It’s time I admitted to one of my problems. I have a tendency to get sucked in. I see the writing on the wall, read Nostradamus’ predictions, call Miss Cleo, do a statistical analysis, or whatever metaphor you want to use, and still think the outcome might somehow be different than what it’s obviously going to be. In their song “I’m the Fool,” my favorite band New Found Glory says it best: “I’m the fool who knows your tricks and still they take a hold of me.” Call me Dagny Taggart because maybe I have too much hope in humanity, but my inner contradiction bubbled up again upon the marketing campaign of James Cameron’s latest epic, Avatar.
The advertisements bombarded me daily. It’s in 3D! It has Uhura from Star Trek! It’s in 3D like no movie has been in 3D before! It has Ana Lucia from LOST! It’s in 3D in a way that’s going to revolutionize movie making forever and make 3D the standard to the point that ESPN is making a 3D network! It has Sigourney Weaver! Oh, it has Sigourney Weaver? Sure, no problem, I’ll ignore the writing in favor of the spectacle.
Here’s the problem with that promise: The novelty of witnessing the 3D technology being used to add depth to the picture, rather than having items pop out at the viewer, wore off midway through the first act. I was forced to pay attention to the horrible characterization and plot points. The dumbest person in the movie was the head of the corporation, because we all know you reach the top of a company by being dumb. The meanest person in the movie was the head of security, because we all know the best way to keep things secure is to extort people and use force to impose your will. The most likeable people in the movie were the crippled ex-military guy turned scientist by happenstance, the dorky scientist, the Indian scientist, the head scientist who hates all things corporate because they are diametrically opposed to her ideals, and the pilot who works security for the corporation but eventually sides with the scientists.
Actually, that’s all wrong. The most likeable people aren’t people at all, but the Na’vi, the native race to the planet of Pandora, which is a giant internet. You see, the Na’Vi interface with the planet and its animals using tendrils in their hair. Once connected, they download and upload data in a symbiotic relationship with the mother goddess Eywa. Eywa takes care of them, and they, in turn, respect the planet. All is well in the land of the Na’Vi, which the cripple soon learns.
Ex-marine Jake Sully no longer has use of his legs and is identical to his murdered twin brother, making him the perfect person to take over his brother’s Avatar, a remotely controlled replica of a Na’Vi that you interface with by sleeping. These replicas are necessary because Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans and the scientists want to study and befriend the Na’Vi while the corporation wants to conduct reconnaissance on them with the goal of obtaining a mineral named unobtanium. Yes, it’s called unobtanium, and it can’t be obtained because a Na’Vi tribe lives over where it’s buried.
Predictably, Jake meets the Na’Vi tribe, falls in love with Pocahontas, I mean Neytiri, the tribe’s princess, and identifies more with their race than humans because apparently not being able to walk means you’re no longer human. Eventually, he takes part in all their rituals, learning the superiority of their culture along the way, and leads them to victory over the humans in the climactic third act war.
However, what’s most disturbing about this movie is not the hackneyed writing and regurgitation of anti-humanity pro-environmental rhetoric; it’s the response from the audience. The most common defense of the movie has come to be, “Ignore the writing and appreciate the beauty.” The difficulty here is that statement speaks to a person’s definition of beauty, and to “appreciate” the beauty of Avatar, you must hold a definition of beauty that is impossible and debilitating to yourself. When watching Avatar, I was reminded of Frank Miller’s Sin City or The Spirit. Miller does some interesting things with the cinematography, but his techniques are so alienating that I struggled to identify with anything in the movies and had no desire to see them ever again. Likewise, with Avatar, the bright almost florescent colors made me feel like I was looking at a giant fish tank wondering how boring and depressing life must be trapped in a world where all you’re allowed to do is satisfy your most basic urges.
In contrast, the people who found Avatar beautiful had such an experience because they believed in the superiority of that world to our own. Check out the following article:
“The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don't have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world and that caused them to be depressed."
“When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed ... gray. It was like my whole life, everything I've done and worked for, lost its meaning. It just seems so ... meaningless. I still don't really see any reason to keep ... doing things at all. I live in a dying world."
Avatar is the logical progression of our computer culture. It is the motion picture version of games like World of Warcraft, which was well skewered by South Park, Second Life, and The Sims and social networking platforms like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. These items all serve as proxy for the user, giving him a level of control he doesn’t naturally have so that he’s able do, say, and be things he can’t in reality. Avatar is the motion picture version of this phenomenon, and escalates it to a dangerous level. Not only does it attack human constructs such as culture, but it passes a negative judgment on objective reality, telling its viewers it’s ok to evade and wish the world worked in a way counter to what is logically possible.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy genres have always contained impossibilities of reality, but what makes these elements compelling is they exist within the framework of reality to simultaneously ask us what if and reveal truths. Compare the supposed beauty of Avatar, a jumbled mess of overbearing colors of the completely fictional planet Pandora , to the actual beauty of District 9, an exaggerated reproduction of the real country of South Africa. When you take the metaphysical reality out of these genres, and fiction in general, all you’re left with is intellectual porn. And, truthfully, that is only a disturbing thought to consider because Cameron and company like to pretend Avatar doesn’t belong beside Michael Bay’s vision of Transformers.