I’m having a difficult time remembering a film that has incensed me as much as James Cameron’s latest effort, Avatar. I have never had a great deal of respect for Cameron’s work, the first two Terminator films exempted. In fact, his greatest commercial success, Titanic, has always been one of my most despised films. However, with Avatar, Cameron has truly done something monstrous.
I know there have been several complaints about this film that have been floating around, the small controversies about the notions of racial loyalty, the white man’s savior complex and Sigourney Weaver’s incessant smoking. Even the Catholic Church has strongly criticized the films endorsement of nature worship. I think all of these small critiques are hitting around what is really really wrong with this film.
The fact is that James Cameron has put forth one of the most astounding achievements in cinematography ever. The film is a simply breathtaking visual feast from the first frame to the last. For the first time, digital filmmaking has the ability to allow us to enter an imaginary world without constantly being reminded of the artifacts of the computer. Yes, the artifacts are still there in the background, but you can quickly forget them and just revel at the beauty of an imagined world.
And the world he has created is simply astounding. There were places in the film where my eyes misted up at the sheer beauty of what I was seeing. The delicacy of the jungle plants, the glowing seeds that undulate like a jelly fish, the little gnat that hovers at the edge of your vision while you take in this world in amazing 3D; all of it is almost too much to take in. You just want to pause and rewind parts of this film just to check out what is sitting at the far edge of the screen. Here is a visual representation of all the magic and wonder that has kept so many fans running back to Tolkien generation after generation.
So, to create such an amazing world and then tack on a story so trite, petty and moronic is simple appalling. It’s not the particular political message of the film that really disturbs me, it’s that the film has a political message at all. Of all the things to talk about in a film of such visual attractiveness, politics should be the absolute last. And then to make the politics some sort of watered down collection of populist messages combined with a dash of primitivist theology held in a saccharin wrapper of utopianism is almost sickening. Maybe if this film could have had some serious complexity to its social message a la Lawrence of Arabia (another visually astounding film) I could have forgiven it a little for having a political track. However, no, that was not to be.
I’m not indulging in hyperbole here, but I felt very similarly watching this film to my viewings of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia. No, of course there is nothing here that rivals the evils of National Socialism. However, Riefenstahl was an absolute technical master who changed the world of filmmaking. Unfortunately, in creating her technical masterpieces she combined them with a message of such stupidity and wrongheadedness that most of what could have been in her films was lost. Here too Cameron has ruined all that he achieved technically by seeking to have a “message”.
This could have been a coming of age story about a young Na’vi child coming to know this world he lives in or a love story about two distant lovers making there way across the vast landscape to find each other. Heck, this could have just been a serious version of The Gods Must Be Crazy. Anything but what was done here would have been preferable. It’s almost as if, that after creating David out of living marble, Michelangelo decided that the public would only like it if it was covered in excrement and went right out to find the nearest outhouse.
The worst thing about Avatar is the fact that I’m still going to recommend to friends that they see it. It’s still so beautiful that I can’t stop myself. However, if you can find some, get a really good set of ear plugs and make up a better story as it goes along. Maybe then you can appreciate this film for what it could have been.