Avatar: Best Movie Ever?

This was a good movie weekend.  On New Year’s Day we took the kids to see The Frog and the Princess.  It was a wonderful Disney children’s film, with a positive message, good music, and fun.  Nothing  political or controversial, just one of the better Disney films.  But yesterday we (sans kids)  braved a significant snow storm (20 or so inches) to see Avatar.   It was worth it.

I was skeptical at first.  I have never liked 3-D movies or other-worldly ‘fantasy’ films.   Lord of the Rings was utterly forgettable to me.   However, the 3-D effects were so woven into the story that you could literally forget you had the glasses on.  It didn’t have the gimmicky 3D tricks; instead, I felt transported into the beautiful, exotic, and intriguing world of Pandora.   The beauty of the film cannot be understated – James Cameron created a world that was both delightful and exotic, I would watch it again for that alone.

The story, however, was both timely and powerful.   Spoiler alert: do not read further if you do not want to know details of the movie. Pandora appears to be a moon of Jupiter, able to support life.  It is 2154, and the earth is in dire straights.  From the dialogue one hears that there have been wars in Nigeria, Venezuela and elsewhere, as apparently there has been a fight for oil and resources.  Pandora has a vastly sought after mineral, oddly named Unobtanium, which will earn the corporation mining it huge amounts of money — and perhaps save the earth from an energy crisis that will cause collapse.   A private corporation with hired “security” — mostly former military people — are there to protect the mining operation.  Alas, a primitive native tribe lives right where the mining is supposed to occur.  They refuse to leave, as the Earth folk have nothing of value to them.

This could be Dances With Wolves meets Star Wars.   As a sop to the scientists, there is an effort to reach out to the natives and bribe them to leave their hometree (a huge mega-tree).   To make communication easier “Avatars” are created, genetically engineered bodies which allow the humans to take the form of the natives, transferring brain functions from their own body (held in a coffin like chamber) to the Avatar.   The hero, an ex-marine there only because his scientist twin brother was killed and the Avatar is built around an individual’s genetic code, is to provide security for the scientists.   On his first mission he gets separated and lost, only to be rescued by a native who has a sign not to kill this “dream walker.”

I won’t go into much more detail.  The hero Jake (who in his human body has lost the use of his legs)  learns the ways of the natives and realizes that attacking them would be an act of evil.  Yet before he realized this, he had given very helpful information to the military.   The Navi accept him, and after learning their language and ways, initiate him into their clan.  But the military is ready to strike, and he has to somehow defeat a high tech military power.   The messages that stick out to me, however, go beyond the plot:

1) We killed our mother.   In a poignant scene of prayer at the spirit-tree, Jake in his Navi body asks for help in defeating the Earth forces.   He realizes that Pandora is a web of life, and in describing the forces about to attack he says “we killed our mother.”  We separated ourselves from nature and from our connections to each other, replacing it with cold, rational, materialist greed.    From the corporate geek heading the operation to the military Colonel who sees the Navi as not much more than blue monkeys, it’s clear who is evil and who is good.   This was reminiscent of Dances with Wolves, but more poignant in that it looked much like the US in Iraq or Afghanistan, not some past incident we can look back on and say, “well, that was a past generation.”

2) The value of life.   The Navi are discounted by the Earth people because they lack technology.   The Navi live off the land, and by all accounts are primitive.   Yet they value all life in a deep, spiritual way.   Their beliefs are laughed at — such silly naive creatures, believing in a deity!   When the hero and the scientists try to stop the military they are derided as tree huggers, and monkey lovers.  Think about how we in the US (and Europe during colonial times) looked at other peoples.   Towel heads.   Primitives.   Different.  Savage.  Their lives are worth less than ours because we have  better technology and material wealth.   We think nothing of wars to secure our “way of life.”   How many times have people privately admitted that to protect our “way of life” (read: material prosperity) it is worth wars that kill countless innocents and destroy cultures overseas.  By abstracting others into something sub-human because they aren’t like us, we rationalize evil.    They are different.   We need their unobtanium (or oil) and thus we can intervene and even destroy their culture.

3.  How does it feel to betray your race?   The Colonel asks that question as he confronts Jake as Navi.   Jake did betray his race — he is condemning earth to more problems by protecting the Navi.   A higher good exists than loyalty to race — or nation.  Just as Germans who worked against the Nazis in WWII were indeed traitors to their country, they were nonetheless doing what is right.   There is no dishonor in treason if your country is engaged in evil, and you are standing for a higher principle.    When the Navi are victorious the audience cheered.   When the film ended there was applause — rare these days in movie theaters.   The film caused people to root against what was clearly an American military operation in favor of a strange and exotic native race.  In a vivid and simple manner the film portrayed an undeniable truth: good and evil do not depend on nation or race.

The moral of the film is a time honored one of myths throughout history.   The intriguing relationships and interactions also fit the model of a mythic good vs. evil story, much like Star Wars.  I left the theater with emotions I’ve only experienced a couple times.   When I watched Star Wars in 1977, I left feeling like I had seen something amazing — a movie unlike any I had seen before.    When on January 17, 1991 I watched Dances With Wolves, the day after Operation Desert Storm began in Iraq, I felt I had seen a film with one of the most powerful moral messages imaginable, perfect for that time.     This was a mix of both.   The beauty of Pandora, the suspense in a nonetheless predictable story line, the powerful moral message, brought home in a way where there was a clear sense of good and evil, transcending nationalism, moral relativism, and self-interest, all make this one of the best movies of all time.

And now, as we see our environmental problems grow, increasing wars over resources, a tendency to put “stuff” over people, and a loss of connection with nature and the spiritual side of life, this movie is very timely.    In our western haste to declare our individualism, we forget that no one is truly an autonomous independent individual, we are all connected, our capacities, opportunities and core beliefs come from our culture and environment.   As a culture, we seem to have fogotten that.   I’m sure the right wing will mock it’s environmental message and how it gets audiences to root against the US military (albeit more a private Blackwater type group) during a so-called “time of war” here.   But as in the film, our wars now are wars are imperialistic, as we arrogantly try to alter other cultures for our own benefit.

Yesterday President Obama and his family saw the film while on vacation in Hawaii.  I can only hope that he ponders the moral of the film as he decides how to handle the military and economic problems facing us.   We don’t need a better military plan or new economic stimulus.   We need a sense of spiritual renewal.  Jimmy Carter called for that, but we never acted on it.   A movie is only entertainment, but it also reflects and impacts our culture.   I hope it makes people think a little about the hear and now, even as they enjoy a story about a mythical future.

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  1. #1 by Nancy B on January 3, 2010 - 18:22

    I’ve been hesitant to see it because I’ve heard there’s some subtle yuckiness in terms of racial tension and white guilt in the plot (same thing with The Blind Side – I feel like I’ve spent this winter going “…but it looks kind of racist!”).

    Here’s a article from my go-to sci-fi dork site, if you are interested. It’s pretty short. http://io9.com/5422666/when-will-white-people-stop-making-movies-like-avatar

    • #2 by Scott Erb on January 3, 2010 - 18:40

      Why is racial tension ‘yucky’? I’m not sure what you mean by ‘white guilt’, but it was Earth vs. Pandora, and the Pandorans were blue while the Earth forces had many blacks and whites. There definitely is an implicit critique of our culture, but nothing I saw about race in black-white terms.

  2. #3 by Josh on January 4, 2010 - 02:13

    Films. A subject I could rant and rant about.

    I’ve never been into James Cameron’s films (or 99 percent of Hollywood films made after 1980). Nearly all of them hit on the same messages over and over in the most cliche manner. I haven’t seen Avatar, so perhaps this is not the case with that film.

    Many films today move too fast for me. Too much cutting, too much sensationalism, too much MTV. I’m sort of a snob when it comes to film (and art in general).

    There are only four live action films made in the last three decades that have REALLY, REALLY made an impression on me:

    1. There will be Blood
    2. No Country for Old Men
    3. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick’s version)
    4. Gremlins 2 (just kidding)

  3. #4 by classicliberal2 on January 4, 2010 - 06:15

    I haven’t seen AVATAR (and probably won’t). Without knowing anything more than the reported budget, I can say, with confidence, the film will have an excruciatingly dumb string of hackneyed cliche’s posing as a script, an utterly predictable plot, worked out through a lot of big, bland generalities intended to be as inoffensive as possible, glazed with a heaping helping of silly, simplistic moralism, and topped off with a generic “feel-good” happy ending. It will take absolutely no risks of any kind. It’s not going to be the “best movie ever”–it isn’t going to make the top 500,000.

    I know these things, because when budgets become that high, the film is the product of the money-men, a gaggle of business suits with no imagination, without a creative bone in their bodies, and with no love of cinema, and no concern for anything outside of their clinically myopic notions of what they think will make their big pile of money even bigger.

    I’m a filmmaker, so movies are one of my primary preoccupations, but the current state of Hollywood is representative of the current sorry state of everything else.

    Grumble, grumble, grumble, grumble, and grumble.

    • #5 by Michael on August 21, 2010 - 19:15

      Wow, were you ever wrong!

  4. #6 by Frank Roberts on January 4, 2010 - 18:42

    Scott – Here is the review i posted in my Notes on Facebook about Avatar. You and I had a different experience – which is not a bad thing, just different. fdr

    The disappointment that is Avatar

    I saw Avatar over the weekend with my family. It was a visually stunning movie – Cameron set new standards of 3D and visual storytelling with it (although we all did feel slightly queasy after coming out of it). However, was it memorable? I would have to say no.

    For a roughly $400M budget, the story is only adequate. The Na’vi come to life as visual characters – it is really hard to remember they are cgi after a while – but are one-dimensional and not fully realized as emotional characters.

    Tell me, if I say “You can’t fight in the war room!” you think Dr. Strangelove, right? Or, “Ah, Juicy Fruit!” you think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or even, “I’ll be back!” One of Cameron’s own, Terminator. I do not remember a single line from Avatar, and I don’t think it’s just because I am past 50.

    Avatar does not have the emotional impact of the (much) cheaper science fiction film from this past summer, District 9. I still think about parts of that movie, which is what good storytelling, not just good SF, does. Avatar was more a confection – there for the experience, but I do not feel the need to go back to the theater and see it (I saw District 9 twice).

    One of the biggest flaws in Avatar is characters. Many are one-dimensional stereotypes, like the jingoistic hard-core colonel or the smartass-but-good-hearted anthropologist. Also, the characters are given characteristics that are not followed through. (Spoiler alert) Example – the Na’vi pray over anything they kill, and abhor the act of having killed. But when the main female Na’vi character kills a major bad guy, she doesn’t pray over him. It does not seem to be a conscious decision in the storytelling – in fact, it would have made the movie so much richer if someone had said, “Jim (Cameron), let’s have her pray over the kill.” If this is an ingrained trait that seems almost instinctual in the Na’vi race, as is the earlier implication, it would make sense.

    Cameron gets high marks for artifice from me, but low marks for art. Terminator 2 had an emotional impact on me – god forbid, I even cared about Jack and Rose in Titanic. But, in Avatar, storytelling took a backseat to glitz.

    • #7 by Scott Erb on January 5, 2010 - 04:59

      I see your points…the characters are a bit one dimensional, but then so were the characters on Star Wars. That’s the kind of film it is (which is why I don’t mind a predictable plot line — though it wasn’t clear how they would pull it off). I don’t have a problem with the lack of remorse over killing — to me it was more like antibodies fighting off an intruder. When ones’ immune system attacks ones’ own body that’s bad. But they are supposed to protect the body from outsiders.

      Also, for me the emotion here was the power of the moral themes — something that often moves me more than interpersonal relationship/emotions. I agree that the point here was less storytelling and more the experience. I do want to see it again though, in part to consider the kinds of points you make.

  5. #8 by Jeff Lees on January 5, 2010 - 04:07

    While I agree that some of the character’s were a little one-sided, and plot was relatively predictable, I found the movie quite compelling. While this movie may not the best movie ever (that title is of course held by Battlefield Earth) I still find its message very profound, and its delivery superb.

    And Frank, I think the idea of the Na’vi praying over the animals they kill is more about harming ‘mother’ then killing in general. The act isn’t what they are praying over, it’s the harm they did to their deity.

  6. #9 by John H. on January 5, 2010 - 04:59

    I’m constantly amused by the pretentious attitude in these and other comments toward film…it’s similar to the way I hear people talking about literature.. “I would never read Harry Potter…she can’t write and her characters are so fake..”

    Jesus people. Movies and books are also forms of entertainment. If you want to say a movie “sucks” as a piece of art, fine. But is it entertaining? Many movies are considered fine works of art, but they are so boring that they’re no good at storytelling.

    If you haven’t seen Avatar and probably won’t, then why do you feel compelled to argue the merits of the film?

    Classicliberal, you strike me as very intelligent and thoughtful and I frequently enjoy your comments, but you are not happy about anything, are you? 😉

    Scott, I saw the movie in 3D on an IMAX screen — the theater was so packed that my friend and I couldn’t sit together and share the snacks we bought, so we sat on the floor… and I still loved the movie. It was a great experience. Visually stunning; I thought the message was a little simplistic, but I was looking at it only from the native/colonists view; the parallels you saw with the current wars are thought-provoking, and I will probably see it again. (I went to a 10:30 pm show, so I wasn’t primed for a “message”). I don’t know if it’s the best movie ever, but it was very entertaining!

    • #10 by Scott Erb on January 5, 2010 - 05:05

      I mentioned two of my all time favorites: Star Wars and Dances With Wolves. Since I saw obvious parallels with both, it isn’t surprising I really enjoyed it. I didn’t see it in IMAX, but at least we got 3D here in Farmington (I guess Augusta only has 2D). I agree that movies are about entertainment, though I like it when entertainment and a strong message overlap — “The Last Days of Sophie Scholl” is a film I find immensely moving. But I also like James Bond movies, so I’ll not claim any credentials at critiquing movies as art!

    • #11 by classicliberal2 on January 5, 2010 - 07:19

      “Jesus people. Movies and books are also forms of entertainment. If you want to say a movie ‘sucks’ as a piece of art, fine. But is it entertaining? Many movies are considered fine works of art, but they are so boring that they’re no good at storytelling.”

      Not true–that’s a caricature of which you’ll find almost no real-world examples. People who do not like (or are without the capacity) to think about what they’re seeing will dismiss CITIZEN KANE as “overrated” and something that doesn’t make very much sense. Those without an attention span will loudly decry SEVEN SAMURAI as “boring.” These don’t reflect on those films–they merely reflect the very poor judgment (and other deficiencies) of the clowns making such comments.

      To express part of where I come from, I dismiss the notion that “entertainment” can be, as so many insist, “brainless.” If it’s brainless, it isn’t entertaining. Huge-budget Hollywood spectacle movies have, for years, been built from formula, the spectacle the selling point. Nothing original is allowed, because that would be a risk. Hollywood lives and dies by the dictum “Nothing succeeds like success,” and you won’t even have your idea heard if it isn’t something that’s already been done a million times before. Scott mentions the similarity of AVATAR to STAR WARS and DANCES WITH WOLVES; that is not, I assure you, unintentional–it was probably part of the pitch that sold the money-men on the project.

      In manufacturing such films, everything is kept at a level of idiocy, because, when it comes to making a film for an audience, the money men (incorrectly) hold, as a truism, the notion that idiots are the biggest market, and if you include something unfamiliar or–heaven forbid–thoughtful or even complex, it will alienate that audience. What these movies offer is empty spectacle, the invitation to come oooh-and-aaah at a lot of special effects in a film in which everything else is a stale, precipitously dumbed-down re-re-retread of things you’ve seen for years.

      That’s not entertainment. It’s an insult.

      So I mostly don’t mess with movies like AVATAR. I’ve already seen them in their original form, and don’t care about computerized cartoons passed off as spectacle.

      “Classicliberal, you strike me as very intelligent and thoughtful and I frequently enjoy your comments, but you are not happy about anything, are you?”

      Well, I do love movies. They make me happy the way good writing makes me happy. I’ve been told I’m a terrible movie snob. Maybe so. I probably sound a little too high-brow, here. That’s not me. I love things most of your commonplace movie snobs would never watch in a million years (or, at least, not admit having watched. I keep a blog where I write about movies:
      http://cinemarchaeologist.blogspot.com/
      Looking at my most recent entry, it’s a negative movie review! In most posts, I try to write about various cinematic subjects in an interesting way.

      • #12 by Josh on January 5, 2010 - 14:01

        Actually, I agree with John H. and appreciate his comment. It’s okay to watch a movie just for the entertainment (although, to me, most of them do not entertain). Sometimes, it’s good for us snobs to be reminded of that! 🙂

      • #13 by classicliberal2 on January 5, 2010 - 23:18

        “Actually, I agree with John H. and appreciate his comment. It’s okay to watch a movie just for the entertainment (although, to me, most of them do not entertain).”

        Everyone watches movies to be engaged and entertained. It’s just that what passes for “engaged and entertained” among idiots isn’t very impressive to any non-idiot looking to be legitimately engaged and entertained.

        Yes, that is true, but yes, it is also intended to make you roll your eyes and maybe even laugh.

      • #14 by Josh on January 6, 2010 - 00:11

        I know folks who hold doctorates in mathematics. Many probably love much of what Hollywood throws at them simply because they are not interested in appreciating high art. In fact, I bet they call us idiots for being so particular and not engaging in more important things.

        I don’t think anybody should be judging others based on taste or interest. Intelligence doesn’t have anything to do with that.

  7. #15 by John on January 5, 2010 - 18:12

    Classicliberal2, I don’t totally disagree with you about movies. I’m just as amused by people who can’t be bothered to have to think about a movie… our culture certainly has tried to crush attention spans and critical thinking.

    I’m just saying, for me, it doesn’t have to be highbrow all the time.

    • #16 by classicliberal2 on January 5, 2010 - 23:27

      “I’m just saying, for me, it doesn’t have to be highbrow all the time.”

      With me, it’s rarely what genuine movie snobs would consider highbrow, either. I’m hardly one who sits around in my free time watching nothing but Ingmar Bergman movies. Bergman’s great, but you’re much more likely to see me watching something made by Jesus Franco or Roger Corman or even Ed Wood (though, to be sure, one laughs at Ed’s movies, rather than with them). I like indie films made by people who made them because they had a burning desire to do so and a love for cinema. You can feel that sort of passion in every frame of even a bad movie, and movies without it, ones that are merely manufactured and mostly indifferently–like most of the upbudget Hollywood “blockbuster” flicks–are like soulless zombies. After a while, you can sense (and almost physically feel) the difference, and the latter become intolerable.

      Comments like that, though true, are why I end up being tagged a movie snob.

  8. #17 by Jeff Lees on January 6, 2010 - 03:41

    Actually Scott, this movie is all about anti-American, environmentalist, and pagan sentiment, couldn’t you tell?

    “Conservative Backlash Against Avatar”

    http://www.salon.com/technology/how_the_world_works/2010/01/05/the_conservative_backlash_against_avatar

    • #18 by Scott Erb on January 6, 2010 - 04:27

      Yes, the irony — the free market embraces anti-American environmentalism.

  9. #19 by Nathan on April 25, 2010 - 17:47

    The lessons of “Avatar” are contrived, predictable, and annoying. If I wanted to hear someone bitching about how I’m killing the planet, I’d have seen Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”. “The Dark Knight” had a lesson involving the value of life too, and it handled it about a million times better (better movies do that a lot). The third lesson wasn’t in the movie. Despite what Sargent I-Don’t-Care said, Jake didn’t betray his species (that’s what should have been said). Jake betrayed selfishness and violence that humans embraced.

    Not to mention that the plot makes absolutely no sense whatsoever! The “evil whites” mistreating those less technologically advanced happened ONCE out of, like four times. So, why use a movie to comment on how they treated the Native Americans as if the ENTIRE HUMAN SPECIES would be okay with doing that again. This is stupid. “Avatar” is an okay movie, but nowhere near the greatest movies ever.

  1. James Cameron Slams America | KUNCI-INGGRIS.COM

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