And I have to agree with just about everyone else: James Cameron’s Avatar is fucking amazing. Seriously. Hollywood hasn’t made a movie like this for over a decade. Despite the things I didn’t like about it, the couple of plot holes, the seriously important shit that was kinda hinted at and missing, the brilliant parts that got buried in the “noble savage” and “yay nature” nonsense, I love this movie. It is a movie that I will gladly watch over and over and over again without ever tiring of seeing it. I can only watch the Dark Knight so many times, but Avatar will never tire.
Cinematics wise, it was a visual cornucopia that was so amazingly nuanced that I can hardly believe it happened. The CG, for what I think is the first time ever, is so real I forgot it was CG. Here, truly the virtual and the sets are blended together in ways that are so seamless that the only thing that you can use to tell them apart is the “can they build that?” test.
Yet the cinematics, no matter how captivating, are not what really did it for me. What sold me on Avatar was the phenomenal cultural barrier between the Humans and the Na’vi. And it’s not the indigenous people vs. greedy corporate invaders part. I actually found the Na’vi “noble savage” shtick to be a detriment to the film, but more on that in a moment. The cultural barrier is not in the environmentally harmonious vs. masters of environment, it is in the separation between consciousnesses. The Na’vi, and the entire Pandoran ecosystem for that matter, have the ability to directly connect to each other, mind to mind. They have an external neural linkage that lets them bond directly with all the life I could figure out on the planet. Really the only reason they need a spoken language is out of some sense of privacy I’d imagine. They can know the minds of the people and animals and even plants around them. The very forests become a neural nexus and depository of the minds of all the people that came before. They have tangible proof that they are not alone in the world, trapped inside their own skulls, that there is more to life that mere survival.
Humans don’t have that luxury. We can’t. We can never truly know one another like the Na’vi can. We have to communicate, through imperfect means, through body language and spoken word and pictures, and none of it is ever exactly what we see and know in our own minds. We can never truly connect with another individual directly, let alone the environment around us. We have to take it on faith that there is more to life than our own needs and desires. Frequently that kind of faith is hard to come by, especially when the world itself seems out to end you. Life is a terrifying thing. We are fragile creatures that die with extreme ease, and the world is very good at killing us. Natural disasters, disease, hunger, simply falling down, even the plants and animals around us can be deadly. It’s no small wonder that humans turned to changing the environment to make it less likely to kill us. Eat or be eaten. If the world is out to get you, beat it down until it no longer can. It makes sense, as long as you don’t empathize with the environment.
The Na’vi are such a part of their environment because of that neural connection that taking a human stance would be akin to punching yourself in the face until you weren’t suicidal anymore. It’s an alien concept. And seeing that was beautiful. Having two cultures that truly could not understand each other because their ways were so utterly foreign that they were inconceivable was awesome.
There are no bad guys in Avatar. Don’t let the hollywoodisms fool you. The humans are not evil, and the Na’vi are not without flaw. They’re just trying to survive with their way of life in tact. Humans are mining Pandora because it has a mineral that is undoubtedly a primary key to keeping civilization as we know it running. Why else would you fly out to the stars and set up a major mining operation? Sure because you make money at it, but why do you make so much money? Because it’s vital, and people will pay for critical elements. I think many of the performances are delightfully nuanced. Most of the humans don’t like the idea of wiping out the indigenous population, even the corporate liaison gets a sick look to him when relations fall to war. If the corporate scum-sucker’s stomach churns at the thought of murdering hundreds of sentient beings for fun and profit, there’s probably hope for us as a species yet. Even the Colonel who is all for killin’ folk isn’t really evil. He’s just surviving. The planet he’s on has tried to kill him every day since the day he set foot on it, can you really blame him for not caring about killing it back a little? Conversely, the tree-hugging Na’vi are no better. Sure it’s their planet, but they’re just as stupid and stubborn as the humans. The movie spends forever teaching Jake (our human/na’vi go-between) about the Na’vi way of life, but the blue catfolk never bother to consider learning the human way. They pick up the language, sure, but they never once ask the outsiders why they’re here or making big holes in the ground. In truth the final battle is amazing, and not just for the explosions. I found myself rooting for both sides at different times. When the human marines were blowing the crap out of the Na’vi and their winged beasts I was all “boo humanity!” but then when those ten foot tall blue bastards landed on the airship and slaughtered an entire marine crew I thought to myself “holy shit alien monster, kill it!” Whether intentional or not, the fact that both sides were wrong and right all at the same time was astounding. It really helped hammer home how all of the violence was simply because of a break down in communications.
As I mentioned earlier, there are more than a few things about Avatar that I was not overly fond of. The most obvious was the “noble savage” image plastered all over the Na’vi. Fuck that shit. Point at an indigenous people and tell me that you’d rather have their way of life. Tell me honestly and truly that their way is better than the way you live your life right now. You can’t do it, can you? You know why? Because it’s a crappy fucking lifestyle. I’m all for being balance and harmony in ones life. Balance within oneself, balance between work and play, balance between give and take, balance between man and nature. I am 137.5% for that, but I’ll be damned if I’ll claim that the hunter/gatherer lifestyle is one that appeals to me. For some reason though we have a mindset that simpler times are better times, even when it’s vehemently not true. That strange nostalgia helps paint lower-tech cultures as being “good guys” where as higher-tech cultures remind us of the stress and bother of daily life and become “bad guys.” This is unfair at best. I would much rather have seen the Na’vi be a culture and civilization on par with the human race. Less mysticism around their ways, if their technology be low make it be a choice of the people rather than to make them look like an easy victim. I’d love to see an advanced Na’vi culture. I doubt that they’d ever form the kind of metallurgy and industrialization that humans have simply because of their intrinsic tie to their ecosystem. However, I can easily see them developing a finely tuned ability to use that neural connection to shape the world around them. The planet would become a massive supercomputer. They could influence the growth and shape of the trees and plants to form buildings. I’d even be willing to bet that they could have an amazing breeding program, influencing the shape and mental capacity of the animals in utero. They would be an advanced, intelligent species, having developed a culture that makes them as much a part of the environment as the environment is a part of them. Humans meeting them in that state would be a different ball game, and yet the same. The cultures would still not be able to grok each other, but they would be on the same playing field.
I also felt that for all that was in Avatar, a great deal of the story was left out. The biggest parts being “why is the unobtanium so damn important to humanity? Why’s it so vital?” and “did the initial contact crew ever bother explaining to the indigenous folk how important it is?” Ok, perhaps why we need unobtanium is irrelevant; I mean it’s called unobtanium for God’s sake. I bet it builds starships, makes interstellar travel possible, makes the economy work, cures cancer, and makes you bacon omelets for breakfast. However, if a ragtag ship of aliens were to land on Earth, discover sand and tell the nearest human beings that sand was vitally important to them and they needed as much as they could get, wouldn’t you think people might help? Even if the aliens had not a single thing humanity wanted (unlikely), I’d like to think we’d just give ‘em some sand just ’cause. Did humans not explain to the Na’vi how critical this mineral was? Did the Na’vi not care that it was the key to another species’ survival? Does obtaining the mineral come at too high a cost? How much value can you put on the lives of strangers? These are important things to consider, but admittedly answering them requires a different movie.
I also felt that Avatar started a lot of sub-plots and threads but never went anywhere with them. While I applaud Cameron for acknowledging that these threads would exist in this scenario, I am disappointed that they never developed or were resolved. We assume a resolution because, that’s what happens. For instance, right after Jake comes out of his first mad-cap Avatar driving experience and everyone’s talking about how awesome it is that he’s gotten into Hometree and the Na’vi have sorta taken him in, his driver/buddy Norm gets this fantastic look of “god damnit, that should have been me. it’s so unfair, untrained jarhead gets the glory…” I was expecting this envy thread to go somewhere, it was perfectly fitting, and excellently introduced. Yet the thread never went anywhere. In fact that was the only sign of tension between the two ever. I would have loved to see more on-screen development of the human characters, and all of the secondary characters in general. I would have loved to see all the subplots and threads explored and wound together. Sadly that would make the movie like 5 hours long.
The other big thing that bothered me was the ending. So stop reading now if you haven’t seen it and care about spoilers. For the rest of you, I’m talking about Jake’s body swap and the death to humanity. Jake Sully can never truly be one of the Na’vi, no matter how much they accept him. He is not Na’vi, and I feel it cheapens his accomplishments and realizations and sacrifices to make him literally one of them. Conversely he can’t be fully human either. Not after shipping his planet’s one hope of survival back home in shame that they have failed. Oh, didn’t catch that? Yeah. After saving the Na’vi, Jake ships all the other people that were against him (including some people that did help out a touch) back to the dying Earth. Good call there. Yeah, call me a speciest, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to betray my own kind like that. No matter how wrong they were. Regardless of that, Jake is a man between worlds. One foot on each side of the fence, caught in the middle, and the middle is where he needs to stay as a character in my mind.
Despite any shortcomings, Avatar manages to do something I haven’t seen from hollywood in over a decade I think. It’s a film full of heavy issues and thoughtfulness that is amazingly fun to watch all at the same time. Avatar remembers that its primary goal is to entertain, and it does so in spades.