Yup, The Boyfriend and I saw Avatar today, and before I get spoilery with my nitpicks, let me first say that it was one hell of a film. I saw it in 3D, but I think I would prefer not to do that again – I kept wanting to take off the damn glasses so I could see the movie better, and I found that 3D objects in motion were much less clear than things that were stationary.
But still – wow. A great adventure story, visually amazing. And I think we’ve finally found the other end of the Uncanny Valley with this film. At no time during the movie did I look at the Na’vi or their world and think, “Oh, that’s just CGI.” I mean, I knew it was – about 60% of the film was done in the computer, according to IMDB – but nothing stood out and screamed “Look at me, I’m a special effect!” Probably for the same reason no one snowflake stands out in a blizzard. But the world was stylistically consistent – highly influenced by undersea biology, methinks – and the performances were rendered well enough that I could believe in what I was seeing. So bravo right there, Cameron. You got me and kept me for every one of those 162 minutes.
But because I can’t leave well enough alone….
The first thing, of course, is about the story itself, which I’m sure has already been hashed to death. It’s pretty boilerplate: noble savages stand in the way of a technologically advanced civilization (which, by an odd coincidence, happens to be heavily balanced towards those of European descent). They’re hopelessly outmatched until one of the colonizers comes along, learns their ways, comes to love them and leads them to victory against the oppressors. Without the help of this man, all would have been lost.
There are those who would call this story patronizing, if not downright racist – why not have a movie where the Noble Savages save themselves, without any need to be “rescued” by a white man?
Well… yeah. There is that.
I suppose this trope is so well-used because it gives members of the audience – who are, by and large, not members of stone-age tribal cultures – a place to join the movie. You can see this person from a technologically advanced culture and think, “He is me,” because decades of movie-watching and centuries of storytelling have conditioned us to think so. I’m pretty sure isolated tribal cultures, were they to make a movie about this situation, probably would write a story where the indigenous people manage to kick out the invaders with no help at all from a turncoat. But I guarantee that movie wouldn’t make a billion dollars in just over two weeks.
The fact that the hero is, once again, a young, straight, white guy is just one of those things that Hollywood probably does unconsciously. If pressed, I’m sure James Cameron wouldn’t say that he set out to make a movie with a young, straight white guy as the lead – that was just who he first envisioned. Because he’s James Cameron, not Spike Lee. There was no reason Sully couldn’t have been female, or gay, or Of Color, but that probably never really occurred to them while making this movie. Cameron, like so many makers and consumers of movies, has a certain image of an adventure hero, and challenging that image isn’t his top priority for this film.
Making Sully a paraplegic was a nice character note, but ultimately irrelevant – while using the Avatar gave him full mobility again, I’m pretty sure he would have made many of the same choices if he’d been able-bodied the whole time.
And that’s because the people he was working for were Evil. My gods, all they needed were mustaches to twirl and they would have been complete.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for seeing giant mega-corporations as the bad guys. I’m even on board with the military as the antagonist, mainly because I’ve never succumbed to the military-worship that has seized the United States for the last decade or two. I’m sure there are Conservative blogs right now just losing their shit about how badly Avatar portrayed Our Soldiers and Our Military and how James Cameron must just hate America, the tree-hugging Commie fag junkie!!
Thing is, US corporations and the US military have a long history of overrunning natives in pursuit of a higher political or economic goal, and to pretend otherwise is to have a very blinkered view of history. So I found their behavior in this just as believable as Weyland-Yutani sacrificing the lives of Marines and colonists in order to obtain a risky economic goal in Aliens.
The problem I had with the Bad Guys is that they were just that – Bad Guys. It’s like Cameron said, “Okay, we need Greedy Industrialist and Whack Job Soldier on set right now!” and left it at that. The antagonists are Extra Heavy-Duty Evil, just to make the Noble Savages look all that much better, and I call that lazy storytelling.
An effective villain has to be someone that the audience can envision themselves becoming, even if they think they never would. He has to be someone you can understand, and be able to see the steps that might be necessary to become him. Look at Darth Vader, for example. While no one would disagree that he’s the Bad Guy, you can kind of see where he’s coming from – he wants a galaxy that is orderly, and will stop at nothing to achieve that. His goals are understandable, even if his methods are reprehensible, and that makes his character easier to identify with – none of us wants chaos and disorder to rule, and we all think we know how the world would best be run. If we were put in the same position as Vader, might we not also turn to the Dark Side? It makes him complex and interesting, and the audience can look at him and think, “Well, there but for the Grace of Lucas go I.”
The bad guys in this movie are utterly hateable right from the start. As soon as they open their mouths, we have them pinned – Colonel Quaritch is an utter lunatic, driven by bloodlust and xenophobia, and Parker Selfridge is a greedy industrialist who is mentally incapable of relating to anything but profits. And while we do get the faintest, faintest glimmer that Selfridge might be possibly, maybe having second thoughts for just a moment, that’s all we get out of him. The bad guys are cardboard characters, which weakens the film, in my opinion.
Mind you, as cardboard characters go, Quatridge is pretty bad-ass. I mean, if my shoulder were on fire, I’d probably put it out right away, rather than wait until I’m in the mecha suit. I’m weird like that.
(Speaking of which – who designs a mecha suit with a hunting knife? Wouldn’t you have the sharp and dangerous blades kind of, I dunno, built in?)
And it was pretty predictable in a lot of places. From the get-go, of course, you know damn well how Sully’s loyalties will eventually fall. When he and Neytiri have that conversation about the Giant Damn Dragon that only five Na’vi have ever managed to tame, you can be pretty sure that Sully will end up being number six. When the Tree of Souls fails to transfer Helen’s consciousness into her Avatar, you can easily see Sully’s transfer eventually succeeding. And when Sully prays to Eywa for help, only to have Neytiri say that it was probably a pointless gesture, you know that the Planet is eventually going to lend a hand, probably right when all seems lost.
But you know what? The hell with it. This is an adventure story, and those are the tropes with which an adventure story is told. Harping on Cameron for using the fundamental tools of his trade is like criticizing a master sculptor for using marble, just like everyone else, and wielding such pedestrian tools as a hammer and chisel. The final work is much more than the sum of the parts that make it up, so to whine that he was heavy-handed with the foreshadowing is just being petulant.
And lest we forget – the environmental theme. Yes, the Earth is our mother, blah blah blah, got it. It’s an interesting idea – these people who are intimately connected to their world – and I would love to see it explored further in the inevitable sequel/novelization/animated television program. But it wasn’t the standout theme for me.
All in all, I liked the movie. It was rollicking good fun, visually stunning, and kept me completely engaged throughout the whole thing. The fact that the Na’vi just also happen to be big blue half-naked alien eye candy certainly doesn’t hurt….