Avatar is a Movie About Movies

12/18/2009 3:15 PM |


The dominant cliche used to describe the moviegoing experience is that it’s A Lot Like Dreaming. But it’s also kinda like being crippled.

Around Halloween, I wrote an essay about scary movies with wheelchair-bound characters, arguing that immobile heroes have been a frequent motif across horror history—since Hitchcock realized in Rear Window that the helplessness of physical handicap formed a beautiful parallel with the paralysis of spectatorship—that directors use either to victimize or empower the audience.

Though horror movies tend as a genre to explore matters of film theory more often than others, other movies do, from time to time, address similar issues. Like James Cameron’s animated sci-fi epic, Avatar, out today, which is really a movie about movies.

In it, Sam Worthington plays Jake, a former Marine and paraplegic who is liberated from his wheelchair by inhabiting an avatar, a 10-foot half human creature he can control with his mind. This year’s Sleep Dealer fantasized about a similar futuristic technology, using it to buttress an allegory about the lives of undocumented migrant workers. But Cameron’s conceit is less blatantly political than a representation of how we watch movies.

Because, once again, it’s you the viewer who is the character in the wheelchair. Jake inhabits an alien body like you inhabit, or identify with, him, that character up on the screen who, like the avatar cat people, is at once strange and literally larger than life, but familiar. The way Jake enters a computer-generated wonderland is the same way you “enter” the storyworld of a film.

Just something to keep in mind this weekend when you go see this movie (like everybody else in the country! I don’t care if it’s not very good!)

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