Wednesday 18th October 2017,
Televisual

Breaking Down “Avatar:” Going Native

It’s probably too much to ask that the script for a film like Avatar be as extraordinary as its visuals. Avatar is visually stunning; the 3D is seamless — Cameron doesn’t do what most directors do and throw a bunch of things at you, which can ruin the sense of realism. The colors are brilliant. The world is scrupulously drawn. You feel transported. I basically forgot the whole thing was CGI.

Will it do well? I’m not sure! Certainly Titanic burned slowly, amassing solid numbers for months (remember it opened at a mere $28 million, and went on to gross 20 times that domestically, then double that internationally.) It’s all going to depend on word of mouth. My midnight screening was overwhelmingly male — and immature, laughing at every sentimental moment — though they loved it in the end. The film has work to do with women. And the sticker price doesn’t help.

What about the writing though?

Dialogue: It isn’t the sharpest. Cameron uses a vlog motif — Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) narrates the first half through videotaped diaries. It’s an old narrative trick I found particularly unworthy of a film of this caliber. Some of the lines are less than inspired. Good dialogue is rare in sci-fi.

Colonialism: All the classic dynamics are here. The natives don’t wear clothes and are tied to the “earth” (actually Pandora) — literally. The white people have guns. The want to dominate and destroy the land, and they don’t care about the native culture. I found myself wondering why the natives had to be so “native-y,” though I applaud Cameron for making them rounded enough to not be stereotypical or grating. That’s hard to do.

Technology: Avatar tries to upset these cliché through the “avatar” motif. Scully can transport himself into a native through a fancy machine. It’s a shame Avatar came out the same year as District 9, which basically did the same thing. Either way, the techno story is a good addition to the narrative. It leads to some interesting, if well-tread, places, particularly in conjunction with the film’s themes on ethnicity and cultural difference.

Cross-Racial Unity: I tend to like narratives of cross-racial (here, cross species) understanding. In Avatar, Cameron tries to imagine how the “oppressor” could understand and align with the “oppressed.” It largely succeeds on this note, though I didn’t feel terribly blown away by it — the love story is nice. It seems to me this is the central question of Avatar, which why I’m surprised most people are focusing on the environmental aspects.

Environmentalism: I guess  it’s the climate change talks occurring right now in Europe. Either way, the environmentalist narrative here is pretty strong, a Tolkienesque motif of nature v. machine (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, where the Ents battle Saruman). Anyway, in Cameron’s universe all living things are connected — can literally connect biologically to one another — so cutting down one tree hurts everything. It’s an appealing and potentially potent idea.

All in all, I found myself more in awe than in love, but I suppose that is to be expected. Even in Titanic, a more heartwarming film, cinematic grandeur chips away at its emotional core. I certainly enjoyed spending time in Cameron’s world, lush and magical as it was. The virtuoso Avatar didn’t win my head or my heart, but earned my respect, while capturing a bit of my imagination and sense of idealism. That’s enough.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

3 Comments

  1. Derek Lee McPahtter December 19, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    I agree. I really did enjoy Avatar very much. It was a great experience and I was immersed in the overall world, moreso than the story or characters.

    I don’t know that the love story is all that central of the question here. I think the central issue isn’t really a question, its a statement: western/modern culture is driven by a very harmful insensitive resource-lust. Therefore we oppress. we kill mother earths.

    True, the romance/relationship is the device that gives the narrator/protagonist a deeper connection to the world, but it’s only specific to that character. The “good” scientists are already attempting to forge a better relationship at the beginning of the movie. They all fail. Why? Because of human resource-lust.

    So the answer to the question of “race-relations” is already answered. we don’t need the love-story to ask it. It’s just another way to get exposition into the movie. Instead of the vlogging, now the girlfriend can explain some stuff too.

    We can tell the invasion is coming for the ore, and its pretty clear our hero is going to fight alongside the blue people eventually. He’s fighting for the people though, not really just his one true alien love.

    It’s not really like Titanic where the two lovers are desperately trying to get back together…

    On the same note, the love story wasn’t particularly unique or creative. pretty standard fare. So that might be why its getting less attention than the environmental stuff, which is pretty innovative, as tent-pole movies go. and we are ready to like it. it looks cool.

    there are of course, plenty of predecessors to this film. from colonialism/oppression films like Dances with Wolves, to dozens and dozens of sci-fi works…Orson Scott Card and Ursula LeGuin both have novels which work on similar territory, but with much more compelling narrative results. But they aren’t this movie, so oh well.

  2. Palma Haislett April 22, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    I love the Avatar 3D movie, particularly the story line, not solely it brings a completely new sensation however eye opening ideas of humanity. I heard the New Avatar 2 is comming soon, can’t wait to see it again…!