Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar Review


Overall Grade: C+

It's taken me a couple of days to write my thoughts on Avatar, not because I find myself still mixed in thought, but because I'm still surprised at the unorthodox and odd journey the main character takes throughout the film. My attempt here will be to fairly convey my feelings about Avatar and it should be noted up front that it will contain spoilers about the plot and themes of the film. I cannot honestly review the film without delving into particulars, so if you wish to remain spoiler free then this review isn't for you. With that said, also note that I don't hold any grudge for this film (I really enjoy Cameron's films), but do feel there were some serious faults I'd like to share with everyone.

Avatar plays out like a futuristic retelling of Pocahontas, with the planet of Pandora substituting for the 'Indian World', the big blue Navi people subbing for Indians, and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) replacing John Smith and Pocahontas respectively. I must admit up front that I'm not the biggest fan of the Pocahontas story, so I knew this film had an uphill battle in front of it.

Anyone who has studied the Pocahontas story or even briefly surveyed America's historical relationship with Native Americans knows that it is an often brutal and cruel one. Truly, it's a dark period of American history where many regrettable actions were taken and one that we should always be taught and reminded of. As Avatar began to unfold I felt it heading in this direction (indeed the structure of that story is there) and I think it would've fit perfectly within the film. However, Cameron takes Avatar into unexpected territory, one that shifts it away from the lessons of Pocahontas and American history (or for that matter World history). Cameron infuses the entire story with an peculiarly odd mother earth like spirituality that alters the themes of the film and invalidates all social or political commentary. Let me explain further.


In Pocohontas and stories like it, we've always learned about their nature focused worldviews; how there were Gods in the waters and in the skies, how there was a practical balance to living with nature and that we should respect the spirits that had the power to give or to take away. While we've always watched and listened to this belief with interested ears, we've never actually believed that it was a true worldview. Sure, we found compromises between our worldviews and theirs, but we never accepted that Gods were in the water and air. While we are willing today to listen to the values of sustainability and efficiency, we certainly don't then accept their Gods as well.

It's important to note because when it is argued that the Indians should be treated with kindness, compassion and equality it wasn't because we were afraid of their Gods, or because we would lose insight into a spiritual world we knew little about, or because they were just better stewards of the land; it was because they had worth and value as human beings. Sustainability, efficiency, and respect of nature were always important principles we've learned in our relationship with the Indians, but the overriding one has been compassion and equality. It's the overriding lessons from slavery and holocaust as well.


Avatar doesn't leave the spiritual nature of our Navi people mystical and interesting, like our relationship with Indians has been in history, but cements it as a biological and scientific fact. The Navi commune and interact with animals through a symbiotic like connection as well as with Eyra, the mother earth like God. In fact, Eyra herself plays a large role in deciding the final epic battle (in classic dues ex machina fashion).

It is this spiritual realism that plays a deciding factor in converting Jake Sully into changing sides; joining with the Navi and attacking the humans. Sully experiences the world and worldview of the Navi so vividly that he's accepted into their group and eventually see's the reality of Eyra. I mentioned in the beginning that this is unorthodox, because it's a completely unrelatable motivation for character transformation, not to mention misguided and small minded.


It's unrelatable because we don't experience similar changes in our world. Would you relate to an Oscar Schindler who finally decided to help save Jews because Itzhak Stern laid hands on him and the Hebrew God told him that the Germans were destroying the world he created? No. Oscar slowly transforms and discovers the worth and value of human life, no matter if it be Jew or German through his interactions with them and experiencing their humanity. This is something all people can relate to.

It's misguided because it misses the bigger tragedy. By focusing so much on the 'experience' of being Navi, of the 'experience' of living in the spiritual world of Pandora, Jake Sully's motivations for turning against the Americans, transform into "their way of life is better than our way of life". When a film is essentially about genocide, it's misguided to let your main moral message be, "Our way of life is better than your way of life". It becomes a war sprung out of issues, rather than what it should be, a war sprung out of injustice and inhumanity.


It's small minded because Jakes conversion essentially becomes selfish, rather than selfless. Where is the inspiration to sacrifice for the injustice? Where is the righteous anger to try and convince the humans what they are doing is wrong? Instead, by focusing again on Jakes 'experiences' both physical and spiritual, his conversion seems more about not wanting to lose the use of his legs, bed the girl, and be one with nature. I have a hard time imagining myself cheering on Leigh Anne Tuohy of The Blind Side if she actually was taking Michael Oher in so that she could experience more happiness by Ole Miss gaining a great football player. This is essentially what Avatar does.

I don't mind spiritual aspects and messages in films, but I feel that the way in which Cameron has incorporated it into Avatar, has rendered his characters and themes unrelatable, misguided, and small-minded. It is a shame because the story is supported by incredible special effects the likes of which we've never seen...well...the likes of which we rarely see...this much of in one movie. While Avatar contains the most photorealistic CG imagery to date (it should and will win the Oscar for visual effects), the hype about it being leagues different than anything else is over exaggerated. While Avatar looks better, it's not that much better than what can be found in something like Star Wars Episode III (which came out over four years ago).


The final action sequence is appropriately epic, but failed to work for me. If I'm honest, the central journey Jake Sully takes in this film so completely alienated me (no pun intended) from the emotion and experience of the film that I just wasn't 'feeling' it. On technical points though, it's a very good sequence.

All in all, Avatar is truly a 'Must Go' theatre experience for moviegoers. Cameron has genuinely captured what it's like to be in another world, creating astonishing visuals that will 'wow' you and giving you visceral experiences (taming your own flying dragon like creature) that will thrill you. Unfortunately, it's the heavy focus on the 'experience' of Pandora, the Navi, and their spiritual world, that ultimately undermines the films dramatic honesty and thematic integrity, turning characters and themes one-sided. I joked with a friend about this, but the more I think about it the more it seems to fit. For as high-minded as it tries to be, Avatar ultimately becomes a retelling of Independence Day with us as the alien invaders looking to mine another planet. Okay, okay, that was a little rough; Avatar does have better effects.

4 comments:

Mosaic/Chi Alpha said...

whatever

Mosaic/Chi Alpha said...

ok..honestly ... a well written piece of work. I shall forward it to all my fb friends!

Scott Mendelson said...

Coming from a less than spiritual perspective, I took Jake's motivations as preventing (and then avenging) bloodshed, regardless of his approval of their religious worldview. Yes, he becomes one of them and experiences their culture, but in the end he still protests out of concern for lives lost, not so much spiritual trees destroyed.

When the major second-act incident occurs, I think we're supposed to be more sympathetic for the innocent dead and the refugees, but that's just where my emotions went. I suppose, since said incident is allegedly a 9/11 parable (I was into the movie enough that it never occurred to me), I compare it to people who mourned the buildings that fell down and not the people in them. Some audience members will surely mourn the property destruction, others will mourn the innocent lives squashed.

If your interpretation is correct (and it's certainly a valid read), then I think it's because Cameron is a scientist at heart. If he's going to show a religious culture, he can't help just show the biological and scientific proof of said culture.

Kyle Leaman said...

Thanks for the comments.

@Scott
I agree with you that the film doesn't change the object of mourning for us. Watching the film, I didn't get the feeling I was really mourning for the tree but for the loss of lives. However, I do think that the film's focus on the spirituality of the Navi changes our motivation for the mourning. Instead of mourning the loss of life, I felt like I was to mourn the loss of lives that were 'better' or 'more in the right' because of their spiritual beliefs. To use the 9/11 metaphor, it would be as if Christians thought we were to mourn even moreso the loss of Christians because they have it 'right'. Whereas I think we should mourn the loss of all lives simply because they 'are'.