I finally saw Avatar today. Visually, it was stunning–but I was hoping that a movie that took a decade and half a billion dollars to make would have a tighter script, and better editing. (It was nearly three hours long, and in the last hour of endless nonsensical violence I leaned over and asked my husband how long this movie was going to be, for my brain was numbed and my bladder was full.)
What offended me about this movie wasn’t that it was derivative claptrap (I was sort of expecting that). It was the perniciousness of its self-congratulatory message. It reveled so unabashedly in the toxic meme of the Noble Savage that even the shade of Jean-Jacques Rousseau was like, really, no shit? The natives are such beautiful innocent children at one with nature, and did you know that, like lovebirds, they mate for life? And of course, being beautiful innocent children, they must be saved by a Great White Messiah who understands the loveliness of their simple ways–a Great White Messiah who is so awesome that he is better at being them than they are after hanging out with them for three months. Gag.
The characters are all shallow cutouts who seldom resemble actual human beings, but I suppose I can forgive that because the story is supposed to be a heavy-handed allegory, and thus presents only archetypes. (The noble blue savages are a cultural mishmash of various American Indian, African, and Asian tribes, signifying Everything that is Not White in a way that would have made Edward Said whimper.) Allegories use archetypes as shorthand to dramatize conflicts between various drives inside the human animal, but the movie still failed on that count because the archetypes were not even internally consistent.
The premise of the movie is that a corporation is trying to colonize the beautiful alien jungle filled with beautiful alien children in order to mine some precious element called–I shit you not–unobtainium. The Corporate Hack takes the advice of the Evil Soldier in deciding to exterminate the Noble Savages and level their Idyllic Forest despite the Benevolent Scientist desperately trying to tell them that the Idyllic Forest is a sentient God that can literally be accessed by a brain USB cable that snakes out of the back of one’s head. Corporate Hack says “kill everyone and burn everything” because he is jonesing so bad for that tasty unobtainium–but what kind of piss-poor Corporate Hack is he? How fucking marketable a commodity would it be to be able to plug yourself into Mother Earth and communicate with God?! And how about the anti-gravity fields that make freaking mountains float in mid-air? Those cool-ass levitating jellyfish dandelion seed thingies would sell way better than sea monkeys! Come on, Corporate Hack, you’re thinking too small!
(Let me take a moment to express my gratitude, however, for the fact that when our Great White Messiah finally makes love to his feisty-yet-sweet forest nymph in the Sacred Humping Grove, we are not actually subjected to a graphic sex scene in which they merge USB ports or whatever. But–I’m sure that’s coming in the director’s cut.)
Another internal inconsistency that bothered me was the idea that the Noble Savages could plug into various wild animals with their USB ports and make them do their bidding. It would have been more consistent with the message of the movie if, when plugged in, they were one with the horse or some such new age faux-buddhist thing–but no, they literally telepathically order the animals around, and the animals have no choice but to comply. One inadvertently funny scene features our hero, in his manhood-induction ceremony, picking out a pterodactyl dragon to ride and call his own. The forest nymph informs him that not only must he choose his dactyl, the dactyl must also choose him. He asks how he can tell that the dactyl has chosen him, and she replies that it does so by trying to kill him. Well, sounds like consent to me!
So, you know, all that stuff about unity with Gaia and singing mourning songs when you kill animals for food rings a little hollow when you enslave them with your USB ports. Maybe James Cameron was making some sort of canny oblique statement about the dangerous hypocrisies that pop up in religious belief systems but somehow, I don’t think so. The allegory was so heavy throughout that my soul felt violated (really, I think James Cameron wrote this script because he was convinced that he needed to serve a market that found Dances with Wolves too subtle). It also used bits of 9-11 imagery in somewhat troubling ways, but I will not open that can of worms. I will instead go to bed, and dream of buying a sachet of those cool levitating jellyfish dandelion seed thingies–you know, they would be dehydrated in a little packet that would read: “just add water and you too can be Chosen by the Great Mother!”