Avatar — Savages not just Noble, but Neon

I checked this out last night, and as a cinematic entertainment I really enjoyed it.  As a movie it’s much, much better than “Titanic,” which was an immensely successful entertainment, but also mawkish, sentimental and plodding.  Avatar is a more rigorously plotted and realized piece of film making, and gets points for advancing the state of the art in CGI. But some things about it were disturbing to me:

Three D

I was perhaps situated a bit too close to the screen, as even a week after the opening this movie seems to be packing them in.  But I found the 3D effect to be only occasionally as captivating as it is intended to be, for a couple of reasons.

First, it seemed like the 3D effect required some effort to visually comprehend.  I’d look at a scene and have to do … something? … with my eyes to pull it into focus — otherwise it felt like I was looking at the screen crosseyed. Second, any time the action got hectic, things on screen moved too fast to see it as anything but a jumble and a blur. Perhaps if this 3D movie thing became commonplace, we’d all learn to integrate the visual experience without conscious effort.  As a 3D Virgin (well, 35 years ago I saw “House Of Wax”) I found the experience a little disorienting and tiring.  They may have to increase the frame rate, and/or get rid of the ‘ghosting’ between frames for 3D to work really well.

Second, I’ll breathe a blessed sigh of relief when they stop incorporating visual gimmicks into 3D movies.  It’s obvious that 3D can really enhance the movie experience. But any time something jumped out of the screen, or they used exaggerated perspective/parallax, it distracts from the story and calls attention to the artificiality of the experience.


I have to give them points for climbing out of the “Uncanny Valley” with respect to faces and motion.  The aliens faces are mobile and natural (perhaps because of muscular motion capture), and the eyes are almost perfect.  This is in great contrast to, for example, the dead-eyed Tom Hanks mannequin in “The Polar Express.”  Perhaps it’s because the aliens are cartoonish enough that they avoid looking creepily human-esque.  I never really bought the scenes where the human actors interacted with the aliens; it was as though Foghorn Leghorn was sharing the frame with Don Knotts.
The settings were quite beautiful, though a little too fantastic to be fully convincing.  While you’re watching it’s possible to suspend disbelief, mostly, but there’s not enough grit and irregularity to the setting not to seem artificial.  To generations who spend more time playing video games than they do interacting with the physical world, it’s probably not a big deal — they’re used to things being just a little bit too smooth.  But the environment is just so lurid and saturated with color that at no point did it feel real to me.

I’m waiting for the day when they can use CGI to completely render familiar environments — say, an alley in Downtown Iowa City in early March, with puddles, dirty melting snow, and the sun peeking in and out of clouds. That’s so much more difficult to get right than Avatar‘s neon forest.  It’s still probably cheaper on the whole to point an actual camera at actual things than to render them with CGI, and even good actors do better interacting in and with actual environments than they do on bright green soundstages.


The most interesting commentary on Avatar I’ve read makes the “Dances With Wolves” argument.  It is the latest in a long line of movies in which a white character is inserted into a non-white culture, and ends up going native and becoming the natives’ hero.   The argument is that in Hollywood, it’s risky to make a movie about a different culture without putting a “relatable” character into it.  It assumes audiences can’t relate to or have empathy for people who are different unless they have a proxy in the scene.  Requiring a white guy to jump in and save the day only reinforces the tropes of imperialism, while giving the audience a false sense of their own tolerance.

That’s a valid critique as far as it goes; unfortunately, that wasn’t the whole of the story James Cameron wrote.  The fact that it conforms to a template, more or less, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own particulars that are at least as important. There’s another view one can take of this story: It’s about an honest warrior trying to do the job he was hired to do, and having the range of his own empathy expanded by learning the culture of the other.  By understanding the culture, he is no longer able to attack it. We’re all outsiders as soon as we leave our customary environment.  Our own project — to live as good neighbors in a diverse society — requires us to learn how to understand and empathize with those with whom we differ.  So while there is a way in which Avatar reinforces the imperialist project, perhaps, there’s a second narrative there that is at least as important, and it wouldn’t exist without the White Male characters parachuting in.

What bothers me more than the “White Man’s Burden” trope is the monochrome portrayal of the Evil Corporate Exploiters.  This is more cartoonish even than the blue aliens in their neon forest.  Any time a character in a movie is all bad, it ceases to be a narrative with any real-world resonance.  If you’ve ever worked for a corporation, you know they are comprised of more or less decent people, even when the actions of the corporate whole are destructive and amoral.  Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quaritch and Giovanni Ribisi’s effete corporate jerk are characters drawn entirely in black and white.

Even more disturbing to me are the battle scenes, where characters with whom I can’t help but identify — the rank and file soldiers fighting on the corporation’s behalf — are slaughtered by the natives.  They’re just collateral damage in the natives’ battle to defend their homes, but it’s recapitulates the battles between Cowboys and Indians from Hollywood’s un-enlightened past, but now you’re supposed to root for the Indians.  I’m completely repelled by the “Us vs Them” mentality that underlies the remorseless carnage, no matter which side’s doing the killing.

That this scenario gets acted out over and over in real life is bad enough.  But it’s worse, in a way, to create art that follows this scenario without questioning its assumptions.  When I watched the movie, I didn’t have any prior knowledge of the plot and up to a certain point I actually thought the conflict between the aliens and the corporation could be somehow resolved without warfare.  When all hell breaks loose and the battle is joined, the story collapses in onto itself and becomes depressingly conventional.

Why do I care enough to waste my time with this critique?  Because I feel like movies are important.  In fact all narratives are important as templates for human behavior.  They mean something, they tell people something, they can affect how people see the world.  When a film as broadly seen as Avatar cheaps out on the morality when at it’s root it is a morality tale, it’s not doing the world any favors.

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