Saturday, 23 of September of 2017

Nonfiction Monday: Avatar

So I saw Avatar yesterday.

It was very pretty.

For whatever reason, that wasn’t enough to distract me from the rest of it. I’ve heard from people that loved it for its visuals alone, were even moved by them emotionally. Perhaps my own ‘meh’ response is because we were promised something revolutionary, but the nicest thing I can say about it is that the performance capture cgi aliens weren’t all creepy. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t watch the Polar Express or Beowulf without getting squicked out, so non-creepy performance capture avatars (so to speak) is a huge step. But you can’t tell me that you couldn’t have given the same amount of money to Pixar and gotten better aliens with traditional computer animation methods.

More detailed and SPOILERy comments after the cut.

If you haven’t seen Avatar and don’t want to be spoiled, stop here. If you haven’t seen Avatar and do want to be spoiled, here’s what happens:

  • There’s this amazing moon called Pandora which is positively teeming with life, including a race of enormous blue intelligent humanoids.
  • Though this is of course an amazing scientific treasure, the only scientists on Pandora are there at the sufferance of the Evil Mining Corporation, which is there to mine a valuable energy-producing mineral, because white people are greedy.
  • The scientists, in order to more safely travel in Pandora’s non-human-breathable atmosphere and more easily deal with the natives, have created Avatars, which are artificial blue people with just enough white people genes to make them recognizably related to their human drivers, who run them from inside juice boxes.
  • There is a paraplegic Marine whose identical twin brother was a scientist in the Avatar program. The brother died in a mugging but his Avatar had already been made, so rather than waste that money and effort the Evil Mining Corporation hires the Marine to take his brother’s place in the program. The Marine’s name is Jake, but that buys him nothing.
  • On his first excursion Jake gets separated from his group and nearly killed several times. Eventually he is captured by the blue people, and although they plan to kill him for being a zombie manufactured to do the bidding of a white person in a juice box the chief’s daughter explains that she’s received an omen indicating he should be spared, so they question him for a bit. He flat out admits to being a warrior rather than a scientist, and the chief’s wife, who is the medicine woman, says, I swear I’m not making this up, “We have never had a [creepy white people zombie] warrior before! We should totally invite him into our home and teach him our ways!” Because there is no way that could go wrong.
  • There’s a lot of noise made about whether Jake is working for the Evil Mining Corporation as a military spy or for the Evil Mining Corporation’s captive scientists as a scientific spy, but nobody from the scriptwriter down through the actors seems to really care that much, which is just as well, because Jake the paraplegic is actually working for his newly revived lower half, which predictably forms an attachment to the chief’s daughter while she is teaching him all the things you’d need to know to totally destroy her people. They eventually “mate,” after he completes his training and is accepted into the clan.
  • We learn that the interconnections between all the plants and many of the animals on Pandora make it essentially a giant brain, which the blue people worship.
  • The military types decide it’s time for the movie to get violent and destroy the blue people’s giant tree home. Jake tries and fails to get the blue people to get out before this happens, and loses all his cred with them.
  • Rather than simply moving in and mining the big deposit of Unobtainium (that’s really what they call it and that is now officially no longer clever) under the blue people’s giant tree home, the Evil Mining Corporation decides to go after the blue people by destroying the place to which they fled, which is a sacred site with lots of connections to the Pandora world-computer.
  • Jake realizes that this will happen and wants to help, but knows the blue people will not listen to him unless he can tame the big flying predator, which will make him a chief of chiefs. So he does. It really is that simple in the movie. Takes him about three minutes.
  • Jake gathers all the clans of blue people from anywhere nearby and prepares to defend the holy place. The military people show up and there’s a big fight, and the Pandora world-computer decides to help out by sending lots of animals to kill white people, although it waits until most of the blue people are dead too, because even a planet understands the importance of dramatic flow. Eventually the blue people win.
  • Jake asks the Pandora world-computer to transfer him out of his tiny paraplegic Marine body into his giant blue Avatar body, and the movie ends.

So, the high points: as stated above, this movie was very pretty. The action setpieces were interesting and engaging, and Pandora was truly a lovely place.

The low points: allegory and racism. Oh, and the periodic slow-motion haylookitourthreedee shots which broke the flow of the action scenes.

On the allegory front, given all the effort that went into the medium of this movie, it’s a shame that so little effort went into its message. It was very much a Story! With! Something! To! Say! About! Our! World! and it really really wanted to make sure you got it. If the Na’vi culture had been more original than the back jacket copy of The Well Meaning but Ignorant White Person’s Guide to Native Americans, if the music associated with them hadn’t been faux-African tribal pop, if they’d given a little more attention to just why the Evil Mining Corporation was so desperate to get this rock back to Earth, in short, if the people writing the script had been more interested in the story than the message and the explosions, it could have been a better movie.

On the racism front, much has been said elsewhere about the What These [Blue] People Need is a Honky trope in entertainment, and that’s certainly present here. I don’t know what it is about the “fish out of water that turns out to be an eagle” story that appeals so, but I don’t think just unconscious racism. You see it in plenty of stories where race does not appear to be a factor, like Harry Potter. I like this kind of story best when the outsider is able to succeed in the new context with the help of something they bring with them, rather than simply and inexplicably being better at the things expected of him than the people who’ve been doing them all their lives. If Jake had been able to defeat the humans through some insight into human nature or tactics rather than simply using the tactics he’d learned from the Na’vi, if he had captured and tamed the To’ruk by the application of some human trick rather than simply jumping on its back (or better yet, if he hadn’t been the one to do it in the first place), if he had died in the end rather than getting to completely assimilate and live on as their Bestest Hero Evar, in short, if the story had been written in such a way that the plot could hold together without requiring the main character to be a god, it would have been a better movie.

My final verdict: if you haven’t already seen this movie then chances are you have doubts about it. Nurture those doubts, they’re trying to save you the cost of a ticket.

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