This film is a calculation-just as each of the four hundred million dollars that was gathered to make it was tabulated, so was each element of this film measured, weighed, and tested for maximum popular reaction. And given the healthy box office this has done, the ploy has clearly worked.
Much has been made of how director James Cameron spent several years building his universe from the ground up. This element of the film is impressive, though no more so than many similarly focused video game franchises. Cameron and his army of technicians have made a world which, while overflowing with details, has no purpose beyond novelty. Cameron’s world gives no insight into the world in which we live, but counter-intuitively makes an argument against the natural world-in order to hold the attention and sympathies of modern audiences, an elaborate simulacra must be constructed from scratch.
Despite fashionable claims of subversive tendencies, Avatar works similarly to the first episode of Roots, wherein a white slave ship driver is suddenly troubled by the immoral nature of his trade. While posing as a ‘courageous’ treatment of a touchy social issue, each in fact works as a balm on the troubled conscience of the American public. The audience is given an easy means of relation to the text-of course they’ll relate more to the troubled white man rather than face the more troubling implications of the more enthusiastic slave trader. Similar tactics were taken in such films as The Power of One and Dances With Wolves. In fact, this film’s main plot, that of an anthropologist-type who becomes so enchanted with the foreign group he’s studying that he joins them and eventually fights against his own social group, a sort of glorified stockholm syndrome, is so similar to Wolves that Cameron’s film might as well be retitled “Dances With Smurfs”.
In Avatar, complicated and ugly affairs that range from ecological destruction to the genocide of the Native-Americans are wrapped into an appealingly simplified package of cliche Joseph Campbell*-isms that were old when Star Wars did them. Every subconscious trigger that could be pulled out is. Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quaritch baits residual American resentment against Nazi/Communist aryan supermen just as Dolph Lundgren did in Rocky IV. The vague romanticized paganism so popularized by various new age groups is on display and the bizarrely Pentecoastal style services of the Na’vi play on the American distrust of science and rationality. The social acceptance younger audiences yearn for is vicariously given to them through the illogical acceptance and eventual social ascendance of Jake Sully in the Na’vi society.
And on top of all of this, Cameron’s vaguely romanticist evocations of a sensual bond with nature reveal themselves to be awkward and downright troublesome when scrutinized. The Na’vi tails, which open up to show a sort of sparkling Fios cable are continually alluded to as being sexual organs (specifically in the scene where Sully consummates his relationship with the female leader of the tribe and when he’s told if he touches it he’ll “go blind”). Yet when Sully domesticates his flying dinosaur creature, the process he goes through to do so then would resemble nothing so much as forced sex with the animal.
The film is immersive and the group I saw it with loved it. This does not, however, make Avatar a good film.