“Avatar”: Blue Ewoks Save the Amazon from Blackwater Inc.


avatar

I have seen it twice now, both times in 3D. The following contains spoilers.

1. Its technical prowess is undeniable. For all the hype, I do think that Cameron has revolutionized the action movie. Note that I do not say films in general. 3D will help action, and to a lesser extent, horror and children’s, films, but I doubt it will add much to dramas or comedies. Consider if you think the Godfather, Airplane!, Schindler’s List, or Casablanca  would be much better in 3D. I don’t really think so. On the other hand, think of the chariot race in Ben-Hur in 3D. Now that would be something! So I think we should give credit to Cameron for his revolution. But we should also realize that its best impact will be limited in scope. This revolution is not on par with the transfer from silent to spoken films in the 30s, but rather more on the level with the move from frontal stereo to surround sound that began in the 80s.

2. Cameron also deserves credit for integrating 3D in a non-gimmicky way. Back in the 80s, 3D was tried, but it was always cheesy. Third films in bad series showed up with titles like Jaws 3-D or Friday the 13th 3-D, but usually the only thing 3D was a gimmick like a spear flying straight out at the screen. To Cameron’s credit, his 3D is integrated throughout to generate a richer, more immersive  environment for the viewer. In that way, he has matured the technology, which is now over 30 years old. That too is major feat, especially given the decadence of CGI in the last decade or so. CGI is now so ubiquitous, that it enables laziness. Cameron has helped return CGI to an exciting enhancement to a movie, rather than a replacement for it (300, Star Wars prequels, Matrix sequels). Cameron’s visual advance in technique rivals the the size of the steps forward made by Star Wars (1977), Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park. Visually, this film is the most important advance since Return of the King.

3. But the story… It is so politically correct postcolonial/environmental, that you just writhe in its painful predictability (kinda like Kingdom of Heaven with its blessedly pleasant Muslims and wretchedly imperialist Christians – yawn.) Indeed, in my second viewer, I found myself rooting for the “Sky People” just to upset the all-too-comfortable and easy PC moralism of it all. And there is no doubt that the bad-guy mercenary is the most enjoyable character in the movie. In the same way Lawrence Olivier or Darth Vader were the most fun to watch in Spartacus  and Star Wars, here you can’t help but love the watching the bad guy marine drink coffee in his ship (hah! ripped straight out of Apocalypse Now), while his machines wipes out the beautiful, harmonious, nature-loving, athletic Californians, I mean, Ewoks, I mean Navi! I wish they had made him a smoker too.

If you make a farce of tragedy, it becomes comedy. The Navi are so wonderful, that you kinda want to see them get smacked around. You’re not as muscular and virile and beautiful as they are; you’re sitting in that theater right now with a half-gallon of popcorn in one hand and a 64-ounce gulper of Jolt cola in the other. And how come they don’t commit human sacrifice like the Aztecs? The point is that if your story simply recites platitudes with no moral complexity, then its easy to ignore. Hollywood usually does this from the right actually. Usually Hollywood movies are unthinking vehicles for US patriotism (Michael Bay, Rambo, e.g.), but movies like Avatar and Kingdom of Heaven show you just how easy it is for the left too. By contrast, consider a difficult movie like Apocalypto, whose moral categories are all mixed up for the viewer and is consequently a richer, more challenging intellectual experience.

4. The best political reviews I read of the film are here, here, and here. Cameron deserves all the criticism IMO, from both right and left. Ironically, both the left and the right are correct about the film. Most of the political commentary I have read on the film is excellent – rapidly deconstructing its facile morality and easy ‘white messiah’ storyline, which is just ripped-off from Dances with Wolves and the Last Samurai.

5. Conservatives found it a simplistic story of PC platitudes: nature=good, technology=bad; white people=destructive rationalists, native peoples=harmonious pantheists; fossil fuels=bad, crying after the hunt=good. The blue people are a hodge-podge of the Vietnamese, Native Americans, and the Ewoks; the bad guys are a cross between Blackwater and Caterpillar; and Cameron even gives you throwaway references to the GWoT with dialogue about shock-and-awe or martyrdom. Too easy!

6. The left finds it a white man’s guilt trip, only without much of pain of actually being like the oppressed indigenous people. So the main character can find how good and wholesome and nature-loving  the natives are, and he can play at being one of them. But if it gets too weird, he can always go back and get his legs fixed. So he can pretend he is a native, in order to assuage his guilt for destroying the Amazon, I mean Endor, I mean Pandora!, but he doesn’t actually really want to be oppressed like real Native Americans, so he can always head back to his white body. This is the fantasy of a rich white man living an highly technologized culture about what it might be like to give all that up. The reality of course would be if Cameron moved onto a contemporary US Indian reservation and confronted the problems of cultural dislocation, alcoholism, and poverty. But who wants that? Better to fantasize about riding dragons and hooking up with the hot native babe. Ridiculous.

7. Avatar is strange film to review given the wildly unbalanced mix of revolutionary style and banal substance. On the upside, I think it is the most important film of 2009, although obviously not the best. Everyone should see it. It’s the most important step-forward in visual presentation since Lord of the Rings, if not Jurassic Park, and 3D is coming to home theater this year. I do agree with Cameron that this is the future of visual entertainment (look for it in video games too soon), albeit for only for certain genres of film. On the downside, Avatar proves once again the long-standing rule that no amount of razzle-dazzle can cover an abysmal story. For all the money Transformers 2 or Phantom Menace made, I don’t know anyone who really likes them. By contrast think how great were Hitchcock’s one-room drama Rope or Linklater’s let’s-just-walk-around-Paris couplet Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. I think the latter cost maybe a million dollars, but I’d rather re-watch that than Avatar.

13 thoughts on ““Avatar”: Blue Ewoks Save the Amazon from Blackwater Inc.

  1. The trailer left me with the impression that this was a morally easy and uncomplicated movie. Meh. I’m not going to watch it. I don’t care what they say, 3d is a gimmick. Give me Children of Men any day – the high-tech trick in that movie is that they did extended cuts with real actors doing their own stunts without an iota of CGI and without all of the distracting cuts and face shots of most movies. The result is so realistic – almost documentary-like – that I found it far more compelling and frightening than most films. I think I’ll rewatch Children of Men tonight.

    Great review. I can do without 2 hours of white liberal guilt and easy left-wing posturing.

  2. BTW, I still remember the movie Tornado, which was far sillier than even my lowest expectations. The bad guys were all corporate drones drying black SUVs. The good guys wore jeans and made little helicopters out of Coke cans or whatever the f—. How sustainable of them! Retch.

  3. This is yet another film that I choose to miss, kinda like Termanator 17 or whatever it was that you were ranting about a few months ago. Please get back to the good stuff ASAP. BTW…. I believe that Blackwater is a copywritten name. DON”T MAKE ME COME UP THERE IN MY BLACK HELICOPTER!!!!!

  4. Since we seem to be wasting valueable cyber-space once again:

    Quote of the Day
    The fact is, Iran is not dealing straight up. So they can say whatever they would like.

    — U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, on whether to trust Tehran’s stated claims that it has only peaceful intentions for its nuclear program.

  5. Welcome back Tony. I won’t view this film either. Actually, I only view independent movies now. Not that I think I am better than anyone else, just that IMs make me think. The best film that I saw last year was “The Wrestler”. Best thing is that independent movies are usually shown at local venues. Also, why do movies always portray US Marines as lunatics? If anything the Corps worked with the Sunni’s (Ewoks/Navi) against Al Q. Inc. I haven’t seen the movie, just going on what I have read so please excuse me if I misrepresent.

  6. I have completely stopped watching the (blatently obvious) mainstream and the (pseudo-intellectual) independent cinema. I like to discern the political/social messages in movies such as Toxic Avenger (and the Toxic Avenger musical).

  7. Thanks for the welcome back Julio, had to go work for awhile to save the world from tyranny, (and to pay for Christmas🙂.
    I haven’t been to a movie theatre since I took my wife to see the first Harry Potter some years ago. I prefer to rent them on DVD or Blue Ray for a few reasons. 1st by the time they come out on disc, I have heard enough about them to know if they suck or not. 2nd The last time I yelled, repeatedly, for the projectionist to pause a movie so that I could visit the head, not only did he not stop the movie but a rude, pimplely faced 16 year old with a flashlight asked me to leave!!!! And finally, 3rd my home theatre has the latest THX certification and sounds better then the systems in most theatres, my leather recliners are more comforteble and I can smoke and watch movies wearing nothing but sweatpants and a t-shirt at home. All that being said, I am looking forward to watching Public Enemy, even though I know how it ends, because I have always been interested the history of that time period and Johnny Depp doesn’t EVER make bad flicks!
    I usually don’t read “adventure novels” but Vince Flynn, the author of the Mitch Rapp series gets a lot of input from guys who are either operators or “on the teams”. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day and Tears of the Sun which was based on a real op) has just been signed to direct “Consent To Kill” which is taken from one of Flynn’s books. Even though the DVD is probably a few years away – the movie hasn’t been cast yet – I’m already looking forward to seeing it! I just hope that they give the Mitch Rapp part to someone better then Matt Damon (Jason Bourne) or the guy that has formed Dr. Bob’s image of the Spec Op guys (god help me) Rambo!

  8. love the movie,,,hate the review, which seems rooted in envy…Avatar has managed to unite left (racism) and right(anti-capitalism)…the left sees racism where there is none…the right sees anti capitalism where there is some…
    myself, i was glad too see the military industrial complex get a public smackdown.

    what is new seeing an assistant prof of pol sci back genocide!…thats a real talking point.

    ‘Most of the political commentary I have read on the film is excellent – rapidly deconstructing its facile morality and easy ‘white messiah’ storyline, which is just ripped-off from Dances with Wolves and the Last Samurai.’

    theres no white messiah…there is a man who makes a moral choice…and whose knowledge and skills were seen as useful by EYWA.

    ‘The reality of course would be if Cameron moved onto a contemporary US Indian reservation and confronted the problems of cultural dislocation, alcoholism, and poverty’

    thats why the humans had to be driven off…to keep that from happening to Na’vi…

    AVATAR is all about us..here on earth…a fact glossed over by those offended or embarrassed by the message.

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