Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | January 12, 2010

Et in Pandora Ego

OK, I’ve seen Avatar.  Based on the aggregate reviews so far, I was expecting about what it turned out to be.  Except that I was. . . underwhelmed.

I guess that’s terribly conservative of me.  What can I say, I’m a born party pooper.  But I found it hard to stay engaged.  When you find yourself analyzing effects, plot devices, and acting quirks throughout the movie, and just kind of checking in with the story to make sure you haven’t dropped sync – well, what you know is that you, personally, are not clicking with the director.

I can see why a lot of people would, so don’t get me wrong.  It’s a fine effort in many ways, but about 20 minutes into it I found myself thinking, James Cameron is wise to go with his strengths and not try to give us plot surprises, multidimensional characters, or really visceral moral dilemmas – the stuff of true drama, as opposed to cheap suspense.  He probably knows that drama is not his forte, so he sticks with safe devices and proven – hackneyed – story lines to weave his heroic cinematic vision into something watchable.

He’s definitely an artist in terms of the cinematic medium.  No question about that.  I know the Czar is going to want to vote me off the island here, but the irresistible idea running through my mind was “Fantasia with bazookas.”  Although that requires refinement, because there was a veritable encyclopedia of fictional-world backstory burbling over in every scene, a fathomless font of fan trivia.  What the movie lacks in plot sophistication it makes up for in Trek-ready detail.  I assume that at some point there will be a raft of publications with explanations like how the Floating Mountains remain afloat and other Pandora arcana.

(Still, take a moment before moving on, to imagine Fantasia with bazookas and battle scenes.  I also have to preen just a bit, and disclose that I identified both Wes Studi and CCH Pounder in their Na’vi incarnations.  I guess everyone else probably did too, and it was no great feat.  But I like their work, although I’d love to see Studi play something other than an aboriginal warrior someday.  Say, a plumber from Cleveland  :-).)

Avatar just isn’t the kind of movie interpretation that I find gripping, or want to immerse myself in or be transported by.  I don’t know if that’s a conservative quirk or not.  For the topic of cultures a-clash, I preferred the lesser-known movie Black Robe, from nearly 20 years ago, with Lothair Bluteau as a young priest cutting a swath of slowly-sputtering zeal through 17th century French Canada.  The native tribes, the priests, the trappers – everyone with a sentient spirit in the movie was realistically and sympathetically conceived, their conflicts generated by the enduring traits of humanity rather than by the politically-correct Evil of the Week.  Black Robe also created that rarest of rarities, a genuine sense of being in another place and time:  of inhabiting the wintry, alien world of eastern Canada three centuries ago.  (Master and Commander achieved that too, as did Gibson’s Apocalypto and Passion of the Christ; whereas most costume dramas don’t.)

By contrast, Dances with Wolves – that box-office biggie in the clash-of-cultures genre – had some very interest-subverting moments, as when virtually everyone white was portrayed as mentally vacant, hygiene-challenged (to the point of being covered in flies), and brutishly arrogant.  As stupid as it was of Hollywood to portray Indians through ridiculous stereotypes for decades, it is equally stupid to portray the “white man” through the lens of stereotype.  Dances with Wolves was beautifully shot and well acted, and I’m as happy as anyone that it presented the Lakota Sioux as its heroes, respectfully and with sympathy.  But the story suffers from the cartoonish depiction of white men.  A competent storyteller wouldn’t need to turn the Army lieutenant’s past into something unsightly that he becomes anxious to repudiate, in order to convey the compulsion of new opportunities on his heart.  People do sometimes change their estate in life, and the poignancy of the choice is greater – the dramatic interest stronger – if what they leave behind is understood to have its own powerful tug.

That’s a big dramatic hole in Avatar, from my perspective.  Who could possibly want Jake Sully’s human life anyway?  Just from the standpoint of having lost his brother and being in a wheelchair, he’s got major pre-canned reasons for liking it better as a Na’vi, with the use of his legs and a girl of his own.  There’s nothing wrong with this – just these factors – as the center of a compelling drama, although of course Lost Horizon did the basic plot concept a lot better.  But on top of Sully’s personal problems, there has to be heaped a depiction of vicious humanity that’s unrecognizable to anyone with a direct, ordinary sense of this present world.  All is lost with that goopy splash of story-line condiment.  There’s no tension.  No drama.  It’s obvious from the very first frame (if we can still use that concept for movie discussion) that Life Sucks For Jake Sully, and in case you were wondering, it’s because Humanity is a Bunch of Big Jerks.

It’s sloppy storytelling, to pile a lot of unnecessary stuff on the plot salad; even aside from having to be motivated by something other than telling the story, since the story doesn’t need all the shaved cheese, croutons, bacon bits, and ranch dressing.  Why couldn’t the humans on Na’vi be people of goodwill, and have a sympathetic purpose, or at least one that’s justifiable from a mature perspective – but create problems with the Na’vi through the inevitable shortcomings of limited beings?  Why couldn’t Jake Sully have a genuine choice to make, one that generated real dramatic suspense, as opposed to what we actually get:  the minor annoyance of hoping this flick’ll go ahead and get his inevitable falling-out with the Evil Colonel Quaritch over with?

I guess for the same reason the mercenary army on Pandora couldn’t possibly be Russian or Chinese, but has to be a bunch of sneering, murderous Yanks led by a twang-talking fascist yokel.  It would take a lot – really, really a lot – to keep me from noticing with a cynical shake of the head Jake’s throw-away references late in the movie to there being no “green,” back on Earth, and to the people of Earth having killed their mother.  The really-a-lot just wasn’t there.  Give me a giant, economy-size break already.  Fantasy is overstepping its bounds when it makes stuff up out of thin air to rebuke us with; reality holds the seat as our judge and taskmaster.  There are, in fact, no Na’vi – there is no Pandora – and Earth is not being destroyed by humans.  In this sense, Avatar reminds me of the joke about the wife who swats her husband because she has dreamed that he was unfaithful.  When we’re in our right minds, we understand that to be a joke.

Interestingly, Star Trek has never struck me this way nearly so much.  There are no actual Vulcans either, no Romulans or Cardassians or Borg – but even in its most politically-allusive mode, Star Trek has somehow always managed to just tell stories, with recognizable and dramatically-interesting motives on all sides.  There was major politically-correct sanctimony in some of Next Generation, DS9, and Voyager, but the writing rarely veered into morality-play caricature, as that of Avatar, unfortunately, does.  (Star Trek also, of course, posits an Earth on which humans have learned, grown, and overcome problems.)

If there is anything disquieting about Avatar, it’s not so much the movie itself as the melancholy fact that there are apparently people out there who are nearly suicidal because they can’t have something other than the Earth we’ve got.  I’m not convinced there is a historical analogy for this.  It’s probably not very widespread, but only a colossally secure and wealthy civilization yields the leisure required for a phenomenon like this.  Being so dismissive and careless of the earth we do have; this earth, right here and right now with its 7 billion people; this earth that affords us many wonderful things and so much intellectual and psychological opportunity and interest – wanting desperately to exchange it for something else is the kind of sentiment that can only be cultivated in a civilizational hothouse.  No dirt farmer in Africa or hand-to-mouth fisherman in the South China Sea would feel this way.  It takes a very rich village, to raise a child who throws himself into this café-parlor disdain of what keeps him alive.

(For what it’s worth, I thought Pandora, though of course beautiful and a technical special effects marvel, looked suspiciously full of bugs, and probably very humid; an endless source of bad hair days.  It reminded me of the world of the movie Legend – that hilarious fantasy flick with Tom Cruise and Tim Curry – and of my reaction when I saw that in a theater years ago.  The screen was perpetually thick with spores and plant effluvia flying through the air, and it seemed necessary to keep the mouth closed and not breathe in too hard.  It was actually kind of unpleasant, for anyone who has ever suffered with spring allergies.)

Sure, go see Avatar.  Why not?  It’s got to be better than the Squeakquel.  Or that movie with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin.  Believe me, if special effects float your boat, it’ll be anchors keep up! for you.  My piece of Avatar trivia is that we experienced a minor earthquake during the movie, and the two-dozen or so people in the theater were all half out of our seats and looking around warily, just as the big battle got started toward the end.  During the battle the theater employees came tromping through with their flashlights to check things out.  Life goes on, here on Planet Earth – and Mother Nature’s alive and kicking.

Cross-posted at Zombie Contentions.


  1. Maybe it was Allan Bloom that pointed out that movies were being made more as testaments to ideology than entertainment beginning with Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde”. The revolutionary thoughts of the sixties weren’t limited to campus dorm all-nighters but infiltrated especially the big bucks and influential realms of music and cinema and became an ingrained part of the baby boomer psyche. I was an extra in Penn’s “Little Big Man” and being in on the production of what was actually a propaganda piece, albeit an entertaining and well-done example of the genre, was an eye-opener. Probably has to be well-done to be effective propaganda. We’ve seen more and more of these tales through the years, the “Hill Street Blues” TV series was a great example, and the Matt Dillon “Crash” move was particularly egregious. These don’t make much of an impression on jaded cynics like myself but the almost subliminal effects on the younger generation can’t be good.

    The saddest part about the movie scene is how little movies are discussed among movie goers. When one considers how much of an investment in thought, muscle and money goes into even a bad movie, compared to a novel, for instance, the comments about a film by regular fans are amazingly superficial. Evidently, the experience kind of washes over them, like most music, and afterward they seem unable to come up with much of an analysis other than “It was a pretty good movie” or “I thought it was kinda long.” What’s the point?

    • Perhaps movie makers should recognize and simply reconcile themselves to the fact that they’re essentially making bubble gum for 99% of the audience 99% of the time.

  2. That’s an interesting point about the superficiality of people’s movie comments, cm. It reminds me of being in grade school, and being warned by the teacher that the opening sentence “This was a good book” would not be acceptable in a book report. Those old teachers were determined to get us to think more intently and creatively.

    Sully is no doubt right, but there are, of course, genre movies that spark better levels of critical discussion. Lord of the Rings and the Star Trek franchise come to mind. Movies that are genuine war movies would be in there too. Of course, a whole lot of people (from the general populace) commenting on movies today are there more for the perceived fellowship of the online forum than to really exchange ideas.

    I always get a kick out of my rare visits to the Barnes and Noble closest to me. (It’s nearly an hour away over very annoying suburban California back roads, so I just don’t go that often.) But the phenomenon of discussion groups meeting at B&N and Borders is a very encouraging one. You hear people talking about literature, movies, and history, having Mom groups, holding Bible study — I even saw, at a B&N in San Diego a few years ago, a group of earnest guys in yarmulkas arguing vigorously over the battles of ancient Israel, just like thoroughly opinionated American Civil War aficionados.

    There are thoughtful people out there getting together. I suppose this kind of gathering has always represented a small minority of people, but it does happen. Web chatter is so accessible to so many people, I find that most of it is little short of idiotically banal — but you can find high-quality forums with a little effort, as the wonderful readers and commenters here at TOC demonstrate.

    • The thing about movies (and TV) is their potential for sheer reach; so I didn’t mean to take away from them as potential influencers. But, just as with books, it’s probable they’re influencers in inverse proportion to their degree of difficulty and seriousness simply because bubble gum sells better than cod liver oil, as a lot of recent obviously anti-war movies have proven. Plus, as Chuck Martel pointed out, most viewers take away at most a mental impression rather than detailed facts.

      But think on that potential influence. I wouldn’t be surprised, for instance, if a billion people have seen Gone with the Wind; a lot more than have read anything substantive about slavery, the antebellum South or the Civil War.

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