James Cameron's "Avatar" (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Avatar"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“They’re not gonna give up their home. They’re not gonna make a deal. For light beer? And blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want. Everything they sent me out here to do is a waste of time. They’re never gonna leave Hometree.”

Still from James Cameron's "Avatar".

How far have we come since Avatar? In 2009 I marked it as one of my Top 10 of the year (in the coveted #11 spot), largely for its expansive and imaginative sci-fi world (and allegory bordering on contrivance of Native American conquest, betrayal, land usurpation, and violence), even as I wondered then whether the film deserved to rest in the “ineffectual self-hating bin of white guilt”. I find this framing a bit embarrassing in retrospect. I think at the time I sought to diminish white filmmakers for trying to tell these stories (an opinion I’ve occasionally persisted in, criticizing Baz Luhrmann’s take on Australia’s mistreatment and state-sponsored kidnapping of Aboriginal children), but my prescribed remedy at this point is generally, “Let those people tell their own stories.” In other words, white filmmakers don’t necessarily have to stay in their lane, but we should really try to expand the pool of voices, and let marginalized peoples speak for themselves. If I’m being honest about who I was in 2009, I wasn’t chiding James Cameron for telling this story instead of someone else. I was chiding him for telling this story – of injustices that I believed to be abstract relics of a distant frontier past – at all. I was wrong. I also falsely implied that I’d seen Fern Gully. I still haven’t. Sorry not sorry.

There has been a rather instructive event in the intervening years: The Dakota Access Pipeline protests. This oil pipeline was originally set to cross the Missouri River in a location near to the North Dakota capital city of Bismarck, a city that is 92.5% white. For a variety of reasons, including that it threatened the city’s water supply, the US Army Corps of Engineers decided that this location was not ideal. Imagine the surprise of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe when another river crossing was selected, at a location just outside their reservation, and potentially threatening their water supply, Lake Oahe, instead. Protestors moved in, and private security (working for the pipeline company and colluding with local authorities) used brutal and inhumane tactics to force them out of the way, including hosing them down with water amid freezing overnight temperatures (which is, just to be clear, attempted murder). There were 300+ injuries and nearly 500 arrests, and some of their cases (for peaceful protest that was met with a brutal response) have resulted in multiple state and federal prison sentences, some of which are still being served.

Were the protestors right to oppose this pipeline? I have a few political responses, none of them simple or easy, some relating to the tension between fighting climate change and the entirely fossil-fuel-infused status quo. But my most honest answer is that I don’t know. The Standing Rock Sioux were certainly correct to assert a moral and economic interest in protecting their land and water, and assert they did, with resistance ranging from planned arrests and civil disobedience to lawsuits in federal court. What’s more, being the economic and political underdogs in that fight does not make them wrong by default, even if that’s often how they were treated in the national press (when it deigned to cover these events at all). It is instructive to note that Lake Oahe itself was also the site of a forced relocation a half-century earlier, with 200,000 acres of two separate reservations – including most of the arable land that they used for agriculture – submerged under water. You can jump around to other parts of the United States and find similar examples, in which Indian rights are considered to be subordinate by default to those of the United States, and this is reflected at every level of the planning, permitting, and decision-making process. At worst, the poverty and related social problems that followed these acts of economic suppression were treated as a geographic or racial deficiency, which was then used as a post-hoc justification for continued mistreatment (see: “shithole countries”). Like Jim Crow before (and concurrent with) it, it’s a longstanding example of institutionalized white supremacy. So it’s fair to say that my attitude going into this film now is a baseline assumption that the rights and land use claims of Indigenous peoples have not been historically respected since the founding of this country, and for them to exercise their moral right to say, “This far, no farther,” is an act that inspires presumptive sympathy from me even before evaluating the individual merits of the case.

Still from "Avatar"

I didn’t know much of this in 2009, and Avatar deliberately presents a case with maximum moral simplicity, in which humans are alien invaders strip-mining a forest moon for Unobtanium, a floating mineral of high, unspecified economic value that feels like a stand-in term that Cameron never bothered to Find/Replace. The richest deposit of the mineral sits directly under Hometree, where the Omaticaya tribe of the Na’vi lives. Rather than pondering for 30 seconds that there might perhaps be a causal link between the mineral and the impossibly tall trees that might be worth exploring, Administrator Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) says with almost comical callousness that while killing the indigenous “looks bad”, what shareholders hate more than bad press is a bad quarterly statement, and notes, like anyone performing the banality of evil, that he doesn’t “make the rules”. By design, this film presents zero ambiguity about the merits of this case. We’re wrong, and the Na’vi are correct to oppose us, and they don’t even need a reason beyond, “Fuck you, it’s ours,” which is self-evidently the same justification we would use. This film is a reverse-Independence Day. And it’s tempting to evaluate it on this basis, because both films end with a big-ass battle that is an entertaining spectacle to behold, even if it extracts a heavy butcher’s bill.

By the film’s end, we hear former Marine grunt Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in his Na’vi avatar telling the planetary network/deity, Eywa, that the Sky People (humans) come from a planet that has no green left – that they “killed their mother”. Eywa is a conceptual stand-in for Gaia, creating both a deity and afterlife whose existence on Pandora is an unassailable fact, as well as a literal planetary organism, with everything from the plants to the Na’vi to their various land-based and flying mounts acting as a planetary immune system to purge the human infection that has moved in. I called this concept “a savage and gorgeous Eden” in my original review, and yet I still somewhat castigated Jake for choosing to betray humanity in the end, even if they’d done plenty to deserve it. I’d say I’m far less sentimental about my rapacious species now (even though I’ve had kids in the meantime – go figure). This version of humanity, a hundred years hence, has destroyed its lush home planet and is now fixing to do the same thing to Pandora? To hell with us. Jake – whose brother was murdered in a robbery of petty cash, and whose spine was ripped apart in a war with Venezuela by a government that had the technology but not the economic will to allow him to ever walk again – owes us nothing. Betrayal may be the correct word for it, but Jake is well rid of us and quite fortunate to be getting a pristine ten-foot-tall space cat body to galavant around in. This isn’t Eden for Jake. It’s Heaven: a new and better life than the one that he has known.

When Omaticaya crown priestess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Avatar-Jake blundering around the forest and killing animals to survive, she minces no words in calling him an ignorant baby who doesn’t know how to do anything. Much of his later proficiency in all things Na’vi is explained in a series of bog-standard (albeit gorgeous) training montages. But it’s fair to say this film rightfully attracts some criticism (both racialized and not) about its white everyman protagonist showing up on this planet and this tribe and immediately becoming their Chosen One who’s better at everything than they are. Toruk Makto – a mantle Jake assumes by sky-raping a Leonopteryx – might be the best flyer, but his most absurd acquired skill is performing oratory, a skill whose execution the film wisely presents in montage form, with Jake and Neytiri bounding around Pandora to recruit every tribe to the cause, with only the odd snippeted cliché (“AND YOUR CHILDREN’S CHILDREN”) making it onto the audio track. How silly is this? We’ve spent the entire film learning that the Na’vi generally and the Omaticaya specifically value different things than the Sky People. There is no carrot that would convince them to leave Hometree, which is why the humans decide to use the military stick. The idea that Jake could give an inspiring speech to the Na’vi on no greater basis than abandoning the human hand he was dealt is absurd on its face. As the axiom goes – if a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand it. The idea that Jake, even through a translator, could somehow appeal to the values of the Na’vi – wholly inhuman values that he barely understands himself – is the most condescending component of this character. It’s entirely possible that the tribes might band together to defend their planet. But I’d rather the convincing had been left to Neytiri herself, or perhaps the new Omaticaya chief Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso) could take a crack at it during his doomed tenure.

Avatar remains a visual feast, presenting a look, feel, and blockbuster spectacle that looks like it could easily have come out in 2019. If I imagine that it would have less of an impact today, that’s only because I recognize both the monopolistic consolidation of the cinema box office, as well as the influence that Avatar had on other blockbusters, including those of the new franchise owner, the Walt Disney Company. Even before they made the purchase, the lush jungle moon of Pandora became a land you can visit at the House of Mouse. And after a slow burn decade of production at 21st Century Fox (just like the first film), Disney immediately announced a 2021 release date for Avatar 2, and for the first time, I’m starting to think it may actually happen. Who knows, perhaps between the decade Cameron has had to advance his craft, and a new marketing juggernaut behind him, he can pull off a hat trick of multi-billion-dollar all-time box office winners. But it hardly matters to me whether the next film succeeds as long as I get to see it. If nothing else, watching this film again reminded me that James Cameron, a slightly problematic and old-school futurist – has yet to have a miss with me. And perhaps in a post-Cats world, all we need is a bit less fur, a bit more blue, and whatever else he comes up with.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

2009 Glennies, Part 1: Best Supporting Actor

#5: Ryan Reynolds – Mike Connell, Adventureland

Ryan Reynolds in "Adventureland"

From my original review:
I must also give praise to Ryan Reynolds. Here is an actor whose work is consistently entertaining, but offers the same one-note, sociopathic, likeable douchebag performance in every film he’s in…

Reynolds returns in this film as that character, aged 10 years, saddled with a dead-end job and an unhappy marriage. And yet he manages to convey the truly pitiable nature of such a character. His antics and doubletalk no longer seem charming here. His underhanded and lecherous conduct comes off as sad, creepy, and immature for a man of his age. Reynolds does a fine job of portraying all the ugliness and truth of this character without any of the signature likeability that he brings to his other roles.

#4: Jackie Earle Haley – Walter Kovacs/Rorschach, Watchmen

Jackie Earle Haley in "Watchmen"

I am quite fascinated by geekdom and alternate history, but I must admit, I was not too excited by this film. Zack Snyder delivered a long, grueling, mixed bag of a film that seemed to split even the most die-hard fans of the graphic novel (and I do not count myself among them) right down the middle. But if there’s one thing it effectively conveyed, it’s that the only people who would voluntarily become superheroes are those with severe social or mental issues.

And so we meet Rorschach, the unrepentant, masked psychopath played to absolute perfection by Jackie Earle Haley. Like I said last year, there’s just something great about a well-played psychopath. Haley took what could have been a one-note, gruff-talking slasher and imbued him with some fascinating personality, giving the finest comic performance I’ve seen since Heath Ledger’s Joker.

#3: Denis Menochet – Perrier LaPadite, Inglourious Basterds

Denis Menochet in "Inglourious Basterds"

Denis Menochet only appears in one scene of this film, but it was a doozy (see Viola Davis from last year). He plays the French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, who is suspected by the SS of harboring a Jewish family. What ensues is a masterful interrogation scene between LaPadite and the SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). As with many other scenes in this film, the tension gradually increases as the scene goes on. LaPadite is a physically imposing man, but he has everything to lose, and Menochet lays all of his vulnerability bare as Landa closes in on the truth. Menochet deserves every bit as much credit as Waltz for how well this scene played, and it is certainly one of the most memorable in the film.

#2: Jim Broadbent – Prof. Horace Slughorn, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Jim Broadbent in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

David Yates brings another strong entry to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise, and Jim Broadbent is the finest example yet of the franchise’s reliably strong casting. Like so many of Rowling’s characters, Horace Slughorn is a well-written blend of familiar tropes – a grand old wizard, a collector of the ambitious and famous, a well-meaning man with a terrible secret – but also greater than the sum of his parts. Broadbent’s performance is absolutely delightful in many scenes, and downright somber in others. When his secret is inevitably revealed (as cinematic secrets must be), we are treated to a heartbreaking soliloquy in which Slughorn reminisces about Harry Potter’s dead mother, who was one of his favorite students. This scene features some of the best acting in the film by both Broadbent and Daniel Radcliffe, and is almost certainly the film’s emotional climax.

#1: Christoph Waltz – SS Col. Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds

Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds"

From my original review:

The finest acting in the film is that of Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Landa. He somehow manages to combine an outwardly cheerful demeanor with such simmering, underlying menace that each of his scenes will have you on the edge of your seat. [Quentin] Tarantino’s strength has always been in crafting lengthy scenes of gradually increasing tension amid seemingly innocuous dialogue, in which the question is not whether the scene will end badly; the question is “how badly” and “for whom?”. Waltz’s performance works masterfully within this framework; whether interrogating a dairy farmer under suspicion for harboring Jews, or conversing over Parisian strudel with a potential enemy, Waltz’ every facial tic gradually reveals his true intentions, as he leads the conversation exactly where he wants it to go. He is one of Tarantino’s most complex and well-crafted characters, and Waltz plays the part immaculately.

In addition to a fantastic performance of a complex character, Waltz seemlessly flitted back and forth between onscreen languages. We’ve seen plenty of cinematic polyglots before, but what separates Waltz from, say, Jennifer Garner, is that he sounds as much at home in one language as another. Without him, this film could not have been the same… Indeed, it might not have even been made. Tarantino has praised Waltz publicly for making this film possible, and he will quite deservedly be remembered for playing one of the finest villains of all time.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Martin Starr as Joel in Adventureland
  • Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright in Terminator Salvation
  • Michael Fassbender as Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds
  • Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar in Invictus

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

James Cameron’s “Avatar” – A savage and gorgeous Eden

Spoiler Warning: This review will include plot details revealed in the theatrical trailer.

Five years and $300 million in the making, James Cameron’s Avatar has finally arrived. The film takes place in 2154, when a completely industrialized Earth has sent a massive and militarized mining party to a lush forest moon called Pandora. The moon is rich with native flora and fauna, but it is also rich with unobtainium – a term originally developed as a humorous stand-in for a valuable and impossible compound, but which is used quite literally here. Unfortunately, there is also a massive indigenous population of intelligent, tree-dwelling, ten-foot-tall humanoids called the Na’vi, a tribe of which lives directly on top of the richest deposit of the precious material.

So naturally, we need them to move. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a Marine who is tapped to join the Avatar program, the brainchild of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). The avatars are Na’vi bodies grown and designed to be piloted by humans via a neural link. Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the abominable head of security, and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the shrewd mining administrator, order Sully to infiltrate the Na’vi village and gain their trust, and find a way to convince or force them off their land. In the course of doing so, he meets Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), a Na’vi princess who agrees to show him the ways of her people.

And that’s where I’ll stop with the plot description… If you’ve seen the theatrical trailer for this film, you already knew all that and more. In fact, there was very little mystery going into this film. Even the technology developed for it was subject to significant hype. A new and proprietary 3D camera system developed by James Cameron and Vince Pace, motion capture like Zemeckis’ Polar Express and Beowulf (minus the creepiness and dead eyes), and an impressive array of creature design.

So did it live up to the hype? By many of my usual standards, no. The plot was indeed quite familiar – “Fern Gully meets Dances With Wolves” is the popular phrase, although I’d include a few shades of Independence Day (we’re the hostile aliens; the White House is a huge freaking tree). Most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional, and the storytelling bumbles along with some atrociously scripted exposition scenes, in which Sully alternates between voiceover and speaking directly into the camera (under the auspices of recording “video logs”). The nobility of the Na’vi, the superiority of their way of life, the ineffectuality of trying to convince them to move from their home – every plot point of this film is vomited forth in flowery, excruciating detail. Mercifully, these scenes don’t last very long, and they are balanced with some adept performances.

Zoë Saldaña is the standout, giving an absolutely sublime performance as the Na’vi princess Neytiri. Sam Worthington is enjoyable when he’s not delivering plodding exposition, and Sigourney Weaver is fantastic as the inexplicably chain-smoking scientist. Stephen Lang delivers a fun, scenery-chewing performance of the absurdly one-dimensional Colonel, who supervises an invasion between sips of his hot, steaming mug of eeeeeeevil, and Giovanni Ribisi portrays the administrator with such a comical level of callousness that he absolutely steals every scene he’s in.

So only one question remains… Was the visual spectacle of this film enough to make up for its shortcomings? Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. In addition to the technical achievements above (on which I could spend several more paragraphs), I could not take my eyes off a single frame of this film, and I spent most of my first viewing completely awestruck with my mouth hanging halfway open. James Horner blankets this film with a fantastic score – easily the most rich and majestic I’ve heard since John Williams did Jurassic Park. And the world is simply stunning. It’s as if Cameron saw the BBC’s Planet Earth and thought to himself… I can do better than that. He clearly adores bioluminescence, as it is featured beautifully (and pervasively) in this film. With Pandora, Cameron has created an absolute Eden – a rich and savage world with a complex ecosystem.

What’s more, he has crafted a fascinating (and literal) representation of Gaia – the notion of an entire planet as a single, complex organism. The Na’vi are a fantastical, idealized version of humanity, acting as symbiotic shepherds rather than masters of their environment. They sport a long braid of hair which conceals a hidden strand of nerves that can spring forth and attach to other life forms. This has allowed them to make use of a variety of creatures, including land-based and flying mounts, which they can control telepathically through the link. Even the trees of Pandora form a vast network of neurons and synapses – even more than exist in the human brain. The Na’vi refer to this network as Eywa, their goddess, and can use their neural links to speak to the planet directly.

And this may be the most fascinating thing about the Na’vi. They worship a god whose existence is absolutely certain – to both human science and Na’vi faith. Even an afterlife is assured, as they can use their neural links to upload their memories to Eywa when they die. And what’s more, the Na’vi are extremely resilient. They can move fast, jump high, and survive every peril this world can offer. And their every need – food, water, a safe place to sleep – is largely tended to by their ecosystem. Disease is conspicuously absent, even in a world of rampant, unprotected, telepathic hanky-panky. The Na’vi exist in an absolute Eden. They want for nothing and have no fear of death.

So what can humanity offer them? We try all the usual trappings of human progress – roads, schools, hospitals… But according to Sully, the Na’vi have no use for these things.

Humanity’s definition of progress has always been a bit muddy, but it seems to entail both exploration and mastery of its domain. To extend its reach – even to the stars – and to increase its population and lifespan. The Na’vi are often casually referred to as savages in this film, and I would argue that this is an apt term for them. They are wild and untamed, and we would probably call them a stagnant society. But in such a pristine environment – with no significant threats to the species or struggles within its society – our definition of progress completely falls apart. This is Avatar’s most fascinating theme, and yet simultaneously its least explored. We must take the film’s word on the superiority of Na’vi culture, since we are not privy to its stability in the long-term. And what’s more, we only gain the slightest idea of what state humanity is in.

But we can infer a great deal. It is implied that Earth is completely industrialized, and humanity is clearly still in the business of invasion, forced relocation, and wanton slaughter. In fact, this may be the most pessimistic sci-fi treatment of mankind ever put to screen. We aren’t wiped out by aliens, robots, nuclear war, or climate change. We live on, and apparently learn nothing.

Spoiler Warning: The following paragraph contains details about the film’s ending.

Colonel Quaritch does have one thing right – Sully does betray humanity in favor of the Na’vi – and yes, “betray” is the correct word. He even abandons his crippled human body in favor of a more powerful (and undamaged) Na’vi body. In the end, he purges every trace of humanity from himself, referring to his former race as “aliens” and supervising their eviction from Pandora to return to their “dying planet”. I’ll grant that with this branch of mankind acting as usurpers and destroyers, it’s hard to argue with Sully’s decision. But in the end, this film relies upon some disturbing implications of the intrinsic cultural supremacy of the Na’vi. And given their blatant allegorical resemblance to Native Americans, this comes dangerously close to relegating the film to the ineffectual, self-hating bin of white guilt.

While Avatar‘s societal allegory has a few problems, it nonetheless boasts some provocative and effective environmental themes. And on a technical and creative level, James Cameron has brought a marvelous vision to life with this film, and it will surely impact cinema for years to come. If it is successful enough that Cameron can finish his planned trilogy, I would certainly hope to see some of the above concerns addressed with additional storytelling. Avatar is an impressive spectacle, but it has merely teased us with the potential of its rich, engrossing world. It could eventually be the stuff of great science fiction.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

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