Avatar: The Way of Gorgeous Nonsense
I enjoyed the second Avatar film, as I did the first. They’re the only films I’ve found worth watching in 3D, and they’re gorgeous. Although the new film doesn’t seem like a cinematic improvement over the 2009 film, the first film is so good in that respect that matching its quality is achievement enough.
The themes of the film are . . . shall we say, messier.
For having written an anti-colonial film, James Cameron catches a surprising amount of flak for his white “savior complex” and for his “White people literally transplanting themselves into non-White bodies,” as Jeff Yang puts these points. Moreover, Yang points out, Cameron infuses his fantasy alien world with bits and pieces of real world cultures without perfectly reflecting the reality of those cultures. The nerve!
Meanwhile, Yaron Brook calls the original Avatar film “one of the most evil movies ever made” because of its “anti-man,” “anti-civilization,” “anti-reason” themes. Certainly it is anti-colonialist and harshly critical of the corporation attempting to mine the planet. But I don’t see the film as mainly anti-technology or anti-progress. Rather, the film is against colonialism, oppression of native populations, stealing others’ land, and genocide.
The film does seem to worship “natural” low-technology ways of living and to demonize industrialization. This is ironic, given that the Avatar films are (expensive!) products of extraordinary technologies. How strange to sit inside a theater constructed of concrete, steel, and plastic to watch a film driven by technologies of filming, computing, lighting, and sound and dream about the glories of a life in which a bow and arrow or fishing net is the highest form of tech.
Brook also has a point in that Cameron goes out of his way to concoct ludicrous scenarios by which to portray “big business” as the villain.
NOTE: The rest of this essay contains “spoilers” of the film.
In the original film, people from Earth build astoundingly complex space craft and mining equipment and fly it all over four light years away to a moon that just happens to be inhabited by a sentient alien species—and, indeed, that just happens to itself be sentient—to mine something called “unobtainium,” the value of which the film never gets around to explaining. (Apparently it has something to do with producing energy.)
This premise is just astonishingly stupid. Any civilization capable of operating a mining operation four light years away is not going to need any such operation. It will have long since solved the problem of abundant energy at near-zero cost (say, through fusion or a partial Dyson sphere). Any elements humans need could be mined much less expensively much closer to home, particularly in the asteroid belt.
Even if humans did find something they couldn’t live without that wasn’t closer than four light years away—fat chance—what are the odds that the one thing we need that can’t be found anywhere else in the entire universe is on a sentient moon inhabited by sentient humanoids? Ridiculous.
Yet the new film manages to be even more stupid, if you can believe it. By the second film, humans have forgotten all about unobtanium—guess it wasn’t so important after all—and have instead turned their attention to . . . taking over the moon so as to move the entire human race there. Because, you know, terraforming an alien moon that has no breathable atmosphere (for humans) and that is over four light years away, and then moving the entire human population there, would make more sense than, say, cleaning up Earth, colonizing Mars (right next door!), or constructing O’Neill cylinders.
But wait, there’s more! You see, humans also have discovered that the secret to eternal life just happens to lie in the brain fluids of a whale-like creature on the same moon, and (obviously!) the whale also is sentient, even more intelligent than humans. Only, you see, the whales (with one exception) are ideological pacifists, so they do not use their immense intelligence to kick the shit out of the tiny, relatively stupid humans who can’t even breath the local atmosphere. Instead, they allow themselves to be hunted and killed so that their brain fluids can cure aging in a species of ape that evolved over four light years away. Seriously, I’m not making this up; that’s really what the movie is (partly) about. Maybe you can write that sort of bizarre, nonsensical shit without taking hallucinogenic drugs, but I’m skeptical.
If you just take the film as anti-whaling propaganda, it is effective enough, although Star Trek: The Voyage Home was better in that regard.
Let’s move on to other aspects of the story. Whereas the first film was about the human Jake Sully moving into a cloned Na’vi body and making a new life for himself as one of the Na’vi, the second film as about Sully’s family leaving their forest home and making a new life among a water tribe. So it is again a “fish out of water” story, and, hey, this time they can even ride fish that can fly out of the water.
Also, there’s a human Tarzan boy who lives among the Na’vi (wearing a breathing mask) who just happens to be the son of the human villain who has been reincarnated (through cloning and memory transplants) as a Na’vi. Brilliant. Oh, and there is a fairy girl who can talk to fish and whose fairy wings let her breath underwater. Did I forget to mention that the film also serves as Titanic II? The film is appropriately called “the way of water”; I lost count of how many times it jumped the shark.
Despite it all, the film “works” at an emotional level due to the believable relationships. Sully’s family seems like a real (although blue and cat-like) family, complete with real family problems, however stereotypical. The boys get bullied but eventually win new friends. Maybe the most compelling relationship is between Sully’s rebellious second boy and one of the sentient whales.
As mentioned, the cinematography is absolutely spectacular. If they just released a film with all the great landscape scenes and dragon- and fish-riding scenes from both films, that would be worth seeing in the theater.
The Avatar films are amazing and highly enjoyable if you can swallow their immense stupidity without choking on it. To me (and to many others, apparently), it was worth it.
Thanks for pointing out some of the absurdities. The anti-aging brain fluid was the best. How do you even discover that it has this effect? Was someone drinking it for the taste first? And wouldn't you synthesize it immediately? I too enjoyed the visuals despite some of the silly stuff.