Monthly Archives: December 2010

James Cameron, Part II: A Critique of Avatar

By Nathanael Griffis

I sat down to watch Avatar on DVD with an attitude similar to the one I had opening night in the theater: I really wanted to like it. I wanted it to be the sprawling epic that forever changes the fantasy genre. I wanted to feel the way I felt watching The Lord of the Rings. After it ended, my reaction was similar to my reaction a year ago: I was surprised. The first time, I had been dazzled by the fully realized world but had felt the story fell flat. This time, I still think the visual effects are the best yet, but I also have to give the story more credit. This is a flawed movie, but not in the way it is frequently criticized.

Stephen Lang, going to get some Jujubes during a brief hiatus in shooting.

I have heard complaints about the performances and the lack of depth in the characters. My second viewing provided evidence to the contrary. The performances are staggering, especially Zoe Saldana and Stephen Lang. Everyone in the cast, with the exception of some nameless soldiers or minor Na’vi characters, is at the top of their game. Sam Worthington (as Jake Sully) proves he can hold a movie on his shoulders. The moments when he sits down for his video journal are some of my favorite scenes in the film, because they remind me of the dichotomy of his life. Stephen Lang (as Colonel Quaritch) adds depth to a character that probably does not deserve such consideration. He makes a one-dimensional jingoist into something more and delivers the best line in the movie: “They will eat your eyes for Jujubes.” He oozes determination and sick pleasure in accomplishment and violence. Zoe Saldana (as Naytiri) is reminiscent of Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings–not up to his level, but close. She gives that CGI character a physical emotive presence that makes you believe it’s not fantasy.

Admittedly, they should have brought arrow-proof helicopters.

I’ll cover the visual effects in Part III of this series, so I only want to say here that Avatar does hold up in the home theater. Avatar‘s largest flaw, or at least the most frequently referenced, is that it rips off a lot of other films. The story is derivative to some extent, but derivation of a story is not an issue. It is essential to the Joseph Campbell monomyth which Avatar follows almost to a T (although I will admit that allusions in names like “Pandora” and “banshee” gets distracting.) The issue with Avatar is that it doesn’t have enough substance to match its incredible style. What is particularly egregious about it is that the potential for thematic depth is there. If only Cameron had been more derivative of Dances with Wolves, he might have gleaned that the beauty of that film is in challenging viewers’ ideologies about cultural morality.

Cameron modeling the complex method-acting technique of sitting for Sam Worthington.

Much of Avatar‘s thematic heft rests on Jake’s dilemma in having to choose between the indutrual/capitalist human society and the natural/communal society of the Na’vi. On paper, a paraplegic soldier having to struggle with living a false life inside a virtual body and then slowly converting over to the virtual life as he loses his grip on reality is amazing, because we, as the audience, should struggle along with him. The first half of the film utilizes this struggle excellently. Jake gives schematics of the Na’vi home tree over to the army as he goes native. The scene where Colonel Quaritch rips the real Jake Sully out of his Avatar at the end is a welcome reminder of the struggle. The weakness with the story is that by the end the struggle is only a reminder. I wasn’t as engaged with Jake as I was when he first started exploring the world and the decisions he had to make. Cameron does not challenge us with Jake’s decision to reject humanity; he decides for us. At the end of the film there is no chance that Jake has chosen wrongly. I felt cheated, and perhaps this is why people harp on how derivative it is. Instead of inspiring original conflicts of thought within our own psyches, Jake’s climactic decision merely reminds us of issues we’ve seen raised in previous films. A climax can make or break a film. All the material surrounding Jake’s decision to “go native” is stirring, but his actual decision is made too flippantly, and so the climax is wasted.

On the whole, Avatar is wonderful and deserves a place in film history as a great fantasy film, but in Cameron’s canon it lies on the bottom alongside True Lies, or maybe right above it. The action is great, the acting is better than most think, and the special effects are a historical tentpole. The story does not deserve as much criticism as it receives, but the presentation of the story betrays a glaring lack of trust in the audience.

–Nathanael Griffis