Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar is An Ode to White Guilt or Avatar is Like a Beautiful Woman Who You Lose Interest in the Minute After You Sleep with Her

Avatar is a beautiful movie that is best suited as a premier display piece for home theater systems on the floor of Best Buy. It is an amazing technical accomplishment. Avatar's 3d effects are the stuff of imagination--truly redefining for the genre of action and sci-fi film. But as often is the failing of beautiful things, Avatar has nothing new to offer. In its synthetic story we have seen elements recycled--elements done far better elsewhere. Likewise, in reading the overly enthusiastic praise offered by professional critics, and observing how some in the audience cheered and looked wide eyed at Cameron's display of technical brilliance as though it were a thing never seen before, I smiled.

It was not a smile of condescension, what I like to call "geek contrariness" where folks just want to be "haters" as to appear smart and witty. No, I was thinking of Lloyd Bentsen, the 1992 Vice Presidential Democratic Candidate and his ownage of Dan Quayle in their debate. There Quayle alluded to JFK. Bentsen looked at the baby faced, dim witted candidate (a male Sara Palin before her reign of terror over the know-nothings and willfully ignorant Right-wing Populists) and smiled. He replied: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

In that spirit, I must proclaim the following: Avatar, I know Star Wars. I love Star Wars. Avatar, you are no Star Wars.

I will dispense with a more detailed review of the movie except to offer the following--read any review of the film Dances with Wolves and substitute Avatar for the latter. While Costner's epic is far more enjoyable (Wolves is an "A" film, Avatar is "C+" at best), the general review will read the same. As to avoid redundancy, I offer the following questions and observations:

1. How much white guilt and colonial fantasy is present in Avatar? White human guy can go and become an alien, return to his human body, expose the wickedness of his human brethren toward the noble savages, and then lead a revolt against the evil human corporate henchmen. Second thought: did anyone else catch the phrase "race traitor" flippantly thrown about in the film? Third thought: while I am ashamed to admit it, I love Colonel Quaritch's proclamation that, "We will blast a crater in their racial memory so deep they won't come within a thousand clicks of here ever again!" If I ever get into fisticuffs with an ign't again in my life, I am going to scream that phrase as I beat them into submission.

How many articles, critical essays, and reviews are going to be written just on that one element of the film--the colonial imagination--ten, twenty, thirty? How many are going to be worth reading? I am getting my outline ready as we speak.

2. Are the Na'Vi supposed to be Masai warriors? Tell me the resemblance is not uncanny. Easter egg: "Na'Vi" is "Native" minus "E.T." Cool move.

3. On the white guilt point, so the Na'Vi take into their community a representative of their enemies, who learns their culture in three months, mates with an heiress to the tribe's leadership, rises to lead all the Na'Vi peoples against the human invaders, and gives poor said aliens agency enough to fight back. Come on! Talk about the white man's burden redux.

4. I will concede that the Na'Vi got some soul with their fiber optic lovemaking and magic swaying to and fro under the mystical tree. In fact, the Na'Vi's music sounded like something off of a world music soundtrack one could buy at Starbucks. But for my dollar, I prefer the Ewok celebration at the end of Jedi:

5. Final music point: when will John Horner stop recycling music from Glory and Willow?

6. For a spot on deconstruction of white guilt in Avatar (she beat me to it) see Annalee Newitz's piece on the great site Io9.

7. How fitting is the following? The Marines have the following saying of which they are quite proud: "Join the Marines, Travel to Exotic Distant Lands, Meet Exotic People and Kill Them." Mate some Greenpeace ethos with the spirit of the above slogan and you have Avatar summed up quite nicely.

8. How many movies and classic sci-fi novels does Avatar unsuccessfully borrow from? I count the following: Forever War; Old Man War; Dune; District 9; Aliens; Dances with Wolves; A Man Called Horse; Final Fantasy; Last Samurai; Pocahontas; New World; Zulu; Tarzan; Ferngully; the Star Wars Trilogy. What did I miss, Captain Planet?

9. I am not hating on synthetic films--I love Tarantino for example. What is so troubling to me is how Cameron has such an eye for detail in this film and has created such a wondrous planet (the world of the Na'vi is so beautiful and well thought out, the lack of innovation in terms of narrative is made painfully obvious by comparison). Furthermore, the glowing errors of reasoning and exposition in other aspects of Avatar is a glaring oversight as well. This leads us to...

10. I am a gearhead, ghetto geek. In layman's terms this means I pay attention to military hardware, strategy, and tactics in my films. To point: did the mercs in Avatar graduate from a correspondence course? Why wouldn't they simply destroy the Na'Vi from orbit? Why would they bring in their capital ships within close range of their enemies? Thus, sacrificing all their advantages of firepower and technology? Some other thoughts. Why can't the military simply turn off what is basically an elaborate wi-fi connection between the operators and the avatars? Who would invest money in such a technology without including a kill switch?

Yes, it is a film. But, Cameron could give us a wink in the narrative to explain this error in reasoning. Was there something about the planet that demanded they come in close to fight it out with some dirty boxing?

11. Second gearhead point: so the humans can travel between stars, cover light years of distance, and master transferring human consciousness into a host body, but we can't make a type of transparent steel that can stop arrows and spears? Just thinking aloud...

12. I am not a hater. Colonel Quaritch is a badass. As proof of my allegiance to the Clan Quaritch, I will most certainly dress as our leader next Halloween.

13. Does Avatar take place in the same universe as Cameron's Aliens films?

14. On Quaritch again, the knife his mech pulled out was 10 kinds of awesome! Did anyone else notice the engraving on the blade? Was it a prize taken from a fallen Na'Vi warrior?

15. How great will Robotech be if shot using Cameron's 3d technology?

16. What did you love about the movie? What did you hate? Were you as disappointed as I was? Or have I lost the eyes and heart of my 12 year old self as demonstrated by my inability to appreciate the wondrous genius that is Avatar?


K. Mansfield said...

"Navi" also means "prophet" in Hebrew. I wonder if that might be a little nose-tweak too.

jim said...

The person who invented the Na'vi language and all that does have a PhD in linguistics, so I wouldn't be surprised if both speculations about the origin of the term "Na'vi" were true.

But on to the thrust of the article: YES. YES YES YES. I walked out of the theater yesterday thinking a few things. First, that I'm glad I didn't have high expectations about the narrative itself, because my disappointment would have gotten in the way of anything I enjoyed. Second, that the story was the same as I've seen or read a hundred times before. Third, that the whole story seemed like the ultimate white man's racial fantasy: to somehow be able to shed our own skin, become the "other" (in Avatar, his old "human"/white self, which incidentally is paraplegic, gets discarded and dies), and yet still have everything handed to us or go our way. To have everyone love us just soooo much.

And none of that really surprises me--like I said, I was pretty much expecting more of the same from good ol' Hollywood. Who else can the viewer identify with but the skeptical white man who wants, more than anything, to find his own fulfillment in the paradise of these natives?

It's colonization fantasy at its most predictable.

Having said all of that... well, I'd watch it again. I really wish the narrative was deeper, more carefully thought out, that there were fewer plot holes, that the acting was better, that the writing was better, that there was something more redeeming of value in the interplay between the humans and the natives...

but it's still pretty damn impressive. If you took the humans and the Na'vi out of the film, you'd be hard-pressed not to fall in love with the world itself. Sure, it felt at times like a masturbatory "look-what-we-can-do-with-CGI" showcase, but I hardly cared. Little bugs that spin into helicopter whirls of light, wispy tree seeds that float like jellyfish, luminescent moss that lights up at a touch--I would have probably loved the film if it had got rid of the whole narrative and let it be Planet Pandora (or Moon Pandora?). They could have spent the extra hundred million on inventing even more new species to document and follow, rather than on devising the most spectacular way to kill off Michelle Rodriguez (because, after all, that character never survives in these stories).

And I ought to just shout out, again, as a linguist, to the fact that the native language is a rather legitimate construct, rather than a hodgepodge of random sound effects and other things. The guy knew what he was doing, and while the effect might be subtle, it shows.

gordon gartrelle said...

The black "troll" Armond White also beat you to it.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen it yet but a friend of mine has and swears that it's a complete ripoff of a very old story by Poul Anderson titled Call Me Joe. FWTW.

Cobb said...

Avatar needs a universe. The question is whether or not anybody who is 16 years old now, as I was when Star Wars came out, is ready to invest in populating that universe.

The problem here is that Cameron is Cameron - He is industrial light and magic with no writers. But nobody can tell him squat. So everybody who is working on the film has no idea how clunky the whole story is - so much so that race obsessives can ignore the fact that the 'white man' has no legs and all his reasons come from that rather than colonial lust or jungle fever.

There is nothing to stop Star Wars from being what it was, a boring story many generations old, to people who had heard the story that many times. I recall that Alec Guiness himself didn't think much of his Obi Wan and was upset that it would be his stage oeuvre's undoing. And so there is nothing to save Avatar except for the irrational exuberance of its relatively uncultured fans. Thats what we were then, that's what kids are now.

In the end the only great leap forward is technology - even though it's like, you know, totally gnarly content an' shit, na mean?

How tolerant can one be? What if it wasn't Chewbacca in Episode Four but Jar Jar Binks? Would the whole universe have been junked? We think we know now, but do we?

The story itself doesn't deserve the colonialist riff here. To initiate it is to fall head over heels into the noble savage tar baby. There's no way to win critically - this movie is not literate enough to support any such criticism.

Unknown said...

All story-telling, racial and shallowness issues I had wwith this movie aside...

I noticed that the "helicopters" that managed to withstand bullets from the colonel can't take a spear head thrust in BY HAND. Where are the physics behind that again?

Anonymous said...

It's not a complete rip-off of Call Me Joe, though it does have some very similar concepts.

But, the cardinal sin of all stories is something this movie has in abundance: A crappy plot. Why can't Cameron higher a damn writer like everybody else?

Anonymous said...

What this film plainly shows, is that REGARDLESS of race or culture, when someone makes a moral choice that they believe in - they can accomplish the impossible. It also shows that the Native American culture of becoming 'one with your environment' and 'looking after nature' is an important issue with the continual threat of pollution and global warming et al.

What it is NOT about, is 'White Guilt' - It was not written by a plantation master... What is it with all this 'White Guilt' propaganda? Can you remember specifically who took you away from your mud hut and disease - and gave you a computer, a car, a house, clean drinking water? If you know where he lives, let us all go there and complain about what he did to you!

I do not feel guilty about any race hate, for I have done nothing to a race to feel guilty about... if you want to go and shout at 200-300 year old graves and tombs about what they did to our ancestors, go right ahead! But STOP complaining about what White people NOW are NOT responsible for!!! We keep bitchin about wanting apologies? For who? For what? Do we all just want to pack the hell up and move back to a mud hut in Zambia? I don't!!!

I am not Racist and have friends from all corners of the globe, but it has to be pointed out that this website is FILLED with anti-white propaganda, thus making the majority of posters on here 'racist', I have White friends, they may have ancestors who did some awful shit - but they themselves did not! Black people are becoming more racist than the Whites, against the Whites and we are becoming as bad as they WERE... but at least they learned, can we?