Electra Glide in Jungle Cat Blue.
For the protection of the good, for destruction of evil, and for the establishment of righteousness, I come into being from age to age.
— Lord Krishna, avatar of Vishnu, The Bhagavad-Gita.
Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those
Who trespass against us…
— Yeshua, avatar of Elohim, The Lord’s Prayer.
Hubris. Conquest. Destruction. Hell. Humility. Harmony. Renewal. Paradise.
Frank Zappa once said, “Writing about music is like tap dancing about architecture.” And there’s no way to describe James Cameron’s AVATAR without a lot of tap dancing.
If it weren’t so serious, it would be satire. If it weren’t so expensive it would be laughable. If it weren’t so irresistibly watchable it would be golden trash.
Ah, which hubris to talk about first? The hubris of writer-director Cameron for foisting a story as old as the hills (or at least as old as Kevin Costner) on a demographic whom he is sure has never seen DANCES WITH WOLVES, 1990 (but might be familiar with the 2009 SOUTH PARK episode, Dances With Smurfs)?; the hubris of the human race in 2154, strip-mining Pandora,* a verdant moon four light years from Earth, for a mineral called “unobtanium” (presumably named by a geologist who had no imagination on how to mine it, sell it or even think about its utility), and callously wiping out the indigenous Na’vi species to obtain it?; the hubris of Cameron utilizing his own all-new patented King-Of-The-World motion capture technology to turn real life actors (who perform the whole movie anyway in their sensored jumpsuits) into Na’vi cat-toons, Because He Can, at a cost which could wipe out hunger in at least two Third World countries?; or the hubris of we the audience by going along with Cameron’s subtle demeaning of the Na’vi race by blindly taking it for granted they are so unsophisticated that they would accept an impostor into their midst whom they know is nothing more than a ventriloquial figure for a human? If the American Natives took blankets in exchange for land, I guess ALL indigenous peoples are that gullible…
Speaking of ventriloquial figures, Sam Worthington (as paraplegic jarhead* Sully) captures that wooden acting idiom that up until now was purveyed unchallenged by Christopher Reeve as SUPERMAN. Worthington’s got a great career ahead of him as a plank.
Exposition dialogue is tiresome, as Cameron rationalizes the financially-unsound concept of military avatars – Na’vi creatures mixed with human DNA, mentally controlled by humans, mingling with the forest-dwelling Na’vi for the purposes of… something something metaphor something. Totally unnecessary, cos if the big bad military is going to forcefully strip-mine Pandora anyway, why bother snowjobbing the natives as avatars or negotiating a peaceful exodus? Insofar as avatars giving the humans the ability to study geology or the ecosystem, the humans can do that in helmets without resorting to turning blue. But the avatars give Sigourney Weaver excuse to reprise her Dian Fossey from GORILLAS IN THE MIST and walk amongst the natives with barely any clothes on.
Sully neural-links with his ten-foot, blue-skinned cat-person through a MATRIX-like fusion of non-science, whereupon he experiences the euphoric use of his legs again. And a nice piece of tail. And if that isn’t incentive enough to betray your own species, cue the sexy naked cat-chick, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) – a nice piece of tail – who, even though an alien, sports pert tennis ball ta-tas in a disturbingly anatomically-correct position on her chest, and who rides her bird-thing in a demonstrably human sexual position – and it’s homo who?
The tail only makes it hotter.
Borrowing all its conquest metaphors and analogies from Mel Gibson’s THE BOUNTY, LAST OF THE MOHICANS, THE NEW WORLD, FERNGULLY, Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and the Bush Fake War On Terror, AVATAR’s unsubtle shovel to our heads is expressed in the military’s vernacular: The Corporation Guy (Giovanni Ribisi) calls the natives “blue monkeys” (uncomfortably close to “sand monkeys”); they speak of “winning the hearts and minds” of the natives and “shock and awe” (one of the stupidest, if not THE most idiotic name for an initiative in the history of warfare).
Though Sully is with the science team, the mantastically pumped-up Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang; he was Ike Clanton in TOMBSTONE) sequesters him as a double agent, to report tactical weaknesses in the Na’vi stronghold.
Corp Guy: “When people are sitting on shit that you want, you make them your enemy.” Ah, so that’s why Amerika hates sand monkeys! Sitting around with their thobes and burqas and wrong religions – all over Amerikan oil!
Sully has way too much fun being taught the Omaticaya tribe’s ways by Neytiri, in a montage which screams upcoming unsafe sex scene.
Even under all those computer pixels, we recognize majestic Wes Studi (from MOHICANS) as the Omaticaya Chief. Laz Alonso is scowling Tsu’tey, Neytiri’s bf, who doesn’t seem half as piqued as he should be for his catwoman humping what is, in essence, a showroom dummy. (Sam Worthington on the other end of the pixels only exacerbates the analogy.) And in any Cameron flick, where would we be without the perfunctory human female warrior? Ripley’s busy being a scientist, so Michelle Rodriguez fills those sports bra shoes, all tank top and trash talk.
By the time Sully plonks Neytiri on a bed of luminous lichen, his alliance with the natives is sealed. He fights on the side of the Na’vi when Quaritch comes a-calling with his giant helicopters, and what must be spectacular coffee, for him to be sipping it constantly while in heated missile strikes.
Quaritch commands, “Preemptive war is the only way; we will fight terror with terror.” And this, my jungly-jungly friends, makes me laugh in joy. For you see, the legacy of George W. Bush has at last found expression, in society and in art; the Bush Doctrine (that thing Sarah the Imbecile had no clue about) has become shorthand for greedy, anti-environmental, fascist douchebags!
The military chop down the mightiest tree in the forest with a herring, making the Na’vi wish they’d invented fire insurance.
In the movie’s greatest irony, Quaritch keeps calling Pandora “hell” – when it is actually a paradise – as he BRINGS hell to Pandora with his gunships.
Thereby forcing the Na’vi to stoop to human methods of warfare; in essence, “fighting terror with terror” – because the filmmakers possess only limited “human” imaginations, and cannot conceive of battling military might other than by making two wrongs make a right.
Sully rallies tribes from other zip codes to partake of his patently human aggression tactics. Y’know, for a peaceful race, they’re surprisingly easy to rally to war. If Sully was a thinking man, I’d warrant he stumped with the rousing “2002 Bush-Cheney State of the Union Outright Lies” speech. But then again, jar Sully doesn’t think too much about anything. Except Neytiri’s tail.
However, Cameron gets away with Pandora’s retaliation aggression because (as John Dunbar realizes in DANCES WITH WOLVES) “This had not been a fight for territory or riches or to make men free. This battle had no ego. It had been fought to preserve the food stores that would see us through winter, to protect the lives of women and children and loved ones only a few feet away.”
The Na’vi mind-meld with the wondrous creatures on Pandora through tendrils in their ponytails. A major initiation for Sully involves melding and riding a bat-bird thing called Ikran. Zenith of the bat-birds is a big red thing that legend says only a few Na’vi have ridden. Cue daring assault on big red thing…
The literal tree-hugging message of AVATAR is that the flora and fauna on Pandora is a hive mind, each organism communicating with the living planet. The Na’vi “worship” Eywa, a force represented by their giant treehouse. Cameron circumvents a major tribal problem in establishing the science behind the hive mind: electrical synapses indicate the trees communicate like humans – via the blogosphere. So when the natives “pray” for tree tendrils to revive someone, though it may look superstitious, we realize it is not “faith-based magic” (like all Earth religions), but result-based reality.
After months in his blue form, Sully wakes in his Matrix-chamber lamenting, “out there is the true world and in here is the dream.”
Carl Sagan comes to mind when we meet Pandora’s symbiotic wildlife, evolution serving the hive mind by developing the tendrils (or “feelers”) on most large animals and the Na’vi, for harmonious interaction. One of Sagan’s most famous speculations was how helium-based organisms might interact in Jupiter’s gaseous ecosystem. The wealth of creativity and inventiveness put into Pandora’s six-limbed analogs of predators, horses, scavengers, pachyderms, luminous jellyfish-things wafting on air, would have thrilled the turtleneck off Sagan.
Sully rides the big red thing into a war council and makes Neytiri’s blue bits pinker. He calls for WAR WAR WAR and she tells him, “The Tree protects only the balance of life.” Nevertheless, Pandora/The Tree throws its organic might against the military’s Republican death panels in the final tragic battle. So much for tree-hugging.
Today is a good day to die.
But unlike death on Earth, which is muddied by religionism, death on Pandora is an obvious go-around, thanks to the Tree of Holiday Lights, where the essence of life can actually be downloaded like Microsoft Office Word. Even on Earth, there is an obvious transfer of matter and nutrients in a circle of life, but somehow that circle gets intersected by a magic spirit with a beard and 82 virgins and the River Styx and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
So why bequeath this unoriginal, scientifically-contrived tale such high cucumber ratings? Because it is done with a surety of hand, a certainty of concept and a gleeful whoop of entertainment maximus. The script moves the story at such a clip we barely notice the dearth of plot and, to tell the truth, the science is adhered to more closely than most sci-fi actioners.
From magnificent spectacles to the tiniest minutiae, every dollar of the 300 million budget is up onscreen, in a vibrant, coruscating panorama; in James Horner’s epic score (then again, thundering choral ululations would sound epic even under a Will Ferrell movie); in the phenomenal sound design; the fierce military constructs; in the incredibly detailed creatures and shimmering, breathing jungle; in the fakest of naked ta-tas that look so real, I’m sure thirteen-year-old boys are having unbidden accidents with their Ikrans.
With the undoubted impact AVATAR has on first viewing, people have dusted off one of his old sobriquets and are calling Cameron “king of the world” once more. But which world? AVATAR’s most impressive achievement is Pandora itself as an integral character; on its orbital position as a satellite of the large planet that dominates its sky; on its implied ecosystem that pulses from the screen in mind-numbing detail.
We can quibble over trivialities, but even if this straightforward story was simply a façade to show off Pandora’s biology, it is a roaring success. Quite apparent the filmmakers worked hard to envision a plausible ecosystem, rather than a world where one big monster existed in a biological vacuum. (In those movies, the brain-scarring action has to be poured on so thick that we don’t stop to think what that monster eats and how it mates and what it does when it’s not chasing the stupid humans.)
Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital, Skywalker Sound, ILM, Stan Winston, motion capture technology by Giant (INCREDIBLE HULK), among others – the best of the best worked on this movie. It shows.
The Na’vi have an intimate greeting, “I see you,” meaning, of course, metaphorically. Not surprisingly, AVATAR opens and closes with shots of Sully’s eyes opening – at the start, he wakes stupid, just a jarhead on a cryogenic ride; in the final frames, he opens his eyes as a god; he is whole, wise in the ways of blue tooth, subsumed by the hive mind. He is Pandora’s Jar.
Making the most wondrous thing about Pandora the fact that it could actually educate a jarhead.
It is couched as a happily-ever-after ending, but I beg your indulgence in deeper metaphor: Sully is still originally human, carrying all the baggage that goes with being a Marine, a cripple, a man. In subsuming him unto her bosom, have all the evils of the Earth now been loosed on Pandora?