Warning: Avatar spoilers litter this review like Ikran droppings across the rocks of the Hallelujah Mountains.
As I mentioned earlier, Avatar is a movie made almost specifically for me. It’s directed by a man whose obsessive attention to detail and fanatical devotion to technology has provided us with some of the most clearly designed and thrillingly executed movies of recent times. It’s about exploration of alien worlds and has an anti-imperialist message of clunking obviousness but surprising emotional power. It features the most startling visual effects ever committed to the big screen, and constantly pulls the rug out from under you with its dedication to outdoing itself. It’s filmed in beautifully rendered and cleverly composed 3D, and for once puts paid to criticisms that the format is a gimmick (even the sceptical Roger Ebert has been won over). It’s got a big battle between space marines and space monsters, and features a world that looks like a Yes album cover come to life (thanks to Anne Billson for the apt comparison). Basically, if it was going to make me hate it, it would have to try hard.
Luckily for me, after all of that anticipation, it didn’t piss me off — at least on first viewing, which was an overwhelming experience — but I can’t praise it without addressing some of the concerns raised by it. In the post-experience discussion I had with Daisyhellcakes, we kept coming back to the depiction of the Na’vi as a race of Native Pandorans treated so poorly by the colonial humans that they weren’t even offered beads for the rights to their sacred grounds. It’s problematic, to say the least. They are portrayed as simple, honest folk who hunt (but apologise to their prey before stabbing them in the heart, so that’s okay) and pray to a tree-god, and need to be rescued by one of the oppressors who just happens to be smarter and even more in tune with nature than they are. Scenes where the Na’vi cede control over their destiny to Jake Sully’s avatar make for queasy viewing, even if he did just land in their sacred space on the biggest, baddest, coolest multi-coloured dragon thingy you could imagine.
As Daisyhellcakes said after seeing it, she didn’t want to admit to liking the movie as much as she did because the wrongness of Cameron’s attitude to his noble alien race was so glaring. As Charlie Jane Anders points out here, this is a race that is so unfailingly noble they come across as a clumsy patronisation of the Real-World indigenous races that Cameron wants them to metaphorically represent. Apart from some douchebaggery from one guy early on, they’re all so great that they treat the imminent death of a human with the same amount of grieving and solemnity that greeted the destruction of their home and the death of their leader. Hey, I’ll bow to no man in my admiration for the eternally awesome Sigourney Weaver, but if I was an alien who had just lost the cornerstone of my culture and my civilisation, I’d be a bit more concerned about that than the death of some missionary who had been nice enough to hand out useless medicine that one time.
Still, as we talked we came to a sort of conclusion that although it made us uncomfortable, what the hell else was Cameron supposed to do? It’s tempting to think he is not up to the task of adding subtlety to any story he tells, but then he’s telling stories that fall apart when subtlety is introduced. He has his work cut out getting a lot of story and scene-setting out of the way, and at times the rush of exposition — either via voiceover or clumsy explanations by the various scientists studying the planet — means we’re really getting broad strokes already. This superb “nature documentary” about Pandora contains almost as much information about the planet and the creatures on it than is found in the movie.
As well as the Na’vi culture, some of the human relationships are sketched so lightly that their progression feels like a hint rather than an arc. Cameron was obviously ruthless in the editing room, and it stands to reason that he was already aware that portraying internecine battles within the Na’vi clan that embraces Jake would just bog the movie down further. We lose something to gain something else, and your enjoyment of the movie will likely depend on which you would rather have: sensitivity or bombast. If you think Cameron missed a trick not giving us tales of the ascerbic Na’vi arrow-maker or the cranky Na’vi mother who longs to join her lifemate on the hunt and is annoyed by his retrograde gender politics, you’re watching the wrong movie. This is good versus evil, and he’s going to make damn sure you know which is which.
Also, he might oversimplify the Na’vi, but so much thought has gone into the creation of the world and the people and their intertwined relationship that he can’t be accused of not giving a damn about the small stuff. Kudos to the production designers and astrobiologists and astrobotanists who came up with the convincing flora and fauna of Pandora. Their work is the most impressive thing about Avatar, and makes it feel like a real place. Even when doubts about the effectiveness of Cameron’s story began to itch at my brain, the secondary story — of Pandora and its ecology — was far more successful. I suspect that repeat viewings might make the problems of Cameron’s plotting seem more glaring. This morning Mr. Beaks from AICN quoted Kenneth Turan, who said Avatar would be the Jazz Singer of the 21st Century, a movie that changed everything but was widely disliked ten years after release. I expect my considerable affection for this movie will follow a similar trajectory to my opinion of Titanic, which I loved on first viewing, but disliked more and more with each revisit. Nevertheless, while the narrative clumsiness will likely annoy in time, the level of detail in this stunningly realised world will continue to hold my interest, and seeing new interconnections between them will become more interesting to me.
Of course his interest in creating a complex faux-eco-system is part-and-parcel of his environmental message, which is heavily pro-nature and anti-strip-mining. This too has come under scrutiny, especially by those who think a movie that features this much CGI has been burning through rainforests worth of energy to keep its computers humming along. The pro-tree message is rammed home with such relentlessness that the mid-movie action scene is the lengthy destruction of a single tree, though to be fair it’s a pretty goddamn awesome tree. Complaining about how Cameron paints his political pro-environment message is fair enough, but where were these complaints last year when Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E told a similarly unsubtle story? That got a free pass, but Cameron gets pilloried. Not everyone has done that, and I speak as someone who was pleased to see Stanton’s messages stated so clearly, but the double-standard still irks. I guess that’s what you get when you make an action movie instead of a Pixar movie.
Besides, Cameron’s ideas about why Pandora should be left untouched are far more interesting than mere tree-hugging. The central idea of the movie is that all lifeforms on Pandora are linked together in a way that expands even upon James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, or Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere concept. Pandora is a kind of brain, and the creatures that live upon it can access that brain through a neural connection. The Na’vi are also able to connect to the minds of the creatures around them, and control them in much the same way the humans connect themselves to their machines, except the Na’vi also form emotional bonds with the creatures and treat them as equals. It might just be an expansion of the idea that we are connected to all other living things, but when taken literally like that it is enormously appealing and deepens what might have initially seemed like a wishy-washy justification for the Na’vi’s special nature.
It also means that the “God” they worship is actually a kind of world-mind/flesh-internet that allows them to upload and download memories. Note that their culture doesn’t seem to have a history told via words or pictures: it’s stored inside the network of life on the planet. I’ve heard the movie referred to as Luddite as it praises New-Age-style philosophy over reliance on technology, but the biotech of Pandora works as a metaphor for the connectivity we currently enjoy thanks to the Internet. Though some scenes with the Na’vi plugged into the ground and radiating outwards from the Tree of Souls look kinda dippy, they have an unexpected emotional charge. The great revelation of our age is that we work better when we’re aware of each other, and seeing this network of co-operation represented in glowing visual style is a powerful reminder of how lucky we are.
It’s an idea that makes Avatar more nuanced than a mere Dances-With-Space-Wolves and more like Dune-In-A-Forest, especially as Sully can be seen as a Space Marine/Kwisatz Haderach hybrid. That said, no matter which pop cultural artifact Cameron was influenced by most, when necessary he pulls out all the stops and tops the action work he has done in the past. With the goodness of the good guys and the badness of the bad guys clearly explained, he can go all out with an emotionally satisfying final act where heroes are forged, villains are killed, and revenge is taken. This is what Cameron does best, and the final half an hour is some of the most thrilling cinema I’ve ever been lucky enough to witness. Any reservations we had earlier melted away in an onslaught of last minute rescues, defiant last stands, and tragic slow-motion deaths. Cameron’s facility with action serves him well, with skillfully handled set-ups paying off in a series of sub-setpieces that are layered together with a master’s touch.
Praise is also due for an earlier scene where Sully captures and tames a wild Ikran on top of the Hallelujah Mountains, and then goes on his first flight with Neytiri. It’s a stunning sequence, featuring visual effects of such complexity and clarity that I choked up. At that moment I knew I loved the movie with very nearly all my heart. It also helps that Cameron has elicited such strong work from his cast. Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi are deliriously evil but enjoyably hissable, with Lang’s Quaritch getting a couple of cool moments in the finale that drew murmurs of great pleasure from the audience. You expect Sigourney Weaver to be great — and she is — but I was surprised at how good Joel “Hottie and the Nottie” Moore and Michelle “Ana-Lucia” Rodriguez were. Even better were the heads of the Na’vi clan, played by the ever-reliable CCH Pounder and Wes Studi. Praise is also due Laz Alonso as cuckolded Tsu’tey, and Sam Worthington makes good on the promise shown in Terminator Salvation with an impassioned and charismatic turn.
Best of all is Zoe Saldana, who gives an astonishing performance as Neytiri. With the performance-capture technology now developed to the level Robert Zemeckis has always aspired to, it feels as if there is no intervening layer of CGI between us and the actor, and of the entire alien cast, it is Saldana who seizes the moment with the greatest relish. Her manifestation of this serious and tragic character was the heart of the movie. If she had failed, our suspension of belief would have fatally faltered, but thankfully she exceeds beyond our wildest dreams. About twenty minutes after her introduction, I was amazed to find that I believed with all of my heart that Neytiri was real, and it is as much a testament to her skill as to the effects chaps at WETA that this mental conversion occurred. Thanks to this — and her entertaining work as Uhura in this summer’s Star Trek — I now look forward to her future work with much enthusiasm.
It’s an unfashionable statement to say I gave myself over to Cameron’s sincerity, especially as we’re dealing with a filmmaker who is considered to be a crass populist who can only bombard audiences with glossy imagery that hide a hollow core. I’d argue that Cameron believes deeply that the message of his movie is meaningful, and will be happy to have touched the hearts of millions rather than appealed to the refined intellects of a handful of joyless twerps. If so, I reckon he’s right. As for Avatar‘s status as the most advanced display of CGI wizardry yet made, and whether this is enough to qualify it as a great movie rather than one that is just okay but pretty, my own bias intrudes. Artistic merit is attributed to movies for many reasons, many of them nebulous. Such concrete things as effects work or production design are often not included among these criteria, as it’s surely obvious that they are base and do nothing to reveal human truth (often considered the least thing that great art should do).
In my eyes, though, the technical work done on Avatar in bringing to life an entire world filled with believable creatures in a series of interlocking relationships is as close to perfection as we’re going to get at the moment. If the breathtaking design work and detailed effects work displayed here isn’t allowed into the leather-and-mahogany drawing room called Art, then no design or effects work ever will be. At its best this is a moving sculpture, a dynamic tapestry, a web of interlaced speculative concepts and exquisitely rendered visual representations that literally dazzle. Ignore the faults, and forgive it for being clumsy. You need to see Avatar so you can experience the feeling of having your point-of-view float through the most beautiful landscape painting you’ll ever see.