Random Thoughts on James Cameron’s Avatar

Posted on 22nd December 2009 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

Roger Ebert absolutely loved it, Jim Emerson thought it was totally lame, and io9 has an essay up about it being a recapitulation of the “White Man’s Guilt” plotline. Here are my thought’s on James Cameron’s Avatar:

Uncanny Valley: Doesn’t apply to this movie at all, which was one of my disappointments with it. I wanted to see human beings move seamlessly between CGI and live action, but Cameron wisely avoided attempting this. The Navi are aliens, like LOTR’s Gollumn, they are sufficiently non-human to avoid creeping us out. Failing to attempt CGI humans makes the film significantly less revolutionary to my mind.

Alien life on Pandora: On the one hand, I was disappointed with the numerous earth-referencing aliens: the alien horses, alien lemurs, alien rhinoceroses, dogs, panthers, and such. On the other hand, I appreciated the alien twists on these species: nostrils on their chests, four forearms, and the bioluminescence of the plant life. The closer we look at Pandora’s life, the more alien it becomes in the details. We can clearly see a distinct evolutionary history in Pandora’s life forms’ shared traits.

Clichéd Storyline: Yes, the movie is “Dances With Wolves in space,” but that’s a good thing. It would have been foolishness to try out some experimental storyline with a $250 million budget. George Lucas demonstrated that with The Phantom Menace, a film that avoided all conventional plot devices in a sophomoric attempt at innovative storytelling to become the all-time epic fail of moviemaking ever1.

Deux ex Machina: I believe this is a reference to the “Earth Mother” joining the fight at the film’s climax, as if the hand of god were coming down to thwart the antagonists; however, as a good bit of science fiction, we know that the planet is a living network, with all of its species connected through hubs, similar to several plant species on Earth. Yes, it’s a type of god, but a god with a scientific explanation. “Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial civilization is indistinguishable from god.” If there’s a scientific explanation, then it’s not the hand of god coming down at the end.

Environmentalist Philosophy: I am bothered by the film’s hypocrisy of communicating a message of environmentalism and romanticizing a return to a more primitive time through an incredibly elaborate $250 million dollar fabrication produced by a farm of energy-ravenous networked computer systems. I am also disappointed with the film’s resolution, where the primitives win and the technologically-advanced civilization is sent back to its planet to die. Environmentalism is not a zero-sum game, and a more thoughtful story would have come up with a more sophisticated solution where both sides could have won. This film has an important environmental message; however, it is a useless message for our modern world. If all 6.9 billion of us on Earth gave up our technology and tried to live off the land, we would destroy our planet even more quickly and mostly starve away as a result. In this respect, Avatar is pure pseudo-environmentalist escapism, while the true environmentalists are out building solar, geothermal, and wind power stations to transition our civilization to a less environmentally-impactful lifestyle.

1 I caught some flak for this point on Jim Emerson’s blog, to which I responded:

So Avatar is a good movie because it’s familiar and conventional, while The Phantom Menace is a bad movie because it’s new and unconventional? Sorry, but that doesn’t make any sense. When did writing a new story become “experimental”?

I’ll bite. TPM is a bad movie exactly for being unconventional. By unconventional, I mean George Lucas’ story included three to four protagonists competing for the spotlight, characters so formal and regal only a fanboy could love them, a plot the requires a political wonk to decipher it, and an overly-dazzling ending that tried to tie together four different action plot lines. These are all unconventional in the context of your average American action-theater fare, and they all detracted from what should have been an otherwise enjoyable film. Most people cared less about these failings because the film drowned us in, at the time, revolutionary special effects, but now, with those effects no longer being dazzling, people can see how truly awful TPM was.

Mind you, many of these same attributes have added up to some great filmmaking. Consider David Lynch’s Dune, a sci-fi epic both politically-heavy and filled with formal, regal characters. I and many of my friends consider Dune a fantastic film, but in cinematic history it is considered a spectacular flop. It was unconventional, it was awesome, but it had no mass appeal. What if Cameron had spent his revolutionary CGI effects on remaking such a film?

Now consider Star Wars, which was out and out space opera, knights and maidens in space. Was its story new? Innovative? No. It was a standard, cut-and-paste plotline–but also one with a proven track record. It’s movie making history because it had revolutionary special effects and a soundtrack to present that canned plot in a superiorly entertaining fashion.

Mind you, I’m not saying that it’s a good thing that directors can’t make awesomely-budgeted experimental films, but it’s naive to pretend they have a non-professional-harakiri choice in the matter. James Cameron made a wise choice in hijacking Dances With Wolves, a plotline with proven mass-appeal, as the vehicle for showcasing his special effects innovations. Avatar may not survive and be revered by fanboys the way Star Wars has over the decades, but by playing it safe in his storytelling, Cameron gives his film much better odds towards that end.


  1. Now that I’ve seen the film, it strikes me as — yes — environmentalist escapism, but also and maybe moreso Second Life escapism. For example, the scene where Jake nearly has to be force-fed his breakfast before ‘linking in’. I’m going to go ahead and say we all recognize that effect from the IRC/MUD days :)

    *** mild spoiler alert ***

    I think the contemporary political aspect has been amply covered elsewhere, but I found the tropes of the Na’vi society and Jake’s interaction with them distracting to the point of Jar Jar Binks-ness. Humanoid aliens that speak english? Sure, why not. Alien analogues of earth animals? Hey, as long as you’re going down the humanoid road… But the Jamaican accents and dreadlocks are right on the line, and having the (white, no less) human visitor turn out to be some sort of demigod who personally saves the primitive natives brings up a lot of cultural issues that I doubt Cameron intended.

    And I’m sure he didn’t intend it, but there it was nonetheless. If he wanted a proven plotline, he might have been better off borrowing from The Man Who Would be King.

    Comment by Stacy — December 24, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

  2. Ohhhh… Yeah. “The Man Who Would be King” was a great film, and an old enough one that people wouldn’t be as keen to make comparisons.

    Comment by ideonexus — December 28, 2009 @ 10:04 pm

  3. “Failing to attempt CGI humans makes the film significantly less revolutionary to my mind.”

    I don’t think it would make sense to CGI the humans in the context of this movie. It wasn’t an animated movie, it was a live movie that CGI to generate reality that would have been hard to generate via other means.

    If they had CGI’ed everything, it would be considered an animated movie, and a bunch of people would automatically not go. “I don’t like animation.”

    But it wasn’t supposed to be an “animated” flick, it was supposed to be a live flick, in my mind.

    You might want to try Surrogates. They don’t use CGI, but…. The surrogates [which are actually just people in makeup] look just a bit too perfect, and it reminds me of the uncanny valley effect, even though no CGI was used.

    Comment by ClintJCL — February 4, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.