in movies, reviews

I re-watched Avatar

Star Wars: The Force Awakens recently passed Avatar at the box office to become the number 1 domestic grossing film of all time. Upon hearing this news, a lot of people had the same reaction: “Avatar was the #1 grossing film of all time? Oh yeah…”

Listeners of the /Filmcast will know that we’ve been discussing Avatar for a few months already. Specifically: how could a film rapidly become the highest grossing film of all time and leave absolutely no cultural footprint? (Side note: hundreds of people have already sent me the link to Scott Mendelson’s piece on this topic. If I get it one more time, I fear I may have a Col. Miles Quaritch-esque freakout. That’s an Avatar reference, for those of you who have no idea what the characters’ names in Avatar are).

Awhile ago, a listener gifted me an Avatar Blu-Ray, and after all the Avatar conversation recently, I felt I should revisit the film. So yesterday I popped in the disc and tried to see it through fresh eyes. Here are a few of my reactions:

In my opinion, the CG still holds up – James Cameron pioneered some pretty amazing filmmaking techniques for this film, which allowed him to use/position a camera as he would in a conventional filmmaking environment but see a reasonable approximation of the final product on-the-fly. This allowed the film to “feel” like it was being shot with actual cameras on Pandora, with the weight movement that those cameras would bring to a real-world shoot. Moreover, while the world of Pandora is very clearly CG and a bit too shiny/clean to look totally photorealistic, the blend between the practical and the CG elements felt really seamless to me. And what never gets lost are the characters’ emotions. Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) is still this movie’s best special effect.

Everything is great except Na’vi Sigourney Weaver. She creeps me the hell out.

James Cameron still knows how to direct action like nobody else – The final hour of this film is a spectacular series of set pieces, with the destruction of Home Tree, the battle between the Na’vi and the marines, and then Quaritch’s final face-off with Jake Sully. Great sense of geography, pacing, and stakes throughout. Awesome action choreography.

 James Cameron is not subtle – The Na’vi’s connection with the forest is not just metaphorical. It’s LITERAL. As in, there’s actually a neural network IN THE ACTUAL PLANET. Oof.

The Avatar Blu-Ray is terrible – Remember when Blu-Rays used to force you to stream special features? Because they might get updated in the future? Yeah, me neither. Awful.

 The arc of the whole movie is just bizarre – It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that Avatar is an allegory about white people and Native Americans. The film invites us to relive the colonization of America, only this time, from the POV of the natives. And as Sully and the Na’vi brutally ruin and kill the appendages of the American military in the film’s final set piece, we as the audience are invited to cheer them on. It all just felt very…weird.

I was reminded of Annalee Newitz’s great piece about how Avatar and the fantasy within it is a distinctly “white” fantasy:

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

I remember seeing The Last Samurai and how that was a movie about someone who not only adapted to the ways of the samurai; he mastered them. The same happens in Avatar. Jake Sully doesn’t just barely squeak in as a member of the tribe; he rides Toruk to victory, which is considered one of the greatest honors and almost an impossible feat within Na’vi culture.

What does it say about white culture that it seems to be the only culture producing these kinds of narratives about redemption via assimilation into and mastery of other cultures? The film made me wonder. (P.S. If there’s, say, an Asian film about a guy who not only becomes assimilated into white culture but a master within it, leading a bunch of whites into victory, please let me know).

James Horner’s score is still beautiful – Still love the work of this brilliant man. RIP.