Avatar (2009)

Well, it was pretty.

Avatar has received quite a lot of publicity, even if the majority of it seems more about economics than it is about the experience of the film itself. While the half-a-billion dollar movie has gotten nearly universal acclaim for its use of CGI, the story and dialogue have received more divergent commentary.

And rightly so. The voice over narration nearly sinks the ship in the first half hour or so. And occasionally the characters move a little too conveniently into sermon mode. On one level, Cameron’s story of the broken down Marine who would rather live as another being is naïve in the worst way. It thinks little of humanity, conceiving that our true nature is something purely immaterial, and that our bodies, once broken can be replaced for another, better model. Beyond that, virtually none of the humans that populate are worthy of being called human. Most are a nameless mass that serve one of only three non-scientists introduced in the film—the bloodthirsty military commander. A few have been enlightened by science, but most have no problem following their commander’s orders when it comes time to destroy an entire civilization. Finally, the devaluation of the human body through the narrative arc of one significant character strongly reflects our own world, in which people increasingly relate to one another by means of technology. That the film is unable to comment at all on the pitfalls of such a life doesn’t at all speak in its favor.

Interestingly, the film seems consumed with the bodies of the Na’vi, which are on display throughout. Not only does their blue skin draw attention to them in contrast with the browns and grays of the human world, but the camera often lingers (if we can even say that about a movie like Avatar) on their bodies. As such, the film highlights their lean and athletic builds, fanged teeth, and elongated foreheads. Beyond that, the physical aspects of Pandora shine in comparison to those of the human base (or even earth as we know it). There seems to be in the film a desire for something greater and beyond what we currently experience as humans (a desire that at some level we can all appreciate). However, the film seems to think that the only way to experience that is to, like Jake, trade in our bodies and be incarnated in some other kind of race.

In light of this perspective on the human body, it’s intriguing that the humans are associated so closely with science, while the Na’vi are associated with religion. The humans can only mimic true transformation through their invention, while the Na’vi can experience true transformation through a connection with some kind of spiritual being. Therefore, when the scenes of transformation finally enter the story, the dialogue largely drops away. There are no explanations of processes as there are in the science lab. There are no people fiddling with instruments and adjusting levels. The transformation, however it occurs, is cloaked in divine mystery. And unlike the illusory scientific transformations that take place throughout the film, this one, accomplished under the watch of the “primitive” race, is complete and true.

Not only then does the film side with the Na’vi, but it does so in a way that honors religious commitment. And it’s precisely that more spiritual component that is obviously lacking in the portrayal of humanity. This is what makes the film both interesting and infuriating. Interesting in that Cameron pushes the audience toward an embrace of an overtly spiritual reality, but infuriating because he has to do it by creating a human foil devoid of spiritual content. He could have made a much more interesting film had he made his human characters more complex in just this way.

Sure, it was pretty. But in the end, I wish Avatar had been a whole lot wiser about its portrayal of humanity.

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