Thursday, December 31, 2009


I think one of the reasons why Avatar has enjoyed such popular and critical success (top critics give it 94% at Rotten Tomatoes) is that it speaks to many of the major tensions and anxieties of our time. The story takes place on Pandora, an alien planet where a greedy corporation has sent up base to mine Unobtanium, which sells for $20 million a kilo on Earth. The problem is that one of the largest deposits of Unobtaium lies under a giant tree where the native Na'vi population lives. Jake Scully, our hero, is a crippled Marine who, through advanced future-age technology, is able to have his mind transfered to a Na'vi body grown in the lab (an Avatar). His assignment is to find a "diplomatic solution"—that is, convince the Na'vi population to leave their home before the corporation comes and razes it anyway.

Within this framework, Mr. Cameron weaves story lines that prove cathartic for our blood-stained and embarrassing history. A good chunk of the middle part of the movie functions as a dramatic reenactment of The Trail of Tears; the way the military and the company work as one unit in the film is reminiscent of the United Fruit Company's exploits in Latin America; and the military commander's callous contempt of and insensitivity towards the Na'vi has echoes of the US military's attitude towards the "gooks" in the Korean War. For those of us familiar with US history, the film forces us to confront our past, learn from our mistakes, and serves as a precautionary warning for the path we must not travel again in the future—an especially timely message as we continue the Iraq War and prepare to escalate in Afghanistan.

Alongside its political message, Avatar also voices what I think is a general anxiety of our society's spiritual decline. The Na'vi are a very spiritual society, in the way of the Native Americans or the Orient, and believe in the oneness of all living beings. The film yearns for a simpler life, connected with nature and other living beings, living in harmony instead of opposition. David Denby of The New Yorker calls this sentiment nothing "more than a whiff of nineteen-sixties counterculture, by way of environmentalism and current antiwar sentiment" and ultimately dismisses it as "sentimentality," but I think he fails to realize the reality and legitimacy of this spiritual need.

And of course, the film is absolutely joyful to see, visually: a real treat for the eyes. What makes these effects worthwhile is that they're not effects for effect's sake, but rather a way of absorbing you into this rich and astounding fantasy world that Mr. Cameron creates. This film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, and for that to work the film has to tie you up emotionally with the good guys. By introducing us to the Na'vi's world, and by making us fall in love with it, Mr. Cameron succeeds in making the struggles of the Na'vi meaningful and close; in the end everyone in the theater was openly cheering for them.

Some critics complain that the characters are too simplistic or that the story line is too trite, but I think there is a place for war-of-good-and-evil tales and this movie does a fantastic job of representing the genre. The visuals are stunning; the plot is absorbing (for those who aren't too cynical at least); and after you walk out of the theater you have something to think about. Certainly worth seeing.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad that you liked it; I enjoyed it as well.
    James Cameron shed some light on his principles, those that drove the film:
    "I have an absolute reverence for men who have a sense of duty, courage, but I’m also a child of the ’60s. There’s a part of me who wants to put a daisy in the end of the gun barrel. I believe in peace through superior firepower, but on the other hand I abhor the abuse of power and creeping imperialism disguised as patriotism."
    As Cameron explains, a dichotomy between classic military duty and flower-power pacifism underlies the story entire.
    The movie is enjoyable as a sheer feat of storytelling, and this is where Cameron has consistently exceeded throughout his career: in the big picture. If you go into the movie expecting and intimate and personal drama, you will be disappointed; thankfully, I think few expect that of this epic.
    I want to note also that the movie's plot is familiar- basically a "Dances With Wolves" in space- but I think this lends to a sense that this movie is a classic.
    While the conclusion left little room for sequels, James Cameron has stated that he plans on making at least one, assuming that "Avatar" succeeds at the box-office. I look forward to the editions to come.