A look at Avatar’s Achilles’ heel

January 12, 2010

I APPRECIATED Nagesh Rao's thoughtful review of James Cameron's Avatar ("Anti-imperialism in 3-D"), but I'm compelled to disagree with him on the central point; while the film does succeed in some ways, and is certainly not as bad as reviewers such as Io9's Annalee Newitz would have it, as a total work of art it is not successful.

Nagesh is right that Cameron's technical achievement is remarkable, representing a leap forward in the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) and associated technologies (motion capture, digital scenery, computational physics, etc). The Pandora landscape is fantastically realized as an integral whole. The use of 3-D is also tasteful and almost never gimmicky.

Still, a movie is a movie, not an honors thesis in Computer Science. That is to say, Cameron has a certain responsibility to the "literary" elements of film. Here Nagesh's attempt to wave off the fact that the movie suffers from, among other things, "stock characters," "predictable plotlines," and dialogue that is "contrived and clichéd" seem untenable. Watching a story (plot) evolve through people (characters) talking to one another (dialogue) is sort of the point of seeing a movie.

Besides being more or less totally predictable, the plot is shot through with holes. To give only the most important example, the central plot device, the use of Na'vi "avatars" by the humans, is 1) never really motivated in the film; and 2) actually absurd if you think about it.

The avatar program is supposed to help humans and Na'vi "communicate"--but this makes no sense, since the avatars, being mentally equivalent to their human "drivers," have no special knowledge of Na'vi language or culture. This should be roughly as effective in "communicating" with Na'vi as a bunch of English-speaking white Americans donning Dishdashahs in order to talk Iraqis into oil contracts. Indeed worse: considering the Na'vi's relationship to nature, it's not clear why they wouldn't consider such a program offensive and obscene, instantly scotching any possible diplomatic benefit.

Of course, the reality is that Cameron required the avatar device for his movie to "work," and he didn't think through the implications. But it is very challenging to enjoy a movie when you are nagged by the feeling that the whole thing doesn't make sense. This is not a matter of "suspending disbelief" or overlooking a minor continuity error. The humans' relationship to the Na'vi is the metaphoric core of the whole story--if that relationship is not basically psychologically credible, what is the viewer supposed to do?

VIRTUALLY EVERY positive review has admitted the basic narrative flaws of Avatar, but shrugged them off as unimportant given the technical merits of the film and/or the fact that it is "popular entertainment." I confess that I cannot understand this attitude.

It seems to me that a filmmaker like Cameron, who is immensely powerful and can make virtually any film that he likes, for any amount of money, with a guaranteed mass audience, should be held to the highest standards. Saying that "popular" entertainment should be judged by an inferior aesthetic is like arguing that the Super Bowl should be played less athletically because the audience exhibits a lower ratio of football geeks.

Let me now turn to political considerations. First, I should say that I agree with Nagesh that some left-wing reviewers, such as Newitz, are too harsh. His conclusion that Newitz's line of reasoning leads to the exclusion of all cross-racial solidarity as is on the mark; in fact, this is why the conservative columnist David Brooks was able to come up with a virtually identical criticism of Avatar as Newitz!

Nevertheless, it is necessary to interrogate more deeply the particular content of the film's anti-imperialism.

Avatar elicits sympathy for the native people by positing them as almost impossibly "noble." The Na'vi are kind and generous, live in harmony with nature, are universally slender and attractive, etc. But capitalism since its birth has been continuously eliminating the human analogues of the Na'vi, so that today, the global genocide against "naturalistic" (pre- or proto-class) societies is virtually completed.

It is, in some sense, "safe" to sympathize with such people because their elimination is only a matter of modern imperial policy by way of exception. Contemporary imperialism is far more occupied with the division of a world already dominated by capital; that is, with conflicts between groups at roughly the same level of historical development.

Paradoxically, a more realistic "Other" would quite closely resemble "Us": people who have all sorts of problems, fight amongst themselves, use ugly tactics, act stupidly or cruelly, and are not demonstrably more noble than anyone else.

This is the qualitative political difference between the "anti-imperialism" of Avatar versus, say, The Battle of Algiers. It is not that the latter is a better movie "on points"--although of course it is--but rather that it forces the audience to think deeply and critically about why it sympathizes with the Algerians--who are not angels, who blow up cafes, and so on.

More recently, we can take the portrayal in Battlestar Galactica (new series) of the human resistance against the Cylon occupation of New Caprica. This was so interesting because the humans clearly had no transcendent moral superiority vis-a-vis the Cylons--which again forced the viewer to think about why the resistance was sympathetic. The parallel to contemporary resistance movements was unavoidable--whereas with Avatar it is eminently avoidable, because the Na'vi are so immeasurably "nicer" than Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, Somalis, Haitians, Cubans, etc.

The last decade of cinema has arguably been the weakest and worst since the invention of the medium. Most of what is produced is almost openly trash. Thus I think comrades often wish to "give a break" to films that at least attempt to sort of say something progressive, especially if they have some kind of mass resonance. That is fine, and I'm not even against it.

However, while recognizing what is positive, we must expose what is weak or absent. Only in this way can our class discover more conscious, and therefore more pleasurable, modes of experiencing art--as well as rediscovering our own independent class politics in relation to all the political tendencies, moods, and fads of the other classes, as invariably expressed in art.
Shaun Joseph, Providence, R.I.

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