By now a lot of people have seen James Cameron’s Avatar, and a much larger number have formed an opinion about it. Anticipation had been building for months, as people were excited by the prospect that ultra-realistic computer animation would combine with dazzling 3D technology to produce a different kind of movie than anyone had ever seen.
It’s generally not a good sign when the buzz is about the technology behind a movie rather than the story within it, and in the case of Avatar the worries are justified. There’s no question that the moviemaking is truly impressive; not only is it a great technological achievement, but Cameron is an accomplished storyteller. The film is long but never ponderous, the set pieces are thrilling, and one’s heartstrings are tugged at all the right places. As a bonus, the acting is fantastic — Sigourney Weaver’s gruff scientist in particular is a great character.
Alas, in a world that one would like to see fleshed out in shades of gray, Cameron’s contrast knob is stuck resolutely at eleven. (Spoilers henceforth.) Humans have destroyed their own planet, and are now descending on Pandora to set about destroying that. The bad guys are represented by a craven businessman and a scarred ex-Marine. War and capitalism are bad! We get it.
But cartoonish villains don’t necessarily spell doom for a movie, especially one meant to be an elaborate thrill ride. I didn’t leave Raiders of the Lost Ark wishing that the Nazis had been more fleshed-out, and nobody gives thanks that the Star Wars prequels let us in on Darth Vader’s backstory. The problem arises when such banal evil is trotted out in service of A MESSAGE. And if there’s one thing Avatar has, it’s a message — a particularly trite one, which is deeply misguided, but a message nonetheless.
The Na’vi, Pandora’s native race, are presented very bluntly as traditional noble savages. They may be nine feet tall and blue, and find themselves trapped in a series of Yes album covers, but that just provides a convenient excuse to mix and match features of Native Americans and African tribes as the director sees fit. The Na’vi are portrayed as saintly tree-huggers who feel bad when jungle beasts are killed unnecessarily; at any moment you expected to hear “This animal is called the bufa’lo. We use every part of it.”
To drive things home, most of the humans are portrayed by white actors, while most of the actors behind the motion-captured Na’vi are people of color. And to drive things home even more (things worth driving home can never be driven too much, right?), the Na’vi have a literal connection with the natural world around them. Which might be a cool idea worth exploring, if it weren’t deployed as a gimmick to emphasize the pastoral purity of the pre-technological natives. (I can’t wait for Oscar night: “We would like to express our gratitude for all these Academy Awards for technical achievement given to our movie about how true virtue is to be found in wearing loincloths and chanting around trees.”)
And even that wouldn’t be so bad, if the noble savages weren’t portrayed as good-hearted but ineffectual. Eventually they manage to fight off the invading Earthlings, who despite mastering interstellar travel and consciousness-transferal are still stuck using machine guns and tiny rockets when hostilities break out. But they’re only able to do so because the kind-hearted white warrior rides to their rescue. Sam Worthington’s character, the protagonist with whom we are supposed to identify, spends three months as a Na’vi and turns out to be better at it than any of the primitive sods who were actually born that way. Only he is able to tame the legendary beast, bring far-flung tribes together to work for a common cause, and have the wit to appeal to the ecosystem-network for a bit of help.
It’s an old trope, fueled by liberal guilt. “Sure,” the elaborate narrative rationalization goes, “people like me have screwed over people like you for generations. But I’m pretty sure that, had I been around at the time, I would have been one of the shining exceptions who bravely turned against my compatriots to side with the honorable native folk. Who, frankly, could have used my help.” It’s the victors who tell the stories and make the movies.
How one reacts to Avatar depends strongly on how bothered one is by this kind of stereotypically condescending storyline. As a thrilling popcorn movie, it absolutely works; the detailed world Cameron created is breathtaking; and the technological feat is singularly impressive. But when these achievements are in the service of a message that is so ham-handed and ultimately off-putting, I find it hard to enjoy. If the storytelling had been handled with a little more self-awareness and toleration for ambiguity — by the folks at Pixar, for example — it might really have been an historically good movie.