Sunday, May 19, 2024

Let’s Revisit Avatar

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Avatar is an interesting case of aging media. No, not anything by Fandomentals favorites Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino. I mean the 2009 James Cameron movie, which is still the highest grossing film of all time. Remember it? There were like, blue people and Sigourney Weaver and zorses. No? Well, no one else really seems to either.

I mean, I’m probably being rude. I’m sure there are plenty of people who really love it and still watch it quite a bit. I haven’t met any of them. As far as I can tell, Avatar completely dropped off our cultural radar the second it left theaters. But in 2009 we thought it was the bee’s knees. So I decided to rewatch this and see if I could explain this complete and total flash-in-the-pan. Why did we like it so much? Why don’t we seem to now?

Well, I’ll tell you, I can certainly answer the second question rather easily. This movie has little to no rewatch value. I went into this thinking that might be the case anyway, because outside of the theaters, the visuals are sure to lose something, and the visuals really were such a selling point with this film. However, even on my laptop 7 years later, it still looked mostly impressive.

It’s the story.

The main problem, I would argue, is its complete lack of nuance. The humans travel to Pandora because they want their unobtanium (jfc), and they come with both carrots (the Avatar program) and sticks (the not-official-military security blowy uppy people) to persuade the native Na’vi into giving it up. The people who are part of the security operation are basically cartoonish villains, with the exception of Michelle Rodriguez’s character, though she’s only ever shown with the scientists anyway. The scientists themselves are presented in an equally cartoonish way, though they’re just unquestionably “good.”

I realize I’m being quite insulting to cartoons… they’re often complex, and Avatar would probably still be watchable if it had even a fraction of the nuance that Steven Universe manages to pull off in a single episode.

“The avatar program is a joke—buncha limpdick scientists.”

“They’re just goddamn trees.”

—2 actual antagonists scripted by a professional writer

Anyway, yeah, the plot. The unquestionably bad guys eventually decide to blow everything up, and the unquestionably good guys fight against them, along with the Na’vi, and win. On first viewing, it unfolded in a rather predictable way. On subsequent viewings, it becomes difficult not to think of it as outright lazy.

This is especially not helped by the fact that everything about the Pandora Operation is almost completely undefined. I had to look on the Avatar wiki page to find out that all the humans actually worked for an NGO called the “Resources Development Administration” that was given monopoly rights to all Pandorian goods by The Interplanetery Commerce Administration, which may or may not be connected to the UN. I’d tell you more but it’s not actually in the fucking movie.

Hell, I could write a full meta about how from a business-perspective alone, nothing about this makes sense, but I’m no pedant. Though can I just point out that even the “good guys” aren’t particularly good? Like I said, they offer carrots, not sticks, but as I can tell, the Avatar program is all about infiltrating a culture and teaching them skills they don’t need (Sigourney Weaver opened a school?) so they could form a bond and eventually ask the Na’vi for the unobtanium really, really nicely. Then there’s the fact that these scientists apparently saw the futility in it really quickly (they all instantly agree with Jake that there’s nothing they can do to persuade the Na’vi to let drilling under Home Tree take place). So that means these organizational employees basically spent their entire time delaying the weaponized extraction by asking for a few more months because they wanted to keep bouncing around in blue suits.

Could you have at least come up with a more inventive game?

But hey, maybe I’m looking at this wrong. It’s not really about the plot, so much as the character transformation of Jake Sully, right? He goes from not giving a shit about the Na’vi, to literally abandoning his own species to become one.

Except, again, it’s 100% predictable. The unlikely hero becomes a hero, wins the approval of every single Na’vi, and all the humans that were baldy presented as “good,” and ultimately triumphs over the bad dudes through the power of… I’m not sure exactly. Awesome fightin’ skills, and potentially divine intervention. But hey, it’s a really good thing for the blue people that the white man came around to them, because they would have been totally fucked otherwise.

The unlikely hero arc isn’t necessarily a bad trope, so I’m not sure why it is that I’m being so hard on it here. Like, it’s kind of uplifting to see Jake find a guiding motivation in life, even if our only insight into what that life had been like was from a passing remark in a voice-over.

I was just another dumb grunt gettin’ sent someplace I was gonna regret.

Oh, okay. It’s clear. Now I’m invested in this dude.

And really, it’s just that everything was so spood-fed. We really didn’t need Jake’s video diaries for us to realize that “out there” was becoming his reality; we were shown it. And where on a first time through, a heavy hand is forgivable, it becomes outright groan-worthy with a rewatch.

It’s like a fun recap of the story we’re currently watching!

I am being overly critical, I can feel it. Time for a positive: the world-building of this movie was quite good, and clearly where all the creative energy went. Pandora felt like it had an internal consistency, and it was imaginative and vibrant. However, it was also meticulously constructed to make a political point, and to call it “sledge-hammery” would be an understatement.

Everything was connected. Interactions between the flora and fauna seemed to transcend the physical. There was an obviously symbiotic relationship between the Na’vi and their planet moon itself. And above all, this was an ecosystem that was presented as being quite balanced. All of this is interesting to explore on some level, though again, I’d argue that the other Avatar (Avatar: The Last Airbender) tackled it first, and with more subtlety/overall effect.

But again, it’s all a point in Avatar, because this has to be one of the most thinly-veiled movies in existence. Guys. We should protect the Earth. It’s really important. Nature is quite rich and has an intrinsic value, and looking only for material gain leads to hundreds of innocent blue people who just want to watch seeds float in the breeze crying out in pain. Wait, what?

No, seriously though, is it really fair to write this movie off as adult!FernGully? It certainly had the Noble Savage trope down-pat too, didn’t it? Like, I know that this was a movie with a “progressive message,” and I know that the Na’vi and Pandora don’t actually exist, but it’s really impossible to ignore the numerous uncomfortable racial implications. Because I’m quite sure James Cameron doesn’t live in a cultural vacuum. This is not made better by the fact that any Na’vi who demonstrated understandable hostility to Jake were painted as petty and unreasonable. That future chief guy (who is robbed of this position, right?) was just jealous of Jake and Zoe Saldana, clearly. But don’t worry, he learns to be his bro by the end.

When you watch with this lens, it becomes almost astounding that the film did as well as it did when it was released. The visuals weren’t that good, and the worldbuilding was not that inventive. I spent a fair amount of time wondering if these were simply critiques not available to us in 2009, but that feels like a rather large cop-out. 7 years is simply not that long a time.

What is the most infuriating is that the environmentalism message is something I care about on a large scale; I work in this field, for crying out loud. And yet there’s something about just how it was presented in such a moralizing and dare I say it, infantilizing way, that couldn’t help but make me completely livid. Or at least made me scream “Princess Mononoke did it better” at my screen.

It really did though. And there was even moral ambiguity.

So yes, it’s resoundingly clear to me why it is that no one talks about this movie anymore. Rewatches allow you to dig deep into a piece of media’s themes, see the clever foreshadowing, and really focus on the character journeys in absence of worrying about “what’s going to happen.” But when both your characters and story are both so formulaic that they could be the defining entries for half of TVTropes’s database, there’s simply no profit in it. Instead, the rewatch is frustrating, and a little demeaning to audience intelligence. WE GET IT.

It’s also just boring. This thing is 2 hours and 42 minutes. What does Cameron think he’s making, a Game of Thones podcast? I found myself often checking to see how much time I had left. I think the effects still hold up today, but the bombing Hometree “action” sequence feels so simplistic. Give me the human heart in conflict with itself any day. Which I think was supposed to be Jake, but his conflict was literally, “do I dick over an entire species or nah.” Hmm, quandary.

So this only leaves the question, “why did it do so well in 2009?”

Well, there’s one very boring reason: there was almost a total lack of competition in the theaters when Avatar was released that December. I mean, perhaps I’m being rude and you were a huge fan of The Men Who Stare at Goats. But from what I can tell, there was very little to fill that need of “what should we go see over the holidays when our family is driving us crazy?”

There was…a Twilight sequel that had been released a month before, which, by nature of a sequel, was likely to only be viewed by fans of the first movie, and, by nature of Twilight, was likely to have already been consumed come Christmas time. There was Sherlock Holmes, whose trailer looked a bit…I don’t know how to put this…lowbrow maybe? I remember my own Jewish Christmas was spent watching Up in the Air, which made me question the very foundation of Jewish Christmas. But there was really just nothing to scratch the itch of nerds, people seeking an adventure/escapism/action film, and people who like to think of themselves as smart. Which is not a small demographic, by the way.

Compare this to 2008. There was a new James Bond, Twilight had first come out to trap anyone who didn’t know what it was, and boy what a good year it was to want to be intellectually challenged with both Doubt (watch it.) and Frost/Nixon (especially well-timed for the American audience, who had just come off the 2008 election). In 2010, the nerds had Deathly Hallows Part 1, which was the best adaptation of the Harry Potter books we had been given in 8 years. There was Tron if you wanted to turn your brain off and enjoy some action. And also two prime examples of Oscar bait: Black Swan and The King’s Speech.

Did Invictus do well at all? That came out in 2009. Maybe “sports drama” is too niche, or maybe, when given the choice, people would rather consume a film about blue people that makes them feel uplifted in the impact they can have rather than a film about Nelson Mandela that might make them actually reflect on their privilege. We’re all just like Jake Sully!

No, really, I don’t think I can psychoanalyze every single movie-goer in 2009. However, if you will allow me, I also can’t help but think about the political climate in America during this time. Obama had been in office for a full year and hadn’t managed to fix every societal ill, the jerk. Actually, he had become rather embroiled with the great healthcare debates, where it was quickly discovered that the Democrats did not have competent party whips. This was also the rise of the Tea Party. We were still in the laughing phase for the most part, but given some of the gains in the local 2009 elections, there was a bit of anxiety starting up.

Basically, it was an incredibly frustrating time to be progressive. Keep in mind, it was early 2010 when Palin uttered the famous, “How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out?” That was the prevailing attitude.

And Avatar was, as I said, escapism. For anyone who saw it in 3D, it was quite immersive, in fact, and almost jarring to step away from. But it was also uplifting in an incredibly superficial way. It gave the “big picture” mindset, right? So that we could congratulate ourselves on being correct in our convictions. The environment does matter, and everyone is connected! Rugged individualism leads to angry jerks who don’t see that a species of bipedal humanoids with a willingness to learn our language and teach scientists about their home are anything more than “blue monkeys.” Didn’t you hear Jake? They destroyed their own planet! Just like we’re doing, because this is set in the future! It’s predictive! But we get it, just like Jake!

This also partially explains “Post Avatar Depression,” which was the focus of quite a few news stories. The theory was that Pandora was just so rich and colorful, that our own world seemed wretched and dull in comparison and that made everyone sad.

But again, situated in the cultural context, where trying to have a reasoned debate seemed like an exercise in futility, I think it’s not surprising at all that such a pandering movie would only further hammer home our own frustrations. There’s a very clear reason Bill Maher’s political stand-up show, delivered the same month as Palin’s “hopey-changey” speech, was titled But I’m not Wrong.

I don’t know. I mean, it really could be as simple as “it looked really, really cool in theaters,” but that still doesn’t explain the total lack of critical thought applied to the surrounding conversation. Hell, it won the 2010 Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama. Cinematography and visual effects awards were certainly earned, but to call something with a plot and characters so stale and wooden that it makes TV!Jon Snow seem deep and nuanced the “best drama”? I think it becomes irresponsible to ignore the cultural dialogue in that case.

Which makes me really, really concerned about what the hell this says of our culture now given a certain media darling that has a continual stream of awards tossed its way.

So, that’s what I’ve got. Avatar made us forget our troubles and cares for a weekend or two, but it’s absolutely no surprise that people don’t care to venture back to it. Good thing there’s no Avatar 2, 3, or 4 in the works. That’d just be embarrassing.


Images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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