You can probably tell by now that I am not too happy about this. Well, here’s why:
At first glance, James Cameron’s Avatar is a progressive sci-fi lover’s dream: it’s a 3D remake of Fern Gully set on a future alien world with lots of crazy technology and science. Hailed by some critics as one of the most original and groundbreaking movies of the decade, its explicit messages are anti-war, pro-environment, and pro-cultural understanding.
But dig a little deeper -- which is to say, actually watch the thing -- and a breathtakingly shallow understanding of these issues emerges from a shockingly poor execution. Avatar is Pocahontas starring a space marine: a trite and condescending film whose central plotline centers around the forgiveness of white guilt and privilege by racial stereotypes disguised as aliens.
The extent of James Cameron’s ignorance of post-colonial movements would be falling-on-the-floor hilarious but for the fact that he’s made billions of dollars peddling these naive tropes. Avatar’s indigenous species, called the Na’vi -- note that the apostrophe is literally added for exoticism -- are such a sloppy amalgamation of Native American and African tribal stereotypes that it’s impossible to take more than one or two of the forest scenes seriously. The main (white, male of course!) character is accepted as one of the tribe almost immediately because of signs they can read through their magical, deep spiritual connection to the planet. Then, over the course of a couple of training montages and three months of movie-time, he so thoroughly masters their primitive indigenous ways that he bests the tribe’s head warrior and becomes their indispensable leader in the fight against the caricatures of imperialist, technologically-armed invaders.
Tell me that this isn't one of the more embarrassing movie mockeries you've ever seen:
Even if we set aside how literally offensive this treatment of indigenous cultures is (and why should we?), we’re just left confronting a more damning problem for a $500 million blockbuster: these stereotypes are distractingly boring!
Despite studio-driven hype to the contrary, Avatar is deeply unimaginative and often poorly animated. The biology, though at times prettily bioluminescent, so thoroughly fails the most basic tests of plausibility that it’s worth a post by itself. The story is stolen from an (uncredited) sci-fi author named Paul Anderson. The treatment of nature and many of the “visionary” images are offensively poorly orchestrated rip-offs of Hayao Miyazaki’s films (particularly Princess Mononoke) -- a filmmaker whose animation (aside from the 3D gimmickery) is far more powerful than Cameron’s.
If there’s anything the Star Wars prequels taught us, it’s that faster computers rendering more CGI do not good special effects make: great graphics are the result of careful art direction and extreme attention to detail. Primarily for this reason, there has yet to be a better-made sci fi movie than 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey -- and it’s because Stanley Kubrick took the time to do things like actually write the instructions for replacing the explosive bolts on doors, or pay attention to the way that objects move in a gravity-less vacuum, or think through how a semi-sentient computer would behave when given contradictory instructions.
I’m happy to grant that the scenery in Avatar (particularly the floating islands) is stunning: it’s perhaps the one trend that the film will probably encourage in filmmaking that I’m happy about. But as a photo editor who helped put together a National Geographic calendar, I’m also unwilling to give it the widespread awe that the press seems intent on pushing on us: aside from the gravity defiance, our own planet has produced more truly awe-inspiring images than the jungles of Pandora, with more powerful real details than Cameron manages when given full free fictional reign.
With this mild success in mind, let's take a harder look at the film's deepest failure: its protagonist-species, the Na'vi.
Apparently aliens are tall, skinny, objectively hot, blue humans with a couple of catlike features who speak perfect english? That is some Star Trek: Original Series bullshit. CHIMPANZEES lack the vocal chords to articulate human language, and are already too heavy to swing from treetops without great care. How the hell would ten-foot creatures from another planet manage these feats with ease?
Why did this slip past Cameron's supposedly fantastic attention to detail? Well, let's just say he was focused on other things. In a hilarious take-down of the Na’vi’s biological design, Nina Shen Rastogi quotes a James Cameron interview with Playboy: “Right from the beginning I said, ‘She’s got to have tits,’ even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals.” That's right, he said it: what responsible filmmaker would let realism get in the way of great boobs? This is science fiction, where anything goes -- even if it's fucking stupid.
By no means did the idiotic mass-market-motivated compromises stop there:
But with their long limbs, heavy tail, and opposable big toes, the Na'vi should move more like gibbons than bipedal humans. And all that upright scampering across tree branches seems wrong, too, given how heavy a 10-foot-tall creature must be—even one with superlight bones.
Many of the choices that have obvious rationales from a storytelling perspective make for weird anatomy. Take those big, exotic eyes, which make the Na'vi look so cute and sympathetic. "Gigantic eyeballs are usually for creatures that forage exclusively at night," Sumida says. "These characters should be wearing sunglasses—they get so much light, their eyes will hurt."
And those expressive tails. Tails are an extension of the backbone, emerging downwards from the sacrum, where the hips attach. Na'vi tails, however, seem to emerge from above the sacrum, and they stick out at a nearly right angle. Sumida also takes exception to the Pandorapedia's claims that those tails are prehensile—that is, used for grasping things—and help the Na'vi balance their long torso and legs. If that were the case, the Na'vi would probably be walking on all fours, with their backs parallel to the ground.
Finally, about those boobs: It's good that they're purely decorative. Since the Na'vi seem to have zero fat on their bodies, those mammary glands almost certainly don't work. Relatedly, the fact that the Na'vi aren't placental mammals makes the presence of bellybuttons something of a curiosity.
Cameron’s only solution to this implausibility is a ludicrous incuriosity on the part of every character besides the scientist played by Sigourney Weaver. Pandora is a planet that literally has islands that somehow float in the air and a neural network between sentient trees that stretches across the entire planet -- which is another way of saying proof of a living God -- and yet no one seems interested in these facts. Mind. Blowingly. Stupid.
In truth, I don’t really care whether James Cameron's Idiot's Delight sweeps the Academy Awards. This is about something rather larger.
As I see it, the massive success of Avatar represents a cultural failure on two counts: first, America’s failure to look beyond the simplest terms of white guilt and truly examine what colonialism and postcolonialism mean for the world; and second, Americans’ sedentary acceptance of the false wonders produced for us, at the expense of the extraordinary real wonders that abound in every direction if we’d only bother to open our eyes to them.
It pains me to see critics even taking this movie seriously as a film, let alone giving it good reviews. Best movie of the year? I’d rather nominate this genius 70-minute video review of Star Wars I: A Phantom Menace.
Thankfully, its author also came through on Avatar: