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avatarThis weekend I finally made it to see Avatar, an experience augmented by the venue, the Alamo Draft House: a movie theater that has truly mastered the art of serving beer during a film.  What follows is more a reaction to the movie, not a review, so be aware, spoilers abound.  Don’t read unless you’ve seen it.

I’m going to mostly be criticizing the film so I should probably preface these remarks by saying that I enjoyed watching Avatar.  It was a long movie, made longer by the clunky 3D glasses, but despite all that, I had a largely pleasurable movie experience.  That said, I didn’t have as pleasurable a movie experience as I wanted.  The fact is, Avatar was marketed as a game-changer, a movie like Star Wars or The Matrix that would set a new standard.  It didn’t.

First of all, I thought the 3D added nothing but an additional distraction.  Other than kids’ movies where 3D provides an additional wow-effect, I don’t think anyone has figured out how to use 3D to real advantage, incorporating it into the narrative experience.  Avatar in no way represented a significant step forward.  If anything, I found the 3D apparatus distracting, and I likely would have enjoyed the beautiful vistas more in sharp 2D.

But mostly, my problem with Avatar is its political message.  I’ve seen several self-satisfied pieces on how ironic it is that a movie that is so critical of technology is, in fact, the product of so much technology.  But Avatar is not anti-technology.  The mining and military technology in the film is obviously demonized, but the scientific technology facilitates peace, love and understanding.  So those clever reviews aren’t so clever after all.

Actually the totally-unrelated cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender is, in all ways, far superior.  I'm not joking.

Actually the totally-unrelated cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender is, in all ways, far superior. I'm not joking.

Avatar is not trying to go after technology but rather rapacious capitalism, and this is where the movie troubled me.  I’m all for clever critiques of unjust capitalist systems – some of my favorite movies, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Robocop do a fantastic job of incorporating this kind of social critique into an engaging narrative.  My problem with Avatar is that its analysis of unfettered capitalism is so banal as to be meaningless, or maybe even counterproductive.  The company is bad because it is willing to destroy aliens and nature to get its precious ore, and I think we can all get behind that, but it’s worth taking a look at how the film responds to the crisis it establishes.

The aliens unite to fight back against the military might of the company, but in the end, they fail.  It is nature itself that rises up against the company and defeats it utterly.  This finality is absurd.  At the end, we are supposed to believe having lost the battle, the company concedes it has lost the war, and now its content to leave all that precious ore alone forever.  Not very likely.  But beyond a silly and unsatisfying resolution, what is troubling is the implication that nature itself can undo the company’s evil work.  In other words, Avatar promotes a laissez-faire theory of resistance.  If nature is really upset enough about what corporations are doing, it will send some hammer-headed rhinos to take care of those pesky market externalities.  The implied corollary is that if nature is not rebelling, how bad can all that destruction be?

Besides serving up the most libertarian interpretation of revolution ever conceived, Avatar is always skirting the edge of racial insensitivity.  The natives of planet Pandora seem to be a curious mixture of Native Americans, the elves of Rivendale, and my cats, and they are presented as idealized noble savages who live in perfect harmony with nature.  Even the glowering alien who emerges as the protagonist’s love rival turns out to be a stand-up dude.  But of course the protagonist emerges as the best and most capable alien of them all.  You know how it is.  Those native people can do their thing, but a white American guy can come in and, after a very short amount of time, do it even better – sort of like Dances with Wolves in space. 

Ultimately, Avatar’s weaknesses come down to an elevation of special effects over content, which is common enough in these big budget blockbusters.  The sad thing is that one or two more drafts of the script could have fixed a lot of these problems.  The movie had its heart in the right place, but it failed in its story-telling execution.  The end result is something like a film version of the Warren Smith song, “Ubangi Stomp” – it’s enjoyable enough, but it ends up leaving you unsatisfied and vaguely offended.

5 Responses to “”

  1. Susan Miller says:

    Hmmmm – I’m sorry you couldn’t just enjoy it for the entertainment it was meant to be. Sometimes it’s good to slip back into that kids’ world where nothing matters but being delighted with what you’re seeing. And I, nor anyone with me, found the glasses clunky. Didn’t even remember we had them on. My grandsons couldn’t stop saying “AWESOME.”

  2. Andrea says:

    I thought the glasses were annoying – especially since I had to wear them over my distance glasses. I got used to them (sort of) after a while.
    Interesting point about Nature rising up to save the day – although it could be argued that Nature was responding to prayer, so maybe the real message was that we should all be praying harder about the environment.
    I noticed the scientists were all good… a little surprised by that. And the military were (almost) all bad. Kind of bored by that.
    Also noticed the Na’vi were all good – hoping for more character development in the sequel.
    Definitely noticed the white savior thing – you’d think filmmakers would know better by now.

    All that said, I absolutely loved Avatar for the pure escapist joy of it & I want to be reborn as a Na’vi.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!!! I thought I was the only person on the planet who saw any flaws in the film whatsoever!! Everyone just keeps raving about it, while I stand around going, Did I watch a different movie than everyone else??
    I saw it in 2D and while the creatures and planet were pretty it did not feel like the game changing special effects extravaganza that the hype told me it would be.
    Also, so much time was spent on the special effects that apparently there was absolutely zero time left over to develop a single multi-layered, complex, realistic individual. Human or otherwise. The bad guys were ALL bad, and the good blue people were ALL good. Yeah, ’cause that’s how it works.
    And the political agenda was so lacking in subtlety I felt like I had sat through a 3 hour Al Gore propaganda piece.
    And they spent all the time to develop the whole creepy plugging the hair in to the tree bit, that I thought when the planet itself rose up against the evil military men (’cause who couldn’t see THAT coming a mile and a half away) that the trees and plants and insects and everything were going to really wake up and kick some butt!! But no, a couple of species of animals decided to randomly join in the fighting. Weak. And lame.
    Thanks again!!

  4. Rebecca says:

    Oh, and I also agree that Avatar the Last Airbender is far superior!! Truly!

  5. Throughout the film, I was momentarily messed up by most of the same things that have been discussed here, overall, I overcame them as my expectations progressed. Even the over zealous depiction of capitalism or the “over-zealous military commander” were accepted as being a critical section of the film.But there one little issue that (oddly enough, I guess) irritated me. I had no way to go back and view it after, but I’m pretty sure that when the Colonel was killed, he took his hands off the robot controls, trying to remove the arrow/bolt. Yet, with the Colonel’s death, the robot TOPPLED OVER! I would have expected such a machine just to simply stop moving and stand there.

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