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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Cameron’s Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

“…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

– Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act V, Scene V

Sarah ConnorJames Cameron made two films that are high on my list of favorites: Terminator 2 and Aliens – not least because powerful women are central to the stories (even though he gave them the most conservative and clichéd motivation for heroism: maternal protectiveness).  He was a taut, visually inventive storyteller once.  But all his films after The Abyss increasingly resemble the Hindenburg: bloated, self-indulgent, lacking originality and subtlety in all but F/X.

The latest iteration, Avatar, is the culmination of these traits and a poster boy of the industry’s tendency to let CGI spectacle be the sole concern.  A quarter of a billion dollars went into the film, the GNP of a small country, yet they couldn’t pay a decent SF writer a paltry sum to give even a whiff of freshness to the story. The characters are stale broad stereotypes, the plot reheated canned slurry, the dialogue rusty nails scratching a cement slab. The borrowings are endless, starting with the ersatz Campbellian mythology that failed so abysmally to add resonance to Star Wars.  But the definitive stamp of hackery is that many elements are frank rip-offs of older Cameron creations.  The vaunted 3-D effects are devoid of unique payoff and the Pandoran life forms look like shiny hood ornaments.

The worldbuilding is equally shoddy.  As I said in SF Goes McDonald’s, scientific accuracy is not crucial in SF.  However, consistency and informed imagination are.  A moon as close to a gas giant as Pandora is would be awash in radiation and wracked by earthquakes and volcanoes like Jupiter’s Io.  Also, its independent biogenesis would give rise to life forms that would not remotely resemble us.  But let’s concede that point for the sake of audience identification.  Since all Pandoran animals are six-limbed and four-eyed, the Na’vi would share these evolutionary attributes.  This would actually make them far more interesting.

oceancoverThe clunky clichés and logic gaps of Avatar are wince-inducing even if you accept the film’s premises.  Here’s a species that’s essentially the “neocortex” of a sentient planet – yet they have… nuclear families and hereditary chiefs.  The conceptualizations of the avatars and of the Na’vi neural links to the Pandoran flora and fauna are too silly to dissect.  If the link worked as advertised, they wouldn’t need to hunt (or, conversely, killing an animal would have concrete physiological repercussions).  I discussed mind uploading in Ghost in the Shell. If you want to see a linked, communing ecosphere done right, read Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean or follow Odo’s individuation struggles in Deep Space 9. And if you want action with stunning animation, elegiac depth and heartbreaking stakes, watch Hayao Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime.

The Na’vi are sexed-up Ewoks and Pandora is a prelapsarian Eden where they can live dilemma-free with Stone Age technology.  Yet like all Others, they’re helpless until a White Alpha Male steps down literally from on high to rally them to battle, while in turn they enable him to reconnect with his inner Mother Earth anima.  Soft-focus imperialism and New Age fuzziness mix queasily with post-genocidal sentimentality about Noble Savages — a pernicious mindset that I described in And Ain’t I a Human?

It’s bad enough that films since the maturation of F/X have been aimed at 15-year-old boys.  Far worse is the fact that the most lavish Hollywood films have been made by their directors’ 15-year-old inner boys – tightly conjoined with plans for lunch boxes and video games whose complexity far exceeds that of the films.  Welcome to Infantileland, where crudity, banality and sloppiness rule, where clouds of sycophants allow directors to call themselves Emperor of the Universe or Master Jedi without a trace of irony.  In one of my visions of hell, I’m forced to endlessly watch Lucas’ Star Wars (except, perhaps, episode V), Jackson’s King Kong, all of Spielberg’s SF/F and Cameron’s Avatar.

Q'Orianka KilcherThere’s nothing wrong with adults enjoying Disney-level spectacle, as long as they don’t make it their moral, intellectual or esthetic measuring stick.  An artist with Cameron’s credibility and clout should undertake real challenges that inspire our innate desire to explore instead of recycling militaristic violence porn and preachy feel-good platitudes.  He did it incredibly well before, he can do it again.  And some childish dreams should remain dreams.  They work far better as beckoning beacons.

Images: top, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in James Cameron’s Terminator 2; middle, David Switzer’s cover for Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean; bottom, Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas in Terence Malick’s New World.

Update: The Huffington Post just re-printed this article. I’m donning my asbestos space suit!

Related articles:
Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Rat Brain
The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

96 Responses to “Cameron’s Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas”

  1. Nelson Highley says:

    As an avid reader of science fiction I agree with your criticisms of Avatar. Sadly, I don’t think that good science fiction would succeed with the public these days. There seems to be a growing rift between really good SF and the ability of most people to understand it, a comment on the growing unwillingness of many people to enjoy things that require them to THINK, I fear.

    Cameron may have made a cliched overly-simplistic movie but the success of Avatar shows that he got it pretty much right as far as getting it at a level that the public in general would accept.

    As an example; notice the inability of some of the religious types to understand that the movie is not about pantheism or whatever. Instead of accepting that the life on Pandora is different and part of a unified planet-straddling entity they insist in seeing it in terms of their own religious terms. Yes, the point wasn’t belabored in the movie but it does seem to have gone ‘way over the heads of the religious elements.

  2. Athena says:

    Nelson, I share your concerns. The growing unwillingness to think is a clear and present danger to the US culture and, given this culture’s power and influence, to the entire planet. Among other things, such a mindset can very easily lead to fascism, to say nothing of what it does to the pursuit and application of science.

    In two other blog articles I discuss the exact points that you raise, from two angles: the role of science fiction (SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle) and the feedback loop between movies and their viewers (Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain).

  3. Walden2 says:

    The Vatican is unhappy with all that nature worship going on in Avatar:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/12/vatican-slams-avatar-prom_n_419949.html

    They’re probably not big fans of Gaia, either.

    More evidence that Avatar is being taken seriously as a focal point for discussion on numerous topics by the general public whether it is actually any good or not.

  4. Athena says:

    The Vatican’s views of Avatar are completely in line with their hierarchical triumphalist script — “We’re nature’s stewards, not its dependents.”

    Of course Avatar is taken seriously, just as you do with a disastrous bank that’s “too big to fail.” Meanwhile, there are reports that after watching the movie, lots of people are depressed that they can’t live in a Pandora-like woo paradise. So instead of environmental activism or cross-cultural sensitization, we get tantrums of “Why can’t we stay in Never Land forever, mommy?”

  5. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    Yes. You’ve touched upon all the issues many internet communities are unhappy with when it comes to this movie. Most especially the “it takes a white guy to fix paradise.” But a tired rehashed plot is a close runner up.

    No wonder entitled young white men enjoyed this one so much. Dump the glitter over their heads and make them the heros and suddenly you’re a genius.

    My main objection to this movie is as I stated elsewhere: I have a moral objection to a movie that cost $500 million or more to make when some of the very sorts of indigenous cultures it glorifies suffer, starve and die on THIS planet, while we shell out money to sit in movie theaters and make demi-gods of fair to middlin’ Hollywood directors.

  6. Athena says:

    No wonder entitled young white men enjoyed this one so much. Dump the glitter over their heads and make them the heros and suddenly you’re a genius.

    Bull’s-eye! In today’s US popular culture, genius means reinforcing prevailing prejudices and stereotypes. In this case, egregiously. It provides instant validation — in spiffy togs, yet.

  7. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    “In today’s US popular culture, genius means reinforcing prevailing prejudices and stereotypes.”

    Bit of a terrifying testament to what eight years can do, ni? We went from a culture that stood on the brink of becoming something vaguely resembling a meritocracy, (i realize this is a bit of a reaching statement – but compared to now?), to one which worships the ascendancy of the white alfa male.

  8. Athena says:

    You should see the mindsets in so-called futurist “progressive” circles. “Alpha male rape genes”, “female brains wired for coyness”, full-bore knuckle-dragging Tarzanism from AI cubicleers and hack SF authors. One more tick upwards and there will be witch burnings.

  9. Walden2 says:

    Article on how some people want Pandora to be real and showing real
    life (on Earth) parallels to Pandoran life forms:

    http://martianchronicles.wordpress.com/2010/01/12/how-to-cure-the-avatar-blues/

  10. Athena says:

    That’s not surprising — it completely validates Aaron Bady’s spoiled little boy critique. As I indirectly said in Lab Rat Cinema (and repeatedly over at Centauri Dreams), instead of any kind of social or environmental activism we get tantrums of “Why can’t we stay in Never-Disneyland FOREVER, mommy?”

  11. Walden2 says:

    Lots of good information and links to other sites on Pandoran biology
    at the Biology in Science Fiction blog here:

    http://sciencefictionbiology.blogspot.com/2010/01/more-pandoran-biology.html

  12. Athena says:

    Peggy is excellent with this type of overview. Of course, it would be even better if Avatar had some real biology to discuss.

  13. Walden2 says:

    One hope is that maybe Avatar will inspire some people to become biologists and maybe even exobiologists.

  14. Walden2 says:

    Avatar is now the biggest money-making film of all time, beating
    Cameron’s own Titanic from 1997:

    http://paralleluniverse.msn.com/features/movies/the-wrap/avatar-sinks-titanic/story/?gt1=28140

  15. Walden2 says:

    Athena, you might get a knowing kick out of this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXraSkgssFk

  16. Athena says:

    Yep! Great animation, by the way.

  17. Eloise says:

    Just a wee article to further the discussion ;)

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/07/movies/awardsseason/07scott.html?ref=movies

    Cheers,

    Eloise :)

  18. Athena says:

    Eloise, this line of thought brings us into Antigone territory: if there are two sets of incompatible laws and one set is deemed more fundamental than the other, breaking the other set is not a transgression.

    In Antigone’s case, the ancient law about burying blood kin superseded Creon’s edict to leave all who fought against Thebes exposed as traitors. In the cases of people who are “between” cultures, those who behave humanely are deemed heroes, even if they betray the agenda of their natal culture.

    That, however, comes to pass only when the dominant culture revisits the events of the conflict and adopts a revisionist attitude (part genuine recognition, part sentimentalization, part guilt). By then, the conflict has long been settled in favor of the dominant group, so mea culpas are comforting and risk-free.

  19. Walden2 says:

    “Today on Discovery Enterprise we take an imaginary voyage to the world of Pandora depicted in the motion picture Avatar and look at the possibility of humanity one day taking a very real interstellar odyssey to worlds beyond our solar system.”

    http://discoveryenterprise.blogspot.com/2010/02/voyage-to-pandora-humanitys-first.html

  20. Walden2 says:

    The real Avatar: ocean bacteria act as ’superorganism’

    New Scientist Life

    Feb. 24, 2010

    Aarhus University scientists have found that sulphur-eating bacteria that live in muddy sediments beneath the sea floor may be connected by a network of microbial nanowires that could shuttle electrons back and forth, allowing communities of bacteria to act as one super-organism.

    Analogously, in the movie Avatar, the Na’avi people of Pandora…

    http://www.kurzweilai.net/email/newsRedirect.html?newsID=11865&m=25748

  21. Athena says:

    Ummm… not quite! And New Scientist has been drifting towards the mystical for a while now.

  22. Eloise says:

    Well…

    Kathryn Bigelow has just become the first woman ever to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker. In a face-off with James Cameron and Avatar.

    I haven’t seen either of the movies yet, but all I can say is that it’s an awesome start for this year’s Women’s Day. The time has come.

    Cheers,

    Eloise :)

  23. Athena says:

    About time, too — long, long overdue. Best picture, too. *does a victory dance*

  24. Athena says:

    A web site has the following poll:

    “What was your favorite part of tonight’s Oscars?”

    — James Cameron losing.
    — James Cameron not winning.
    — James Cameron being denied.
    — James Cameron stuck in his seat while the Ex grabbed the glory.
    — Interpretive dance showing the failure of James Cameron.

    I guess I’m not the only one who feels good… *snerk*

  25. Apparently Avatar’s Oscar upset prompted Ray Kurzweil to watch the movie :-P … and it looks like he shares some of your sentiment but maybe for some different/some shared reasons: linky

    Weird??? Guess I just always pictured him as one of those post-human types of opposite polarity from you Athena. But in this case that opposing polarity caused both yours and his thumbs to go down. I’m conjuring images of magnetic thumbs… good grief.

  26. Athena says:

    Well, Avatar’s defects were pretty obvious, so it’s not surprising that anyone with a brain would discover and list them. Note also that Kurzweil’s main beef was with the portrayal of technology as evil, whereas mine were 1) shoddy worldbuilding, 2) silly science and 3) whiteboi messiah syndrome.

    I must confess that I indulged in Schadenfreude on Sunday night.

  27. Walden2 says:

    “Avatar” Director James Cameron Follows Box Office Success with Advocacy for Indigenous Struggles

    On the heels of his record-setting Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, the film director James Cameron is taking on a new role as an activist, allying himself with indigenous struggles he says mirror the plot of his film.

    In Avatar, an indigenous species called the Na’vi resists the private military force of a powerful corporation bent on exploiting their planet’s valuable minerals.

    Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté caught up with James Cameron to discuss Avatar, Cameron’s opposition to the Belo Monte in Brazil, last week’s peoples’ climate summit in Bolivia, and his reaction to seeing Avatar embraced by indigenous people worldwide, from the Amazon to the Occupied Territories.

    Listen/Watch/Read

    http://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/27/avatar_director_james_cameron_follows_box

  28. Athena says:

    Aack! Another celeb doing the social cause bit. Bottom line: Is he donating Avatar profits to this cause?

  29. Rene says:

    I basically thought the story line of Avatar was ‘Dances with Wolves’ in space.
    Very predictable and the visuals were not as impressive as everyone raved about.

    I agree with many of the previous posts. Most people can barely pass 8th grade level science equivalency exams so to present complex story lines utilizing esoteric scientific concepts would guarantee box office failure.

    In the end, the all mighty dollar determines the scope of our entertainment.

  30. Athena says:

    You’re on the button, Rene. Research has shown that a film’s box office returns correlate directly to its budget (in particular, the portion spent on PR).

  31. Eloise says:

    Another article on cinematic technologies:

    http://denofgeek.com/movies/482286/message_to_hollywood_why_imax_beats_3d_every_time.html

    The McDonald’s analogy in one of the comments is utterly priceless…

    Cheers,

    Eloise :)

  32. Walden2 says:

    We are on our way to having giant blue alien bodies!

    First Person Experience of Body Transfer in Virtual Reality PLoS one

    May 12, 2010

    European researchers have used immersive virtual reality in the first experiment to show that body ownership can be transferred to a virtual body.

    A first-person perspective of a life-sized virtual human female body that appears to substitute the male subjects’ own bodies was sufficient to generate a body transfer illusion. The results…

    http://www.kurzweilai.net/email/newsRedirect.html?newsID=12166&m=25748

  33. Web design says:

    Avatar is a great movie, I really liked it and as Walden2 said, the good point is that I’m pretty sure this movie will inspire lots of people to become biologists or exobiologists in the future.
    Anyway, you have to like nature after seeing it and just for this (although this movie is incredible) it’s definitely a great movie.
    Great article by the way.

  34. Athena says:

    As I said to others, to each their own. However, I sincerely doubt that anyone will become either a biologist or a nature lover after seeing Avatar. And for the bucks spent, the movie’s bang was more like a fizzle. Even How to Train Your Dragon had a better signal to noise ratio — to say nothing of that hidden gem, The Secret of Kells, which I discuss briefly in The Unibrow Theory of Art.

  35. Walden2 says:

    Cameron shows life on Earth in new ‘Avatar’ scene

    New extended DVD version of the hit movie has scenes with Jake Sully on Earth before leaving for Pandora

    LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Cameron is giving “Avatar” a fresh start.

    Cameron unveiled a new opening scene Tuesday for an extended cut of his sci-fi blockbuster due out Nov. 16 on DVD and Blu-ray disc, the sequence offering a glimpse of life on crowded, polluted 22nd-century Earth, where city dwellers are bombarded by digital ads and wear masks for protection from the foul air.

    The sequence that Cameron showed reporters depicts the dreary existence of his hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), before he’s invited to join the Avatar program on the distant moon Pandora.

    Full article here:

    http://entertainment.msn.com/beacon/editorial10_poll.aspx?GT1=28140&ptid=58750d39-b9a4-4874-90ed-b917d92a7f71&silentchk=1&wa=wsignin1.0

  36. Athena says:

    Interesting, Larry — this sounds like the original screenplay that was circulated on the Web at some point.

  37. Walden2 says:

    Cameron says Avatar starts when Jake meets his future alien girlfriend, but they really needed to start off showing how bad things are on Earth in 2154 to make the audience understand why they were mining Pandora.

    Of course if we see that human civilization is decaying in the film story, then it might make things more gray regarding how to feel about bombing the Na’vi out of their home to get that unobtainium. It is pretty clear that Cameron wants us rooting for the big blue aliens and not sympathizing with future humanity trying to survive its own mistakes.

    They seem to be fixing that now, but the initial impression from when Avatar was first released last year has already been made. Avatar could have been a more complex and therefore more compelling story, but as you and others have pointed out before, the film sinks to the equivalent of an adolescent male fantasy about saving the world, getting the girl, and becoming cool in the process.

  38. Athena says:

    In your recent Fear of Aliens post, you pointed out how unobtainium cannot be so rare that they have to rip apart a habitable planet to get it. And in our own universe, between this and the announcement that Lucas will re-release all of Star Wars in 3-D, the long-term stupidification of SF/F films is assured.

  39. Walden2 says:

    That is why I have maintained that Star Wars undid a decade or more of increasingly intelligent SF films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and has dominated the genre ever since, with no end in sight.

    Speaking of Avatar, this is funny:

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/aliens_avatar

  40. Athena says:

    Very funny! And the point-by-point comparison is just great!

  41. Walden2 says:

    Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets site has a rather detailed piece on the starship seen briefly in the beginning of Avatar:

    http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/realdesigns.php#Avatar_ISV_Venture_Star

    Interesting that so much accuracy was put into the ISV Venture Star over the biology of Pandora in terms of originality and such.

  42. Athena says:

    Indeed. That often happens in so-called “hard” SF — to paraphrase Tom Lehrer, as long as the rockets go up, who cares on what they come down?

  43. Walden2 says:

    One clue about Avatar 2: It will be underwater.

    http://movies.msn.com/paralleluniverse/michelle-rodriguez-talks-avatar-sequel/story/feature/?GT1=28140

    So does this mean it takes places in the oceans of Pandora, which we know it has as seen from orbit and in one scene on the ground – or does it mean we will be visiting the other moons circling the gas giant planet Polyphemus, as was rumored shortly after Avatar 1 came out?

  44. Athena says:

    The grammar and spelling of the comments there (to say nothing of the content) makes me despair for humanity.

  45. coolstar says:

    I saw Avatar in 3-D when it came out and thought it was the only effective use of 3-D in a full movie up until that time (the last Harry Potter movie now joins that very short list).
    The astronomy in Avatar is quite believable, by the way. Consider Ganymede, Callisto, and Jupiter for instance. Jupiter would subtend about 2 degrees (4 times that of the full moon) on Ganymede and be roughly half that apparent size from Callisto. Larger and less dense exoplanets are known. Both are far enough away that given a slower rotation period for the giant and their own strong magnetic field that charged particles in the parent planet’s magnetosphere don’t have to be a problem. Tides wouldn’t be disastrous for life but instead very necessary as they might energize plate tectonics on the tidally locked Pandora (yeah, Pandora was rotating too quickly as it most likely would be tidally locked, I’ll give you that one) and convection in their cores so they could have a magnetic field. Neither Ganymede or particularly Callisto are extremely active geologically, so they’re far enough away (tidal forces on Callisto are about 3 times that of those on the Earth’s moon since tidal forces scale as the mass divided by the distance cubed). Pandora would have to be larger than Ganymede or Callisto to hang on to an atmosphere but we don’t have a great understanding of how big moons for gas giants CAN be. The study of exoplanet moons (none of which have yet been found) in the habitable zones of their stars as abodes for life is a very active field in astrobiology.

  46. Athena says:

    Beyond the issue of tidal lock, the Galilean moons are awash in Jupiter’s radiation (not a showstopper for life underneath ground or water, but a problem for the surface, shown to possess Amazonian lushness in Avatar).