This is a negative review of the film Avatar
. I saw it twice in one week at a very decent theater shortly after it was released, once in 2D and once in 3D. The 2D version was a genuine visual treat, but the story was boring, inane, insulting, and racist, so at best it was just ok. The 3D version was the same lame movie, made worse by the weakly rendered illusion of depth as seen through blurry plastic lenses that made my eyes ache. As for the story, Avatar is nothing more than a standard hyper-hypocritical Hollywood message of anti-corporate hate and historical racial stereotyping, all wrapped up in the much-cherished liberal fantasy about the superiority of the 'noble savage' over more civilized but spiritually tainted white men. In a word, Avatar was stupid; the same old stuff in a shiny new box, showcasing nothing more than typical lazy Hollywood arrogance and a corrupted fantasy-liberal worldview. Given the few Academy Awards it earned, I assumed most people felt the way I did about the film; however, the BBC reported last week
that the DVD release of the film "broke new sales records." I'm not too surprised, but I am disappointed by how shallow and undiscriminating so many Americans seem to be these days. . . .
A Golem by Any Other Name
In Jewish folklore, a golem is an artificially created human being supernaturally endowed with life. Typically, although it lives, a golem is an automaton, devoid of soul and intelligence. An avatar, on the other hand, is an incarnation in human form, an embodiment of a concept or philosophy, often in a person. In modern usage, an avatar is an electronic image that represents and is manipulated by a computer user. I imagine James Cameron had the latter two meanings in mind when he named his latest film Avatar, but considering how the film turned out, it would have been much more appropriately named Golem
Avatar was an immense disappointment for a number of reasons, starting with mediocre story line and moving through a litany of mostly pejorative adjectives: dumb, trite, racist, stereotypical, weak, lame, artless, overblown, and vapid. To be sure, the much-ballyhooed visual effects are incredibly wrought and astonishingly realistic (though still not really true-to-life), but for all the hype about digital 3D 'finally coming into its own', the 2D version was a far better theater experience than the 3D version—and it was a lot less expensive. All of which really makes me wonder about the people who wrote all those glowing reviews, like this one from Hollywood Reporter online, which was fairly typical:
"Bottom Line: A titanic entertainment -- movie magic is back!
A dozen years later, James Cameron has proven his point: He is king of the world.
As commander-in-chief of an army of visual-effects technicians, creature designers, motion-capture mavens, stunt performers, dancers, actors and music and sound magicians, he brings science-fiction movies into the 21st century with the jaw-dropping wonder that is "Avatar." And he did it almost from scratch.
There is no underlying novel or myth to generate his story. He certainly draws deeply on Westerns, going back to "The Vanishing American" and, in particular, "Dances With Wolves." And the American tragedy in Vietnam informs much of his story. But then all great stories build on the past."
"The American tragedy in Vietnam
"!? "Build on the past
?" Drawing "deeply on Westerns
!?" What unadulterated nonsense! Aside from writing a silly piece of fluff, the reviewer shows an amazing lack of knowledge about the science fiction and fantasy genres. Yes, the movie is very similar to "Dances with Wolves" and it does have elements of westerns, but in fact, there is almost nothing
original in Avatar except possibly the technology used to make the movie. The plot, the science, the creatures, the characters, the machines, the habitat—every bit of it—is a kit-bash of other movies, other genres, and a half-score science fiction stories that have been popular since Jules Verne, up to and including the animated 2007 movie Battle for Terra
, which I haven't seen, but I was told is essentially the same story, just less of everything.
Every aspect of the movie has been imagined and written about or put in a cartoon, a comic book, or a movie before, from the stupidly over-armed anime-look flying machines to the armored mech-suits to the multi-limbed creatures and the ridable dragons; from the floating mountains to the living earth-mother. Even the final battle scene was reminiscent of the penultimate fight sequence in Alien
, although this time the alien defeats the human in the machine instead of the other way around. And of course, in this movie Ripley dies.
Certainly using elements of other genres and stories is acceptable, if done well, carefully, and with some originality. George Lucas made no bones about the fact that Star Wars
contains elements of ages-old adventure stories, fairy tales, and all manner of modern-era science fiction, westerns, and so on. The difference is that Lucas made movies that were fun, entertaining, and engaging, not only the first time, but every time. Avatar was engaging the first time. It was only fun and entertaining for the first half of the movie, the first time. It will never be any of that again.
Which is not to say Avatar was completely uninteresting. The first act of the movie was fun and engaging, with its nifty animals, ever-cool Tron
black light effects, luminescent whirligig bugs, multilimbed lemurs, fiberoptic tails, etc. Unfortunately, the second act pretty much sucked the life out of the movie, and was silly to boot. Yes, the movie was ok to watch, but the same way Star Trek: Voyager
episodes were ok to watch, not because it was good sci-fi or good story telling, but because it was better than nothing. In fact, come to think of it, Voyager
had cooler, more interesting characters, better and more interesting science, and definitely better story lines.
So what specifically did I dislike about Avatar? Pretty much everything that wasn't the visuals and the acting, which was pretty good in spite of weak dialogue and anemic story; however, four things stand out, aside from the 3D, which was just lame (and because of which I will not see another 3D movie anytime soon). What follows assumes you've seen the movie. If you haven't, it may help to read the synopsis and notes
on Wikipedia before going on.
1. Silly Stereotyping
The movie leverages 'traditional' American gender, racial, and racist
stereotypes in a number of ways to quickly set the theme and tone. For example, except for the dashing but scarred head of security, all of the bad guys are either plain and unpleasant looking (even the women), or they look like vicious dullards, southern hicks, neo-Nazi skinheads, or inner city gang-bangers on steroids. Also, most of the bad-guy soldiers and pilots are white, as is the ignorant, weak, and heartless project manager. I suppose it would have violated some unwritten Hollywood rule if any of the main bad-guys had been black, Asian, subcontinent-Indian, American Indian, or anyone of a brown tint—at least in a movie like Avatar, which is clearly meant to cast mercantilist eco-devouring European culture in the worst possible light. The main hero is a medium build Anglo, but he's crippled in his white-guy persona, which I suppose makes him tolerable, while all the other 'heroes' are effeminate male scientists, brown people, or females. In fact, aside from the protagonist, the only warriors—the real men
, if you will—are all either heartless mercs, oh-so noble natives, or women.
As for the locals, for all their supposed intelligence and craftiness, they clearly need a white male hero from Earth dressed in mufti and wearing blue-face
to save them because they lack the intelligence to do smart things without being told to. For example, they still shoot arrows into truck tires even after years of exposure to the humans and their machines, and they are to-a-person too proudly stupid to listen to warnings about imminent death from people who would know. I guess Cameron didn't read the ultra-boring book Guns, Germs, and Steel
by Jared Diamond, who more or less claimed that aboriginal humans are smarter than us 'civilized' humans by virtue of their being able to survive in harsh natural environments. If he did read the book, then either Cameron thought natives who were too smart wouldn't need a crippled Marine to save them (which would make his story less trite, and therefore harder to tell), or he figured the average movie goer would not sympathize with natives who are smarter than them, so he went with dumber natives. I suspect it was some of both.
Interestingly, the one stupid question the whole movie seems to lead up to didn't have nearly the concussive effect I suspect Cameron meant for it to have. Near the end, the main bad guy asks the hero-in-blue how it feels to betray his race. Aside from being the wrong question (as opposed to "How does it feel to betray your species
?"), it shows that Cameron hasn't quite noticed how things have changed since Little Big Man
and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
. It also shows that he doesn't realize that a question like that does not resonate with Americans the way it would have in the '50s, '60s, or '70s. Yes, race is an issue still, but our president is a black man, and few Americans of any color still sympathize with the 'plight' of the Native American tribes that rake in hundreds of millions of dollars a year at their casinos and resorts but pay no taxes, all while taking American taxpayers' money to fund their ever-resented BIA welfare programs. To me the question was race-baiting of the worst kind, but fortunately, it fell on mostly deaf ears.
2. Fatuous Premise
Are we really supposed to believe humans of the future would treat another intelligent species no better than the American Indians were treated 120 years ago? Humanity is supposedly advanced enough in the future to easily travel to distant planets, but it's not advanced enough to act differently than the stupid ways the people in the movie act?
I think Cameron's portrayal of Western-style capitalism is especially disingenuous given that in our world, the West no longer just takes what it wants or kills whomever gets in the way of its acquisitions. If it did, I doubt there would be such serious problems in the Middle East, for example, because the West certainly would have taken over Saudi Arabia and all of the other oil-soaked lands (Who could prevent it? Who would try? Really). Frankly, I think Cameron took the concept and the general construct of the Transnationals from Kim Robinson's excellent Martian Trilogy, but was unable to intelligently connect the dots the way Robinson did.
3. Irreconcilable Inconsistency
If the blue folks are warriors and only respect warriors (implied during one silly scene), doesn't that mean they war with other clans or tribes on their world? Do they fight for resources? Do they kill each other for the joy of it or the sport or only when they have to? Are they ritual cannibals, like some human aboriginals? If the global earth-mother gives them everything, and if they are all so interconnected, why are there warriors at all, instead of just hunters, or for that matter, just gatherers. If the earth-mother can make the animals fight for the planet, why not make them jump into the stew pot, like blue-faced Shmoos? Basically, if every living thing is so connected to the planet and to one another, why are there warriors, and why is there any killing at all?
Which leads me to wonder, of course, if it's ok (even if sad
) for the natives to kill one another? We'll never know since that's not part of the movie, but it is telling that the locals are proud warriors and are glad to finally see an off-world warrior, even though they seemingly only hunt and fight the off-worlders. Who did they war against before Earthlings showed up? That's an important question because it's clear we're supposed to believe the blue-folk would never kill one another just so they could take what another person or group has (land, water, goods, sex partners, slaves, etc.), which would make them too much like the rapacious white people.
And why would a bunch of tribes that have had no apparent trouble with the humans all sign up to fight them just because a guy from another tribe called them to? Wouldn't there be a debate, a discussion, some kind of local tribal council meeting? Apparently not. In fact, the whole thing reminded me of motorcycle gang chapters being called on to defend the gang's turf, no more caring about the reasons or the consequences than would any Hell's Angel.
I do understand it's just a movie, and I understand the basic story has been told a thousand times, but for that kind of money, and with that kind of creative control, it's a shame that Cameron couldn't create an alien species that was at least as interesting and intelligent as the Kzinti or Thranx, or had as much depth as Psychlos or Gungans.
4. Tobacco Sell Out
Aside from there being no reason at all to include smoking in the movie why did a science team allow smoking in a laboratory in which some people wear clean suits and there are all sorts of supposedly sensitive machines. What genuine scientist would smoke in a lab, and what's more, why of all the people on the planet, was she the only person obviously smoking. Also, considering what it must cost to ship things from Earth, how did she even get cigarettes? Did she grow her own? And finally, smoking is an addiction that can be as much mental as physical, and given her obvious desperate need for a cigarette the first time we see her, why doesn't she need to smoke when she's in the avatar. Her pod-ensconced body would be suffering the nicotine pangs, her mental anguish would increase, and she would become irritable and rash when not able to smoke, regardless of the body she was actually working.
To me it reeked of simple product placement and I wouldn't be surprised to learn the tobacco industry paid Cameron to include that poison in the movie. It wasn't needed, it brought nothing to the story, and it was offensive to people like me who had to work hard to quit smoking and who know what a vile, filthy, stinking, stupid habit it is. It's just too bad she died of a bullet wound instead of cancer, eh? Now that would have been a decent message to send.
There's a lot more wrong with the movie, but mostly just the dumb-science kinds of things found in any grade-B science fiction movie. Of course, if dumb science were the only thing wrong with the movie, I wouldn't really mind. I have been a science fiction and fantasy fan since the 1960s, and I especially like sci-fi and action/adventure movies, even the campy ones like the original War of the Worlds
, Forbidden Planet
, The Day the Earth Stood Still
, and Robinson Crusoe on Mars
. I even like many of the newer movies that other people dislike, like Saturn 3
, Johnny Mnemonic
, Judge Dredd
, and so on. In fact, there are very few movies in this genre that I just flat dislike, but there are some. These include Batman Returns
, Rise of the Silver Surfer
, the second Raiders of the Lost Ark
, and the utterly awful Starship Troopers
. The latter group also now includes Avatar.
Same Ol', Same Ol'
In the end, what disturbed me most about Avatar was Cameron's apparent disdain for our culture, our country, and the western commercialism that provided the resources and funding needed to make such a movie. I suppose that if the movie were a true story, or even loosely based on a true story, that would be one thing—unpleasant, but tolerable; however, this was a totally constructed milieu, with each component deliberately placed there by the creator to make a specific point and to aid the telling of the story. There were no unnoticed, accidental, or unintentional messages or connotations, not a single thing wasn't put there on purpose, which means this was the story James Cameron wanted to tell, exactly as he wanted it told.
Unfortunately, like so many others of his class and profession, he seems to have been so focused on presenting his distorted view of things that he missed the obvious mistakes and insults to intelligence in his rationalizations. Or he didn't care. Either way, I guess it's just too hard for Hollywood to be truly creative or honest when it comes to movies about cultures and peoples of Earth, especially when so much money is involved; thus, once again we Americans are assaulted by home-grown corrupting messages and corrosive negative imagery of our society and our nation. Same dumb message, same sorry people, an endless parade of John Kerry clones, all just waiting in line to tell their version of the BIG LIE about America.
But we all know the United States is not the worst country on Earth by a long shot, and Americans are not the greediest, most callous, uncaring people who inhabit this planet, no matter what pathetic losers like Michael Moore and the editors of the New York Times would like us all to believe. I'd say that anything we've done in the past has been far surpassed by what people in many other countries are doing today, including specifically in China, Mexico, Russia, Iran, any of a dozen African and Middle Eastern countries, and even some in Europe. Some Chinese business people have proven in recent years that they have no problem putting profit before the lives of their customers while Muslim terrorists everywhere have shown they have no souls. Additionally, Beijing, Mexico City, and Delhi are at least as polluted as any in the world, and China is becoming an insatiable and aggressive consumer of raw materials and a reckless economic power, while Qatar and the UAE have become centers of money-fueled commercial decadence the likes of which haven't been seen since the heyday of Rome. And yet for all that (and a whole lot more like it), James Cameron still made the main corporate greed-leaders of the future both White and Western, and the aboriginal victims ignorant, powerless, and colored.
It's just so typical.
By The Way . . . .
If the Avatar story is drawn to a logical and realistic conclusion, then although the blue-folks won the battle, they have almost certainly brought about their own destruction, just as the Lakota Indians did when they wiped out Custer and his 7th Cavalry troopers in June 1876. The connection may seem like a stretch, but in his intelligent and eloquent book titled The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn (a Lakota History)
, Joseph M. Marshall III explained how Custer's defeat led inexorably to the end of the Lakota way of life as it existed at the time. Why? Because the Lakota were outnumbered by tens of thousands to one, and because the westward moving Americans simply rolled right over the Lakota and all the rest of the native tribes with hardly any real notice. Likewise, if the humans in Cameron's future really are as portrayed, they would return in greater numbers with more effective weapons, and without even the pretense of caring about the local life. They would bring massive bombs or even bio weapons, and they'd kill everything on the surface, probably from space—and there wouldn't be anything the natives could do to prevent it.
1. Definition of a golem is from the American Heritage Dictionary (electronic version), 3rd Edition (v. 3.6a), © 1994, Softkey International.
2. Definition of an avatar is from the Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary (electronic version), 11th Edition (v. 3.0), © 2003, Merriam-Webster, Inc.
3. Red Mars
, Green Mars
, and Blue Mars
by Kim Stanley Robison
are from L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth
from Larry Niven's Known Space
from Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth
series; and Gungans
from George Lucas' Star Wars
5. The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn (a Lokota History)
by Joseph M. Marshall, III; © 2007, Penguin Books.
Minor changes were made to this essay on 8 May 10 and 28 Feb 12.