Magazine | December 31, 2009, Issue

Film: Deep in the Shallows

(20th Century Fox)

Before I say anything else about James Cameron’s Avatar, I should say that it’s flat-out amazing. Nothing in the movie’s plot, themes, characters, and dialogue can change the fact that Cameron has delivered something revolutionary here, something gorgeous and immersive and unprecedented. We’ve grown jaded, of late, at what special effects can summon up. (Another apocalyptic battlefield? Yawn. Another fleet of starships? Well, if you must . . . .) But Avatar’s science-fiction setting, the verdant planet Pandora in the year 2150 or so, represents world-building on a scale no movie has attempted. What Cameron has spun from CGI, motion capture, and 3-D needs to be seen to be believed. 

And since this is James Cameron, after all — James “Terminator, Titanic, and True Lies” Cameron — the film doesn’t just sit there, lovely and inert. He knows how to make a movie move. The action sequences are kinetic without being confusing: Their choreographed clarity harkens back to brilliant set-pieces in earlier Cameron efforts, while borrowing judiciously from the slo-mo tricks perfected by younger filmmakers during his long hiatus. The battle scenes are sweeping and horribly beautiful, in a Coppola-in-Vietnam kind of way. When the movie wants you to soar, you’ll soar. When it wants to rivet you, you’ll be riveted. Avatar is two hours and forty minutes long, but it’s almost never boring.

It is, however, deeply stupid. Relentlessly stupid. Occasionally mindbogglingly stupid. The problem isn’t that the dialogue is risible and the characters are paper-thin: Titanic, for instance, was a glorious work of popcorn art despite a first act in which every other sentence thudded like an anvil. And the fact that Cameron pilfers shamelessly from a host of famous screen epics isn’t necessarily a bad thing: The original Star Wars was a long science-fiction pastiche, and that turned out pretty well. 

No, the problem is what Cameron pilfers, and then what he leaves out. He’s taken every left-wing cliché — about politics, religion, the environment, the military, imperialism, big business, Vietnam, George W. Bush, you name it — from a generation’s worth of preachy Hollywood movies, and crammed them all into a single teeming blockbuster. There’s a hilarious Internet parody, from early this decade, that imagines Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn providing audio commentary for The Fellowship of the Ring. (Chomsky: “The point is clearly made that the ‘master ring,’ the so-called ‘one ring to rule them all,’ is actually a rather elaborate justification for preemptive war on Mordor.”) Now imagine that Fellowship had actually been co-directed by Zinn and Chomsky, and you have roughly the flavor of this movie.

The story starts with a crippled marine, Jake Sully (a glowering Sam Worthington, trying to channel the Gladiator-era Russell Crowe), being recruited for an unusual mission on Pandora, where a sinister corporation and its hired guns are mining for a metal called (I kid you not) “unobtainium,” while fending off attacks from the native Na’vi people. Sully is fitted out with an “avatar” — a nine-foot-tall, tail-sporting, blue-skinned Na’vi body, which he inhabits remotely, from inside what looks like a high-tech tanning bed. Thus equipped, and supervised by an ornery scientist named Grace (Sigourney Weaver, having fun), he sets out to infiltrate the local alien clan in the hopes of making peace — or, failing that, in the hopes of bringing useful military intel back to his superiors.

If you’ve seen Dances with Wolves, or Pocahontas, or The Last Samurai, or . . . well, anyway, you probably know what happens next. Our man Sully falls hard for a Na’vi huntress named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), falls even harder for her primitive, mystical, totally-in-harmony-with-nature community, and decides to switch sides and protect the locals from the rapacious human scum. And I do mean scum: Save for Sully, Grace’s team of scientists, and a plucky helicopter pilot (Michelle Rodriguez), the human presence on Pandora consists of entirely soulless corporate greedheads and genocidal, militaristic thugs. 

In other words, Republicans. Just in case the point wasn’t clear enough, the thug-in-chief, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), spends the movie’s final act barking slogans like a character in Oliver Stone’s W. (“A preemptive attack!” “Shock and awe!” “We’ll fight terror with terror!”) Meanwhile, the Na’vi embody every cliché of noble savagery: There’s goddess worship, pantheism, sub–Lion King circle-of-life philosophizing, and (lest they lose the Richard Dawkins demographic) a bogus scientific explanation, à la the “midichlorians” in the Star Wars prequels, for what seem like supernatural happenings.

So this is what’s in the movie. What’s left out, to clear space for Cameron’s Ferngully–meets–Fahrenheit 9/11 posturing, are crucial lineaments of plot. Important scenes, like the sequence in which the Na’vi decide to initiate Sully instead of killing him, feel truncated to the point of absurdity. The sort of useful explanatory interludes (what does unobtainium do? what’s the situation back on Earth? how was Sully crippled? etc.) that make a secondary world seem rich and plausible are missing from the film entirely. And so, bizarrely, is something more essential still: an explanation of some of the avatar program’s basic rules. For instance: When your avatar is killed, are you? It’s a pretty important question, given how often Sully courts death while wearing his blue-skinned secondary body — yet the movie never bothers to tell us.

What it tells us instead, over and over again, is that every technological advantage counts for nothing if you lack heart and soul, empathy and vision. Given that his movie’s technical achievements are what make Avatar worth seeing, Cameron had better hope the public disagrees.


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