James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is a masterpiece. It’s a movie that is epic in its scope and groundbreaking in its techniques. James Cameron is one of the most imaginative minds in Hollywood today and, in Avatar, he presents us a whole new universe so rich in detail and so endlessly inventive that one can’t help but surrender to the magic of the film. But more than being just an exciting movie experience, it provides us with so many profound subtexts that will have you ruminating long after you leave the cinema hall. Avatar is not just the special summer blockbuster, it is a scathing satire about man’s plundering of his environment, a parable about the conflict between nature and machines and the inevitable victory of the former, an appeal for conservation of diversity and a trenchant exploration of human greed and its consequences.
Ya, right. Now, the review:
James Cameron’s Avatar is a summation of all that’s wrong about Hollywood cinema. The only difference between James Cameron and the teenage fanboy who never misses out on any summer action movie is that Cameron has got the money. Endlessly exploitative, determinedly commercial, cinematically incompetent and morally dishonest, Avatar makes the films of Michael Bay seem like Martin Scorsese’s. At least in Michael Bay’s movies, like any other low-budget B-movie, one gesture of honesty shines through – that the people behind the camera are merely trying to make a living, by whatever means possible. With these movies, you at least know that everything is manipulated and put together with little creativity to sell and earn something. Unlike self-proclaimed artists like Spielberg and Cameron, these directors know their scope and are satisfied with sticking to what they do best (Can you imagine Bay making a Holocaust movie? Neither can he). Cameron returns to the screen after 12 long years, following Titanic (1997), to make this tepid genre movie and one only wonders if he was too immersed in his “research” to keep up with the pace of Hollywood in these dozen years.
The plot? Not a new one at all. The year is 2154 and it is a fact that humans have set foot on an exotic planet called Pandora inhabited by a race called Na’vi. They are here to mine some very valuable minerals and take them back home. But alas, the Na’vi are not willing to relocate and make way for the American mining company SecFor, headed by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), that has set up a base in Pandora. The company has two schools of action. One, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), believes in learning the Na’vi culture, becoming friends with them and proceeding with peaceful negotiations for the relocation. The other, headed by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), believes in brute force and has already mustered up enough arms to blow up the planet. Now, a disabled marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is transferred to the station and he has to act as the bodyguard (using a different body, of course) to the peaceful group as they move about in Pandora, condescending on Na’vi kids and hugging trees. But then, he discovers that he is the brave soul that the Na’vi are looking for. And all of a sudden, he becomes everyone’s hero. Knocking about in Grace’s camp, reporting to Lang and bonding with the Na’vi, Sully’s life is only all too good for him until the day, well, it isn’t.
Avatar is a conformist film. It acknowledges, reinforces and perpetuates every myth that the popular media has created and disseminated throughout the world. Mixing all possible ethnic and gender stereotypes, Cameron creates an alien race that seems just like the human race, living in perennial Halloween (Yes, there are the token Japanese, Indian and black American characters too). The Na’vi are modeled on oriental and African types of Hollywood – tall, lanky and with large nostrils and broad nasal bones. All their women have hourglass structures and the men, six packs. Their English accent and exotic religious practices are clearly those of the African clans or Asian settlements that Hollywood gives us. Not only does Cameron anthropomorphize aliens (which is only expected from popular cinema), but gives them the stock status of the noble tribe who live by strict Victorian morals and exist in harmony with nature with their simple desires and dreams. Furthermore, their emotional pattern is same as ours (surprise, surprise) with all the popular notions of love, sacrifice and fraternity intact. James Horner’s score suffuses the soundtrack with quintessential African chorus and ethnic vocals, the likes of which one can find in those movies about Tibet or Uganda. What next – a MacDonald’s outlet in Pandora? James Cameron’s film may have attempted to make some larger than life statements about imperialism, but, in the end, it is Cameron who turns out as the cultural imperialist.
This attempt by the script to overreach and make broad political statements is what really kills Avatar. Remove the 380 million dollar cover of the film and you will find a B War movie chuckling beneath. Avatar regularly tries to call our attention to the parallel it strikes with the WW2 and the Vietnam War (One character calls the Na’vi “blue monkeys” in the bushes and another wants to blow up a crater on the Pandora surface that generations will remember. Oh, how subtle). The sheath it uses to cover its shallow liberal messages is as deep as thin ice. And the movie harnesses every possible chance to demonize these characters who want to plunder the resources of Pandora at any cost. Is this a gesture of introspection or self-criticism? No, it’s fake repentance. Avatar still remains a film that upholds the political ethics of America and continues the streak of white man’s victory in an alien land. Look how Cameron has the handful of guys in the film, who apparently want to negotiate peacefully with the Na’vi, side with the natives and take up arms all of a sudden (as if they didn’t see this coming) and, in effect, segregates the “good” Americans from the “evil” ones. By alienating one set of Americans by intense caricaturing and observing the other with considerable empathy, Cameron successfully preserves the popular morality of the American armed forces, wherein the just alone shall be rewarded. It still takes the leadership of a white man and the martyrdom of a few others to defeat evil forces. Now, why in Pandora couldn’t the Na’vi kick all the imperialist butts by themselves in the first place?
In Starship Troopers (1997), a film that I don’t really care much for, Verhoeven avoids most of these pitfalls as he stretches the film’s campy nature all the way to leverage the resultant the absurdity to make his statement. But no. Cameron wants us to engage emotionally with the characters – with these shallow characters. Complete with the corniest of lines, which are at least three decades old for Hollywood, each character in the film is a cliché. The American dude, the geeky systems engineer, the savage colonel, the resolute female scientist, the brave and virtuous native girl and her tough suitor are all familiar to us now and not one of them has any depth (No, not because I saw the film in 2D). Only rarely are the characters aware of the same (Weaver seems to be consciously reprising her character from the Alien quadrilogy), but Cameron kills of any such cinematic joy immediately. Not just the characters, each body gesture, each conflict, each set piece and each emotional conversation falls on predictable lines, as in ordinary animation films. One can actually spot the precise points where the first and second acts end. Unlike Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy or even the Warcraft series of games, Avatar just doesn’t have meaty literature or memorable characters to build upon and nudge us into a complete new world. And did someone say that Cameron was a visual storyteller? For most part, instead of simple on-screen text, Avatar’s story is told to us through unbelievable conversations between characters where they sum up situations and emotions (Parker has to remind grace about their mission even after years of working in Pandora). Avatar could have well served as a commentary about internet culture, where one can assume a whole new personality and lead a whole new life, where one can try to undo all the wrong moves he/she might have done in real life and which, like cinema, is a zone of wish-fulfillment. But the film sets its gaze elsewhere.
Suspending all my complaints about the shallow and pretentious script and considering Avatar as an uncomplicated genre movie does not help either. One strong point for the movie seems to be the exhilarating experience and the visual inventiveness the film supposedly offers. But there, too, Cameron’s movie seems utterly deficient (I have only seen the film in 2D, but I do believe that 3D, unless used for Brechtian causes, is purely a gimmick). Cameron sticks to tried and tested genre grammar and compositions which are far from the breakthrough that the film is being hailed as. The diagonally descending camera as the characters commute, the arcing shots when a CG delicacy unfolds, the handheld through the woods or even the sudden exposure of vast, open spaces are all tools exploited and killed many times over right from the Indiana Jones (Spielberg, now there is a visually inventive director) to the Transformers series. A lot of times, I felt, Cameron sacrifices composition for cheap 3D jolts (the arrow has to hit you some time in the movie, that’s the basic), which one can identify easily in the two dimensional version too. His cuts serve the purpose of hiding CG defects than to provide a new way of depicting action. Then, there is Cameron’s excessive use of close ups of the Na’vi that seem like moves to show off character design (the science behind which is indeed praiseworthy). These are shots that cry out for technical attention and which will be, without doubt, played endlessly in technical conferences and in the DVD extras where the makers would explain how they used “emotion capture” to create the Na’vi out of the actors and how they had to design separate jaw and dental systems for the creatures (Yes, I’m taking about you, Mr. Button). Mr. Cameron, we are the audience, not the auditors. You need not justify your budget within your film.
Let the fanboy bashing begin!