hassler-Forest’s link above, but it’s well worth repeating. It’s galling on the message boards how many people are satisfied with the line “it’s only a movie, it doesn’t have any meaning”, or resort to the intentional fallacy (“that can’t be a valid interpretation because Cameron didn’t intend it to mean that”). And then we find the euphoric fans who are on a downer because it turns out that Pandora isn’t real… Extraordinary.

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    • OK, OK! They’re in the mail. I see you took the Google nipple-search route to get here. The nipples are hidden somewhere on this site – you’ll have to read every entry to find them……

      Seriously though, thanks for stopping by. Hope you find what you’re looking for. Let me know when you do.

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  11. What you must realize in order to fully appreciate the meaning of the movie is that need to move beyond the limited white vs Indian perspective. The very important characteristic of the navi, or the entire planet that you are ignoring is that it is an single inter-connected network. What’s the special about this kind of ecosystem is that every single unit in this ecosystem behaves in a way that would not harm the collective benefit of the entire planet. This prevents the economical failures due to spill over costs that we see on Earth today, such as pollution, or global warming, or excessive consumption of resource at the cost of the planet. On Pandora this would never happen just as you would not let some of your cells consume too much of your body’s nutrition. This is what exactly Cameron is up against. He is not criticizing technological development, but the misuse of it, which is very well demonstrated on Pandora,as the human seek to turn that planet into another barely surviving Earth. Until you understand this, a lot of the stuff in the move won’t make sense to you.

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