Couch Pumpkin: Sofa Adventures
News and reviews for the big and small screens…where potatoes fear to tread.

Dabadee, dabadi ~ Avatar review

Neytiri and Jake

I’m seriously late to the party with this one, but I thought it was worth writing down my thoughts anyway, especially as James Cameron’s latest blockbuster is riding hot on the heels of older sibling Titanic to become the best selling movie of all time. In a nutshell, I found the movie enjoyable in a totally mindless sense, but could not award it more than three out of five stars due to its overly predictable storyline and simplistic construction.

Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), an injured ex-marine who takes his twin’s place on a scientific mission to distant planet Pandora. Humans are there to mine a precious mineral (‘unobtanium’, and yes, it’s actually called that), but their efforts to coexist peacefully with the native Na’vi, led by Sigourney Weaver’s sympathetic Doctor Augstine  are falling apart. Sully is given the chance to use his brother’s avatar, a Na’vi body that he can upload his consciousness into, and thereby interact with the aliens in their own environment. He meets chieftain’s daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and begins to learn about her culture…and the story unfolds in exactly the way you’re predicting.

(some spoilers after the cut)

To start with, let me assure you that I didn’t hate this film. No, it’s a perfectly enjoyable movie to let wash over you, and there are several great things about it. The visuals are beautiful and you can tell that it was a hugely expensive project – the CGI blends seamlessly together, making both alien creatures and spaceships seem more real than ever before. The landscapes of Pandora are lovingly rendered, and I particularly loved the floating, fluorescent flora that are reminsicent of underwater species from our world.

I was also impressed by the use of 3D, which I previously dismissed as gimmicky. Although it took my eyes a little while to adjust (and it’s difficult to fit the 3D glasses over normal spectacles), I was soon able to enjoy the perception of depth that 3D brings to the screen, as well as the small touches they’d introduced to make the landscape even more realistic – I loved the use of floating ashes and sparks which were subtle and perfectly complimented the scenes they were in. The only criticism my viewing buddy hot boyfriend Dave picked out was the noticeable difference between the look of 3D in live action and computer generated scenes – in live action it can look a little forced.

The characters are likable, and I was particularly drawn to the female characters (something Cameron is usually noted for). Saldana’s Neytiri is a great character – spirited, clever and strong, she shares her independent nature with Titanic’s Rose, one of the heroines of my early teens. The motion capture for Avatar is first class, and it is testament to Zoe Saldana’s acting skill that she could bring the character to life whilst wearing all the gear that’s required. I also loved Michelle Rodriguez’s no nonsense pilot, but that’s hardly a surprise to anyone who knows me.

So what are the problems with the film? Predictability, as I highlighted above, is a huge one. Avatar is Pocahontas meets Dances with Wolves meets Ferngully – boy meets ‘native’ girl, learns their ways, fights with them (of course, referring to the Disney Pocahontas and not the real life story in which she was brought to Europe, converted to Christanity and died young). Nowhere does Cameron take a twist that might liven up this well worn story.

This would not be so problematic if the characterisation of the Na’vi did not indulge in dull and frankly offensive ‘native’ stereotyping. Their culture is clearly a mixture of Native American and African tribal, not only shown through the use of typically afro hairstyles using braids and the use of black and Native American actors to portray the major Na’vi characters, but also suggested through the ‘Magical Negro/Magical Native American’ stock trait of being supernaturally close to nature. They are also pretty blatant examples of the Noble Savage stereotype, whose barbaric/primitive lifestyle is in fact superior to the morally deficient ‘civilised’ folks. These tropes and more are all listed on tvtropes.org, if you need more examples – let’s just say that Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas both score highly on the offensive stereotype count as well.

‘What’s your problem?’ I hear you ask. ‘It’s just a movie!’

Yeah. But it’s the 21st century, guys, and I don’t think it’s asking too much for writers to expand the possibilities for ‘native’ and ‘nature loving’ alien characters beyond associations of black/Native American/*any* Earth based culture.

Most troublingly, the plot is Mighty Whitey (and only thinly disguised as such). Jake is apparently the only one (recently) to have thought of dropping on the magic-dragon-bird-whatever  from above, thus making him the only one capable of bringing the Na’vi tribes together. Okay, so as some smart alecs point out, he’s not white in the avatar body, is he? Remingtons makes some great points about the huge problems involved in this tale (‘if we put a white man in the body of a genetically engineered black man…’). Particularly pertinent is the issue of choice – ‘Sully has the power to choose between being a dominating “Sky Person” or a Na’vi victim, which in the end yields greater power – the audience’s empathy.  Only white men are privileged enough to have such choices.’

Sully’s choice was one of the most disappointingly simplistic parts of the film for me, and something that I felt arose from the problems I’ve highlighted above. Na’vi culture is seemingly perfect. They’re close to nature, in communication with their goddess, fly around on badass dragon birds, are all slim and sexy with cute cat ears -and great boobs, as stipulated by Cameron himself and revealed in a depressing interview with Playboy. They’re even remarkably progressive in terms of gender relations, with men and women sharing rulership of the tribe. So why wouldn’t Jake want to join them without hesitation, especially when the avatar offers freedom from his disability? For all the development that went into the creation of the Na’vi, they failed (in my opinion) to give them any believable flaws that might have made Sully’s story more dramatically pleasing.

That’s all without mentioning the formulaic scenes that I’ve seen in various movies time and time again – training montage, arrow shooting eye sex, countless scenes from The Dark Crystal – but I’m sure others have catalogued them in detail. This is not a huge sin, as many good films this year were rather composite (Star Trek!), but I feel this rather detracts from Cameron’s claims that the film is revolutionary. That, and its transparent environmental/war on terror analogies did not add as much ‘depth’ as I suspect some of the production team hoped.

So, all in all, whilst I enjoyed Avatar on some level, I just couldn’t block all these associations from my mind. Thinking back to my eleven year old self sneaking into a 12 to watch Titanic multiple times (alas, no longer a rite of passage) and loving it, I think I would have really appreciated Avatar as a kid. However, unfortunately I’m not a kid any more, and can’t overlook the blatant cliches, stereotypes and lazy devices that Avatar employs in the service of its visuals.

This post is long enough, but I wanted to add a final bit about District 9 in comparison. On the face of it their plots are similar – man assimilated into alien culture via transformation – but I really feel that, while District 9 was not a perfect film, especially re: race relations, it had a far more complex take on this story. Wikus has no choice about his metamorphosis, and comes from a position of deep loathing towards the Prawns, who are hardly attractive and have a rather ambiguous character. His acceptance of this fate is brought on in part by the ‘humanity’ of Christopher Johnson, but also a strong need for self preservation and a streak of selfishness. Neither Wikus nor the prawns are heroic, and this, to me, elevates D9’s vaguely similar premise above that of Avatar.

Sully has the power to choose between being a dominating “Sky Person” or a Na’vi victim, which in the end yields greater power – the audience’s empathy.  Only white men are privileged enough to have such choices.
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