After seeing trailers, stills, some clips and words from the director himself, you might be concerned that it might just be another bloated CGI wankfest ready to pick up the quick cash during the opening weekend and make way for the DVD. Sure, Avatar does business just like the others, but it’s not as bad as Wolverine…but that’s not saying much.
After 14 years of development, Cameron’s tale of white man going native a la Dance with Wolves actually holds itself together amongst the dizzying array of special effects. Though some worried that the love story would turn into Titanic II: THE SPACEBOAT!, it is certainly less groan-worthy than Jack and Rose’s contrived chemistry.
Beyond that and we have to talk shop. The film’s special effects have been trumpeted all year, with Cameron frequently commenting on the film’s photorealistic CGI. Don’t drink the Kool-aid. The CGI is better than Lucas’ foray with the Star Wars prequels, but whenever we see the real stuff it just highlights the digital fakery. One friend commented that CGIs perfection is why we’ll never buy into it. The world of Pandora is just like that – beautiful in so many ways, but too pristine, too perfect. Like Agent Smith explaining to Morpheus about the first “perfect” Matrix, you just can’t buy it. In the end, though the CGI is better than previous offenses to cinematic form, it never finds the balance that made watching Lord of the Rings so thrilling.
And of course the discussion of CGI was filled with complimentary trumpetings of the film’s 3D prowess. Again, put down the Kool-aid. The 3D work didn’t bother me near as much as Coraline, but it just doesn’t make you feel like you’re there, contrary to Cameron commentary. There are a few moments during the film where if you focus just right, you do feel like you’re sharing the same room with the characters. But these moments are frustratingly brief and are never during a scene with major fireworks. Cameron’s 3D technology is probably better than the current crop, but this doesn’t change cinema history.
The most interesting aspect to Avatar, however, is not found in the film’s spectacle, but all the subtle ideologies running against each other. The film is about a white, male Marine, Jake Sully (though Sam Worthington’s Australian accents slips itself in every now and again, conveyed Americaness dominates). Sully’s job is to go deep undercover to learn about Pandora’s native populations, the Na’vi. In fact, they put him in a genetically engineered Na’vi body. Now, if we put a white man in the body of a genetically engineered black man, how well do you think that cracker in black face is going to be received? Start arguing now.
Sure, Sully gets picked at by the Na’vi, but they still admit him into their home, letting him in on their most treasured secrets. Then, after Sully’s intel is used to destroy the Na’vi home by his fellow Marines, he comes back to save the day with rousing speeches about the “Sky People,” teaching them that they can’t “take what they want” and that “this is our land!”
But it’s not his land! And this is where the racial power dynamics of today get played out in this mega-blockbuster in an unsettling manner. Sully’s privileged position (a “Sky Person”) allows him to go back and forth between the two different worlds. Though he decries the greedy destructive ways of his people, the very power and underlying thought of such ways are what grant him access to the body of a genetically engineered native (this is also the ironic twist to all of Cameron’s films: they all warn of abusing technology, yet abuse it to create the world we see on screen). Sully has the power to choose between being a dominating “Sky Person” or a Na’vi victim, which in the end yields greater power – the audience’s empathy. Only white men are privileged enough to have such choices.
By the end of the film you’re left wondering why the film needed the Jake Sully character at all. The film could have done just as well by focusing on an actual Na’vi native who comes into contact with crazy humans who have no respect for the environment. I can just see the explanation: “Well, we need someone (an avatar) for the audience to connect with. A normal guy [read, a white male] will work better than these tall blue people.” However, this is the type of thinking that molds all leads as white male characters (blank slates for the audience to project themselves upon) unless your name is Will Smith.
Unfortunately, I expect that few will comment on this point and that makes the film more dangerous than Bay’s jingoistic statements at the end of Transformers.
In the end, Avatar doesn’t live up to the hype, but of course, how could it? Heralded as a film that would change film history, usher in a new day of photorealistic CGI and immersive (i.e. not annoying) 3D, there’s no way it could live up to such expectations. Unfortunately though, it doesn’t even hold up when compared to Cameron’s previous works. The helicopter chase scene in Terminator 2 was the last time Cameron did something that was truly thrilling. That’s because of the filmic aura of real objects interacting with the real world. As one io9 blogger commented, filmmakers have gone mad with the power that CGI affords them, akin to having “The Bomb.” Films like District 9 know how to use it responsibly, AKA, know when not to use it. Unfortunately for Avatar, there’s just so much CGI being used that it entrenches itself within the categories of an animated film. And of course, when you hear Sully talking about “our land” it just makes you cringe, especially if you’re a white dude from the United States. We should not make such claims to cultures; even claims to fictional ones are in bad taste.
Cameron may be king of the world–but it’s a world that, though beautiful, doesn’t really exist. And underneath it all is an ugly racial dynamic that reminds us Americans why we’re seen as the bad guys on and off the screen.
My assertion of Jake Sully as emblematic of current racial power dynamics resides on the film’s inability to convince me that after three months of living with the Na’vi and being directly responsible for the destruction of the Na’vi’s World Trade Center, that he can make claims to “our land.” This is further problematized by Sully’s shifting allegiances throughout the film’s first two acts (whoever is speaking to him, Na’vi, scientist, colonel, he swears by).
Finally, to really show Sully moving away from the human world and becoming a part of the Na’vi, more scenes were needed establishing Sully’s disregard for his human body (where’s Christian Bale’s emaciation from The Machinist when you need it?).
If Sully had spent more time with the Na’vi, wasn’t responsible for destroying their home, showed some conviction before a last second attempt to warn the Na’vi, and included more scenes of his body’s decay, Cameron might have avoided some of my problems. Of course, this is based on my reading of the film. If Sully was believably a part of the Na’vi to you, you may not have so many problems. Of course, I still stand by my assertion that we didn’t need Jake in the first place.