Today I took my son and his aunt to see Avatar in 3D. I saw Avatar a few weeks ago, and wanted to see how it looked in 3D. To be honest, while there are some terrific things that the it offers– the night scenes on Pandora are really cool, and some of the flying is terrific– it’s hard to notice the 3D in the big battles– i.e., the entire last hour of the film.
Which is really hardly a criticism. And in other respects, it holds up really well, or is even better the second time. (For all the hype about it transforming cinema, I think it’s just a really good movie, which is good news: when I think of a film that’s not a movie but an “event,” I think of something like Matrix Revolutions.) Cameron is a genius at his craft: as everyone knows by now the film’s cast of characters includes some people we’ve seen before– the Yuppie scum played by Paul Reiser in Aliens, the tough Latina soldier played this time my Michelle Rodriguez– and some of his favorite technology– snub-nosed, mean-looking landing craft, and utilitarian robots that turn out to play a pivotal role in the action. And of course there’s Sigourney Weaver, who does a nice turn as a character who would have probably hated Ripley. I was also impressed again at how many science fiction and fantasy references the movie manages to pack into even three hours: Pandora owes a huge debt to the work of Roger Dean, and the influence of the Dragonrider series is more evident.
I think the film also stands up against the cultural criticism lobbed against it. Some contend that the film is a condemnation of imperialist adventure and displays contempt for white people; others, that it’s an imperialist adventure in face paint, a retread of tired SF tropes, and racist to boot. The right has tied itself in knots. Some of it stretches the bounds of stupidity: Nile Gardiner seems to have completely missed the fact that the military forces on Pandora are mercenaries, not servicemen (a fact that Cameron doesn’t stress enough in my view, but still– if I could catch it, Gardiner should have too– unless we really want to equate mercenary armies and armed services). But commercial reality aside– this is a film rather than a dissertation, and you shouldn’t be surprised when a $300 million film hedges its bets with some familiar elements– the appearance of the trope of the noble savage shouldn’t be any more surprising than the fact that there’s a romantic thread in the movie. That Cameron was trying something as complex as creating a new species pretty much guaranteed that he would end up falling back on some familiar package of metaphors, much as the artists on James Cook’s voyages reflected Enlightenment ideas about non-Western peoples and academic ideas about landscape– even as they tried hard to faithfully represent the scenes and peoples before them. (And arguably there have been far more damaging representations of the Other than one that emphasizes their inherent goodness and capacity for living simply.)
Then there’s the question of how powerful Jake really is. Annalee Newitz’s argument that the movie is an extended essay on white guilt and escapist fantasies privileges race over class: it ignores that Jake is in the situation he’s in because he’s disabled and poor, and that he doesn’t have a lot of power among his own people. He’s useful to the company, but that’s not the same thing as having any influence. And for all of his determination, you get the sense that his disability is always going to leave him on the margins of his own people, the mercenaries whose worth is defined by their ruthless skill and capacity for violence.
Likewise, in movie-world logic, his leading the Na’vi during the war makes sense because he knows the enemy from the inside, even if it stretches the bounds of real-world credulity. (Imagine a high-ranking German defector leading an Allied division at Normandy. Can’t do it? Neither can I. That’s what I mean by movie-world versus real-world logic.) Just as Wikus in District 9 is able to help save aliens because his humanness gets them into places they can’t go alone, Jake isn’t superior in any absolute sense, but useful because he understands humans. And for better or worse, people aren’t as likely to watch a movie in which the main character becomes a bit player when he joins the other side.
Cameron could easily have made the film subtler and more interesting with a couple tweaks. Jake’s relationship with his dead brother kind of disappears 10 minutes into the movie, even though Jake is literally taking over Tom’s body (or avatar) and life. Driving home from the theatre, I imagined what the film would have been like if his video journal had been an imaginary conversation with Tom: it would have opened up some chance for Jake to talk about that relationship, and ultimately to say goodbye in a way he never does in the film. Jake’s relationship to his own damaged human body doesn’t change over time, and by playing up the adventure element of becoming an avatar, Cameron skips over what could have been another motive driving Jake to throw in his lot with the Na’vi. And this time I realized that we never see the Na’vi without Jake, and it would have been interesting to have a couple scenes where Jake’s not a presence: it might have allowed us to see the Na’vi the way they see themselves, and get a sense of them trying to figure him out, just as he’s trying to figure out them. He’s taken in because the tribe’s leader decides they need to understand humans; but we don’t get a sense later on of the Na’vi still thinking about how to deal with humans, until it’s too late.
Still, it’s always easy to wish that the director had made a different movie than the one you saw (I really felt that way about Star Wars: Episode III, and having also watched that again with my son recently, still do.) Nonetheless, I love Avatar. Maybe I’ll see if the IMAX version is any better.