Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart crawl out of their Netflix envelope-insulated dens and find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are touching tentacles. This week they use James Cameron’s Avatar to infiltrate and sabotage blockbuster and prestige pic politics.
Hiya, Ben! You’ll notice from my chipper greeting that I’m in a good mood, and that’s because I liked Avatar! Even if that means I’m “basically a tween”. I think it’s wickedly subversive that the number one movie ever (not adjusted for inflation, thus meaningless) is about a marine who rejects the American Army and joins up with The Terrorists. Because, obviously, that’s what the film’s tall, blue tribesmen are; Cameron makes the allegories blatant, with the American contractors harvesting an energy source from lands occupied by indigenous peoples unimpressed by the occupiers’ school-building efforts. (Well, there are parallels to the American Indian genocide, too, natch.) When the Earthlings destroy the Na’vis’ “Hometree” (groan), it evoked the felling of the Twin Towers, driving home the suggestion that the Americans are “terrorists,” too.
I understand the skeptics’ points: that Avatar’s anti-corporate politics are unconvincing, as it is itself a multi-million dollar corporate product, bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch. And that, as a colleague put it, “it’s pro-terrorist by convenience, so it can be a triumphant underdog story.” But mega-grossing blockbusters are going to be made anyway, as you and I are too painfully aware, so why shouldn’t we be happy when one has a quasi-responsible ideology informing it—after so many that didn’t—even if it’s accidental or superficial? Of course, Avatar also has a distrust of institutions and a faith in the (reckless) individual, which is itself a form of conservatism—as well as a director indulging in self-aggrandizement. But whatever; I’ll take what I can get.
This story’s been told before; many have noted the obvious parallels to Dances with Wolves, or not-as-obvious movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Metropolis; A.O. Scott draws enlightening comparisons to District 9 and Daybreakers, among others. (And then there’s Matt Bateman’s viral
book film report that posits the film as Pocahontas rewrit in deep space.) But we have to expect Archetypal Stories to come with super-budget films; otherwise they wouldn’t clean up overseas like they do on our own shores. Clichés cross cultures. What sets Avatar apart, of course, is its visual sense. This is an awesome movie in the literal sense (maybe the figurative, too), from Pandora’s nocturnal lavender luminescence to its fantastical wildlife, based on the creatures Cameron encountered during his underwater adventures in the interim between this film and Titanic. Avatar is a glorious spectacle whose splendor is on a par with Jurassic Park—except, instead of recreating lost history, it revels in imagined futures (or, the recesses of fantasy; the aesthetic of Cameron’s reality has only a tenuous connection to our own.)
And then there’s the 3D! I know a lot of people aren’t buying this new 3D fad, but I sure am. Traditionally with 3D, the screen too often served as a surface from which images extended outward for a gimmicky jolt; but more and more, when used best (as in Coraline), 3D is being used to transform the screen into a window, as though onto a stage, creating a tangible sense of depth, for which those who create mediated images have been striving for decades, right? (Well, read my linked-to-above essay on 3D.) Once directors get the hang of it—it seems to work better in longer takes, with characters and objects moving away from the camera rather than towards it—I think it will be a valuable tool for enhancing the storytelling experience. Of certain films, anyway—like this one!
Anyway, back to the story: those other movies to which Avatar has been compared weren’t released during The War on Terror, which is what makes this particular story so delicious right now. This here’s a very zeitgeist-y movie, Ben, in more ways than its terrorism allegory. When I first read the reviews back in December, it sounded to me like Avatar was a movie about movies, specifically about spectatorship, with a wheelchair link back to Rear Window. But upon seeing it, I realize I was off; at first, I thought it wasn’t movies, it was video games: after synching/linking up, humans control Avatars—and Na’vi control horses and dragons—the same way we control Super Mario. But even that’s not really getting it; Avatar is about every facet of the Digital Age, from movies and games to the Internet: notice the way the natives can upload memories to, and download them from, Pandora’s trees. Avatar imagines a future of computers as biological objects, a bit of rabid technophilia, in line with the technology used to produce it, to counter its ode, otherwise, to a simpler way of tribal life. It’s not the lefty politics that are driving Avatar’s ticket sales; they’re more of a bizarre coincidence in our Tea Party age. Rather, the film envisions the digital future, Ben, and allays our fears that it’ll be like another franchise touched by Cameron: Terminator. That’s why it’s selling so many tickets—maybe?
Henry, you liked Avatar so much that you deserve your very own Na’vi name, and thankfully (obviously) the internet has made a Na’vi name generator—you can also Avatar-ize yourself. Hereafter you will be Nakaryu and I am Tzenzka, the names given to us by the planet-sized super-consciousness Eywa, which is sort of like Avatar’s organic version of the original Transformers’ mecha-orb Unicron (voiced by Orson Welles in his last, greatest performance), or even Star Wars’ Death Star. I’m surprised that in your very generous survey of all the things that make Avatar super-awesome (which, to be fair, it is pretty awesome) you left out its environmental politics.
Maybe that’s because despite being crunchy and granola at first—strip-mining, bulldozing forests and chopping down thousand-years-old trees are all portrayed as just about the worst things we could be doing to Pandora after destroying our own unseen planet—there’s a slightly terrifying implication to the planet’s sentient inter-species network. As we find out in the final battle—which was made using shots from Apocalypse Now retrofitted with 3D and distorted colors, right?—Pandora doesn’t need environmentalist protesters strapping themselves to trees or lying down in front of bulldozers; when the shit really hits the fan it’ll deploy its flocks of pterodactyls and herds of hammerhead rhinos, and smash the greedy humans all on its own, thankyouverymuch. Pandora is a planet that can stop whatever horrible things we’re doing to it before we reach the point of no return, which, as far as the film’s Pandora-as-sci-fi-Earth allegory goes, really frees us up to continue doing all the horrible things we’re doing. For all its sequences of environmental terrorism, like the 9/11 imagery of the Hometree bombing, humans are ultimately let off the hook as far as being responsible and respectful of the environment is concerned.
Another faction that gets absolved of much blame in the final chapter’s narrative shuffle: the mining company. As Avatar’s massive and morally corrupt armies of contractors, researchers and soldiers get slowly stripped down to the solitary, exo-suited figure of Col Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the film’s whole corporate milieu, lorded over by Giovani Ribisi’s diminutive CEO Parker Selfridge (why not just name him Greedy McSelfish?), falls away. The film’s baddie, initially a PR-savvy, profit-driven, multi-planetary conglomerate with lots of fancy iPads, ends up being little more than a clichéd war-mongering military nut. To be fair, it’s a difficult balance to strike—between vilifying trigger-happy soldiers in a jungle war and the more radical statement that capitalism destroys planets—but with over 160 minutes and many more millions of dollars, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Or, actually, in light of James Cameron’s not-so-great writing skills, maybe it is way too much to ask—I kept expecting Jake’s final blue troops-rallying speech to end with: “Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!”
Some other movies that Avatar reminded me of: Starship Troopers for its engaging sense of immersion in a small outpost of a larger, planet-spanning military force, and the pseudo-scientific research that in the end is only used to organize more devastating attacks on the “primitive” aliens; The Matrix and eXistenZ for the many ways that the technologies that let our protags engage and manipulate their alternate selves take on organic, phallic and yonic forms; the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” for the way that Jake and Neytiri’s footsteps light up the branches and forest floor as they run around Pandora at night; and, obviously, The Hurt Locker, for its outstanding use of zooms to jolt us from the Hollywood gloss of it all and create a more embodied and visceral experience of war. I could go on, obviously, but this seems as good a moment as any to delve into a more important matter, what you might call the raison d’être of this e-epistolary exchange we’ve been having since December.
What film will win Best Picture, and who will win Best Director? I’d venture that Bigelow is a lock(er) for director, particularly as Avatar is such a massive and collaborative film that to reward a single person’s vision for the total work, no matter how self-aggrandizing that person may be, seems besides the point. As far as the big prize goes I think Locker is the better and more deserving film (also, haven’t Oscar voters been waiting for just such an Iraq War movie to champion since this whole mess started?), but it seems to me that you can’t really write Avatar off. Normally the bigger box office earner of the top noms tends to carry it, but then isn’t Cameron’s sci-fi epic a little too Pop-y and pulpy for the Academy? Despite the award-winners that Avatar draws from (Dances With Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Pocahontas, etc.), it seems—to its credit, really—too lacking in pretension or prestige to snag the top Oscar. You gotta dress for success, Nakaryu. That said, Academy voters tend to like happy endings and unambiguously good heroes, and probably more of them actually saw Cameron’s film than Bigelow’s, so maybe the Na’vi will carry the day. We should take this up before the big dance under the tree of memories next week.
Until then, I see you.
(photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, all rights reserved)