Avatar

Hey, it’s a post that’s not about hydraulic fracturing! SAY IT AIN’T SO!

I saw Avatar on Christmas Eve with my handsome and talented fiance. I was actually supposed to see the movie on the Monday before that, but I was having stomach problems that day and elected to stay home so I could lay on the couch and feel sorry for myself. Mike (the handsome and talented fiance) saw the movie without me with our friends. With his assurances that it was excellent – and excellent enough to make him want to see it at least twice in theaters – we braved the ice and snow to catch the noon showing.

I just saw the normal version of the movie, by the way. I’ve had multiple people now tell me that 3-D is the only way to go, but honestly I thought it was just fine in boring old 2-D. And with the added benefit of me not having to wear uncomfortable fake glasses over my real glasses, which is the reason I don’t bother with 3-D. I’m sure it’s all very pretty, but I have a hard time getting in to movies when I’ve got two pairs of glasses sitting on my nose and tugging on my ears and feeling generally awkward and annoying.

The movie is beautiful. Very, very beautiful. Very, very, very beautiful. I think there was a moment or two where the CGI broke down, but they were few and far between. The technology sure has advanced, and it made for some spectacular looking aliens and a breathtaking world.

The story itself is fairly unremarkable. It’s not a bad story, though I feel like the story was more there to prop up the HOLY CRAP LOOK AT ALL THIS COOL STUFF than anything else. The movie is very, very worth seeing, and you should go do that. In fact, go watch it now, because I’m going to do a little bit of complaining and discussing issues people have brought up about the film that is going to involve some spoiler-like stuff. But let’s be clear… the complaining I’m about to do in no way means I didn’t like the movie. I loved it. I want to see it at least once more in theaters, maybe twice more if I’m lucky and have the time. I’m going to buy the DVD. I’m going to obsessively watch all the special features. I just also have no problem admitting that it’s not the most perfect piece of pretty film ever created.

SPOILERS BELOW

Race
A lot of people have likened the movie to Dances With Wolves. I tend to agree. In fact, rather than go into detail about how and why I agree, I’m going to send you to this post from Io9, because I think it sums everything up nicely: When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar? I’ll just say that I would like, just once, to see a big box office movie like this where the brown people (or the blue ones, as the case may be) get to save the day without the white hero saving them.

In Avatar, what basically summed up the whole issue for me is the scene where Jake comes flying up to the Tree of Souls on the scary giant read bird-thing. He goes up to the guy that’s the best warrior of the tribe, the one that’s supposed to take over as chief now that Neytiri’s father has gotten turned in to a battered blue kabob. And he says, almost literally, “I can’t do this without you… Translate for me.” Now, I’ve had various people argue that I’m taking it the wrong way, that the pause between the two sentences significantly changes the meaning, and such. But frankly, it still came across to me that Jake was in one breath saying he needed Tsu’tey to follow him, and in the next asking the man to be his mouthpiece. It really rubbed me the wrong way. Imagine how different it would have been if Jake had walked up and Tsu’tey had said something like, “I’m going to lead everyone in to battle. Will you help me?” At which point Jake could have coughed up all sorts of useful information and been very involved in the defense, but still wouldn’t quite have been the white dude leading everyone to victory. Because considering the technological gap, I think it’s fair to argue that the Na’vi would have had a heck of a time scraping together the victory they did without some outside help.

As an aside on the race issue, my mother’s apparently heard complaints that Avatar is in some way anti-American. It all sounds very defensive, and I have a feeling this connects to the race/white guilt issue, since it really is a movie about how it’s shitty to abuse the native people and take their land just because they’ve got something you want. To me, this falls in the same category as the people who get defensive when you point out that it sucked to live in Hiroshima and have an atomic bomb dropped on you. People can make arguments to justify the action all they like, but it doesn’t change the basic fact that it sucks to have an atomic bomb dropped on you, period. When there’s this sort of bitter defensiveness, I’m forced to wonder just why it’s so hard for some to realize – or at least admit – that we’ve done some things in the past (in the very recent past, in some cases) that haven’t exactly been an ice cream social for all the involved parties.

The Military
I would like to get one thing straight. Avatar is NOT an anti-military movie. I’m sure that after watching Stephen Lang gnaw on the scenery for five minutes as Colonel Quaritch, it’s easy enough to pick up that impression. That Colonel Quaritch is actually not actually in the military any longer is an extremely easy fact to miss. As a near throw-away line at the beginning of the movie, Jake Sully narrates that the forces on Pandora are actually mercenaries, soldiers hired directly by the company. I think that little understated and easily missed line is a very important one, to be honest.

If you look at James Cameron’s other big movies, I think it’s actually pretty fair to say he’s mostly been pro-military, or at the very least not anti-military in them. The Colonial Marines in Aliens were certainly heroic. In The Abyss we had one Navy SEAL go bad due to HPNS, but in the end the other SEALs come through and help the civilians save the day. True Lies gives the Marine Corps a chance to show off their jets, which is always good for a “Woohoo, America!” moment. I would even argue that the Terminator movies are not actually anti-military, but rather anti-corporate and anti-taking-soldiers-out-of-the-loop-in-favor-of-autonomous-robots.

Honestly, keeping in mind from the start that the badguys of Avatar were basically corporate mercenaries immediately made me think of the scandals we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan that have involved military contractors, which are basically mercenaries. (Blackwater and KBR, for example.) I don’t know if that’s what was on Cameron’s mind, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a factor in making the Avatar villains corporate hired guns.

The Ladies
I’ve seen a couple comments about James Cameron liking his “woman trapped by destiny” characters. I suppose it’s true… you could definitely draw some parallels between Rose from Titanic and Neytiri in Avatar. I do have to say, though, I actually really like how James Cameron does his female characters for the most part. Rose and Neytiri may be initially “trapped by destiny,” but the major theme of their stories is that they escape from those destinies on to a path of their own choosing. (The fact that it involves falling in love with a different guy… okay, you’ve got me there.) But James Cameron also brought us Ripley, Private Vasquez, Sarah Connor, Helen Tasker, Lindsey Brigman, and Trudy Chacon. I think it’s fair to say that the man likes to see the ladies kick some ass. It always thrills me to my toes to see situations in movies where the women get to defend the men – and effectively – since it doesn’t happen nearly as often as I like. Neytiri taking out the evil scenery-chewing Colonel-that-would-not-die and thus saving Jake filled me with absolute glee.

The Environmentalism
You could probably accuse the environmentalist message of being heavy-handed, but in all honesty I felt that message was subordinate to the “treating the native people like they’re sub-human and kicking them off their land because they have something you want is not cool” message. I suppose that there could possibly be people offended by the notion that strip-mining a pristine world and destroying its vegetation might be a bad thing. These are quite possibly the people who were yelling “Drill, baby, drill” at the RNC, which means I wouldn’t want to sit next to them in a movie theater anyway.

In all honesty, I think the environmentalism of Avatar is an interesting thing to think about, depending on how deeply you want to get in to it. For example, could the corporation have found a way to get the resource that it wanted without causing environmental destruction? Was the open pit mine not really necessary, but mostly used because it was cheap and fast and the corporation had no reason to care? But I also think that if you start parsing the environmental theme like that, it becomes apparent that it’s deeply tied to the movie’s other themes, such as corporate greed and racial guilt. For all that the story is rather heavy-handed at times, the very fact that you can jump off from it in to these sorts of discussions means that it may very well be a deeper film than people (even myself) really give it credit for.

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