no critical faculties motion picture edition 2: james cameron’s avatar

or: nuke the site from orbit

The real hell of this 160-minute marathon is that it’s shot well, edited brilliantly, paced with heat and wisdom, and yet undone at its end by its reliance on the same old shit–on stale outrage (Bush Jr. lied to get us into Iraq? Well, gorsh!) and tired paternalism. -Walter Chaw

I think this really sums Avatar perfectly.

Everything up until the Na’vi are introduced is a little awkward, a little too on-the-nose, but technically fine, pretty engaging despite the broad caricatures and poor dialogue. After the cats show up, things get a little embarassing.

Neither the Na’vi nor the planet itself are the marvel of photoreal imagery Cameron was claiming during production, but I accepted them. The environments are immersive, and the movie dwells in them for so long that I adjusted. The cats, while not transcending their pixels, are sometimes marvelously nuanced. The animation, especially on Cat Girlfriend, is occasionaly incredible. (Though sometimes, like with My Man Wes Studi, someone seemed to think Wooden Indian should be the guiding philosophy behind the facial work. Maybe he’s just stiff.) It really did seem like a leap forward in all this motion captured performance nonsense that’s so hip nowadays, but all the nuance is used for uncomfortable, cliche noble savage mugging, and there’s at least an hour-long block that’s nothing but that. The movie goes through these broad motions that I’ve seen a dozen times before in order to make me care about the stakes once the Action Climax rolls around.

I didn’t care. I had seen all this before, I could map out the beats in my head (they rose unbidden to nag at me). Avatar just made it all generically prettier, and three-deeier.

When the climax rolls around it’s technically pretty great! The man still knows how to stage things: his geography is clear, the pacing of the individual setpieces is good, but my sympathies went entirely to this expert staging and not the characters I had spent two goddamn hours with.

When Don’t Make Eyes at My Squaw landed on the rear of that ship and started tearing through soldiers I cheered for him, because a giant ripping through people with his bare hands was novel, and it was well-staged. But when the evil human shot him off I didn’t feel bad for noble indigenous guy. I immediately switched my sympathy to the human and thought hey, good for you.

Whoever was directly responsible for the mayhem of the moment, I liked. Space Dragons tearing the shit out of helicopters and throwing them into floating mountains? Good for them. Vile cyphers in mecha repelling native cavalry charges with machine guns? Well, good for them too. Heroic Lead running around on top of ships tossing grenades into engines? Awesome. I applaud you, Heroic Lead. But I’d applaud the guy who shot you to death provided he did it in a reasonably compelling way.

The evil Colonel leading the Bad Humans? A cartoon, so broadly played and so Hardcase To Its Logical Conclusion I had to love him. He could have torn Heroic Lead And Cat Girlfriend apart with his ridiculous mecha-scaled bowie knife at the end and I would have left the theater happy. When he was defeated, I shrugged. Good for you, Romantic Leads, you pulled through exactly how I knew you would.

Granted: It’s a testament to Cameron’s skill at staging these climactic sequences that I gave a shit in the half-assed, schizophrenic way I did.

The movie tries so desperately, lays it on so thick, to make me care about the leads, but in the end it’s all about the shock and awe. The spectacle was the only thing that registered. It’s an incredible technical exercise in the service of a completely worthless story.

In summary: James Cameron has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars and all the weight of his intense, muscular filmatism to the service of a rote, cliche, white guilt epic of the sort we’ve seen a dozen-score times.

As a middle-class white guy who’s harbored a fascination with colonialism for most of is life, and an unplublished, hack sci-fi writer, I’ve devoted my fair share of words to shallow critiques of SPACE COLONIALISM. I review them now and, while they’re not good, I never resorted to this stark moral polarity and WHITE SAVIOR nonsense. If some jerk on the internet can avoid these horrible pitfalls, I’d like to think that Cameron could have worked through them sometime in the decades he was developing this movie.

Here I pause, and recommend Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus as an actually pretty amazing work of post-colonial literature that happens to be a set of interlocking science fiction novellas. I’m not the only person who thinks so! There are other dudes, quoted on the internet, who I’m too lazy to hunt for now, that feel the same way. One or more of them might even be an authority on something somewhere. The sort of guy whose word you can take for things.

And good night.


~ by ironcupshrug on 12/20/2009.

2 Responses to “no critical faculties motion picture edition 2: james cameron’s avatar”

  1. Shrug, I think there is an audience for your SPACE COLONIALISM works.

    • idk no one ever goes space native and/or discovers the value of living in harmony with pristine, untouched space nature in them.

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