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December 27th 2009 print

Philippa Martyr

Avatar reviewed

With these bald caricatures wearing black and white hats, it’s a good thing the film is lovely to look at, because otherwise it would stink to high heaven.

Pandora’s Box 

I wasn’t planning to see James Cameron’s new movie Avatar, after watching the trailers and hearing rave reviews from people whose opinions I don’t trust. But it’s school holidays, and I have a nephew the right age, and clearly Avatar is going to be the Big School Holidays flick, pitched firmly at the young-boy market. 

Visually, it is absolutely beautiful. James Cameron has an artist’s eye, and the first two hours are an absolute pleasure to look at. But by the third hour, the opalised and iridescent beauty of Pandora starts to look like the Elf kingdom in Lord of the Rings. This movie is really too long for what it is – a very thin science-fiction story with cardboard-cutout characters – and it might been a better movie if Cameron had spent his time and money developing nuanced characters and a balanced plot. 

Avatar has been touted as a parable of the war on terror. In short, it isn’t. There’s one line barked by the worst type of American cartoon-figure bull-necked Marine colonel, well into the movie, about ‘fighting terror with terror’. But this just doesn’t wash with the rest of the movie at all, which instead spends literally hours initiating us into the mysteries of Pandoran ecology. So what is this movie really all about? 

It’s a shadow-puppet play, or a hunt consisting of paper tigers. The Na’vi, the indigenous people of Pandora, are the noble savage writ very, very large and along acceptable 21st century Western lines. They are as one with the natural environment; they mate for life; they apologise to animals they kill and eat; they are hooked into a gigantic planetary goddess-network run by trees which heal their wounds and sicknesses and keep the world in balance; they wear attractive beaded jewellery; they ride horse-like creatures and fly on dragons. Females are completely equal to males, have freedom to choose their mate and also enjoy a wide range of hunting, priestess-ing and tribe-leading career options, and obviously there is also very good contraception available, because I saw exactly one baby in the whole movie. In fact, if these noble savages got any more noble they would glow in the dark. 

And then there’s us – or rather, the Americans. Oh, those Americans. What can you do with them? Such hateful imperialists, driven by the almighty dollar and the equally beastly military-industrial complex. They pack more firepower than you can possibly imagine; they have crew cuts, they don’t believe in the goddess, and they want to bomb those blue-skinned tree-huggers back to the Stone Age. They come from a planet where “nothing green has survived”, and now they want to spread their evil, intolerant ways to Pandora. Their hapless but well-intentioned scientists are utterly under the thumb of the military and big business. In short, the whole gang are cigar-chomping robber barons, Richard Nixon and Colonel Kilgore all rolled into one. 

And guess which side is supposed to be the bad guys? Why, that would be us, of course. And James Cameron would be exactly right, and I would agree with him all the way, if I could think of one real-life indigenous civilisation which shared all the qualities of the Na’vi. The Na’vi’s visual appearance is strongly based on native North and South Americans, so there’s an obvious conclusion to be drawn here, but I suspect I am one of those unfortunate souls who has read too much anthropology for her own good. 

With these bald caricatures wearing black and white hats, it’s a good thing the film is lovely to look at, because otherwise it would stink to high heaven. Every single character seems to consist of clichés stitched together, and the only cast member to turn in a performance with more than one dimension is Sigourney Weaver. 

In addition to the predictable storyline – white man goes native, with interesting consequences for all – it’s also hugely derivative: all over this movie you can see the greasy fingermarks of 2001: a Space Odyssey, Return of the Jedi, Dances with Wolves, Iron Man, Terminator (at least that was one of Cameron’s own), Jurassic Park and – no mean feat – both Apocalypto and Apocalypse Now. Cameron has been accused of plagiarising a 1957 Poul Anderson story called Call Me Joe, which bears a striking resemblance to Avatar’s story, but I also saw strong resonances with James Blish’s 1958 sci-fi parable A Case of Conscience, where a bipedal reptilian race, living in apparently prelapsarian tree-linked eco-harmony, inhabit a planet rich in a mystery mineral desperately needed on earth. (Interestingly, in Blish’s version, this entire planet turns out to be an illusion created by someone generally portrayed with hooves and a pitchfork). 

Avatar will probably win lots of awards. It pushes all the right buttons – anti-American, pro-ecological, feminist, anti-military, anti-war – and cost the GDP of Dominica to make. It also represents yet another triumph of special effects over acting and plot. If you want to go and see it, see it on the big screen on a cheap day and wear earplugs.