Volume 28, Number 1, Fall, 2009

A splendid triumph of style over substance—Impressions of Avatar

By Anders Monsen

Buoyed by elevated 3D and IMAX ticket prices, glowing reviews (at least when it comes to the visual aspects), good word of mouth, and repeat viewers, director James Cameron’s movie Avatar is now the biggest money-making movie of all time. In second place? Titanic, another Cameron movie, and coincidentally the movie he made prior to Avatar, a distant 12 years ago.

I contributed in part to the success of this movie, in the sense that I spent $16 to see the IMAX 3D version a few days after the official release date. While I tried to see it the weekend it came out, on a Sunday morning, I learned while in line that all shows that day were sold out, and even the Tuesday night showing I went to sold out, though this time I wised up and bought the ticket online. Say what you will about the story itself, science fiction is taken very seriously by the movie-going public. I have heard glowing reviews about the experience from people in Norway and South Africa.

The nearly three-hour-long movie is a breathtaking and an unforgettable experience on the big screen. There were times I felt that the characters and scenery were part of the movie theatre. The action in the second and especially third acts were palpable, visceral. I can honestly say I have never experienced another movie like it. Although other sf movies that may have caused some similar moments exist—the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope, Cameron’s own Aliens, and certainly The Matrix. The future of movies came of age in 2009 — 3D cinema makes going to movie theaters almost attractive again, if not critical in certain instances.

And what of the story itself? Most reviews I have read focus on this dichotomy. Leave your mind at the door. Cameron admitted to picking through every sf story he read and loved while growing up. Grumbles have been made from fans of Poul Anderson, who feel that Cameron ripped his protagonist directly from an Anderson story. Other reviews have mocked Avatar as Smurfs with spears, or Ferngully for adults, or Disney’s Pocahontas in space, or derived from more serious movies like At Play in the Fields of the Lord or The Emerald Forest. Other allusions abound; one review I read mentioned Ursula Le Guin’s story, The Word for World is Forest. Avatar certainly uses the same lack of economic sense as Le Guin’s story (why someone travels six years each way to mine Pandora for rocks when Earth is a barren planet makes absolutely no sense). The similarity may in part have inspired Gary Westfahl at Locus Online to state that “this film is all about Vietnam,” an error that in my opinion ignores that this film is more about the Native American destruction of the 19th century.

All these charges bear some truth, for the story itself is recycled Hollywood stuff. IO9’s Annalee Newitz leveled more serious charges in her review, citing the movie as a racist, white messiah fantasy, something New York Times writer David Brooks echoed Newitz almost thought for thought in his own editorial a few weeks later. Newitz bemoans the fact that Avatar (and movies like Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai) show a culture losing out to white invaders that triumphs only by accepting a white outsider as one of their own. This white male becomes a messiah-like figure giving them the chance to transcend above their own limitations and defeat the invaders. While such an analysis does indeed bear some element of truth, I offer another suggestion: in order to become successful in Hollywood, a movie must appeal to its core audience. The predominant market for action movies when sold to Hollywood producers is the white American male. Thus white “American” males dominate as movie protagonists. In order to explain other cultures, such as the Na’vi, the audience needs a characters with whom they can identify.

Meanwhile the American Right further demeans their association with the ideals of liberty by ripping the film as anti-American because it criticizes war and aggressive economic expansion. At one time conservatives were against intervention while progressives and liberals wanted to force their views onto the rest of the world. How times have changed. The world media slapped the terms cowboy imperialism on Reagan and Bush II out of scorn, but the ardent rush to accept this rude label as a vision of righteousness and God-given power is embarrassing and crude. The most obvious take-away from the success of this movie is not the politics or rehashed plot. These fall apart the moment you start to pick away at their various aspects. Often when someone raises the issue of style over substance this is meant as a dismissive sneer. While indeed the ideas and story are far from original, and I knew as I watched that movie that is was a paint-by-numbers script, Avatar is the kind of movie that makes movie-going such a visceral experience that far too often these days falls short. As an audience we have seen it all. We know all about stuntmen, wires, green screens, and computer CGI. And while we may hunger for compelling story lines as well, leave that to books, at least in this case. The only drawback to Avatar’s success is that Cameron now will be tempted to make sequels and try to come up with some story to redeem the original’s lack of ideas. There’s magic on the screen the moment Avatar opens. Let it remain as such.

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