First off, let me say I loved seeing Avatar, and want to go see it again.  Second, this is not a review, but a dissection of the movie and it has spoilers, so don’t read this unless you’ve seen the movie.  Avatar represents state of the art movie making and proves computer technology can turn any imagined story into a film.  I agree with the majority of reviewers that have said “Wow” to the special effects and then mumbled some grumbles.  The story retraces Dancing with Wolves, but the filmmaking blazes new territory.

However much I loved watching Avatar, I have one really big gripe:  I hate that humans are presented as stupid, cruel and blood-thirsty.  Why does Avatar portray future homo sapiens as 19th century colonial ravagers? Star Trek came up with the Prime Directive back in 1966, so why does this futuristic flick predict mankind as idiot imperialists?  I asked my friends about this and they defend the movie by saying “Oh, the film is just a liberal metaphor for how corporations and people treat the environment.”  But I can’t imagine James Cameron ruining the most expensive piece of art in history with such a crude message.  I can’t but wonder if Cameron thought the “kill them all and let God sort them out” mentality is how the majority of moviegoers want the majority of men and women characterized.  Why aren’t viewers insulted by seeing ourselves shown in such a nasty light?  Or are people sitting in their chairs thinking, that’s not how I am, I’d be one of the good scientists, but all the people around me must be like those blood-thirsty killers of the poor Na’vi. 

The film imagines technology evolving, but shows men and women devolving from our present knowledge.   Cameron presents the military as disciples of General George Armstrong Custer.  I’m surprised Colonel Miles Quaritch didn’t go around saying “The only good Na’vi is a dead Na’vi.”  Sure the solders in Avatar are passed off as private security, so as not to insult the U.S. military, but they think of themselves as Marines – thus it still attacks a stereotype.  And I worry that international film goers will naturally accept the bad humans, and especially the military in this film, as representing typical Americans and typical American thinking and philosophy.  If the Na’vi had been the bugs of Starship Troopers, I would have been pumped up by the military might of the story too.  We are a violent nation, but it’s important to know when violence isn’t the solution.  Strangely I think our real military knows that better than we do, or movie makers.

Why did Cameron spend so much money making such a cliché story?  It’s Starship Troopers at the Little Big Horn.  Sure, I can picture the story as a metaphor for how we’re destroying the Earth and its indigenous people and life forms, but that analogy is too crude to work.  How many filmgoers leave the theater thinking about how we’re destroying the rain forest?  Or does Cameron think we’re all spectators at the Coliseum, just sitting in front of his spectacle to get pumped up over a simple action picture show – hey the white hats win in the end, but we’re not wearing them.

Also, it’s time for film makes to stop relying on cliché science fiction.  The humans and the military in Avatar could have come from the same generic Sci-Fi reality as Starship Troopers, Aliens, and countless other SF movies and TV shows.  When are science fiction movie makers going to evolve and create more realistic science fiction? 

I would have been more impressed if Cameron had made almost the same movie but with a different opening premise.  Start with a generation ship that has traveled for three hundred years, finally reaching its destination, Pandora, with interstellar colonists.  The human space travelers must colonize or die.  They must find acceptance in a harsh new world, so instead of Custer’s Last Stand, they must be Jamestown and struggle to share a new world with equally intelligent creatures, and this time not follow the same path as we did with the Native Americans.  The colonists could use the same avatar technology to communicate with the Na’vi – what a fantastic first contact way to communicate.

I’m tired of science fiction films having comic book level violence.  The world is not Tom and Jerry, or Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner.  Also unbelievably silly, is to think that anything in existence would be valuable to mine at interstellar distances.  This is pretty much basing a plot on the Santa Claus principle.  Why aren’t science fiction fans enraged at this kind of Easter Bunny thinking about the future?  If Avatar had been made in 1955 I could forgive the story, but the world has gone through a lot of enlightenment since then.

I’m sure James Cameron assumed we’d go through some catharsis of guilt and hate ourselves for being so evil.  I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being the bad guy.  I know humanity has been evil in its treatment of the Earth.  It’s time to go past that and change.  Science fiction needs to show us evolving, and becoming wiser in the future.  Science fiction needs to show who we should aspire to be, rather than make us hate who we are.

Avatar is too beautiful to hate.  It is stunning to see.  It immerses us into an alien world better than any other science fiction film.  I just wished it didn’t have such a cliché plot.  Avatar proves that just about any science fiction or fantasy novel could be made into a film.  I’m tired of movie makers thinking the only science fictional conflict worth filming is human versus alien death matches.  What great science fiction book would you love to see filmed with the same technology as Avatar?  The first one that comes to mind for me is Hyperion by Dan Simmons.

JWH – 1/4/10

7 thoughts on “Avatar”

  1. Why do movies have to be so dumb? I don’t mind humans being the bad guys, but why does it have to be such a ridiculous cliché?

    I like your Jamestown idea. There’d be plenty of conflict, even if both sides were trying to do the right thing. And a sophisticated story wouldn’t take anything away from the great visuals. It’s like they treat movie-goers as complete idiots (which might be accurate – my opinion of human beings drops every year – but it’s still insulting).

  2. I didn’t read all your review as I wanted to avoid potential spoilers in case I choose to go see this…I’m leaning towards not seeing it at this point just because it has never grabbed me. Your legitimate complaints about the way humans are portrayed are one of the many things that annoyed me just watching the trailers. From what I could see there this really did look like Cameron spending millions of dollars to preach a thinly veiled ‘humans are bad, nature is good’ film coupled with a reminder that yes, in our history, we’ve stolen land from each other and sometimes destroyed the land in the name of progress. Ugh! Who hasn’t seen or heard this a million times already? Despite how pretty it may be to see from a tech standpoint, I’m not sure I can sit through a couple hours of this.

    I often wonder why film makers don’t couple this kind of technological wonder with a well written story. I’m less concerned about something being entirely new as most stories have been told and told and told, but as it just being good, with some depth and some meat to it. Why spend a fortune to polish a turd of a story? And why do we all go out and spend a billion dollars on it? Well, I know the answer to that, it is the same reason I spend money to see the films I want to see, I want to be entertained.

    I just wish entertainment didn’t have to mean that future humanity, or even today’s humanity, is portrayed as a bunch of ignorant, heartless imperialists.

    1. Carl, you should definitely see Avatar, it’s just too stunningly beautiful to miss. It’s a shame that the aliens are so simplistically developed. Their visual world shows a hundred times more thought went into its creation than their characterization. Instead of spending so much time on miltary systems, Cameron should have developed how complex it would be to communicate with an alien civilization like the Na’vi, and he should have tried to make them more alien. There was no mystery to them. No matter what critiques I have, Avatar is still very much worth seeing. Don’t miss it. I want to see it again even, while its still at the theaters.

    2. “I often wonder why film makers don’t couple this kind of technological wonder with a well written story.”
      Try Pixar movies! 😉

  3. Hey, Jim,
    Good dissection. While watching the movie I leaned over to a friend and told them my favorite thing about the movie was watching and realizing the technology now exists to make visually accurate recreations of all of the great SF novels I’ve ever read. And Hyperion was on my mind when i said it. In fact the Tree imagery in the film reminded me of the Treeship’s in Hyperion.

  4. I’m usually very critical of cliche story lines, but the visual beauty of Avatar wiped most cavils from my brain. It’s well worth seeing — I mean literally, the sight of it is a lovely experience.

    I actually wonder if the movie, with its very clear (okay, even crude) environmental message may not do some good with folks who tend to approach movies seeking pure entertainment — and may even usually identify with shoot-em-up heroes.

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