Friday, January 8, 2010

The Trouble With Avatar (Part One)

Can Hollywood ever get science fiction right? I ask this because I am baffled by the praise emanating from most critics towards James Cameron’s wretched 3D extravaganza Avatar. The story in this lengthy (2 hours, 40 minutes long) science fiction tale is simplicity (or simple mindedness) itself. A cabal of scientists, mercenaries and corporate types are occupying the planet of Pandora and planning to get their hands on a precious mineral that they say Earth needs desperately. Our hero, Jake (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, is chosen to link up with one of the humanoid species, the Na’vi, who live on the planet, in order to get into its brain and attempt to communicate mankind’s 'peaceful' wishes to get the mineral even though it is found beneath the Na’vi’s holiest site. Needless to say, the Na’vi neither wants to move off the land nor allow the humans to drill for the mineral. But Jake, who can inhabit the virtual body of a Na’vi, and thus walk and run, begins to sympathize with the gentle humanoid species and slowly starts to turn against his military masters.

Amalgamating the worst parts of Terrence Malick’s loopy and New-Agey The New World and the black and white corporate / environmental world views of Naomi Klein / David Suzuki, Avatar is rife with bad dialogue (the Na’vi use unlikely words like ‘moron’ and the soldiers sound remarkably like present day grunts) and obvious symbolism – good natives, bad occupiers, all to the service of a tedious, cardboard cut-out story that barely leaves any emotional ripple in its wake. Oh, did I mention that it’s purportedly set in 2154, in a world where people speak exactly the same type of English as in our present, where the United States seems to be the only country in space? The technology, other than the avatar link ups between human and Na’vi, isn’t particularly novel, either. The soldiers wear watches, for God’s sake, something most 20somethings don’t even do anymore.

Perhaps the best way to analyze the deficiencies of Avatar, which doesn’t feel like it’s really set in the future, is to try a little experiment. Imagine society in hundred year increments, 1809, 1909, 2009, and think how much has changed in that 200 year span. How about in fifty year slices or even in twenty five year parts? In 1984,for example, CDs barely existed, the internet was hardly ubiquitous, flat screen TVs were a science fiction concept, DVDs didn’t exist and VHS was the order of the day. And these are the technological changes. I won’t even get into the social, philosophical and moral issues that have arisen since 1984, 17 years before 9/11. In that light, Avatar is simply wrongheaded. Oh, the portrait of Na’vi might seem interesting and original – after all, they’re blue skinned, ten feet tall, and have elongated limbs – but they’re actually more humanoid than alien, with colloquial language, basic emotions and actions that seem remarkably, well, human.

Now if Cameron, the public and the film critics, who have been praising his ‘bold’ vision, had read actually any of the recent imaginative science fiction novels that have portrayed aliens, or a compelling future, with utmost style and thought (Robert Charles Wilson’s Blind Lake, Theodore Judson’s Fitzpatrick’s War, Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth, to name just three stellar books from some of the best writers in the field), they would have seen through the cant of Avatar. The film basically eschews any semblance of shading to its plot in favor of flashy pyrotechnics and expensive special effects. Yet, there’s a hint of something at the end of the film that suggests it needn’t have been cast as it was. An offhand reference to a ‘dying’ Earth seems to postulate that maybe, just maybe, the military / scientists have a legitimate reason for wanting to drill for unobtanium, the mineral at the centre of the film’s plot, and are thus much less villainous for coveting it. In that light, Avatar could have been a compelling tale of two cultures and peoples each with their own legitimate points of view, bumping up against each other, to tragic effect. But then Avatar would have to bring some nuance and complexity to the table instead of what it is now. The final product (and product seems an apt term for this oh-so-predictable movie) again begs the question: Why can’t Hollywood get science-fiction right? More tomorrow.

--Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.


  1. Great review! I especially appreciated you comment about how all the characters spoke in a contemporary fashion. Cameron is really an utter knot head. I always detested how all the dialogue and even performances in "Titanic" (in spite of the mega-millions he poured into supposed historical accuracy) sounded contemporary and how the only character that attempted anything vaguely Edwardian was Billy Zane.The only milestone "Titanic" will leave for me to appreciate is that it's the first film where Kathy Bates turned into Shelley Winters.

  2. I'm not here to so much defend Avatar as disagree with you.
    I didn't love the film but I was perfectly happy and entertained while it was playing. Now maybe that's because I'm generally entertained by anything that, in your words, amalgamates "the worst parts of Terrence Malick’s loopy and New-Agey The New World and the black and white corporate / environmental world views of Naomi Klein".
    It strikes me that you reveal a prejudice with that phrase, and one that could potentially ruin a lot of films for you. I quite liked The New World. I also liked The Emerald Forest, another film that Avatar reminded me of. And I liked the Tarzan films where Germans came to plunder some secret cache of gold religious statues and the jungle folks expelled them. I also like the Robin Hood TV series and most of the movies.
    The politics of this film and the others I mentioned may be simplistic but - softheaded or loopy as it may be - I agree with the sentiment behind them. Or at least I do while the movies are playing.
    Perhaps the dam that Senator Paine and the Taylor political machine want to build on the land occupied by the boys camp will be better for the state in the long run. But that doesn't occur to me while I'm watching "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington".
    If the black and white nature of films like this or others which use the theme of fighting City hall, or corporate interests, or the capitalist profit motives etc, is bothersome or simplistic to you, if you don't like films where the good guys wear white hats and the bad guys wear black hats, you're going to have to skip a lot of movies.
    It occurs to me that you're setting the bar a bit too high, similarly when you compare the film to the best in current science fiction novels.
    You can ruin a film experience pretty easily by going in with too high expectations

  3. So it's better to have low or no expectations when it comes to all things cultural so we're not disappointed when things fall short of what we should all demand from our artists?