Posts Tagged ‘James Cameron’

11th April
2010
written by Mad Cow

Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and smoking

Mad Cow’s rating: three cowbells

To paraphrase what is now an old song, “Movie Goers Just Want to Have Fun.” For most people, and just about everyone I know has seen Avatar, this movie is just plain fun. With a Golden Globe for best picture under its belt, the Oscar is practically a sure thing.  Beautiful, glorious, colorful, fantastic, with 3-D to boot, what’s there not to like? If you adored this movie and can’t stand hearing anything bad about it, stop here. Spoilers are also hard to avoid since the plot is so simple.

New York Times columnist David Brooks nailed this movie with his recent column, “The Messiah Complex still alive and well.” (Go to http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/08/opinion/08brooks.html) He describes  a theme in American movies that sets up a white male messiah among native peoples, as in Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai. I would include the wider category of movies about people of color falling in love with white people, as in Driving Miss Daisy and Boys on the Side. I will never forget the last scene in Daisy, in which the driver (Morgan Freeman) visits his employer’s nursing home and feeds her. Think of what an amazing moment it would have been if it had been the other way around.

Writer/Director James Cameron (Titanic) created this science fiction tale about Pandora, a planet far away that has a special element, unobtainium,  that we (read: U.S.) need on earth. Scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver)  have been studying Pandora and its people, the Na’vi, by creating avatars, who “travel” there in the guise of the natives, a beautiful, blue, slim tribe of people who live peacefully and at-one with nature. The military wants to “persuade” the Na’vi to move away from the unobtainium mine by offering them incentives, but the Na’vi don’t want anything that they’ve got. Meanwhile, the major infiltrator, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) rapidly integrates into the culture and finds himself in the middle.

The film pits the military-industrial complex and the corporate modern world against the pure, natural goodness of the Na’vi. They sleep in the trees and the only threats to them are some wild animals. Most animals they befriend and they honor those whom they kill (with bows and arrows – get it?) for food. Magical spirits surround them, especially jellyfish-like creatures who float in the air. Upon Jake’s arrival, the jellyfish land on him, showing he is “special.”

The plot could have been written by any bunch of movie-loving 15-year-olds. Jake has to pass many tests in order to prove himself among the people. He ends up mastering feats that only a few have achieved in Na’vi history.  He and the princess of the realm hit it off.  As Annalee Newitz put it, this is one of those many movies in which a white person gets to be one of the natives without losing white privilege. (See http://io9.com/5422666/when-will-white-people-stop-making-movies-like-avatar) This is probably why Kevin Costner leaves the tribe in Dances with Wolves, with the excuse that he can help more if he’s back with his own people, thus conveniently avoiding being massacred along with the Indians. I’m not talking motivation here, just plot line. In the U.S. we rarely kill the hero.

The framing of the native people is condescending in the extreme. They do not read or invent or do anything much except subsist and worship nature. The white people have textured personalities and disagreements and full-powered agency. As “good” as the Na’vi are, they after all need a white savior to move in and lead them. Cameron may have wished for points by making Jake a paraplegic, but in fact his avatar isn’t, making a point about what it really takes to be a hero. It’s not even ironic, since Jake takes the assignment in the first place so that, in exchange, he can get his legs fixed with an expensive operation. (I guess the health care bill hadn’t passed even by then – the year 2154.)

The raison d’être of all science fiction major motion pictures is a huge battle,   with fantastical weaponry, magical moves, and lots of blowing things up. It goes on endlessly. This is where I get very bored. I had much more fun watching Jake and the Na’vi people ride around on giant bird-like creatures, reminding us of Harry Potter’s Quidditch matches and pet owls.

The acting is secondary to the display. Still, Giovanni Ribisi was amusing as Parker Selfridge, the young, insensitive corporate ringleader. Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quartich was over the top, resembling someone out of Dr. Strangelove. Cameron gets points for making the women strong, especially retired Marine pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), although of course dressed to show cleavage.  Sigourney Weaver does a good but unimaginative job, apparently needing to chain smoke to look tough. Queen Mo’at (CCH Pounder) and her daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are as athletic as the men but are, after all, cartoon characters.

One might say that spending 300 million dollars on this movie was a risk, but I would suggest that Cameron knew that it would be a sure thing if the design creativity worked well. Along with the 3-D feature, which added to the film without being overpowering, the special effects are colossal.  Everyone is talking about it. One friend called the Na’vi boring.  Newitz sees the film as a white fantasy about race. A colleague suggested that the movie creates a world in which we all wish we were, a beautiful simpler place, among people who enjoy a simpler life, albeit a very romantic one. No video games, no FedEx, no texting. Maybe so.