Let’s get this out of the way from the start. For those of you who are convinced I had written off James Cameron’s Avatar before I’d even seen it, you are absolutely right. I knew I wasn’t going to “like” it. But here’s the thing: I figured, at worst, I would be too distracted by Cameron’s broad, generic Multiplex storytelling to feel any genuine emotional impact. But I was okay with that. I really was. I knew what I was getting into and had steeled myself accordingly. Avatar was going to be the writer/director of Titanic’s hokey spin on The New World, an experience more akin to riding a roller coaster than witnessing an act of creative enlightenment. But this was a rare, special case when astonishing technical wizardry would be enough. This was not the time to break out my inner/outer critic. Not my typical M.O., but this time around, I assure you that I was committed to leaving my “snooty” baggage in the parking lot.
For the first 120 minutes, I did just that. After the first hour, general indifference was being nudged out by a state of visceral positive pleasure. In a technical sense, Avatar delivered on its brash promise. It was, indeed, a visual wonder to behold, like nothing I had ever seen before. It made Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf look like Etch A Sketch. But the greater truth, which was reiterated to me in that first hour, was that I am simply not wired in a manner where even the most mind-shattering visual effects resonate with me in any meaningful way. Call it a fault, but the fact remains: I’m just not that visual of a person. After the first hour, as impressed as I was, I knew that while Avatar had revolutionized 3D, it wasn’t going to revolutionize me.
During the second hour, my mind began to wander. Not into any overtly negative place. I had the thought that it might have been a more exciting and stimulating achievement had Cameron made a pseudo “IMAX documentary from the distant future” instead of a more straightforward narrative. If he had taken the time to really think about what the future might hold and invented an entirely new language, perhaps partnering with a brilliant scientist or science-fiction writer to develop this theme, presenting a world to us that wasn’t constrained by a corny story and had the terrestrial impact of something like Planet Earth. But then I realized that when taking into account an ego the size of James Cameron’s—a man who had the balls and brains and passion to realize the preposterously sweeping productions of a Titanic or an Avatar—that would never happen. Cameron would never concede such an important role in his vision to another individual (ironic when you consider that his lack of concession is what keeps that vision from reaching its true potential—something even supporters of the film have acknowledged). The reality was that when it came to forces of nature like Cameron, you had to take the good with the bad. And for those first two hours, I was willing to do just that. Really, I was.
Then came the third hour, when, without warning, my indifference and rising boredom gave way to an unexpected jolt of fury. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when this change occurred, but it happened before I even realized it. It was not something that had been rising within me (at least not consciously). In trying to explain it, my mind keeps clinging to one seemingly insignificant moment, a character’s uttering of the words “shock and awe” to describe the military campaign that was about to jump start the movie’s action-packed finale. Upon hearing that dialogue, I began to process everything differently. All of a sudden, Avatar—which has been described by so many as a “cry for nature”—morphed into something more insidious. It wasn’t a cry for nature at all. It was a scathing piece of pop revisionist history that made Inglourious Basterds seem plausible, a remedial post-colonial guilt trip that, against its own best wishes, insulted and degraded the people it purported to stand up for.
Obviously, this wasn’t Cameron’s intention. And for those of you who are convinced Avatar is, in fact, a cry for nature and a harsh critique of America at its most bullying, I’m not saying that your interpretation is wrong. I’m happy that this is what you’re getting out of it. Yet for me, with that mention of “shock and awe,” Cameron’s muddled politics rose from a murmur to a scream. That was when, by way of lazy shorthanded storytelling, he unintentionally injected actual history into his sci-fi spectacle, turning distant, recent, real human tragedy into popcorn entertainment with a happy ending. Of course, it was obvious from the very beginning that Avatar’s story was a blatant metaphor for our involvement in Iraq, not to mention, with the focus on nature, an equally harsh condemnation of our conquering of Native America (anyone who doesn’t believe that needs to remove his or her 3D glasses immediately). And that is fine. It’s commendable for Cameron to want to use his influence in such a manner. But to call the impending attack a “shock and awe” campaign does something it doesn’t mean to do. It makes the metaphor literal. It turns a harmless fantasy spectacle into a buffoonish satire of actual human loss. It defeats its own purpose.
Avatar is on its way to grossing several trillion dollars worldwide, so apparently Americans aren’t the only ones who are dazzled by its charms. Yet I can’t help but wonder what elderly Native Americans would think of a film in which Cameron tells them that if they had only just banded together with their other tribes and tamed their wild animals into one-sided killing machines—as well as recruiting some Caucasian converts, of course—then they would have won. The same goes for Iraqis. How would it feel to be someone who lost an innocent family member and, before those wounds have begun to fully heal, be presented with this recreation of that slaughter in the guise of a “good guy vs. bad guy” sci-fi extravaganza? My grand hope is that Avatar will empower viewers, but my gut hunch is that on a subconscious level, it is adding more poison to our atmosphere and distorting history into another gross American myth that reinforces, rather than reshapes, our past transgressions.
I know, I know. I’m the bad guy, here. I’m bringing too much “reality” to the proceedings and am acting like a pretentious snob. All of this griping is just the bitter, hypersensitive nitpicking of an angry outsider who rejects the notion of mainstream, mass acceptance on a base level. Fine, okay, I’ll go with that. But please believe me when I say that I had prepared to leave Avatar behind when I walked out of the theater. I was determined to keep my mouth shut. And for those first two hours, all was peachy keen. It wasn’t until that third hour when it crossed the line. Again, I’m not saying this was Cameron’s intention, but I am still convinced that this movie speaks profoundly to our world’s increasing laziness with regards to healthy intellectual inquiry or genuine human, earthly, spiritual empathy. Sure, people will watch Avatar and feel like they understand what it means to be picked on and plundered, but will they really feel it? Will they really change their way of thinking and become more understanding and open-minded in their everyday lives?
Of course, this isn’t the job of James Cameron, nor should it be. He is here to show us something we’ve never seen before, to provide us with a spectacular diversion. And on a technical level, he has indeed done that. But in the same way that you’re asking me to leave politics in the parking lot and chill out, why aren’t you asking Cameron the same question? My problem with Avatar isn’t that it’s remedial storytelling in a cinematic vernacular I no longer speak. It’s that Cameron’s arrogance has produced a work that unintentionally mocks the underdog. It will have audiences all over the world applauding the murder of United States Marines for the completely wrong reasons. And when terrorists use it as inspiration for their own anti-American cause, they’ll be wrong too.
In trying to explain my problems with Avatar, I realize that I’m automatically backed into a corner. There’s no way for me to come off as anything but a chump. But that is another instance of this film’s—and, by extension, Cameron’s—accidental genius. It is what aligns the Avatar experience more directly with the arrogance of our political leadership. In the way that any dissension with our government’s behavior is deemed by so many as unpatriotic and ungrateful, any heartfelt criticism with this movie will be frowned upon as pompous and insolent. That is why I contemplated swallowing my anger and not publishing this screed. But here it is, so all I can say to those of you who think I’m reading into things too deeply and am completely off the mark, you have already won (though if you want to confirm my defeat in the comments section below, be my guest).
With Avatar, the American government has found its Leni Riefenstahl in James Cameron (while I’d love to distinguish between the Bush and Obama administrations, I’m not convinced I can do that just yet). However unintentional, Cameron’s movie is a disturbing, borderline dangerous contribution to popular culture. One can only hope that our information-clogged world and short attention spans will prevent it from leaving too lasting a scar.
If this is what the future of movies looks like, I’ll stick with the past.
— Michael Tully