If you haven’t seen “Avatar” yet, you’ve probably heard that you should. If you decide to go out to an actual movie theater to see it, opt for the version packaged as “Avatar: The 3D Imax Experience.” For $16, James Cameron and his massive special effects crew will fellate your eyeballs for three hours. Unfortunately, if you choose the cheaper routes – “Avatar: 2D” or “Avatar: 3D, But Not On a 5-Mile Screen” – the technological wonders of the film will be dulled, and you’ll be forced to concentrate on the thin veneer of a plot.
Here’s the deal. It’s the year 2154, and we get the impression that Earth is in some kind of ambiguous peril and only the cleverly named “unobtanium” can save us. Since we can’t obtain any of this precious mineral on Earth, the military and corporate conglomerates combine forces to invade a nearby moon-planet called Pandora, which is rich in this particular resource.
Alas, Pandora is occupied. A gentle race of humanoid/catlike aliens called the Na’vi roam this strange idyll, and they don’t look like they’re going to leave anytime soon.
In an effort to make the human invasion as clean as possible, the heads of the respective evil organizations first try to weasel their way into the hearts and minds of the innocent Na’vi. So Parker Selridge, the “corporate administrator, and Colonel Miles Quaritch, “the ruthless head” of the troops on Pandora, buy off the services of Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine and new prospective controller of an “avatar.”
“Avatars” are the husks of Na’vi bodies, made by combined human and Na’vi DNA, and remotely controllable through advanced neurotechnology. Early in the movie, we learn that even though Sully has no experience with this highly technical process, his twin brother was an expert. However, since that twin was suddenly killed, the team of scientists hesitantly accepts Jake into the elite avatar faction. After all, why waste a perfectly good Na’vi avatar when someone with similar DNA could easily fill that spot?
So far, so good. I’m intrigued. Hell, I’ve always dreamed of being a ten-foot-tall blue cat person. And truthfully, Cameron visualizes Jake Sully’s experience on the planet brilliantly. The flora and fauna of Pandora are at once real and fantastic, created using the most state-of-the-art CGI. Watching this in 3D, you become enveloped. It’s not grating 3D, either, as nothing “jumps out” at the audience; it’s merely used for depth of field.
The Na’vi, rendered using advanced motion-capture technology, look almost like living breathing organisms, even when interacting with the live-action footage. It’s very impressive, and probably will remain so until the art of CGI rendering inevitably gets more complex, and “Avatar” will look like “The Phantom Menace” looks today.
Jake, inevitably, falls into a Na’vi clan while occupying his avatar, and through his privileged window, he gradually becomes entranced by their way of life. They’re so in tune with nature, and so gentle, and so blessedly free of the entrapments of civilization. And of course, the white dude falls in love with the vivacious daughter of the clan-leader, Neytiri, who has stepped in as Jake’s mentor in all things Na’vi.
Although Jake is awkward in his avatar form at first, it’s only a matter of weeks – a matter of a montage, for us – before he becomes a skilled Na’vi warrior, as much in tune with Pandora as any native. He then leads the Na’vi people in an epic battle, defending themselves from the violent humans with street justice (or forest justice).
As Annalee Newitz points out in her io9.com article, “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?” this is something that we’ve seen again and again, in movies like “Dances With Wolves” and “The Last Samurai.” The white dude comes in from the mist, “manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color, and eventually becomes its most awesome member.”
This is a frustrating trope. Why couldn’t the Na’vi overthrow the imperialist forces on their own? Why did we need the gimmick of the avatars? Like Kevin Costner frolicking with wolves, the person of privilege gets to put on the mask of “the other,” getting to switch between the two worlds whenever he pleases. Like Newitz says, it’s the ultimate white guilt fantasy – if only we could save those poor “minorities”! Better yet, if we could actually infiltrate their fascinating cultures, and save them from the inside!
The fact of the matter is, “Avatar” trucks in too many caricatures to be the intellectually stimulating movie it wants to be. Stereotypes, whether positive or negative, are reductive, even insulting. The archetype of the “noble savage” is all over this movie; the Na’vi have a strong visual resemblance to typical depictions of Native Americans, and are almost childlike in their innocence.
Needless to say, even though the Na’vi start the battle flailing and outnumbered, the tables turn, and the third act is stuffed with the corpses of human soldiers. Are we supposed to be OK with this? Even though the Na’vi are depicted as peace-loving mystics, and the US military as ruthless killing machines, it’s not fair to stick to these caricatures through the battle scenes.
When I saw “Avatar,” the audience was sufficiently drawn in, and they cheered and applauded some of the more gory deaths (nothing too graphic, just soldiers suffocating and ships blowing up).