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Ferngully in Space!

In Movies, Science Fiction on January 6, 2010 at 2:27 pm

I approached Avatar not only with skepticism, but with a certain amount of hostility. As pretty as the movie was, one could tell exactly what the plot was going to be just from the previews. It’s a tired, tired story that’s shown up in Dances With Wolves, Ferngully, Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, and, to some extent, District 9. Namely, a guy who is first pitched against an indigenous population joins their ranks, becomes their leader, and leads them in battle against his former comrades. (This excellent blog post talks about how steeped in white guilt this whole narrative is.)

Avatar’s story, sadly, is utterly predictable. At no point did I feel myself especially involved in it, or doubt how the movie would end. With the exception of Sigourney Weaver’s scientist character (whose Stanford tank top and attempts at empathy with the indigenous population recall Peace Corps volunteers) none of the characters were worth caring for. The soldiers were soldiers I had seen before, and the Na’vi familiar noble savages. The main character was far too much of an empty suit for me to care about him.

Fortunately, the movie is massively pretty. The animals and plants of Pandora abound in hallucinogenic beauty, trees and vines shimmering with a view that makes you realize what an amazing phenomena bioluminescence is. The scenes of the Na’vi riding through floating mountains on hippie-colored pterodactyl-dragons are amazing and exhilarating, and I confessed smiling immensely during the movie’s wholly satisfying climactic battle scene. Mech walkers, hover planes, guns, arrows, and exotic alien beasts all assembled to kill each other in what is probably the best action sequence in theaters right now. But, I don’t think it was enough.

Avatar has grand ambitions. It is clear that Cameron longs for it to be mentioned alongside Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, and The Matrix in the pantheon of great blockbuster SF movies. Because of its amazing visuals, it perhaps has a place, but it has no Han Solo or Obi-Wan, nothing as terrifyingly iconic as an Alien chestburster, no quandaries about reality or thought. As much as I enjoyed it’s action sequences and set pieces, I still wanted more. I enjoyed it, but do not admire it. It has beauty, that is all, and beauty alone is never enough.

  1. This was pretty much my take on it, too. Visually stunning, with disturbing racial overtones and a tired storyline.

    I think the comparison to District 9 in the other blog post is flawed, though. In District 9, the makers were deliberate about addressing race issues, and I think they did it with more realism than Cameron did in Avatar. There's the white-South-African/black-South-African/Nigerian dynamic going on as well as the human/alien dimension, and it's not all as heavy-handed as the human/native interaction in Avatar. Plus, Wikus's transition is more ambiguous — it's a byproduct of necessity, not of falling in love with the alien culture. His actions are all heavily self-serving, and it's all consistent with the behavior of a comfortably privileged character who's lost his privilege and is floundering. The character development is about more than simply going native. Which isn't to say I though "District 9" was a brilliant film. But I did think it was far more compelling than Avatar, and especially enjoyed the snarky and refreshingly understated depictions of UN-like bureaucracies and legalese.

  2. Oops, I need to modify my comment — I reread that blog post and it does indeed address Wikus's predicament. I still think the film tries to subvert the whole white-man-as-savior thing because it clearly paints Wikus as a self-serving bumpkin and a victim of circumstance, rather than as a self-sacrificing hero.

  3. Did you watch it in threeeee di-mensions? I thought that was the best part, how the fact that it was technologically awesome made it a milestone event, as if digital imaging technology would magically stop right this very moment and the next movie (or the one after that, or the one after that) wouldn't immediately render this particular selling point obsolete.

  4. I did see it in 3D, yes, and the visual effects were great. The various flying things and action scenes were awesome, but my favorite 3D effect was how the humans' floating computer displays popped off the screen.

    Hearing the entire audience say "Ooooh," though, was the best part of the 3D experience.

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