January 16, 2010 | By | 8 Replies More

Okay, so I contributed to the James Cameron Self Love Fund and saw AVATAR. Yesterday we went to the 3-D showing (no way I would spend money on the normal view, I can wait for the DVD the way I do with 99% of the movies I see anymore).  I’ve had a day to think about it now and I’ve come to some conclusions, which are hardly profound, but I think worth saying.

Let me say up front that I wasn’t bored.  Visually, this is a stunning achievement.  But that’s what everyone is saying.  It is, in fact, the best 3-D I’ve ever seen.  Often in the past the effect is minimal and the cost in headache high.  This was neither.  And it fully supported the visuals rather than masking mundane or poor image elements.  Pandora, the planet involved, is magnificently realized.  Cool stuff.  Real gosh wow.

The biology is problematic.  You have a wide mix of lifeforms analogous to Earth.  Some big lumbering critters like hippos or rhinoceri that also have features of a dinosaur, and some small things that are clearly wolves, and one big nasty cat-like thing that’s like a sabertooth tiger.  It’s unclear if any of these creatures are mammalian, but it doesn’t matter much.  Dinosaur analogs.  Most of them apparently four-legged.  But the “horses” the natives ride are six-legged, reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ thoats.  How does that play out in evolutionary terms?  Well, maybe that’s a quibble.

How then do you evolve humanoids out of this?  Well, maybe that’s a quibble, too.  This film is not about science on any level, regardless of the few bits of dialogue suggesting there are, you know, scientists, and that there is a studyable cause to any of this.

Because the story, basically, is hackneyed, cynical, and cliched.  I have to hand it to Cameron, he rips off the best.  Strong elements of Anne McCaffery’s Pern is here, as well as Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and a nod to LeGuin (The Word For World Is Forest), Poul Anderson (Call Me Joe), even Joe Haldeman (All My Sins Remembered).  If I dug through my memories I could probably come up with at least half a dozen more clear “borrowings” all mixed in.  There’s not an original idea in any two minutes.

The plotline, however, is straight out of post-colonial self-loathing and Western angst and while there is much to be mined from that pool that is legimate for drama, its deployment here was purely sentimental button-pushing.  All the triggers were in place, with strong connections to the American Indian, Vietnam, and even a bit of Afghanistan just to bring it up to date.  And it was all thrown into the mix regardless of the logic behind it, which is profoundly flawed.  The few genuinely interesting touches are overhwelmed by the self-righteous indignation Cameron clearly wished to evoke.  We see Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, and Custer’s Last Stand all in service to making a statement about…

The Big Bad Nasty Western Corporate Oligarchy Bent On Destroying Everything To Mine The Last Fragment Of Coal.

In this case, Unobtanium.

Which is somehow worth the cost of an expedition that would bankrupt the planet for the next century.

Which, if we buy the premise that interstellar travel is now practical, would be a pointless exercise in colonial assholery with no upside in terms of profit or prestige, because that one assumption means we’ve solved our energy and resource problems  and the scenario depicted rests upon a 19th Century mindset that would no longer be supportable—just as it pretty much isn’t now.

Which makes AVATAR a rather stupid movie.

Not that there wouldn’t be a way to actually sell this with a little extra work.  With a bit more imagination.  With less desire to beat up on a cultural motif that doesn’t actually need a half-billion dollar 3-D piece of propagandistic hyper sentimentalized derivative schlock movie to achieve.

Very simply posit that these trespassers are rogues.  It could be done in any of a number of ways and actually make a better story.  Not much better, perhaps, but it might be a little less cynical…

Why am I bothering to detail all this?  Because, beautiful as this film is—and it is beautiful—it pisses me off to see so much money dumped into a third-rate piece of hack writing when there are fine artists and projects begging for a little support, who have stories that would benefit the world much more than this dead-end preaching.

End of rant.


Category: American Culture, Culture, Films, Films and Videos, History, Media, Noteworthy, Science

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (8)

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  1. Kevin says:

    First, yes, it's Pocahontas.

    Second, it's a fantasy movie not a science documentary.

    Third, it's supposed to be VERY visual barrier pushing entertainment.

    I love good hard science. I loved this movie. It was great fun and awesome to watch. Therefore it's good entertainment.

    Well done James Cameron.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: Although I have not seen Avatar, I feel your pain. It sounds like Avatar is yet anther in a long line of movies where some of that special effects money should be spent on better script writers. I ranted about this recurring problem here: http://dangerousintersection.org/2009/05/25/sugge

    I simply HAVE to think that Americans are capable of enjoying a well written story, as well as a good special effects movie. But, apparently, the industry thinks that Americans don't want to THINK when they attend movies with lots of visuals.

  3. So Mark, you saw "Pocohontas In Space" and were underwhelmed? It's no wonder. Anyone who spent as much of their youth reading science fiction novels as you and I did quickly saw that it was a "mashup" of many of them.

    There wasn't an original idea in the entire movie…and yet…I found myself having a good time because I realized that it had to be this way.

    This is a watershed movie. The first of it's kind. As Cameron has said in interviews, they pushed the envelope…and it pushed back. To make a technological leap like this takes a LOT of money!

    Cameron knows what he is doing. In order to get this movie made and to make sure that it made back its money it had to appeal to as many people as possible. It had to be a simple, iconic story that seemed familiar, yet new and touched upon well worn themes. Combine a new technology with a story that takes risks and you will lose too many viewers.

    And so I forgave the plagiarism and just enjoyed the movie for what it was because I knew that I was witnessing an advance in filmmaking. There are others waiting in the wings to do crazy, avante garde things with it and take it to the next level.

    That's what I'm waiting for!

  4. Mike (and Kevin),

    I can forgive the plagiarism to some extent. I can't forgive the stupid. When it didn't make any difference to the envelope pushing, they chose to do stupid, which is insulting to the audience (even though most of the audience hasn't and won't notice).

    I enjoyed it, too. I had a good time.

    And then I thought about it.

    Kevin, it wasn't presented as fantasy. It was presented as science fiction. Like it or not, there's a difference. I didn't need a science primer, I needed recognition that the universe operates according to known rules.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: A question for you: My daughters and I are enjoying (really and truly enjoying) episodes of Star Trek Voyager these days. It seems like whenever the ship is in big trouble, they spout some technical language about building some sort of nano-consolidator or a reverse polarity photon torpedo with a high plasma dampener, and voila! The new "device" often works and the crew is saved. It sounds scientific but, of course, we are never treated to the technical details (that is left to B'Elanna Torres, Seven of Nine, Harry Kim or one of the other characters. Because we aren't ever actually treated to the inner-workings of these devices, they do seem the functional equivalent of hocus-pocus. It reminds me of Harry Potter, where something is presented as a "fix" and it just somehow WORKS.

      My question is whether Star Trek (the same issue goes to all of the Star Trek series that have ever been created, from the original Star Trek of the 1960's to the present) qualifies as "science fiction" or whether it is actually of the fantasy genre. In other words, just because it has lots of gadgets and rocket ships, does that make it "science fiction"? What is that dividing line between fantasy and science fiction?

  5. This might seem like a case of special pleading, but it really isn't.

    Star Trek qualifies as science fiction because assumes of materialist universe with cause and consequence in full effect.

    This is not to say it is "good" science fiction. In fact, the technobabble of Star Trek has become a subject of considerable derision, because scripts were handed in with the technospeak parts left intentionally blank by the writers, with a note to "insert tech here." They had people on staff to come up with the gobbledygook then used.

    That ought to disqualify it, but I've gone to some lengths elsewhere to explain that in SF the accuracy of the science is not so much important as an adherence to the idea of science. It the aesthetics of science that matters.

    That said, you still can't just get away with anything. I count AVATAR as science fiction because of this, it's just really bad science fiction.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    The original Star Trek was a B grade production and most of the "futuristic" technology was in the form os simplistically contrived plot devices to keep the story moving by not having to explain how the techology worked.

    Instead of letting big budget special effect carry the show, they concentrated on a type of social commentary story lines that challenged the viewers to think about racism, war, materialism and other isms that the nation faced at the time.

    What gave Star Trek its appeal were the stories it told, not so much how it told them.

  7. Actually, the original Star Trek was one of the most technologically advanced television shows on tv at the time and was quite expensive—they never came in on budget and each show was averaging 300K, which for 1967-68-69 was outrageously expensive.

    They captured the essence of the planetary romance type of SF from the Golden Age, which made it exotic and special—it was also the first real attempt to do adult SF on prime time television. It broke ground in many ways. We've gotten jaded since then.

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