Avatar® (Fox, 2009) isn’t the first faux liberal special effects driven science fiction picture to portray a dubious character transformed into a hero thanks to a technology oddly similar to the technology used to make the film, but it is the most insulting.

Jake, the great paralyzed white hope, gets to walk again and save a new age primitive planet called Pandora thanks to the Avatar® technology that allows him to “drive” a manufactured body that looks like one of the giant, blue, world music loving natives. The Avatar® technology soon turns into a capitalist fantasy about the absolute fusion of movies and video games. This little allegory casts the 3D technology, and Cameron, as redemption’s conditions of possibility.

Like many contemporary Hollywood movies, Avatar® manages its exhibition with a lazy voiceover. The dialogue made me laugh aloud several time at its stupidity, for example whenever a character said “unobtainium,” the name of the resource earthlings are hoping to harvest on Pandora.

Most of the Avatar® is spent displaying the 3d, and as a result it doesn’t get going for two hours. Cameron lifts a lot of material from Strange Days (Bigelow, Lightstorm, 20th Century Fox, 1995,) a project he wrote for, and probably with, his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow: the fantasy of technology that enables the crippled to have the sensation of walking again, an extreme close up of an eye opening near the beginning, etc. The film feels like Cameron’s Cheyenne Autumn (Ford, Warner Bros. Pictures, 1964) an embarrassing attempt to atone for the portrayal of aliens in his eponymous film. (The same division between military personnel and scientists obtains in Avatar® and Aliens (20th Century Fox Film Corporation, 1986) as does the same actress, Sigourney Weaver, though she appears to have lost her thespian skills.)

The 3D is mediocre at best, and objects in the film seemed to be glued onto receding planes rather than giving the impression of continuous volume. For all the hype around the 3D technology, Cameron and the crew didn’t invent a single new type of image. Every shot anchors itself in a picture plane of some kind, most often a flat or slightly out of focus background. Some of the images near the beginning of the movie rely on the planar recession so familiar to art historian. Furthermore, Avatar® doesn’t do much with the edges of the screen, and by default every shot remains enclosed by a frame confining the images to conventional pictorial structures. All of the old school, cliché, 3D compositions get their turn: a punch coming out to the audience, the lid of a pod shutting on us, a putting mat that extends out from the screen, ashes and spores that drift into the theatrical space. The new technology produces slightly better versions of conventional compositions where it should enable new ones. The most interesting thing it does is to produce shots that seem like moving black-light posters with a kind of depth, which doesn’t interest me. Even if the 3D had been perfect, I wouldn’t have been able to get over wearing the glasses, which in my case meant wearing 2 sets of eyewear. As Sasha Frere-Jones pointed out on his charming twitter feed, if one had a camera at a screening, one could update the cover of the black and red presses edition of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle.

Avatar’s® racial politics have been adequately critiqued  here and even at Gawker. I will only add that the fantasy of reverse racial passing offered by Avatar® as both ideology and commodity can be found in many examples beyond Dances With Wolves. See, for example, the opening sequence of  Charlie’s Angels (Columbia, 2000.)

2 responses to “Avatar®

  1. I’ll copy my comment from Steven Heller’s blog:
    I was pretty enthusiastic after reading a story behind the movie and knowing (and often liking) Cameron’s work, but here’s my list (apart from thin story, flat characters and sketchy artwork):
    – Pretty cheap eco-political moralizing with no humor or edge of any kind whatsoever.
    – Maybe hiring two different good artists for organic-mechanical contrast. Like HR Giger and Ron Cobb for Alien. Ships are ok, but Pandora…
    – Creating a whole new world, we should agree, takes time. Reading Tolkien would help (or Le Guin, or Clarke…). Lucas invited Bruno Bettelheim as a consultant for Star Wars. Avatar looks like a student sketch (while being on a bad new age trip) in comparison. Attaching a hammer on a rhino or giving a horse two more legs is not quite enough.
    – Blotchy plastic creatures look like they came straight from the Spore Creature Creator. Wasn’t Peter Jackson’s company involved in this?
    – Little green men is kind of a cliche, so let’s make huge blue ones. And don’t bother with anatomy, just stretch the model you already have.
    – Hiring iconic uber woman and giving her lines like “Oops!” or “I need to take some samples” as dying words.
    – When making a movie for 3D viewing you don’t have to make every scene 3Desque. Like you don’t have to use all 140 characters for twittering. I suppose that’s a usual 3D sickness.
    – Overall, the flattest movie ever made in 3D.

  2. Great review. Why also, I ask, use a stupidly conventional editing strategy when 3-D may have excellently imparted a physical experience of flight? Instead of propelling us numinously through the space around the floating mountains on the back of winged creatures, the camera barely moves, and when it does, it cuts before you get to go anywhere or understand the spatial architecture of the environment.
    And since I also believe that the human face is the greatest landscape ever captured by the cinema, why would these filmmakers choose to pave paradise and put up a parking lot, so to speak? Why take a bulldozer to the beautiful contours of the human face and cover it with blue computer goo reminiscent mainly of the mask in Eyes Without a Face? This slick technology merely functioned to destroy difference and nuance, and thus it’s metonymic for the film’s unintentional – but unmistakable and overwhelming – political and aesthetic imperialism, something the surface narrative only mutely attempted to decry. The biggest failure is how little the filmmakers noticed their double hypocrisies.

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