Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar - (James Cameron, 2009)

That James Cameron’s long-awaited, +12 years-in-the-making, sci-fi extravaganza Avatar is one of the worst films of the year comes as a bit of a shock given the massive amount of hype, innovative filmmaking technology and visual wonderment on display. Make no mistake: the film dazzles, especially in 3D, with elaborate vistas and aerial land masses, particularly in the film’s several action/battle sequences. Nevertheless, the awe of the fictional Pandora wears off rather quickly, given it has not only an incredibly putrid narrative backing, but also a politically retroactive subtext, concurrent with the worst type of racial and political profiling. Essentially, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) becomes part of an indigenous tribe in 2154 called the Na’vi (insipidly close to “native”) through a new form of technology, allowing him to look, walk and assimilate into the population, in search of a precious, valuable rock scattered throughout the land. In doing so, he falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and once he learns of his military’s intent to wipe out the Na’vi and use the land for themselves, sides with the indigenous peoples, leading them into a climactic battle. The entire tone of Cameron’s narrative is problematic; he treats the Na’vi as noble savages, clearly meant to evoke Native Americans through the scenario and their physicality – he allows only black and Native American actors to voice them – and salvages these people only through the endeavors of a fallen white soldier. It’s Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai or any number of early Westerns which treat foreign peoples with such indignity. On top of this, the film has an incredibly anti-war, anti-military agenda. Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) plays like a cartoon modernization of Custer; he has several distinguished scars on his face and vanquishes Na’vi life as easily as he bench presses 300 pounds. No better is his subordinate Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), who spews out lines like “if we throw a stick on their land it’s bound to land on something sacred.” It’s stereotyping of the worst sort; even more insulting, however, is the hard-on Cameron has for military weaponry, aircrafts and badassery. He shoots machine-guns and muscle-bound marines with slo-mo precision, aestheticizing the Military Industrial Complex he supposedly so vehemently opposes. On top of this, the film not once addresses the implications of a world 150 years into the future, especially when its characters speak in such a banal, Bushian manner. Quaritch says at one point: “We’re going to fight terror with terror.” This kind of familiar rhetoric makes a geekish, sci-fi mockery of a serious discussion on war, as this year’s The Hurt Locker, Brothers and The Messenger have so eloquently done. The irony punches Cameron square-in-the-jaw, but he misses it; he’s made a film utilizing the most innovative technology available, with a narrative whose political and racial understandings are positively retroactive and nonexistent. In addition, the film bores. Sequences lag on as Cameron lingers on Pandora's beauty and, thus, lingers on himself. His fascination with the Na’vi’s tribal rituals and his own made up world makes any coherent allegory instantly dissipate. Is the film a sci-fi retelling of The New World and, if so, what does that mean? Is it meant to say something about the human cost of wartime practices? Avatar is too busy painting a pretty picture to be concerned with such adult questions.

* out of ****

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