Reviewed by Roz Kaveney
06 January 2010
James Cameron's Avatar has attracted more intense analysis, and been held accountable by standards rather higher, than is normal for expensive SF extravaganzas. When one likes the film quite a lot, as I do, it becomes necessary to address critiques which have some validity, and also to look at the extent to which Cameron intermittently, but not unintelligently, pre-emptively covered at least some of the arguments raised against him. (Inevitably, this means that this review will contain many very detailed spoilers.)
To begin with, a quick summary is in order. Twenty-second century Earth is a war-torn dystopian capitalist mess; Pandora is an idyllic world whose inhabitants lead a life integrated with nature—and this is, as human scientists have discovered, no mere metaphor. Pandoran life forms, both animal and apparently vegetable, are either permanently wired into each other's nervous systems or can do so on a regular basis via tassles, clusters of small tentacles. It is strongly implied throughout, and by the end more or less explicit, that the Pandoran biosphere is literally a vast, intelligent, and reasoning being; the Pandorans live in the objective presence of their god Eywa. The Pandoran atmosphere is inimical to Earth life—humans can only breathe it for a couple of minutes without toxic consequences. For this and a number of other reasons, "avatars" have been developed, blends of human and Pandoran DNA which can be inhabited by a sleeping human mind and lapse into sleep when the human wakes up—interestingly, the Pandorans know perfectly well that these avatars are alien creatures.
One of these avatars has been constructed for a scientist called Sully, who was killed in a mugging; his crippled ex-Marine twin Jake (Sam Worthington) is brought in to inhabit it and intrigues the Pandorans partly because he is a warrior and partly because one of their sacred trees indicates that they should. When he is lost and alone in the Pandoran forest, he is suddenly covered in the tree's seed pods and the Pandoran woman Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) reads this as a sign of Eywa's favour. Commissioned by the mercenaries employed by the mining company that is paying for exploration of Pandora to spy out the land, his loyalties gradually shift from his employers and former colleagues to the scientists and the Pandorans, and he realizes that the Na'vi, the people who have taken him in, will not and cannot let themselves be relocated away from the site the company wants to mine, the site of the sacred tree, which is, as it turns out, one of the main nodes of the planet-wide nervous system that Pandoran plant life represents. The tree is nonetheless destroyed, and Sully and the scientists become renegades, helping the Pandorans fight back to defend another even more essential tree-node which the mercenaries have decided to destroy in order to break the Pandorans' spirit permanently. They win and expel the miners and mercenaries from Pandora; Sully asks the tree system to transfer his mind permanently from his human body to his avatar, and it does so.
Some immediate criticisms of this are rendered less effective by the fact that Cameron apparently hopes to make two sequels. The assumption, for example, that Earth will not let matters rest here is not, accordingly, a plot hole but a potential generator of plot. The cruder version of this criticism takes the form of "why don't the humans nuke Pandora from orbit" (to misquote an earlier Cameron film)—the answer to which is twofold, firstly that if you want to mine a rare mineral, contaminating it with massive radiation is a good way to render it unfit for any purpose you have in mind, and secondly that while governments might let mining companies and their thugs have free rein to the extent of genocidal violence, that is not the same as giving them access to nukes.
Unusually for this sort of planetary romance, especially in the movies, the Pandorans are not a monoculture, but a group of societies closely linked by the planet-wide network of plant intelligence. We don't see much of any of the other groups because Jake spends his time with the Na'vi, but at least they exist—and are there to be shown in the sequels. Similarly, although what we see even of Na'avi society is limited, if Cameron has his way we can expect a far fuller picture. Avatar is a long film but there are limits to the number of narrative points it can address, particularly when its main purpose is to show us an unfallen world, not without its dangers and conflicts—if the Na'vi have warriors, presumably there are Pandoran wars—but preferable to the bleak future which faces us, and which is Jake's present.
The most important and telling criticism levelled at the film—to the extent of causing some people to boycott it altogether—is that its central plot structure is a standard neo-colonialist one, in which the Pandorans need the help of a superior being, a white American, to survive and the story is about him, not about them. The argument is that, even granted that sometimes members of a privileged group renounce privilege, telling their story inevitably still privileges them above the unprivileged group whose story is not being told. This charge is not, let us be clear, without merit, though it is hard to see how a film with any other plot structure could be scripted, let alone made in Hollywood at vast expense.
As well as being the Great White Saviour, Jake is that most useful of plot devices, the protagonist who has to be told things; he is also the Man Who Learns Better, and discards earlier convictions; he is also someone who cheerfully signs up for complicity with what he comes to realize is atrocity, and has quite a lot of expiation to do. Yes, the story is about him, but all stories have to be about somebody—Jake is somebody who has been part of the most negative aspects of human society and who comes to understand that he has been exploited and spat out. His relationship to privilege is complicated even at the start. It may be fanciful to think his surname a reference to the great French Protestant rebel and statesman, but, given Cameron's form in such matters as embodied elsewhere in the film, possibly not.
It might be superficially appealing to reimagine the story so that it could have been about a Pandoran coming to understand the degradation of human society. This is superficially attractive, save for the fact that we would need to be shown from the film's inception the underlying assumptions from which such a protagonist was operating. We would need to have an entire alien world and society shown us in what would end up being "As you know, Bob" conversations, and with the risk that such a protagonist's naivete about human institutions would end up being portrayed in a way best described as minstrelsy. Moreover, the process of thinking oneself into the mindset of a Na'vi would almost inevitably involve an even greater appropriation of the identities of actually existing forest hunter-gatherer peoples, which would itself be problematic.
Though the main character arc is Jake's, it should be mentioned that his Na'vi lover Neytiri is a lot more than just a love interest; she trains him in the way of a Na'vi warrior, she is disillusioned when she discovers that he has betrayed them, she kills the blood-thirsty racist human commander Quaritch, and she saves the life of Jake's human body in a moment that shows her both reaching past surfaces to essence, and accepting emotionally as well as intellectually that this is the person she has come to love. If there are to be sequels, it is to be hoped that her story will end more happily than that of Pocohontas; she is one of the film's several moral centres in the way that she teaches Jake to look into the soul of things. "I see you" is one of the key statements of the Na'vi way of life: the words that are said to an animal killed for safety or food, and to a lover at the moment of commitment.
In a post-colonial world, in which we are all dealing with our unconscious assumptions about racism, sexism, imperialism, and capitalism as normative, it is imperative that stories about contacts between cultures be told and inevitable and correct that they will be subject to criticism. These are conversations that need to be had, rather than a set of demands and rules to which creators should sign up. The demand that creators not screw up needs to be the demand that creators try to minimize their screw-ups—and this, I would argue, Cameron has at least endeavoured to do. (District 9 by comparison not only included a lot of "everyone needs a honky" tropes, but was actively, cheerfully, and perniciously racist in its portrayal of Nigerians.) It is not to ignore the problems of any portrayal of these issues to say that sometimes we should avoid making the best be the enemy of the good.
Cameron has made this a film whose hero undergoes two simultaneous and linked conversion experiences, rather than one. The scientists regard Sully as a dumb thug; the Na'vi regard him as a stupid human, and he is driven by the need to prove himself to both groups. In some ways this makes things easier for Cameron: it makes it rather more plausible, for instance, that Sully manages to cram the training of a Na'vi warrior into a few months. He is a highly trained warrior already, who needs to learn a lot of new techniques and start to understand a new way of life—since he is in the process of falling in love with his principal trainer, he has an additional set of motivations. We see that he has adapted already to losing his legs and is fiercely protective of his autonomy and new skills in a society that treats him either as baggage or as an object of pity.
He has lost not only his legs but his twin brother—fairly clearly his identical twin brother, since use of his brother's avatar is predicated on their having identical genomes. Sully has always thought of himself as the dumb, physical brother—in the same period that he becomes a Na'vi warrior, he crash-learns their language partly because he is undergoing an intensive course of study when he is awake in his human body. He also comes to understand that the habit of close tactical observation in which he has been trained as a soldier is not so different from the intense power of observation that a scientist needs. It is because this is the story of Sully's redemption that the scientist mentor whose respect he is as keen to gain as the Na'vi woman he gradually falls for is called Grace Augustine—I did not say that Cameron was subtle.
St Augustine was, of course, the principal Christian theoretician of Original Sin, of the Fall of humanity from grace, so it was always pretty much a given that the Tree the Na'vi inhabit and have a worshipful relationship with was going to Fall, because human beings are fallen creatures and have brought sin to an unfallen world. There are two trees on Pandora—just as there are in much Christian thought: for the latter, the Cross is seen as a tree that is the instrument of redemption just as the tree in Eden was the occasion of the Fall. This is not to imply that Avatar is in any sense a Christian allegory so much as to point out that Cameron, an atheist as far as I know, knows a good mythic story pattern when he sees one; this is, after all, an auteur whose Aliens is full of triple goddess imagery.
Sully betrays one Na'vi tree by describing its internal structure to Quaritch, head of the mercenaries, who uses the information to target the missiles that destroy it; he appeals to the other tree, the Tree of Souls, to help him save it. Significantly, the Tree of Souls has absorbed the memories of Grace Augustine to which he can appeal as evidence for the absolute need of the planetary intelligence to take a stand itself. "We killed our Mother long ago." Sully explains; his conversion includes praying to an actually existing god. The Pandoran understand the fallen nature of humans, but do so intellectually; he, Grace, and their few human allies do so from the inside. Humans fell—we are told—by the desire to know good and evil; the few redeemed humans teach that knowledge to the Pandoran biosphere in order to save it from an equivalent fall.
And while of course the name Pandora is not what its inhabitants call their world, it is interesting that the name the humans have given it is one which links it to another human version of the Fall, just as much as if they had called it Eden, as well they might. Pandora's curiosity unleashed evil into the world, but left humanity with hope. The Greek myth, like the Judaeo-Christian one, has a misogynist element; Jake's betrayal is his and his alone—and his desire to be reconciled with the two women he feels himself accountable to, Neytiri and Grace, is crucial to his choice to redeem himself, by helping the Na'vi save themselves. Moreover Jake betrays the Na'vi twice over, the first time deliberately by agreeing to spy on them and the scientists as a way of getting his legs repaired by the company, and later inadvertently. Video blog entries in which he expresses his growing conviction that the Na'vi will not relocate are appropriated by Quaritch as evidence of the need to move to military action. (It is worth pointing out that this sort of appropriation of video blogs by the military is a live subject of debate among actual current anthropologists involved in debates about Human Terrain projects.)
Like other messiahs, Jake goes through a period of being despised and rejected—the Na'vi generally, and Neytiri in particular, see him rightly as their betrayer. To see Jake's riding of the great red dragon-creature, the Tokkar, simply in terms of his ascending to godhood is to fail to understand that it is only thus that he can get the Na'vi to listen to him at all. Quite explicitly, once victory is won, he sends the Tokkar away and renounces the prestige riding it has brought him—the presence of a dead and preserved Tokkar in the Na'vi hall indicates that previous riders have not given their role up. Even when Jake takes on the role, he makes a point of conciliating the young Na'vi war leader who has consistently mocked and threatened him, and who was betrothed to Neytiri before Jake came into her life; he becomes one of their leaders rather than their leader.
Jake, and the other humans like Trudy Machon (Michelle Rodriguez), who abandon their own people to fight for the Na'vi, bring something actual to the mix. Trudy, of course, brings the helicopter that she pilots and uses suicidally to ram other aircraft; they bring some guns and grenades. Most importantly, they bring Jake's knowledge—some tactical skills, and some pieces of practical knowledge such as the need to go in fast and close head-on to the human aircraft and shoot arrows directly into the cockpit's front window, so as to achieve maximum momentum and kill pilots, rather than letting them glance off the sides. The Na'vi's close spiritual relationship to the land, plants, and animals of their world does not necessarily mean that they intuit the Laws of Motion.
One of the interesting things about Cameron's handling of environmental themes in Avatar is that he has taken one of the standard clichés of pro-environmental sentimentality and rendered it literally true in this science fictional context. The Pandorans genuinely do plug into the natural world via the tassles of nerve fibres which feature in all Pandoran animal life, whether as tails or facial tendrils; the Pandoran biosphere really is one great nervous system; the Pandorans' memories, and indeed Grace's, continue to exist inside the Tree of Souls. (This is almost too good to be true—indeed, I would not be entirely surprised were it to turn out in a later film that Pandora is a post-technological world and that the Pandorans' ancestors bio-engineered this garden. Some carpers have decried the world-building as simplistic—the fact that we probably have two more movies in which to look at Pandora answers that point.)
Cameron has always disliked large corporations in precisely the way you would expect of an artist who is obliged to work with them in order to promote his personal projects. The company in Avatar thinks in short termist ways about the value of rare minerals rather than the financial possibilities of Pandoran life forms. The company's man Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) dismisses everything that Grace Augustine tells him about her discoveries as hippy drug fantasies and is as prepared to kill for a small profit for his shareholders and a boost to his career as was his equivalent Burke in Aliens, and is treated with equal contempt.
Even more than an anti-capitalist film—which it clearly is in its simplistic way—Avatar is a film with serious reservations about corruption of warrior values within the military-industrial complex. Quaritch—Stephen Lang—has Miles as his first name, the Latin word for soldier, which makes him potentially a representative of all soldiers. He is a man in love with death, in particular the death of other living creatures. Quaritch carries large knives with him in his military exoskeleton—it's probably worth remembering that General George Patton always wore pearl-handled revolvers in his tank, and that Patton is, as portrayed by George C. Scott, very much the movie archetype to which Cameron is referring back, and who won his spurs in colonial conflict. Aliens—for which he made his cast read Heinlein's Starship Troopers—was a film in which the military life was viewed—not uncynically but with considerable respect; here we notice from the start such negative attitudes among Quaritch's command as their complete lack of respect for a crippled former comrade.
It is not just because of our liking for the Pandorans that we cheer when the military—engaged in a mission that is specifically linked to Iraq by Quaritch's "shock and awe" language—gets its collective arse kicked. Quaritch is specifically seen as demonic in that he tempts Jake with the restoration of his legs. The battle in which he is defeated, and the fight in which he is killed, are also set pieces full of money shots; this is an American film in which we cheer the defeat of a U.S.-style military machine by armed insurgents. The progressive intelligentsia should remember how deeply the film is hated by the Christian and neo-conservative right in America.
Trudy Machon, the pilot who regards the destruction of the tree as a war crime and refuses to take part, is one of the film's four strong female characters: Grace Augustine—Sigourney Weaver; Neytiri; Trudy; Neytiri's mother (C. C. H. Pounder). This is is three more strongly characterized strong women than most Hollywood films and only one of them is the love interest. No-one would call Cameron a feminist, but he respects women and gives them decent parts in his movies.
The point of the movie is its sheer physical beauty. Pandora is almost entirely one huge special effect, an alien world which is not a quarry, or a sand dune, or the forests of the North Pacific coast, and it is often breathtaking. The 3-D effects only occasionally obtrude by sticking a spear-head into one's face—mostly they lend this imaginary world solidity. It might be argued that Pandoran life is a little too close in appearance to Terran analogs—I suspect that they are just alien enough to be clearly so while remaining creatures whose role in an ecology can be recognized by the average viewer.
The Pandorans—humanoids whose looks draw on spider monkeys, cats, and geckoes—are convincingly individualized, all the more so if you compare them with the mass-produced crowds of Titanic. (Some people have criticized the fact that the Pandorans are all based on motion capture of actors of colour; I take it that the point here is to help ensure that we always see the human/Pandoran avatars as clearly different enough that no Pandoran ever thinks of them as precisely the same. It will also doubtless have affected the dynamics between the actors.)
There is an issue with the writing, as there always is with Cameron's work, and that issue is his sticky-fingered approach to other people's work. In Avatar, his borrowings and debts are so many and various that it seems churlish to complain; SF has always been full of echoes and downright thefts. Nonetheless, it seems worth mentioning Cameron's debt to Heinlein, McCaffrey, Le Guin's "The Word for World Is Forest", Anderson's "And Call Me Joe", Harry Harrison's Deathworld and doubtless much else, as well as an equivalent list of movies. He does not so much transform all this material as change it into an assemblage that works.
His early films had comparatively elegant dialogue that to some degree is missing here, as it was in Titanic. Given his record of success, I very much doubt that Cameron is contenting himself with mediocre writing and think it more likely that he is writing on the assumption that his dialogue will have to be translated effectively into every language on the planet and appeal to audiences less acquainted with the long history of its tropes than are readers of Strange Horizons. Titanic was successful because it played well in other cinematic cultures—the Taliban felt obliged to ban Leo DiCaprio haircuts—and it will be interesting to see how Avatar plays outside an Anglo-American context. I suspect that people in Moldova, Botswana, and Papua New Guinea will like it as much as I did; it is certainly playing well in Brazil and Indonesia, that is to say, in countries that are the front-line of the destruction of the remaining rain forests and their inhabitants. With all its flaws, it is conceivable that Avatar is a film which, in some of the places where it will be seen, might make a difference.