Despite Shaky Writing and Troubling Representations of Race, “Avatar” Delivers
****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Lang
James Cameron’s latest effort may have its weaknesses, but those are overcome by stunning visual effects, fantastically directed action sequences, and an ambitious artistic vision that busts the door wide open for science-fiction epics in the next decade.
First, the bad: the story follows a structure that’s cliche and shamelessly derivative. I went in joking that it looked like “Dances With Wolves” in space, but even I was surprised at how many elements were taken from that and other films involving the white man’s begrudging sympathy for the natives transforming him into one of them. There aren’t any twists and turns in this script, nor does it take anything other than the easy path as it tells its story.
Additionally, the antagonists of the story are so cartoonish and over the top that it’s hard to take them as a serious threat. Giovanni Ribisi’s character in particular comes across like a Hollywood agent written by a teenager who’s only seen a one or two movies about Hollywood agents. Their wholly inorganic and shallow character motivations are amplified by a message so heavy-handed it pounds the ground with all the subtlety of an eight hundred pound gorilla.
The good news is that the execution of the script is successful enough to keep you from being bothered too much by such nuances. Nothing is distractingly bad, and the script stays focused on the task at hand. Cameron’s strengths as a storyteller have always been in pacing and execution, regardless of content.
The one unique storytelling device is the Avatar concept itself. Cameron employs the body switches to great dramatic effect, creating unique tension and scenarios that keep the viewer as engaged in the goings on of the human components to the story as what’s happening on the surface of Pandora. As such, the viewer is captivated by not only the events the protagonist finds himself in amongst the natives of the planet, but also the unseen circumstances of what’s happening in the ships above the planet’s atmosphere. While it ties in to the overall theme of development versus the cultural preservation of indigenous peoples’, it’s actually one of the few subtle elements that doesn’t beat you over the head with the message of the film.
Which takes us to the main component and greatest achievement of the film: its breath-taking visuals.
The world of Pandora is a visual, technical, and artistic achievement. The special effects are (needless to say) magnificent and the concept of a world that is inter-connected through a worldwide biological nervous system is achieved with wondrous results. Large predators, airborne creatures, horse-like octopeds, plant life, and even tree seeds move with grace and leave the viewer breathless.
As for the alien humanoids, the commercials and trailers for the film do not do them justice. To see them interacting in this world and with the human beings is to see the most convincing alien creatures ever conjured with a pentium processor. More important than their simple physical presentation is how emotionally expressive they are, which in the past has been the exclusive realm of Pixar. What Cameron has struck upon is a truly important lesson: the uncanny valley of CGI may prevent humans from ever being realistically represented, but there are no such rules for alien life forms.
I will admit to some heavy skepticism as it pertains to this film. For several years we’d heard about how it was going to change the movie industry, and that it was going to be like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Cameron’s bombastic nature and tendency towards hyperbole in both his statements and filmmaking (as much a product of the Hollywood blockbuster formula as his own personality) had me dismissive of such claims.
Is “Avatar” a revolutionary film and industry game-changer? Well, yes and no. This film is not going to change the way every film is made. It also cannot take credit for popularizing I-MAX 3D, as the technology has been around and utilized in a multitude of films already.
What it may be able to take credit for is opening the door for future sci-fi epics not only on the technological side of things, but also on marketability and financial possibilities. If one of the most expensive films ever made can become profitable stateside (on top of what it will make internationally and on DVD), then perhaps the industry will not be as hesitant to greenlight and more importantly throw their full support behind such films. I say it may be able to take credit because other recent films, notably “District 9,” have shown that sci-fi can be smart while still entertaining and raking in money at the box office. The contribution of “Avatar” may be that studios need not consider a budget as a deal-breaker.
The one nagging question I have is whether this film will stand the test of time. For now, after first viewing, I’m able to appreciate and praise the film. The problem with films that rely so much on their visual achievements is that copycats and technological advancements will invariably diminish their effect, and the script (while well executed) is not strong enough to hold the film up as a classic on its own.
It may also be hurt by its racial subtext, insomuch as its simple representation and insulting caricatures: tall, athletic, flat-nosed aliens draped in pseudo-African trinkets and voiced by mostly black actors are doomed unless a white man becomes one of them and leads them to their salvation. The film is not as simple as all that, and the intentions of the film are noble. The problem is that it’s racially misguided, and as such becomes something less than empowering. Unfortunately people will, for the most part, fall into two camps: those that read too much into the racial subtext and as a result write off the film’s merits and those that dismiss this and other troubling racial representations in Hollywood as nothing more than liberal buzzkill. The conversation should instead focus on what can be done in future films, in terms of finding a balance between delivering a message while staying true to the nature of such conflicts and showing empowerment from within rather than relying on outside alien influences (white people) to save the day. Fortunately, this will not be as much of an issue because unlike some filmmakers (Michael Bay being a prime example), Cameron is not at his core simple-minded and mean-spirited. He is simply what most people, including myself, are: well-intentioned to a fault.
Writing and racial issues aside, James Cameron is smart enough to know that special effects are simply a means to an end, and that what’s done with them is far more important than how they look. This is the challenge that future filmmakers have ahead of them, and it’s going to be no easy feat to achieve what Cameron achieved with this film.