Avatar (2009)


Watching “Avatar” is like watching a magic show. There’s lights, and sounds, and smoke, and hand waving and it’s mesmerizing if you watch without caution, but if you manage to go back stage and see what’s really happening, you’ll find that what show there is is all just an illusion, it’s all just razzle dazzle with an empty center. That’s what James Cameron’s phenomenon is like sitting through. An exhausting two and half hours basically amounts to nothing more than a carnival ride, an experience that’s interesting sure, but easily forgotten once you’ve decided to move on to the next light show waiting for you. I’m not one to besmirch Cameron for giving us this movie because no matter what I say the general consensus has been that American audiences and movie goers around the world have accepted it, but I’m one of the few who see behind Cameron’s smoke and mirrors and just craved more.

James Cameron actually invented technology for this film and it’s been pretty influential since Hollywood and many directors want to soon implement his advances to use in their own films. It’s a pretty amazing feat because the special effects in “Avatar” are outstanding. Cameron paints such a vivid and crystal clear picture of his world and it’s a world that many will want to be apart of. What with Earth dying, Pandora becomes the basic go to for sapping its resources and it becomes the envy of even the most militant men who want to destroy it and suck it dry. From rainbows in the background to grass that pulses with radiant light whenever a foot sets down on its soil, Cameron knows Pandora better than anyone and loves it with every pixel and polygon and the care placed behind its creation shows on screen. The CGI is enormous and becomes a character all on its own. The first appearance of the Nav’i is breathtaking and Cameron really has a clear definition of how to conceive these figures to lend support to his narrative. As for the cast the only real stand out is Zoe Saldana who comes alive as protagonist female warrior Neytiri who bonds with Jake Sully and puts her life on the line to defend every bit of her planet.

She is undoubtedly the most interesting character in the bunch and the mold of Neytiri is aided by Saldana’s strong performance. I’ll just say that all of my movies don’t have to have brains of philosophical messages behind them but what I yearned for throughout the entire two and half hours was substance. I wanted something to connect to, something to sit through and root for. Many have compared Cameron’s movie to “Star Wars” but I think that comparison is all wrong because at the end of the day George Lucas gave us a variety of characters who were all fleshed out and human and meant something to the audience. Here Cameron manages to alienate us on all fronts with a slew of characters who aren’t the least bit interesting and are basic clichés. From Stephen Lang’s militant villain Miles Quaritch, to Sigourney Weaver’s long suffering liberal environmentalist doctor it just is stone cold in regards to human emotions. Cameron knows how to keep us distracted but he fails to properly touch the audience and bring us in head first. Even Jake Sully, our valiant hero, is pushed in every direction possible and still is just a stranger in the end.

The script stresses painfully to like him. He’s crippled. His brother died. He’s not too bright. He is dedicated to his career. But suddenly he loves the Nav’i breed. And he’s a skilled warrior, blah blah. Worthington has little to work with and even when Jake is in his Avatar screeching and leading his people to battle, we still don’t fully know everything about him other than what is spelled out for us in the opening scenes. Cameron holds our hand through everything where we experience endless narration, inner monologues from Jake, and characters to explain everything to one another. No one ever assumes that they’re being told information they already know. Cameron makes the story painfully simple, so simple that anyone with half a brain could follow it and he basically does the work for us. What do you expect from a man who names his Maguffin “Unobtainium”? The “story” remains just a concept on a piece of paper and serves as a means of delivering the special effects.

Cameron doesn’t want to put an effort in providing a narrative that’s as vivid as his world, so basically movie goers don’t have to either. Because what with the 3D and the big flashing colors, it becomes apparent mid way that what we’re seeing is nothing but a glorified ride that would most likely become a spectacle if FOX studios ever decided to form their own amusement park. Within the grains of salt that are the story there’s a thick undercoating of white guilt and inherent racist undertones. Watching there’s a particular lack of minority characters save for Michelle Rodriguez and the occasional African American extra playing soldiers, but where is the diversity here? Both men and women characters are included equally but when it comes to the inclusion of anyone but Caucasians, there’s a considerable lack of them. It’s obvious when you take a step back that the Nav’is are basically in place for the African Americans.

They are African to the core. The Nav’i are basically an African tribe, which explains why most of them have braided hair and tribal symbols. They’re practically dark skinned, only Cameron dodges the complete racial allusion by painting them a dark blue rather than brown or completely black. They’re even called monkeys by the white military officials. Is this a commentary on archaic racism? Or is this a racist element that Cameron implanted knowingly to help identify with minority audiences? Cameron doesn’t seem to know where he’s heading with this obvious symbolism. At times he seems to be appealing to the minority crowd demanding reparations while also lending a wink to the Caucasian crowds with Jake Sully who is more content with his status as a colored savage than a subservient soldier.

Either way Cameron knows how to lay on the special effect thick and immediately cuts away any chance at audiences breaking down the elements of his product, and avoiding any accusations that he has failed to bring us the one thing he claims to serve: originality. If you’ve seen “Dances with Wolves,” if you’ve seen “The Last Samurai,” if you’ve seen “Pocahantas” then the odds are good that you’ve seen this. I wasn’t impressed no matter how hard I tried. James Cameron is like the almighty Oz in that he’s stunning onlookers with his lights and smoke and explosions but if you look behind the curtain you’ll find that it’s all just an illusion. I wanted to love “Avatar,” and by all accounts it should have won me over, but it didn’t. In spite of the amazing effects, it’s yet another lemon from Cameron.