Nowadays, the only reason to watch movies in theaters is to see spectacle. What’s the point of going to see small, domestic melodramas on the big screen? It is reserved for larger than life narratives, characters, settings–like theater for classical Greeks, who loved to see the high and mighty fall, or the arena for decadent Romans, who salivated at the smell of blood. James Cameron’s Avatar delivers one of the most magnificent cinematic spectacle since the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956), or the otherworldliness of Star Wars (1977). The devil is in the details: the ecosystem of its alternate world is richly textured, the color palette pure eye-candy, the fantastic creatures rendered as expressively as Gollum. The blue-skinned Na’vi are an amalgam of postcolonial otherness–Native American Indians/Maasai warriors with panther-like visages. The avatars which allow humans to live vicariously like the Na’vi–in an organic form of The Matrix‘s (1999) virtual reality–represent the final fantasy for the Western frontiersman, i.e., to experience the wilderness like the natives. Avatar, however, is not The Sheltering Sky (1990), nor, for that matter, Another Sky (1954). Here, alterity is quickly reduced (more like bulldozed) to the same.
It seems that Cameron invested all his creative mojo in the CGI and left the story and character development to hacks. Oh, wait, he is the screenwriter! No wonder the plot is titanically derivative. The concept is basically rehashed from the eco-cartoon FernGully (1992) (I think they should sue!), but the tree sap here is thicker with Green and anti-war platitudes. Cardboard-box villains deliver unbelievably coarse lines such as “failure of diplomacy”, “we will fight terror with terror”, “some sort of shock-and-awe campaign”. Give me a break! Spare us the tedious liberal sanctimoniousness. If Cameron had an ear for satire the same lines could have actually been made to be funny, like in the ebullient celebration of fascism of Starship Troopers (1997).
With the perfection of motion-capture technology–which seems to be the (yawn) main point of the movie–perhaps Cameron can pick up a few story-telling tips from ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker (2008)) for his next scifi war flick.
FernGully = Pandora, Fairies = Na’vi, Crysta = Neytiri, Zak = Jake, Hexxus = Col. Quaritch. Hey, there’s even a bat!
Kafkaesque vermins: In Starship Troopers, there is a one world military-industrial government, and the aliens are not peaceful critters of the forest–they are repugnant bugs. In other words, totally “Other”. Does this mean we can completely eradicate them? Ummm… hell yeah!