Friday, December 25, 2009

At the Movies: Avatar

Merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates it! Last night, I undertook half of the traditional Jewish Christmas (the other half involves Chinese food) by going to the movies to see "Avatar," which I loved. Everything I'd heard about the story and characterizations were true, in that it's recycling a few dozen stories of allegedly cultured men discovering the nobility of the local savages (it's a little bit "Dances with Wolves," a little bit "Pocahontas," etc., etc.). Fortunately, everything I'd heard about the visuals (which I saw in 3D) was also true. The movie was just a treat for the senses for almost three hours, and the performances (particularly by Stephen Lang, who seems to be making a comeback after being off the radar for a long time, as the ruthless lead soldier) were good enough to compensate for most of the cliches.

We complain all the time about how the whole mainstream movie industry is designed to appeal to 14-year-old boys. For once, here was a movie that made me feel exactly like a 14-year-old boy, and I didn't mind a bit.

If you've seen it, what did you think?

50 comments:

Chip said...

Funny, my half-Jewish family had Chinese for dinner last night. The boys and I are going to see Avatar today.

Matt Hunter said...

Did you wear your glasses in addition to the 3D glasses? I want to see it but I'm worried about how all that's gonna work. I've had bad experiences with it until now.

Nicole said...

I was concerned about the whole 3D thing too, but after a minute or so I didn't notice that I was wearing the glasses. I am not sure if every theatre has the same brand, but the ones where I went definitely could fit over glasses.

As Lang, he was so awesome in this movie he was literally on fire.

Brian H. said...

My thoughts are pretty much in line with yours, Alan. I'm curious to see it again in 2D to see if it holds up though...

vmarshmellow said...

I also loved it. I'm a huge James Cameron fan-- The Terminator is my favorite movie and Sarah Connor my favorite character ever-- and Avatar did not disappoint. I saw it in IMAX 3D, and, aside from a few dizzying sequences, the experience was amazing (yes, you can fit the 3D glasses over your regular glasses).

The only time I was a bit angry/sad was when a certain character died, and I will not say who to avoid spoilers, but if you saw it you might be able to figure out whom I'm talking about. I just loved this character, so it will take me a little bit to get over it.

The story may have been done before, but it was told well with great characters and stunning visuals. My friend commented that the movie was sort of like James Cameron's Aliens from the Aliens' perspective, making the movie Aliens a nice companion piece for this movie (and Sigourney Weaver does have a similar role in both).

Like all the James Cameron films that I love, the dialogue was a bit cheesy and the bad guys were simplistically bad. Still, that's part of the charm. Accept those little things, and the movie is perfection.

Anonymous said...

I've seen it twice. The first time I was a little disappointed, simply because the writing was a little thin and I really didnt 'get' what Cameron was doing.

2nd time I absolutely loved it. It's just a breathtakingly well made epic film. Tremendous movie.

-DamnYankees

Kirk Hamilton said...

I couldn't agree more! No, seriously, I felt like, the exact same way. It made me feel 14 again, which is something a movie hasn't done in a long time.

I've never been so sold on IMAX 3D Technology - the friend with whom I saw it said that several of the scenes with the Na'avi were akin to watching the Beijing Opening Ceremonies, which I thought was pretty spot-on. Just total sensory overload, all up in your grill.

And for some reason, I really enjoyed watching Sigourney rock that cig. (even though {SPOILER} - her character still had to abide by the old law of on-screen smoking, huh?)

*melissa* said...

did anyone notice the celine dion song at the end?? it sounded like she was singing the titanic song but for avatars..same melody and everything..

jasctt said...

Saw it opening day and going to see it with my brother tonight. I really loved the experience of the hting, one of the most cinematic, sensoramic of my life. Yes, it is VERY cliched and has DWW written all over it, but this is the first time I BELIEVED the CG characters were rel (what finally sold me was the scene between the blue chick and human Jake). Not hte best of the year but amazing on every level.

Alan, did you hear that in 2010, they will be releasing HDTVs and BD players with 3D imaging? the PS3 is already booked to go 3D. How do you feel about this? I think folks are never gonna leave the house when they can have an AVATAR level home theater presentation. As for 3D gaming, forget about it. God, kids will never leave the house.

Alo, can you IMAGINE what 2001 would be like in 3D. WOW.

Kirk Hamilton said...

@*melissa* - You really thought so? I thought exact opposite - the melody was almost non-existent compared with MHWGO, just a bunch of bland phrases sung over boring harmony, and generic Lion-king chanting.

It never seemed to go anywhere, and certainly didn't have a melodic hook the likes of "Near, far, wherever you are."

I actually found myself thinking, somewhat haughtily, "Well, this certainly is no 'My Heart Will Go On!'"

...and then I thought, "Oh my god, did I just THINK that? What is happening to me? Where has my cred gone?"

jasctt said...

the closing song bites hard and, honestly, that title card is the most disgusting one I can recall. Really felt a low key vibe would played better, say the title, blue on black, coming out at the audience. MUCH better than the puke green JC went with.

Question Mark said...

The visuals were amazing, but you get used to them after the first 30 minutes. Then you realize with horror that you will have another 150 minutes of insipid story to sit through.

Borderline thumbs up just for the sake of seeing it in 3-D. Otherwise, don't bother.

ShayDetta said...

I liked it but didn't love it.

Jennifer said...

The special effects were so gorgeous and seamless. Yeah, I've seen that plot before, but I didn't really CARE that I had. I sat there going "ooh, pretty."

Oh, and for the record, wearing 3-D glasses over your regular glasses works just fine.

patrick foster said...

Thought it was great fun. And no issues with 3d glasses over my own glasses, either. Go and enjoy.

Josh said...

Saw it in digital 3D, and pretty much agree. I'd like to think, also, that a few years from now, I won't have any disdain for this movie, as my opinion of Titanic soured eventually. This time, at least, I noticed some of the flaws (mostly with the dialogue and some of Sam Worthington's performance), but I just didn't care. Beautiful, exciting, and entertaining. I definitely want to see it again.

Eugene Freedman said...

This is the first movie that I found the CGI to appear real. Normally it looks like a modern cartoon (Up, Toy Story etc.) or looks too glossy and flat at the same time (SW prequels). This time, and maybe it was the 3D, it looked like real objects with patina and depth.

I disagree about the Aliens/Avatar discussion, but for the nature of the humans involved- something that Cameron seems to spend a lot of his writing energy on in every movie, including the two Terminators and the Abyss. I will say this on the common theme though: Giovanni Ribisi as Parker Selfridge < Paul Reiser as Carter Burke.

Anonymous said...

I'll take the dissenting viewpoint here - I didn't like it, but would still recommend seeing it on the basis of the visuals alone, which are no joke. However, as a movie I found it lacking - it's not even the best "going native" movie of the year, as District 9 explored the some of the same territory in a much more exciting, novel way.

It's the Navi - an entire movie is built around them and they're a beautiful, crashing bore. They're a cartoonishly overwrought version of the Noble Savage. They are physically ideal, they have no discernible flaws, they appear not to share any of humanity's more base emotions, and they are so in tune with nature that they can literally jam their brain stems into it. They are, in short, perfect, have a perfect life, and they deserve it.

Movies like Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai all idealized their respective natives to an extent, but at least in those movies you had grounding performances by guys like Graham Greene and Ken Watanabe to remind the viewer that they were still people, not Green Party ubermen who had ascended to another level of existence. Even District 9's Christopher Young was more recognizably human than any of the Navi, and he was a giant insect.

I wasn't terribly happy with the characters, either - I guess I liked Sigourney Weaver's character and Neytiri, but Sully is no Luke Skywalker and there's not a Han Solo in sight. The complaints about the dialogue are completely on point - the Star Wars prequel writing was pretty bland, but at least you got a quotable line every now and then. This needed a script doctor, badly.

Not a terrible movie by any means and still 100% worth seeing as a cinema fan for the spectacle, but the story was far from being able to match the visuals.

J said...

Really, really liked it. I knew I'd be gritting my teeth when it came to dialogue and blunt plot developments, and it's easy to harp on what's not there: A sense of humor, maybe (though naming the mineral Hardtogetium was pretty hilarious), a distinctively developed culture.

But I think the movie itself was incredibly well thought out. If it followed a recognizable storyline, it's because it's one of those stories we enjoy re-telling ourselves. And as far as the Na'vi are concerned, they weren't the point; the world was the point, it was awe-inspiring, it was what was worth fighting for.

The score was awful and distracting because it leaned harder on familiar primitive patterns than the visuals had to. (The Celine Dion song is there to remind you to leave the theater.)

I liked Avatar a lot better than District 9, which I saw as a more clumsy, frantic hodge-podge of familiar alien invasion stories and Tetsuo.

Carmichael Harold said...

I keep going back and forth between my general amazement at the groundbreaking visuals, including well choreographed battle scenes(an odd note being that sometimes the 3D made the movie more immersive and sometimes it pulled me right out of it) and my disappointment at the total flatness of everything else.

As others have noted, the dialogue was laughably bad, the plot was cliched and obvious, it sorely lacked anything approaching a sense of humor, and it could have been improved by cutting a good chunk out of it.

That being said, I would suggest that everyone see it, as it's look was truly amazing, but it's one of those movies that I'd be happy to never have to see in full again.

To Alan's main point, I wish I was 14 again when I saw it, as I would bet that 14-year old me would have loved it unreservedly.

Anna said...

I cannot even tell you how much I have zero interest in seeing this movie.

Matthew L said...

Visually phenomenal, worth seeing on that basis. The action sequences are incredible (Cameron really is one of the best action directors around) - the moment when Stephen Lang gets into the power suit and jumps out the exploding ship was great.

But the story was dull, and Cameron needlessly complicated the story (was there any reason for the backstory with the wheelchair and the dead brother? After all, they did nothing with the idea of "I'm walking for the first time in years", and he adjusted way too fast or someone that had neer been in an avatar before.) The dialogue was awful, the voiceovers even worse (there was a particularly bad voiceover when Sully is on his bird and the red-blue creature flies overhead - sully says something about there always being a larger predator, which I think we could have figured out for ourselves), and the acting (Lang and Weaver aside) just didn't work for me.

Still, I recommend people see the film for the visuals, and since I'm always someone who refuses to see visual effect films with litle else going for them, that says how incredible it is as an experience.

vmarshmellow said...

@J: "And as far as the Na'vi are concerned, they weren't the point; the world was the point, it was awe-inspiring, it was what was worth fighting for."

Very beautifully said.

J said...

was there any reason for the backstory with the wheelchair and the dead brother?

It made Skully's avatar unpolluted by any training so that he was reborn a "new" creature. (And I'm not sure if there's a fable template for sibling sacrifice, but the cremation and Skully's initial pod entrance were the same shot.) If the wheelchair weren't enough practical motivation to want to be in a new body, it had the thematic parallel (along with the Aliensish human walkers) of going from half-human/half-machine to half-human/half-avatar and contrast with the biological connection between the Na'vi and their flying mates.

Matthew L said...

It made Skully's avatar unpolluted by any training so that he was reborn a "new" creature. (And I'm not sure if there's a fable template for sibling sacrifice, but the cremation and Skully's initial pod entrance were the same shot.) If the wheelchair weren't enough practical motivation to want to be in a new body, it had the thematic parallel (along with the Aliensish human walkers) of going from half-human/half-machine to half-human/half-avatar and contrast with the biological connection between the Na'vi and their flying mates.

The thematic suggestion is interesting, and may warrant further thought, but thematic elements should never overide story considerations, and in pure story terms the wheelchair is entirely irrelevant. The fact that he's in a wheelchair never affects the story, and if you cut a couple of lines of dialogue you wouldn't even know it was ever a plot element. There's never any suggestion of "Oh my gosh, I'm walking for the first time in ten years," at least nothing that couldn't be mistaken for "Hey, I'm in a 12-foot-tall body, this is cool." He does get offered an operation to fix his legs, but that comes too early in the film, before he's really commited to the Na'vi (he still seems sincere about negotiating with the Na'vi to leave). Once he does commit to them, he never once seems to consider "If I do this, then I can't get my operation."

As for the dead brother backstory, it seems to exist mainly to get a Marine on a scientific project, and mean that he hasn't undergone any training. But the lack of training seems irrelevant to the story - it's never a factor, and in fact makes it even more absurd that he's able to run and jump without difficulty within two minutes of entering the body. At the very least, let him have had some practice on an avatar simulator. As for putting someone with military experience on the project - they already have scenes where Ribisi tells Weaver that it would be good to have someone with military experience out there, so why not let that be the reason? It's much easier than inventing someone who we never meet, but who happens to have a convenient identical twin brother who is compatible with the avatar and who also happens to have some different but also desirable skill sets.

In other words, these plot elements may work thematically, but I'm not sure they work dramatically.

Pamela Jaye said...

I'm just sorry I had never heard of the traditional Chinese food!
Wonder how my roommate feels about Chinese food. We had hamburgers and baked potatoes followed by food coma.
Normally he's not here on holidays but his car is in the shop, so he was out rearranging plants in his garden. (I now have a vase half full of bougainvillea cuttings)

Chinese food in FL isn't as good as it is in Boston anyway.
Glad you all enjoyed the movie. (last night I watched Philadelphia. It was on the DVR and voted "most likely to be deletable after watching")

J said...

thematic elements should never overide story considerations

First, I couldn't disagree more strongly with this assertion. You're talking about streamlining a storytelling process when storytelling isn't the same thing as filmmaking. Having a wheelchair-bound hero isn't a logical hindrance, just an addition that adds to the overall theme and effect of the film. It's actually surprised that Cameron had enough restraint to not throw in clunky "I can't believe I'm walking!" dialogue; but merely contrasting the chair-bound existence with the athleticism of the avatar is enough to emphasize the new physical freedom Skully feels. Watching him squish Pandoran dirt through his toes tells the whole story. As it is, before he's freed through the avatar, Cameron grants Skully a scene of free-moving weightlessness before plunking him back into the chair. We see Skully treated as an outcast by other Marines because of his disability upon his arrival at the base; we see how it affects his pride when he refuses to let Grace help him into his pod. As you note, the corrective surgery is held out as bait for him to report back to the military from inside a scientific-team clique. I too thought this was sort of unnecessary, but I guess perhaps somewhere along the line someone was concerned that Skully wouldn't seem sympathetic.

As for putting someone with military experience on the project - they already have scenes where Ribisi tells Weaver that it would be good to have someone with military experience out there, so why not let that be the reason?

The military and scientific factions are obviously hostile to each other. The twin brother thing is a contrivance, and maybe there's some more interesting backstory that got excised along the way. But story-wise, the important thing was that these avatars take a lot of time to develop so that the entire army couldn't re-fit themselves with them. Character-wise, it's important that this solider has been sidelined and doesn't have any Pandoran ambitions at the start. (If his goal is to be part of this project and assimilate into the Na'vi, then he assimilates into the Na'vi, it's a lot less interesting than someone who finds himself by assimilating into the Na'vi.)

And I disagree that it's unimportant or unacknowledged that he comes in as a blank slate. First, the film is through Skully's POV, so he's the audience's avatar; what's new to him is new to us. The guy his brother trained with is burdened by predispositions and previous experience and is not embraced by the planet. The Na'vi recognize him as a first because there's never been a "warrior" in a "demon body" before, but the planet seems to recognize him as something incomplete. (You can always pull out a "Chosen One" thing here, but I was grateful the film didn't pull out prophecy.) After it saves him, Neytiri calls him an infant. It's important that he's a malleable newborn. Skully says to her, when they first meet, something along the lines that he's a blank slate and that he's there to learn from them.

CrazyCris said...

Funny, my Catholic family has the same movie-going tradition on Dec 25th! ;o)
But we had to forgoe it this year since we took our Christmas feast to be cooked up at my aunt's as she was in too bad shape to come join us. And since she lives in the boonies... no movie theatres! :p

Avatar is going to be my New Year's movie! :o)

Toby O'B said...

My brother and I, lapsed Catholics both, split up that tradition - Chinese food on Wednesday, 'Avatar' on Christmas Eve.

I'm another locked into glasses and had no problem with the 3D glasses added on. And to top it off, 3D doesn't always work for me due to a lazy eye that screws it up. But I found myself brushing away embers that were floating down into my lap!

Certain Joseph Campbell elements - especially the major one, I guess - had me knowning what was to come. But I ignored my own basic rule of movie-watching - if they introduce something that doesn't seem to have any real impact on the story at that time, it will later. I was happily surprised when this was invoked near the end.

The only problem I had was of my own creation - every time I saw Blue Jake and heard his voice, I pictured Benjamin Bratt; no idea why.....

Matthew L said...

I guess my question is, could you have made this film without the "dead guy with a convenient paralysed identical twin brother" elements, and yes, you could. Everything you've pointed to are justifications for these elements that he wrote into the film, but it requires minor tweaking of the script to completely omit these elements without actually impairing the core of the story. Hell, the dead brother is never referred to after 15 minutes, while his paralysis is only referred to once after he goes rogue (and that reference, the scene where he reaches for the gas mask, could just as easily achieve the same end by just having the atmosphere leave him so busy choking he can't reach for the mask). They don't really factor into the core of the story, which is a guy comes to Pandora, finds himself accepted as a member of the tribe, and must choose whether to fight as human or Na'vi. They detract from the core plot of the movie, and actively make some major scenes of the film (such as his instant ability to run and jump in a new 12-foot-tall alien body, despite having not even walked on his own legs for years and having zero experience in an avatar body) absurd.

It's actually surprised that Cameron had enough restraint to not throw in clunky "I can't believe I'm walking!" dialogue; but merely contrasting the chair-bound existence with the athleticism of the avatar is enough to emphasize the new physical freedom Skully feels. Watching him squish Pandoran dirt through his toes tells the whole story. As it is, before he's freed through the avatar, Cameron grants Skully a scene of free-moving weightlessness before plunking him back into the chair.

I would love it if that were the case, but (as you seem to acknowledge) that would require Cameron to be a more subtle filmmaker than he is at any other point in the film - and to suddenly be subtle on what you're suggesting is one of his major thematic points.

There's a point in the film where Sully is flying his creature, and they then show the larger scary-looking dragon flying above them. And Cameron felt the need to have a voiceover line about "there's always a bigger hunter" - a point that's pretty obvious just by what we see. What I'm saying is, the Cameron that is on display here is not a subtle writer or director, he always seems to feel the need to include some voiceover or explicit statement of his point. But for some reason he choses to be subtle on this major point? I find that difficult to believe.

Anonymous said...

Put me down with those who think the visuals hold up for the first 30 minutes or so, but the movie collapses under the weight of bad story telling. Once you get that Cameron has essentially taken a tropical underwater world and drained the pond, you get why the ground glows and the fauna are so vibrant.

Add to that the Na'avi (could he have been more on the nose with that?) ride seahorses with legs; wear war paint; use bows and arrows; and yelp, you just realize that he couldn't have cared less about the story, he just wanted the cool visuals.

The dead twin-brother backstory served one main purpose, to explain why Sully's brain, as Max described it, was so gorgeous, making him a prime candidate to pilot an avatar without the requisite physical training.

All in all, I was bored for about two hours, waiting for the final battle scene and the eventual transfer of Sully's consciousness to the avatar.

Jeff said...

aThere's a point in the film where Sully is flying his creature, and they then show the larger scary-looking dragon flying above them. And Cameron felt the need to have a voiceover line about "there's always a bigger hunter" - a point that's pretty obvious just by what we see.

I let out an audible groan when they were discussing the giant dragon being known as "The Last Shadow" -- if they left it at that, I thought, cool.

But, no, he has to throw in "Because it's the last thing you ever see!" and I got depressed that I wasn't given enough credit to ascertain the meaning without handholding.

For me, the movie was cotton candy. Damned delicious while in the moment, but utterly temporary. I could choose to ponder the movie further, but it doesn't really warrant it.

The visuals were awesome and I look forward to the day when they don't cost 200 million to produce...

J said...

I guess my question is, could you have made this film without the "dead guy with a convenient paralysed identical twin brother" elements, and yes, you could.

We're not going to agree on this, but I think that it's a more effective film by having the lead in a wheelchair. The contrast between a wheelchair-bound Skully in his avatar is greater, the motivation for his character is greater, the joy of having a new body is greater. His handicap does come in again during the final battle, but by then they've established that his human body is a handicap. These aren't excuses, they're ways to emphasize parts of the film.

The brother thing is, as you say, an abandoned bit of backstory.

There's a point in the film where Sully is flying his creature, and they then show the larger scary-looking dragon flying above them. And Cameron felt the need to have a voiceover line about "there's always a bigger hunter" - a point that's pretty obvious just by what we see.

Well, obviously, the point here is that the bigger hunter is Humanity. I agree his dialogue is just bad; but the way to drive this point home would be to have a giant metallic cruiser hovering over Mega-Bird (or whatever it was called).

His writing and plotting can be hamfisted, but visually, Cameron -- helped by the horde of designers that have been working on this thing for years -- can be capable of some small things. The whole electonic interface between the trees and whatnot might be a clumsy way of saying that all ecology is interconnected; but I can't think of a lovelier way of showing that then Jake's first run through a phosphorescent night, where bits of moss glow at every touch.

Ethan Wood said...

I think this movie is vastly overrated and will not hold up well at all. In 15-20 years, when the effects are outdated, this movie will be left with nothing to fall back on and we all may come to realize that this is a film more in line with a very special Planet Earth instead of Shawshank.

This is a film completely devoid of subtlety or real ethical choice/consequence. All the elements are there for a fantastic film, but everyone is either over-the-top evil or good, every single character is a type, and the story is never surprising or engaging. Why are the humans so horribly evil? Just for money? Please. Why couldn't something really, really be at stake for the humans so that Jake's betrayal of them comes with some sense of moral distress? It is so obvious what the right and wrong actions are throughout this entire film and, as a result, I never found myself connected to any of these characters.

Congratulations, James, on making a visually creative film beloved my millions, but no one can convince me that this was actually a great film, because it wasn't.

Pirate Alice said...

Although I'm not Jewish I spent the whole day at the movies yesterday. I saw Avatar in 2D and I really liked it. The 3D tends to give me a headache and make me feel a little sick so I chose to skip that. The visuals were stunning and very close to lifelike. I was impressed with the look and feel of the film. The story was meh and there was a part where my disbelief was not suspended and I was saying PFFT out loud. But overall it was totally fun.

Yup, another anonymous writer said...

We're a non-Jewish Catholic family and have Chinese food every Christmas eve. But we're not going to see Avatar though. I am against paying full price to see these films that make 200 plus million dollars and support certain film makers and celebrities excessive life styles.

rosseau said...

Allan, not to turn this into a movie blog with reader suggestions, but I would love to hear your take on Up in the Air. If you haven't seen it, go right this moment(well, tomorrow). For me, not only is it the best film of the year, but sneaks onto the best of the decade list. Think of George Clooney's character as a Don Draper who, instead of wanting a house and kids, has his deepest desires be sitting in an airplane alone with no attachments. The movie is brilliant in that it is casually profound: on the surface a screwball comedy, but much deeper an existential look at modern life and culture, and what makes up Modern man.

Even if you delete this comment because you don't want readers endorsing movies on a TV blog and commenting off subject, I hope you read this in private and go see this wonderful, profound film. Thanks.

Kithica said...

Why couldn't something really, really be at stake for the humans so that Jake's betrayal of them comes with some sense of moral distress? It is so obvious what the right and wrong actions are throughout this entire film and, as a result, I never found myself connected to any of these characters.

Because this movie is Ferngully all over again. Nature good, greed bad. It's the second most important thing about the movie after showing off the CGI and the 3D technology.

That said, though, I really enjoyed the movie. Visually it was a treat. They put some thought into the science and the biology of the world they were building, which is rare enough in science fiction. And even though it showed off a bit, even though it preached a bit, even though it was cheesy in patches, I loved it for its earnestness, for its lightness of spirit. It was the same thing I loved about the new Star Trek. Maybe it's the recession, I don't know, but the cynicism seems to be going out of movies at the moment, and I really like that.

Ben said...

My number takeaway, besides the many pro and con comments I echo from here...

I was shocked how much I LOATHED seeing Ana Lucia on the screen. Same bitchy tude, snarl and everything.

Anonymous said...

I thought the movie was a beautifully animated steaming pile of guilty, white, bleeding heart liberal crap.

The humans are represented by white actors while the natives are tall, blue human-like aliens who have broad noses, dreadlocks and braids, wear American Indian, African and Amazonian jewelry and garb, and talk like American Indians. Plus they have tails and orifices that connect directly into animals. Every time the natives appear on screen, it's accompanied by American Indian music.

It takes the white male protagonist about a month to master the master the native culture and then he leads them into battle and saves them.

I don't think the movie is racist. I think Annalee Newitz was right on target when she characterized Avatar as a fantasy about race told from the viewpoint of white people.

http://io9.com/5422666/when-will-white-people-stop-making-movies-like-avatar

Craig Ranapia said...

The humans are represented by white actors

I know getting into these kinds of arguments is just asking for trouble, but what the frak is Michelle Rodriguez? Chopped liver?

Anonymous said...

"what the frak is Michelle Rodriguez?"

The token Latina.

The one that James Cameron can point to and ask, "what about...?"

rosseau said...

I have a few problems with the io9 essay. The idea, if I am reading it right, is that Jake does not let go of his whiteness; in fact, he retains it by leading the Na'vi. So the movie becomes a statement of white liberal guilt without losing the character's identity as a white man. The colonizer saves the colonized while still being the colonizer.

Here are my objections:
1)Jake is the hero of the movie. He has to be a big part of the rescue because he is the hero. In any work of fiction, you are not going to sideline the hero after spending a majority of the work of fiction with him.

2)The essay seems to say or equate being white with the quality of leadership. As, since he is the white man, he must lead the aliens, or the natives. No, leadership, courage, responsibility are ethnic and racially neutral. In fact, it is wrong and could be racist to say that being a leader is indicative of white culture, or any race.

3) Jake is white but this is not why he is a leader of the uprising. He is the hero of the movie, and more importantly, he leads the Na'vi because he almost destroyed them. You, know the old clumsy guy in the china shop scenario, where if you make a mess, you have to clean it up. Or you break it you buy it.

4)The whole argument rests on the company and the security forces being white. But that is not the case: Michelle Rodriguez. Yes, she seems to be the only minority invader on screen, but in this fictional world, she probably isn't the only one. And what if Jake was black or Latino? What would that do to the argument. It's not whites vs. aliens, it's earthlings vs. aliens. It's a major colonial power vs. primitive natives.

I don't think you can say Cameron was thinking about preserving white dominance when he made this film. Sure, it may have been unintended, and you can read things into works of fiction that the author did not mean for you to, but saying this film keeps white hegemony while redeeming white guilt is a bit specious.

In the end, Jake loses his white identity. He choses to do so. He gives up his race, his culture, everything to become a part of the alien Other. To use a lame sentence, that isn't having your white cake and eating it too.

Anonymous said...

"In the end, Jake loses his white identity. He choses to do so. He gives up his race, his culture, everything to become a part of the alien Other."

Technically, you aren't losing anything if you choose to give it up. Lose infers that something was taken away. I'm not trying to be picky. I just think that the difference encapsulates the idea of the race fantasy- that white people can become whatever they want while maintaining their privilege.

As the io9 essay states, "Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it's like to be a Na'vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode...When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it's only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything."

James Cameron appropriated American Indian, indigenous South American and African culture to "create" an alien culture that's infused in aliens with tails. Considering the history of the American Indian that's really messed up. People might say "well, he's paying homage to them." Really, that's how you pay homage, by creating a blue alien caricatures with tails? Some might reject the viewing the movie within the context of American Indian relations. Okay, then how about removing "Birth of a Nation" from its historical context? Those blackface actors- aliens. There, now "Birth of Nation" is a harmless fantasy movie that ought be appreciated for it's technical brilliance?

If American Indian-like aliens exist on Cameron's planet, one wonders where the European-like aliens are? There aren't any because in Cameron's universe white people are universal. They can travel, take and become whatever they please. White people are the moral spectrum- they are the evil, greedy war hawks and the sensitive, noble, righteous warriors. When white people want, they can choose to become another race. Viewers must accept this to accept Avatar.

A lot of people compare it to Dances With Wolves, but I disagree. In Dances With Wolves, Costner's character adopts the American Indian lifestyle but he doesn't really become 100% Indian and doesn't get elevated to their leader. Costner's love interest, though another member of the tribe, is another white woman.

Avatar is more like The Last Samurai. In Last Samurai, Tom Cruise's character, the noble white warrior, fights the samurai, then trains for a few weeks, then does sexy time with a Japanese woman and viola, instant samurai! Not just any samurai, but super samurai leader! That must be really, really cool for white people, but for Asians, the notion that in a matter of months, a white guy could do something that Japanese men trained their whole lives to do- and do it so much better than the Japanese that he leads them into battle- that's insulting. It's even more insulting when one considers that no matter how many generations Asians have been in the US, they will always be perceive by some as foreigners.

I refuse to accept the underlying bs premise in Last Samurai, no matter how great the acting, musical score and cinematography are and I refuse to accept the bs premise of Avatar no matter how cool the animation and special effects are. Actually, I couldn't accept those premises even if I tried because I'm a member of a ethnic minority, I majored in American History and I'm committed to causes such as increasing minority representation in the popular media.

There are people who are willing to accept those premises. I guess it's nice they have that privilege.

Anonymous said...

Re: Last Samurai Comparison

It's actually worse than you think given the historical context. Remember, the Samurai, though depicted as noble in the movie, were actually fighting for a monarchical feudalistic system, not even a nationalistic cause. Yes, the Americans were unscrupulous, but the Samurai case was far from noble.

DavidinTampa said...

No one has brought this up in any of the comments, but that was the most ANTI American, far left wing film I've seen in ages. I was truly offended. The marines are cardboard cutout BAD guys and the movie was a complete indictment of what's going on in the Middle East.

Having read Alan's views in the past, it's not surprising he would love this film and I am sure a lot of folks agree with him, but I was truly angry at Cameron's Anti American portrayel. It's shameful this movie will make a fortune.

Joseph said...

Agree with most others - the visuals and 3-D were amazing; maybe the first time I ever sat through a CG heavy movie and there was not one instance where the graphics/effects were dodgy.

However, the plot/script were horrible. I thought the main "villain" was terrible - a completely over the top performance, in a bad way. The dialogue was atrocious and the exposition (basically the entire first 30 minutes) was handled in an extremely clunky manner.

For $280 million+ I would have liked to see an actual writer take a pass at the script. Cameron is turning into George Lucas: either a technical genius who thinks he can literally do everything, when in fact he can do everything except write a decent script, or a technical genius who knows he can't write but doesn't care because the visuals are so stunning.

Still worth seeing for the visuals, although I doubt I will ever watch it again.

Joseph said...

@Davidin - it was certainly a ham-handed indictment of Imperialism and the way we handled Iraq (at least from Cameron's perspective), but I don't know if it's anti-American. Anti-Bush/Cheney to be sure, I guess, although Ribisi wasn't government he was "Big Business", and they took pains to point out the soldiers weren't Marines, they were ex-soldiers turned mercenaries.

Matt in Raleigh said...

I saw the IMAX 3D version.

Visually stunning but WAY TOO LONG. He could have cut an easy 40 minutes and this film wouldn't had missed a beat.

The story as noted by just about everyone was rehashed tripe.

Major plotholes abound - specifically a species that can travel between the stars is defeated by blue monkeys, wild animals and bows and arrows?

The easiest way to take out the World Trade Tree of Life would have been to launch a small asteroid at it. Same thing with the final battle. Of course that wouldn't leave much movie would it?

Even still I would recommend seeing this spectacle.

SteveW said...

Alan - I'm disappointed in your opinion of Avatar, given how much I'm almost always on the same page as you for nearly every one of your reviews.

Avatar was dreadfully boring. The script was laughably bad, the acting wooden. The visuals, while well done, became repetitive and annoying after about 40 minutes.