Saturday, December 26, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar

The technology that made this movie is 3v1L!!1

Avatar, written and directed by James Cameron. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Stephen Lang. 20th Century Fox (2009). 161 freaking minutes for a glorified action flick. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is A-III--Adults.

Avatar is the most expensive movie ever made, and, as with the last movie I remember being touted repeatedly as the most expensive ever made (that would be Waterworld), I'm unsure where exactly all the money went.

For a film that basically amounts to almost three hours (ugh!) of eye-candy, it has garnered a lot of controversy, so I'll be up front: Because I like to be like that, I'm going to buck the trend of conservative Catholic blogs and give this movie a thumb up, with reservations. If you want the resoundingly negative view of things, I recommend Catholic Media Review. For non-Catholic posts that say more-or-less the same thing, check orgtheory, which compares it unfavorably to District 9, and io9, which dwells over-long on the "race" issue.

I agree with most everything in the reviews I just cited except maybe that rather un-Catholic part in the Catholic Media Review article about forced neutering, so why do I approve of Avatar? Well, first--and I'm actually serious here--I can't hate a movie that looks uncannily like a film version of a story I wrote in middle school, complete, believe it or not, with disenchanted space marine, jungle planet, physics-bending vortex, floating mountains, wire-fu humanoid aliens, evil human colonists, furry alien ninja princess babe, and nature mother goddess. Second, I hate discussions of "race," an artificial concept that should be dead, but which is perpetuated by bigots and people who want to use it for political capital, so I have my John-C.-Wright-esque sense filters set to mostly ignore it. So, while everyone else was noticing that Avatar hates pale-skinned people with a passion, I was enjoying watching the battles between dragons and helicopters. Dragons vs. helicopters! The last time I got to watch dragons vs. helicopters, it was in Dragon Wars: D-War, a movie much, much worse than this one.

On the downside, this movie appears to have been written by a middle schooler. I am currently suing Cameron, but I don't expect it will do me any good, since his lawyer has better wire-fu than mine. (In case anyone didn't know, in the sf world, we "sue" with ninja.)

What have we got here? Basically, it's the plot from the flopped Battle for Terra, only with more running-time, better CGI, and a less stupid name for the alien planet. It's Planet Pandora, and t3H 3V1L military-industrial complex, where they talk like Texans, is mining the planet for the mineral unobtainium, a mineral so important and valuable and stupid-sounding that we don't know what it does (though it looks kind of like slag). For using the name "unobtainium," Cameron is being sued by ninja from the guys who made The Core, but I hear their wire-fu isn't too good either. And their movie sux.

Pandora is inhabited by the Na'vi, an alien race with one of those apostrophes in its name that sf writers are so fond of. The Na'vi are basically ten-foot gracile blue furries, equipped, we are assured, with naturally-occurring carbon-fiber bones so they can do their wire-fu. Their culture and religion are a conglomeration of romanticized, cleaned-up noble savage stereotypes that could only be concocted by a modern man sitting in an air-conditioned office: they've got gender equality, pantheistic nature goddess worship, and utter peacefulness, even though they have weapons and a warrior class. Cameron apparently wanted them to be free of agriculture, but still wanted them to have large domesticated animals, so he came up with a clever excuse: hidden in their ponytails, the Na'vi have little tendrils they can plug into the tendrils on the various wild beasts they ride, producing an instantaneous mind-meld. I wonder how a handy feature like that evolved.

Absent from this romanticized culture are any of the possible bad elements: wife-stealing, polygamy, self-mutilation, human sacrifice, slaves, and tribal feuds (though they still have warriors!). Heck, they even keep the piercings and tatoos to a minimum. I admit I can't swallow this: with the rich resources, we should have some more complex societies here, some more sophisticated art, maybe some proto-empires, perhaps some agriculture. People who arm themselves to the teeth and ride around on dragons or six-legged land seahorses and boast of their strength in battle would not live happy and peaceful in their trees without ever bothering their neighbors. The film covers the poor world-building with plenty of lavish visuals illustrating both the jungle and the Na'vi way of life, so the only flaw that really becomes glaring before the fridge logic is the Na'vi talk about religion: it doesn't sound real; these people live in a harsh, deadly environment made up of wall-to-wall CGI monsters, but they can only think of their pantheistic mother-nature-deity as utterly benevolent. Right. At least in my middle school version the mother goddess was wrathful and capricious. Where's the magic? The sacrifices? The rituals? The shamans? Why don't the Na'vi feel the natural need to propitiate their gods--on whose whims their lives constantly depend--so nature doesn't get out of control?

Where was I? Anyway, t3H 3v1L humans have two conflicting ways of keeping the Na'vi at bay. One is a standing military with plenty of airships, mecha, and musclebound space marines led by Miles Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang, who, it must be said, pulls of the one-dimensional Hollywood stereotype of the crazy, bigoted, violent marine probably better than anyone else could. His face looks carved from wood, his voice grates like sandpaper, and his 3D-enhanced muscles bulge off the screen. On top of that, he on several occasions convincingly demonstrates his total awesomeness by disdaining the planet's poisonous atmosphere, firing cool-looking guns, drinking coffee during a mission, piloting a mech, and dodging various literal and figurative bullets.

(Oh, that reminds me--reason to like Avatar #2: mecha vs. giant panther!)

The second means the humans have of dealing with the Na'vi is the "avatar aystem," where a human pilot gets in something that looks like a cross between a tanning booth and an MRI and remotely operates a genetically engineered Na'vi body. (I notice a few reviews complain that the avatar system is never given an adequate technical explanation, but the basic idea has been done before in various places from James Tiptree Jr's "Girl Who Was Plugged In" to the recent Surrogates, so I don't see what the explanation could have added besides tedium.) The avatar program is led by Dr. Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver reprising her role as peevish and violent nature-lover from Gorillas in the Mist. The latest addition to her crew of avatar pilots is paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who at the last minute is hired to replace his recently deceased twin brother. When Sully, Augustine, and some other avatars are out on a mission collecting botanical samples, Sully's avatar gets separated from the others by the attacks, in rapid succession, of a hammer-headed triceratops, a giant panther, and a pack of glowy devil-dogs.

(Reason to like Avatar #3: mecha vs. hammer-headed triceratops pack!)

At that point, the furry ninja space jungle princess babe Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) saves his bacon and he soon finds himself a member of her tribe. When he's not piloting his avatar, he's giving information to the soldiers back at t3H 3v1L mining complex, much to the delight of crazy marine Quaritch. When he is piloting his avatar, he's going native and getting his make on with Neytiri, who falls for him even though she apparently knows he's a glorified doll.

Impatient with the situation, Quaritch decides to drink coffee and launch an airstrike against Neytiri's tree-dwelling tribe, at which point Sully, Augustine, and a few other characters who may or may not have names, side with the Na'vi and round up tribal warriors from all over (no inter-tribal warfare, remember?) to duke it out with the humans in a big helicopter-vs.-dragon battle amongst a maze of giant floating mountains.

(No explanation is given for the floating mountains other than a little hand-wave about a "vortex." One of them even has a waterfall, although there's nowhere the water could be coming from. In my middle school version, at least, the vortex and subsequent floating mountains were actually central to the plot and given some attempt at an explanation. Here they apparently exist only for the purpose of looking cool. But they do look pretty cool.)

So, is it the best-looking CGI movie ever? Probably. And the final climactic battle sequence is the prettiest and most exciting piece of sf action eye-candy I can think of off the top of my head, even though it's ridiculous: all of a sudden, the stone arrowheads that previously bounced off the airship cockpits are going straight through and piercing the pilots inside. For the record, stone arrows have a hard time going through cured buffalo hide, so I would guess they'd be mostly harmless against shatterproof glass or Kevlar. The Na'vi and their dragons are depicted as being on a more-or-less equal footing with their high-tech opponents, but it's not at all believable. If Cameron wanted realism, I suppose he could have instead depicted interminable sabotage, terrorism, and guerrilla warfare as the humans slowly but inevitably ate their way across the planet's surface, justifying the devastation by pointing out the brutality of their opponents while the Na'vi justified their brutality by pointing out the humans' rapine use of resources and destruction of sacred sites. That of course would have been both less exciting and more depressing.

I don't really think this is the anti-white-people movie some are making it out to be. It looks to me more like an anti-human movie. When Quaritch is giving one of his kill-all-the-furries speeches, the camera focuses in on a dark-skinned fellow cheering, as if the film is assuring us, "Don't worry, we hate black people too!" The deus ex machina ending (spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph) where the Na'vi send the humans packing and Sully sheds his human body to take up permanent residence in his avatar gives the impression that the movie simply wants to leave us with the idea that nature is good and humans are scum.

(Never mind that the humans will be back in a few years with a bigger army and a heapload of ticked-offedness. By the way, in my middle school version, the story ended not with the aliens sending the humans away, but with the aliens slaughtering the humans mercilessly--including women and children--leaving the gone-native ex-marine looking out over the carnage in horror at what he had wrought.)

How much does all this bug me? Well, I am a little annoyed to find my idea walked away and entered Cameron's head because I sat on it too long, but other than that, not very much. I don't know about you guys, but I like me some misanthropic sf. I was first turned on to misanthropic sf by C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, in which the benevolent nature-loving Martians are in the right and the humans are pretentious, silly, and funny-looking. Then there's Andre Norton's Victory on Janus, which I probably read in middle school, in which the aliens are magical nature-loving elves and the humans are ugly and stinky, but can turn into magical nature-loving elves if they find the treasure traps that give them the Green Sick. I think it was J. R. R. Tolkien who said something about fairy tales turning the face of "scorn and pity" toward humanity, giving us a chance to step outside of ourselves, as well as we are able, and criticize.

But such criticism can take two forms. On the one hand, it can result in humility. In the book Original Sin, Alan Jacobs proposes that this is what we see in Shakespeare's comedies, where all the characters are made to look foolish. Humiliated, they celebrate: they are able to laugh at themselves because they can see what absurd creatures they really are, and self-knowledge makes them humble and happy. Something similar takes place in Out of the Silent Planet, where the anti-human bits are laced with good humor.

On the other hand, it can result in self-loathing and suicidal fantasy, and that appears to be what we have in Avatar. Even though I lurv the dragons vs. helicopters, the explicit (and unnecessary) War on Terror references coupled with the gleeful depictions of American soldiers getting killed by spears and toothy animals leaves me with a bad aftertaste. During the final battle, I was thinking, "That is so cool, I wish it were couched in a better story." Avatar reminds me of one of those documentaries fantasizing about how much better the world might be if all the people just keeled over and died. Seeing this coming on the heels of such things as Life After People or the Day the Earth Stood Still remake makes me wonder if our culture currently has a death wish. Looking at the topics occupying our politics and the way we talk about them, I'm inclined to think it does.

I do find this funny, though: After the movie is done telling us the human race sux and technology is bad, the end credits roll. The end credits consist almost entirely of special effects artists. It took a lot of people and a lot of technology to bring this movie into existence.

Short Addendum: I respectfully disagree with the reviewer at io9 who says the basic premise here (dude moves into a new culture, goes native, and ends up as leader) is driven by white guilt. It can certainly be used to express white guilt, but I think the basic premise is really just Lawrence of Arabia...IN SPACE!

Second Short Addendum: Before, I made some personal jabs at Cameron in this review, but I've taken them out as I'm trying to get over my bad habit of making personal jabs. My apologies to my readers.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Avatar:

Myth Level: High (pretty much the same basic story as Dune)

Quality: Medium-High (pretty darn good-looking movie with a script not as weak as they say but nowhere near what it could have been)

Ethics/Religion: It's a toss-up; heavy on action violence and foul language, with a seriously self-hating plot
blog comments powered by Disqus