In case I wanted to watch a movie while recuperating from my aforementioned colonoscopy, my sister and brother-in-law, who brought me home from the hospital on Friday, let me borrow their DVD copy of Avatar. Their daughter, my niece, absolutely loved the movie and bought a copy as soon as it became available. Neither of her parents, however, were particularly impressed with the film but thought I might enjoy some nice brainless entertainment during my recovery. Avatar is about as brainless as it gets. The film succeeds brilliantly at using visual effects to create a gorgeous piece of eye candy and an alien world that looks and feels truly alien. It fails miserably at pretty much everything else that makes a movie worth watching: creating interesting, multidimensional characters, exploring complex ideas, or constructing a plot that has an ounce of suspense or any real surprises.
Left paralyzed from the waist down by an injury, Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) ships out to the planet Pandora, where a greedy, soulless, nameless corporation (represented by a smarmy corporate executive played by Giovanni Ribisi) is busily plundering the jungle paradise for a rare mineral called “unobtainium.” (Get it? Ah, you’re a subtle one, James Cameron). We’re never told what unobtainium is used for or what makes it so valuable, only that it fetches $20 million dollars a kilogram. The corporation needs Marines to provide security because the natives, the blue-skinned, catlike humanoids called the Na’vi, are fighting back to protect their planet.
Pandora’s atmosphere, however, is toxic to humans, so Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her colleagues have created the Avatar program, in which humans can link their minds to genetically engineered Na’vi bodies in order to interact with the locals. Jake is recruited into the Avatar program and given the task of winning the trust of a clan of Na’vi and persuading them to relocate their village, which just happens to be atop the largest deposit of unobtainium on the planet. If the Na’vi won’t move voluntarily, a detachment of Marines with gunships and heavy weapons under the command of the brutish Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is willing and all too eager to remove them by force.
On his first day in the field with his new Na’vi body, however, Jake becomes separated from Dr. Augustine and her companions and loses most of his survival gear. He’s rescued by the beautiful princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the chieftain of the Na’vi clan Jake is supposed to approach. On her father’s orders and against her own wishes, Neytiri begins teaching Jake the ways of the Na’vi.
The Na’vi are a Flower Child’s dream come true. They wear minimal clothing, hunt only with bows and arrows, and thank the animals they hunt for surrendering their life force before killing them. They have a tendril-like object on the back of their heads that allows them to connect with a similar tendril on other animals and communicate with them telepathically. They prattle on about “the energy fields that connect all living things.” Their deity, Eywa, is the planet itself, the sum total of every living thing on Pandora, and their most sacred site is a giant tree that enables them to hear the voices of their ancestors.
After several months of almost total immersion in Na’vi culture, Jake predictably “goes native” and falls in love with Neytiri, a development the audience can see coming from only about 50 miles away. The corporation, however, moves forcibly against Neytiri’s village before Jake can negotiate its voluntary relocation. Horrified by this betrayal and the brutality of the attack, Jake organizes an army of Na’vi to mount a last-ditch stand against the human invaders.
Guess how the rebellion turns out. Of Of course the Na’vi defeat the humans thanks to Jake’s courageous and inspired leadership, of course the villainous Quaritch is finally defeated in pitched battle, and of course Jake and Neytiri live happily ever after on Pandora, with Jake finally having the opportunity through a mystical ritual to become a Na’vi—not just a human mind controlling a Na’vi body, but a real live, honest-to-Eywa Na’vi.
Obviously, the complete predictability of the plot was one of the many things about this movie that really annoyed me. Except for the mind-blowing visuals, we’ve all seen every bit of this movie before. The soulless, rapacious corporations, and their soulless, rapacious corporate executives come straight out of previous leftist diatribes such as Wall Street. The trigger-happy, testosterone-fueled Marines, totally uninterested in the world around them and concerned only with what they can kill, are stolen from films such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now. The alien separated from his comrades and lost in an alien world meme goes at least as far back as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and at least as far forward as E. T. The white guy going native and adopting a bogus eco-spirituality motif comes almost directly from films such as A Man Called Horse and Dances with Wolves. And of course, the “energy fields connecting all living things,” and plucky but ill-equipped band of rebels standing up to a corrupt empire motifs are lifted straight from the Star Wars movies. Ho-hum.
Not only is there a complete lack of originality regarding the story, but there’s also a painful lack of any subtlety, ambiguity, nuance, or complexity among any of the characters. Black is black, white is white. The corporate executives, for example, are always and everywhere evil and without compassion. They cremate Jake’s dead twin brother in a cardboard box and then recruit Jake for the Avatar program because Jake is a genetic duplicate of his brother and ideally suited for the program. When corporate executive Parker Selfridge (a play on “selfish?”) watches the brutal destruction of a Na’vi village via live video, he experiences no shock and revulsion as his colleagues do, but calmly goes on as if nothing had happened. Quaritch watches the ruthless destruction of a Na’vi village while calmly sipping coffee. Quaritch’s Marines, to a man, are not portrayed as ordinary young men suddenly thrust into a strange and hostile environment and forced to survive; instead they are almost literally transformed into mindless killing machines by their oversized, mechanized body armor. The only exception is “a wise Latina woman” helicopter pilot who switches sides and fights for the Na’vi.
If the corporate executives and Marines are all darkness, the Na’vi are all light. They are peaceful and wise and spiritual and playful, in harmony with their ancestors and with every living thing on the planet. They are matriarchal where the nasty humans are patriarchal; veritable exemplars of fashionable, leftist, suitably vague New Age spirituality.
My brother-in-law remarked that he had heard or read something to the effect that James Cameron had conceived the original idea for Avatar while still in high school but only now had the resources and technology to bring his vision to the screen. If that’s true, I can believe it; the story is certainly sophomoric. It reflects an adolescent disdain for established authority and a childishly absolute refusal to even consider the possibility that complex issues might require complex solutions. No reasonable person would argue that the natural environment shouldn’t be protected or that humans shouldn’t think very carefully about how to develop natural resources with as little damage to the environment as possible; the present BP oil rig disaster taking place in the Gulf of Mexico right now is proof of that. To argue, however, as Cameron seems to do here, that humans should reject technology, industrialization, and even their humanity and go back to some nonexistent pastoral golden age, seems to be just plain silly.
Similarly, no reasonable person would argue that the United States military doesn’t have some black stains on its reputation to live down: the treatment of Native Americans during the 19th century, the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, and the outrages at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, for example. To suggest, however, as Cameron seems to do, that nearly everyone who serves in the military is a thug, a sadist, and a killer is an insult to the thousands of men and women who serve honorably in the military and put themselves at considerable personal risk to protect our country and continue to ensure that goofballs like James Cameron have the freedom to make expensive but trashy movies.
No, for all its eye-popping razzmatazz, this movie seems like nothing more than a laundry list of leftist gripes against capitalism, the United States in general, and the U.S. military in particular. Just think of what this movie could have been if James Cameron had bothered to craft a story and characters worthy of the amazing technology used to make the film’s special effects.