Another spectacle hits an iceberg and sinks.
BY John Podhoretz
December 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15
Directed by James Cameron
Avatar, we are told, does things with cameras and computers and actors that have never been done before. Its painstaking combination of real-life action and animation has, we are told, taken cinema to a new level. It cost anywhere from $328 million to $500 million, we are told, and took four years to make. It is a breakthrough, we are told, the boldest step into the future of filmmaking, an unparalleled achievement.
What they didn't tell us is that Avatar is blitheringly stupid; indeed, it's among the dumbest movies I've ever seen. Avatar is an undigested mass of clichés nearly three hours in length taken directly from the revisionist westerns of the 1960s-the ones in which the Indians became the good guys and the Americans the bad guys. Only here the West is a planet called Pandora, the time is the 22nd century rather than the 19th, and the Indians have blue skin and tails, and are 10 feet tall.
An American soldier named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is sent to make friends with the blue people. To effect this, scientists download his consciousness into a 10-foot-tall blue body. Jake discovers that the natives are wonderful in every possible way. They are so green it's too bad their skin has to be blue. They're hunters and they kill animals, but after they do so, they cry and say it's sad. Which only demonstrates their superiority. Plus they have (I'm not kidding) fiber-optic cables coming out of their patooties that allow them to plug into animals and control them. Now, that just seems wrong-I mean, why should they get to control the pterodactyls? Why don't the pterodactyls control them? This kind of biped-centrism is just another form of imperialist racism, in my opinion.
Like the Keebler elves, the Blue People all live in a big tree together and they go to church at another big tree, under which (we learn) lives Mother Earth, only since it isn't earth, she isn't called Mother Earth, but the Great Mother or something like that. Meanwhile, back among the humans at their base camp, there's a big fight. The scruffy scientists, led by Sigourney Weaver, want to learn, learn, learn about the wonders of the planet and the people and Mother Earth and the big tree and the pterodactyls.
But the scientists work for an evil corporation (natch) and the evil corporation is only there because it wants-you can write the rest; but I will, just for the sake of expedience-to exploit the planet's natural resources. In particular, it wants to exploit a mineral called (again no kidding) unobtainium. And it turns out there's a big deposit of unobtainium under the Keebler Elf Tree. They want the elves to move.
Getting them to move is Jake Sully's job. And he does earn their trust, even though the leader of their tribe says, "His alien scent offends my nose!" (The line is translated from their nonexistent language with subtitles that are designed to look like the men's room signs at an Indian casino.) The Blue People, in particular the contemptuous and lovely Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), show him their wondrous ways. But before he can discuss hiring Allied Van Lines with them, the Evil Corporation intervenes.
It is run by an evil Yuppie, and the Yuppie's security is provided by an evil Marine. And for no good reason other than to get the movie into its second act, they decide to stage a military attack on the Elf Tree, thus blowing the zillions of dollars they sank into the project of making Jake Sully into a Blue Person rather than waiting a couple of weeks.
Oy, the suffering that ensues, all for some lousy unobtainium! Oy, the destruction! You can hear writer-director James Cameron weeping over his special-effects computer as the bad humans he created commit this terrible atrocity against the Blue People who don't exist. As for me, I was reminded of Oscar Wilde's immortal crack about Charles Dickens's tears as he killed off the child heroine of his Old Curiosity Shop: "It would take a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."
The only salvation for Pandora lies with our man Jake Sully turning into the leader of the blue-skinned people, rallying them to the cause of protecting their planet against the Evil Corporation. This, too, is unacceptably paternalistic, in my view; after all, why should giant blue people have to learn these things from a shrimpy white guy who doesn't even have a tail or built-in Skype?
Eventually, it falls to Jake to plug his fiber-optic cables into a plant and ask the Great Mother to do something. And she does. She rallies the pterodactyls, not to mention some rhinoceroses and dogs, to join with an army of blue people to take down the EC. In the end, it's Jake Sully vs. the Evil Marine, who is dressed up to look like (again, not kidding) a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot, one of those ludicrous toys from the late 1960s that gave toys a bad name.
You're going to hear a lot over the next couple of weeks about the movie's politics-about how it's a Green epic about despoiling the environment, and an attack on the war in Iraq, and so on. The conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism-kind of.
The thing is, one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take Avatar-with its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe's adorable pagan rituals, its hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool-at all seriously as a political document. It's more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now. Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance. He wrote it this way not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.
Will it be? Aside from the anti-American, anti-human politics, the movie is nearly three hours long, and it doesn't have a single joke in it. There is no question that Avatar is an astonishing piece of work. It is, for about two-thirds of its running time, an animated picture that looks like it's not an animated picture.
On the other hand, who cares? It doesn't count for much that the technical skill on display makes it easier to suspend disbelief and make you think you're watching something take place on a distant planet. Getting audiences to suspend disbelief isn't the hard part; we suspend disbelief all the time. It's how we can see any movie about anything and get involved in the story. The real question is this: If Avatar were drawn like a regular cartoon, or had been made on soundstages with sets and the like, would it be interesting? Would it hold our attention?
The answer is, unquestionably no. There's no chance anybody would even have put it into production, no matter that Cameron made the box-office bonanza Titanic. So the question is: Does the technical mastery on display in Avatar outweigh the unbelievably banal and idiotic plot, the excruciating dialogue, the utter lack of any quality resembling a sense of humor? And will all these qualities silence the discomfort coming from that significant segment of the American population that, we know from the box-office receipts for Iraq war movies this decade, doesn't like it when an American soldier is the bad guy?
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary,is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.