Yesterday being the first Saturday since August with no football games to watch, and the new crop of films being relatively uninspiring, my wife and I decided to take in an Avatar matinee at the nearest IMAX. We arrived an hour early and were the first in line — didn’t expect that — but then the show ended up being sold out anyway, as did the show after ours which was listed as ‘sold out’ on the ticket board when we walked out. There were no other sellouts in the complex.
I was struck before the show began by the makeup of the audience. It skewed older than any movie I’ve been to in a long time. There were plenty of couples in their 50’s. There were at least a half dozen groups which appeared to be a forty or fifty-something person who had brought one or both parents. The most touching (somehow) was a guy who himself was at least 65, escorting in his very shake 85 year old mother and father who obviously hadn’t been in a movie theater for decades. I could just imagine the conversatons that had led to these outings: “Mom, I know you haven’t been in the theater in decades, but this is something you just have to see,” I’ve had the same impulse with my own mom and my very dear 92 year old Uncle Arther, who introduced me to Sci-fi. But they’re in Florida and I’m in California so it’s not practical.
Watching the movie a fourth time was relaxing … I’m a film-maker so I’m used to watching films I’m involved in making so many times you lose count during post production, and the tendency is to use a particular viewing to focus on certain aspects of the film rather than the total experience. During this viewing I found myself dissecting the rich visuals, lingering on small things such as the minor details of the Na’vi trappings, and appreciating James Horner’s score.
A Curious Difference Between the Film and Screenplay
I also had a lot of the backlash criticism in mind and this caused some moments to jump off the screen, such as when Jake Sully arrives on Pandora and rolls down the ramp onto the tarmac at the mining camp. Here’s how Cameron describes it in the screenplay:
A huge TRACTOR, taller than a house, ROARS past on muddy
wheels. He notices something sticking in the tires —
ARROWS. The neolithic weapons are jarring amid all the
advanced technology. Beyond the tractor, two VTOL vehicles take off. Armored and
heavily armed, they are AT-99 “SCORPION” GUNSHIPS.
MITSUBISHI MK-6 AMPSUITS — human operated walking machines 4
meters tall — patrol the perimeter. They are heavily
armored, and armed with a huge rotary cannon called a GAU-90.
Beyond the outer fence stands a black wall of forest hundreds
of feet high. It is an armed camp in a state of siege.
Interestingly, in the screenplay there is no voiceover for this moment — but in the finished movie Jake Sully’s voiceover says something to the effect: “Back home they would have been fighting for love and country; here they were in it for the money, hired guns for the corporation.” Now having gone through advance screenings and gotten notes from viewers — my take on this is that Cameron didn’t have these lines in mind when he shot the scene, but discovered there was audience confusion about whether the military depicted on Pandora was a mercenary army hired by the corporation, or was the US Army sent their to protect American interests. He probably felt this bit of dialogue cleared it up; but the problem is that all of the imagery is just too “US Military” — the uniforms, the fact that every single soldier who speaks is an American — not a single foreigner — and the leader is called “Colonel Quaritch” which, if you pay close attention, you understand that he’s a retired ex-Marine, not a current colonel (kind of a colonel like ‘Colonel Sanders’–a lifetime rank). So my thought here is that Cameron did try to defuse the “this is anti-US Military” backlash before it happened by inserting a line of dialogue, but it doesn’t quite get the job done. To defuse that line of attack he should have thought about it in advance and made sure that the soldiers were multi-national, the uniforms weren’t quite so clearly US military, and done other things visually and within the story to make it clear these aren’t official US “boots on the ground”.
The “It’s Racist” Criticism
I also found myself thinking about the backlash that the film is racist because it takes a white human to rally the Na’vi and overcome their oppressor. I’ve written about this previously, making the point that Jake Sully does not attempt to become a leader of the Na’vi until it becomes clear that his specialized knowledge of the enemy (humans) uniquely suits him to act as the leader. It is not a deficiency of Na’vi culture that only a white man can improve; it is rather that only a white human can know the minds and plans of the humans who are bent on the Na’vi’s destruction. And thinking about this, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. Those who have seen the film (and I have to assume that most readers have either seen it by this point or are not going to see it, so I won’t worry about spoilers) know that when the time comes for Jake Sully to lead the Na’vi, he does so by becoming “Turuk Maktao” — the man who tames and rides the huge “Turuk”, something only 5 Na’vi in history have done. And at the end, after a great moment that will live in cinema history: “And the aliens went home to their dying planet” (speaking of the humans being sent home by the Na’vi), Jake, in his final video log, says “The time of great sorrow was over; Turuk Maktao was no longer needed” — and we see the turuk flying off into the sunset. Then we see Jake being carried like a child for his “birthday” — the moment when he will discover whether he can join the Na’vi as more than a human in an Na’vi body.
A Pop Culture Phenomenon
Finally, I found myself pondering yet again how it is that this film has captured the global imagination and why this infuriates certain segments of the literary and film elite. I kept thinking about the difference between a pop culture phenomenon like Avatar, and higher and more sophisticated art. It seemed to me moreso than ever before that Cameron’s genius is in detecting the mythic story elements that resonate deeply across the broadest possible audience, then fashioning a story around it, and then finally — executing it to a level that is unparalleled by any other dreamweaver. In the aftermath of viewing it, I came across an excellent piece in the Financial Times by Peter Aspden that says much of what I was thinking — perhaps doing a better job of it than I could. Aspden writes in his excellent piece entitled Simply Out of This World:
To deride it for its lack of subtlety or the deficiencies of its script is spectacularly to miss its point: like criticising the lyrics of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, or complaining that you can’t dance to the late piano sonatas of Beethoven. There are certain works of art that magnificently achieve all that they set out to do; and others, rarer still, that radically change the direction of their very art form. Avatar does both……….This is, contrary to negative notices, far from a flaw. If those early Beatles singles of the 1960s, the true flowering of mass culture, taught us anything, it was that art could address simple themes with great simplicity, and still be artful. It was the role of the great Beethoven sonatas to remind us that life was a rich and infernally complex business; it took “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to remind us that its giddiest joys were rooted in the most basic pleasures. Popular culture took off from this premise, and achieved mighty things over the succeeding half-century. Avatar is in this tradition. It, too, addresses a simple theme – the destruction of a planet through greed – that has contemporary resonance. It places a love story at the heart of its message. It fulminates against avarice and spite, and favours the slow, painful business of open communication in good faith with alien cultures. It is breathtaking in its political correctitude: its male lead is in a wheelchair; its three strongest characters – the sage, the warrior and the boffin – are all women. My nine-year-old daughter came out of the cinema glowing with pride in her gender. If we had been to see the science fiction sensation of 1977, she would have wanted to be a winsome princess with a flowing white dress. That is what is known as progress.
. . .
It all seems reasonable enough; yet Avatar is attacked from a multitude of different directions. Those of a liberal intellectual persuasion hate it because it is ostentatious, simplistic and cost an obscene amount of money – anything from $300m to $500m – to make. Anti-capitalists hate it because of the obscene amount of money it is already making back at the box office – $1.6bn worldwide, and counting.
The religious right is in a frenzy because it doesn’t respect traditional values. On the Movie Guide website (“A family guide to movies and entertainment”), a reviewer scorns the film’s eco-message: “The problem with life on earth is not Capitalism it is the wickedness of human nature,” it froths. “The cure for this is not found in hugging a tree … If you want the truth, read the Bible.” In China, the film has been pulled from 2D cinemas (thereby limiting its supply, because there are so few 3D screens in the country) for fear, perhaps, of its potentially subversive message.
As if its political opponents were not enough, the film is under attack from more bizarre antagonists. There are those who are worried about the reported bouts of depression suffered by young people who fall in love with the Na’vi way of life and cannot adapt back to life on earth when they leave the cinema. And then, and this seems positively old-fashioned, there are the little boys and girls who feel sick because of the film’s 3D effects, bless them.
All this bluster is partly hype, but also indicative of the film’s strengths. It presses buttons. It gets under the skin. It irks critics because of the apparent contradiction between its formal majesty and the thinness of its message. But Cameron, self-styled king of the world, the geek who spent his youth sketching Etruscan helmets in his local museum, has shown a consummate understanding of his art form. He has created the mightiest work of art of the new millennium.