No spectacle, however breathtaking, can make up for bad writing. If you strip away all the visual trappings, Avatar is, at best, a B movie. And that's being generous. It proves, nonetheless, that the matriarchal-led-noble-savage-village-adopts-and-converts-wayfaring-stranger-who-brings-tragedy-but-is-oh-so-cute-and-steals-heart-of-conveniently-influential-female spans not only from Japanese culture (Nathan Algren/Brad Pitt in The Last Samurai) to the local Indian tribe (John Smith in Pocahontas) to outer space (Jake Sully/Sam Worthington in Avatar). The planet Pandora, to be exact. It's there that "our hero" gets into action as a paraplegic Marine witnessing the clash between a native (Na'vi) culture and a domineering alien (American Marine) culture.
Ostensibly, it's all about unobtanium -- a mineral that could revitalize Earth by replacing its flailing energy stores. The Na'vi have it, and the Marines don't. It was when the name of the element was muttered that I thought for the first (but not last) time that it would have been nice if the screenwriter and producer had decided at some point in the project (preferably the beginning) whether this was supposed to be an epic or a 2D piece. I mean, the villains were all 2D: the corporal, when not pumping iron, is showing off his battle scars and looking to satiate his blood lust. And the weanie company functionary has something that resembles a conscience, but he's often more interested in his golf than in balanced, humanitarian strategy. And "unobtanium"? Really now.
The Marines are portrayed -- Jake and one renegade Tomb-Raider-like pilot excepting -- as ripped idiots who only know how to carry big guns and shoot them. The Na'vi, on the other hand, have everything figured out. Not only do they live in a land where everything looks like one big Lite Brite scene, they've got stable families and their warriors call the animals they kill "brother" before stabbing them in the heart. (No, I didn't make that up!) They live in a happy commune up in a tree and have a weirdo mix of el naturale with electronic overtones. Yeah, you heard that right. I mean, in the olden days, when you wanted to ride a horse, you just walked up to the palfrey and hopped on. In Na'viland, you have to plug the fiber optic cables conveniently running through your long, braided queue into the fiber optics sprouting from your beast-of-burden's antennae. Yeah, I told you it was weird. For a movie that's supposed to be in touch with the spiritual side of things, there sure were a lot of gimmicky physical things -- the hair-to-antenna connection looked a whole lot like a misplaced umbilical cord, and never ceased to remind me of the clip the "safety conscious" try to make you wear when you run on a tread machine. And if the pink-fiber-optic-tree-god was so great, why does cutting down a few trees do her in? Really, now. Anyway, at one point, head scientist Grace Augustine (who's trying so hard to be a big, bad leading woman that she even unconvincingly strikes up a smoke several times!) tries to translate her findings into lingo her technologically-savvy but heartless Marine listeners might understand. She tells them the Na'vi can "upload and download things -- like their ancestors' memories."
That comes in handy for Jake once Grace kicks the bucket (in her last words she smiles as she realizes she is god). (Yeah, it's another one of those movies where they think it'll up the drama factor if they start killing off as many peripheral characters as possible. Life expectancy of peripherals is low, way low.) Fortunately, the tree god's fiber optics and compatible with his. He has what's supposed to be an emotional moment as he stands beneath the pink fiber optic tree, lets his queue's optics intertwine with the tree's and stars whispering psychobabble, "I come from a place where there's nothing green... We've killed our mother... and now we want to kill you..." He asks the fiber optic god to download Grace's memories. Hope their operating systems are compatible.
His Na'vi wife Neytiri hears his "prayer," but sorrowfully tells him Ma Earth might not intervene during their desparate time: she only keeps the balance of life. Yeah -- sounds like the kind of mom I'd want!
The "super serious" scenes made me laugh, and the scenes where I was supposed to be cheering disgusted me.
On the light side, I think the group phosphorescent sessions when they try to transfer a spirit from one body to another could be put to good use in teaching about cult tactics, and/or group think. There were also some not-so-well-thought-out scenes. The Na'vi are considerably larger than humans: probably twice their height and with arms proportionally longer. At one point, Neytiri cradles Jake (still in human form) as he approaches death. It was supposed to be tender, but somehow the juxtaposition of a huge blue thing hugging a human guy looked kind of like we were at Disney Land and somebody in a Na'vi suit was working the crowd. Speaking of Neytiri, the noises they had her make at points of emotional distress certainly weren't the most flattering. When her poor Pop buys the farm (another peripheral character who bites the dust), she makes a noise that sounded so much like laughing that one of the guys watching the movie actually did start laughing. Oops. Ruined that scene. (Oh well -- the dad was an expendable character; it's the mom who's a shaman of the tribe).
My favorite miscalculation beside the natural electronic fascination was a rather embarrassing side effect of having an Avatar: the inconvenient narcolepsy. I mean, narcolepsy is always inconvenient, but in this movie it was profoundly so. At one point Jake's gearing up for a bone-raising speech when -- whoops -- there he goes! He's over! He's down! He's snoring like there's no tomorrow! So his speech gets chilled and the tree comes tumbling down. At another point, Sigourney/Grace konks over, and the next time we see her she's being drug in a makeshift litter behind a 6-footed horse. I don't know why, but that also cracked me up. I think the movie, kind of like the new Star Wars movies, just took itself way too seriously. Take a hint from Shakespeare: no matter how serious the contents are supposed to be, you've got to have some comic relief. None of the characters were supposed to be funny! There's no "funny guy," not even a cute little animal who befriends Jake and tracks along beside him.
On to the most disturbing part of the film. It's clear from the opening, who we're supposed to root for. Not the American Marines (yep, you heard that right: there's not even a pretense that these forces are international, collectively trying to save their dying planet. Americans are the problem), oh no. The Na'vi. I guess the screenwriter thought we might be too dense to self-identify with the bad guys unless they used live action, American-sounding, Marine-looking guys and gals. Yep, we're the bad guys. And who are the good guys? The Na'vi. Their feathers and body paint are most reminiscent of American Indians, but I suppose they could stand for any victim of American imperialism anywhere. What's wrong with this picture? Plenty. First off, it's a false dichotomy: you're with us our you're agin' us. Actually, why do I have to choose either side? If you look at how the deck has been stacked in this film, with only negative stereotypes of Marines shown, and every good aspect of the Na'vi played up, I think you'll ask yourself that question. Don't get sucked into thinking you have to choose a side for this one.
If the moviemakers' point was supposed to be that Marines are heartless bloodletters, they're absolutely wrong. I am disgusted that any moviemaker at any time would show their brutal beliefs about the military, portraying our military in such a way with not even a fig leaf to disguise who they were character assassinating. But it's even worse when it's done during a time of war. Anyone who actually thinks of our Armed Forces in this way should get to know a soldier and see their theories wither. I hope that no one in the military thinks that this way of presenting the military is what average men and women in this country believe. This film is reprehensibly irresponsible in its portrayal of the brave men and women who are currently serving in the military and risking their lives so we can live.
Do you know how messed up it is to see animated-like characters murdering American Marines with the music swelling, telling us we're supposed to like this part? Jake has qualms about murdering fellow Marines. They don't even throw in a questioning scene where he has to wrestle with his conscience. Killing a Na'vi is unpardonable, but killing a Marine is something to celebrate. What happened to respecting all life?
Incidentally, since this film is in some ways supposed to make us think about our conquest of Indian tribes, let me say this: history didn't have to turn out the way it did. Some European settlers and some Indian tribes were able to coexist in peace. It is possible!!! And it's historical revisionism if we lay all the blame for what happened on one side or the other. Yes, there was unjustifiable treatment of Indians by Europeans. There was also unjustifiable treatment of Europeans by Indians. I'll also mention that the "noble savage" idea presented in this film cannot be applied to the majority of the Indian tribes who lived in the U.S. when the Europeans began settling. For one thing, moral decadence was rampant in many tribes. So yes, European diseases definitely weaked some Indian tribes' ability to fight Europeans as they settled, but it definitely was not the only factor. Another thing to consider was that many Indians did not unite to fight the settlers because many settlers formed alliances with them. Also, there were not broad alliances between various tribes, as is shown in this film. I am in nowise trying to justify what happened in the past: I am disgusted by slaughtering people who lived trustfully near you, regardless of the skin color of the perpetrator or victim. I just think that before we take this film's advice and go on a white guilt spree, we ought to consider our actual history.
Really, this film could have had a much more positive message than "Pick a side, and pay blind loyalty to it no matter what." It could have been a vehicle to show reconciliation between very different nations. Since this is my blog, I'll have my way and present my version of what Avatar could have been:
Jake finds an untenable situtation mounting between the blue guys and the Marines. He gets to know the blue guys (and that particularly nice blue girl) and realizes what a pot of gold they're sitting on. So, he has a one-on-one with the golf-maniacal corporate guy. If he doesn't listen, he takes his message to the common man. He convinces them it's not unobtanium they need, it's tourism. They get Colonel "I AM TRANSFORMER" transferred to do boot camp in the States, and work out a system where people back on Earth take virtual tourism treks via screens the Na'vi carry with them as they do their aerial gymnastics. They start plans to launch into the calendar photo business, and start an entreprenurial society among the Na'vi youngfolk. On the side, the Na'vi start financing a "Drill, Baby, Drill" PR campaign back on earth, and fiber optic pink trees really start to catch on in gift shops all over Earth. Sigourney's given an ashtray, and they all live happily ever after.