This paper is a brief analysis of James Cameron's Avatar, a massivelysuccessful film that has managed to gross, so far, a half billion in revenue. Withits popularity and mass appeal, it has also incurred a considerable amount ofcriticism from a variety of sources, targeting a variety of topics of the film,from its presentation of alien natives and a colonial corporate military, to raceissues and a depiction of cigarette use. This essay attempts to explore mainthreads of the film, analyzing criticism, and offering its own critique anddeconstruction. It will employ diagnostic critique, as well, in order to analyzehow Avatar is equally a reflection of and an active influence on contemporaryculture.Avatar takes place in the virtual world of Pandora, created by Cameron withdigital technology and colonized with fantastic creatures and an indigenous raceof tall blue aliens called the Na'vi. The film is presented in three-dimensions, atechnology that has been around for some time but this is the first time it seemsto be used without reference to novelty. In this way Cameron and Twentieth CenturyFox made a film, or rather an experience, that cannot be pirated; a considerableamount of its revenue is from viewers paying extra to watch it in threedimensions, undoubtedly multiple times, on a monolithic IMAX screen.The virtual world within Avatar is closely reminiscent of virtual spaces likeSecond Life; in both environments, individuals use avatars to plug into the space,roam around, and act in pure virtuality. Cameron's avatar takes a step further,and is able to fully transfer his consciousness into his secondary being, gettingrid of his fragile and disabled body in the last moments of the film. This nexusbetween body and avatar, real and virtual spaces, is present in Avatar despite thefact avatars and humans, the fantastic and the technological, occupy the sameplane of existence.Avatar adopts and reinterprets a variety of film genres and styles. One ofthem is the cowboys versus Indians narrative, although it is ideologically similarto John Ford's The Searchers than the classical Western. Avatar is undeniably aproduct of post-colonialism: it casts the Na'vi as the relatively harmless yetenvironmentally respectful indigenous population, while the humans are a corporatemilitary who left their dying planet to mine the resources of Pandora. The filmpresents an anti-militarism narrative, portraying the soldiers as cruel, violent,and brainless brutes, intent in only chasing the company dollar and perpetuatingthe myth of the resolute warrior. All of them are males, except for a femalehelicopter pilot, who ultimately defects to the good side after rejecting violentaction against the native population.Gender in Avatar is a topic fairly unmentioned by critiques, but it deservesmention. The main character, Jake Sully, is a male Marine; due to his status as aprotagonist, and his avatar, he is able to negotiate between the masculinemilitaristic and corporate structure and the more feminine sphere of science andnature. The main scientist is played by Sigourney Weaver; it is her cigarettewhich is the subject of some of the less relevant attacks on the film. As abiologist, she is more interested in gaining samples from Pandora and interactingwith its natives in a pedagogical role than Sully approaches the world in naivewonderment, playfully touching and punching his way through. In a way, he is theavatar of the audience, guiding them through the world, and learning about it asthey do. His guide within the film is a female Na'vi; Sully enacts machoantagonism with the male Na'vi, which are presented as militaristic, vengeful, andquick to action.Not only is Sully and his avatar initiated into the tribe, but he quicklybecomes the most capable of them. This narrative is reminiscent of the films TheLast Samurai and Dances with Wolves, and is often described as the "white savior"theme, where a member of the dominant race, often rejected by his own kind, provesto be the best subaltern. At one point the Marine commander asks Sully (who areboth white men): "How does it feel to betray your own race?" In the end, asmentioned before, Sully chooses to permanently change species, which is epitomizedby a more conservative critique as the myth of being able to change races within a
Published by The Massie Twins
Release Date: December 18th, 2009 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: James Cameron Actors: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez
vatar” is what a blockbuster should be. Stunning visual effects, explosive action, dauntless heroes, and dastardly villains all collide in a classic, albeit overused, storyline (think “Dances with Wolves” but with tall blue aliens and flying dragons). The level of detail and creativity surrounding the look of director James Cameron’s new world is simply astonishing – from the colorful fauna lining the forests to the gargantuan beasts that inhabit them. Even the slender humanoid “Na’vi” designs quickly reveal their genius; and the numerous military machines provide plenty of awe. Seeing the film in 3-D is the icing on the cake as it further focuses the viewer on the incredible visuals that already dwarf previous efforts in mimicking realism. In fact, it’s these nearly faultless CG effects that allow one to so easily accept a world full of floating mountains, stingray dragons, and giant blue natives. Some will argue that it wasn’t worth the wait (it’s been 18 years since Cameron’s last entry in the science-fiction genre) – but the visuals definitely seem ahead of their time.
When his brother is senselessly murdered, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora (the year is 2154 and, for some odd reason, he’s in a standard hand-operated wheelchair). There, he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge’s (Giovanni Ribisi) intentions of driving off the native humanoid “Na’vi” in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na’vi people with the use of an “avatar” identity. Essentially, he controls the avatar creature with his mind, inhabiting it as if it were his own body. As Jake begins to bond with the local tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand – and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora.
“Avatar” is certainly not a great film, but the elements of technology generously scattered throughout are of the absolute grandest ever seen in motion picture. From the spacecrafts floating in the sky to the dropships entering the atmosphere to the forest-covered planet Pandora to the massive machinery mining the earth, “Avatar” spares not a single detail. No background creature, flying jellyfish, monstrous dragon, or slender blue alien is without the most impressive, jaw-droppingly lifelike computer graphics imaginable, giving it that extra bit of utter realism. Most blockbusters are disappointing when they’re nothing but special effects, but “Avatar’s” visual imagery and computer animation are so beyond anything seen before, so technologically advanced, and so colossal in scale that it would have been unsatisfactory if it was anything but 99% CG.
The acting could be better, the dialogue is stale, and the character designs stink of “Aliens'” Colonial Marines. Cameron has recycled the power loader as well, even after the “Matrix” trilogy used it for the APU hydraulic power suits, and the primitive, aboriginal humanoid Na’vi don’t shout of originality. The plot resembles the basic storyline of the last several animated science-fiction features: “Planet 51,” “Battle for Terra,” “Delgo,” “Kaena: The Prophecy,” and even “District 9” or “Fern Gully.” It can also be compared to every other fish-out-of-water, “Romeo and Juliet” patterned script, with a lead character who realizes the adversary isn’t the real villain, and with allies who make the alien the enemy to justify stealing their stuff. But with the indescribable amount of graphics and the unbelievably epic scope of Cameron’s return to his best genre, the uniqueness of the story barely even matters. “Avatar” is an achievement in computer imagery so mind-bogglingly futuristic and stunningly beautiful that it demands to be seen on the big screen, in 3D, and more than once.
– The Massie Twins