I saw Avatar in 3-D on New Year’s Eve. My expectations were very low as I walked into the theater. Pre-release interviews and pieces like this one by Annalee Newitz gave me the impression that the movie was a science fictional version of Dances with Wolves, a futuristic tale of noble savages and the white man who “goes native” to save them because they can’t save themselves. Grr. I’m also a CGI skeptic, and thought that the effects might irritate me with their blatant fakeness or creep me out by falling into the “uncanny valley”.

My reaction was a lot more complex. There are serious problems with the depiction of the Na’vi, the world building, the dialog and the characterization, but I still found the film to be both thought-provoking and occasionally moving. Spoilers below the jump.

To start with the bad, the racial hinkiness is just as objectionable as reports made it out to be. The Na’vi are clearly based on a mixture of Native American, African and Indonesian tribes, without even a token attempt at respecting the cultures referenced or depicting them as realistically complex. (One of the creators admitted that because the Na’vi aren’t technically human, they felt they didn’t have to worry about “political correctness” and could depict them as Edgar Rice Burroughs might have in Tarzan.) They also seem kind of dumb. The humans have had a base on the planet for years, and it is implied that there have been clashes in the past, but the Na’vi don’t believe until the tanks are practically on top of their Hometree that they are in grave danger and have to run away. Once the conflict has escalated, they are helpless until Jake Sully comes to lead them. To be fair, he does bring along some human allies, military equipment and knowledge of tactics, but it just isn’t plausible how quickly he is accepted as the leader of the clan, even by Tsu’Tey, who is next in line for chief. Being able to ride a giant bird is cool, but come on. Jake’s specialness seems to boil down to the same old “what these people need is a honky” trope (with some fantastical “destiny” sprinkled on top). And his rallying cry of, “This is OUR land!” is positively cringe-inducing. The guy has been there what… three months? How does that make him a righteous native who can speak for the whole tribe? Frickin’ poser.

The larger ecosystem is pretty lame, too. As I watched, I could easily translate each animal encountered into an existing or extinct species on Earth. Banshee = pterodactyl. Thanator = panther. Direhorse = …horse. (The sound effects for these were ridiculous. They sounded just like Earth horses!) Those plants that disappear into the ground when touched = sleeping grass, a.k.a. “touch me not”. (I saw some of these when I was in Hawai’i. They are fun to poke!) The list goes on. This is not what I would call world building. It’s slapping a disguise on top of the familiar to make it seem “exotic” but not unnerving in the way the truly alien would be. The worst instance of this is, of course, the Na’vi themselves. Not only are they completely humanoid, but their body plan (4 limbs, 2 eyes) doesn’t even match the other vertebrates on the planet (6 limbs, 4 eyes)! Does evolution not work on Pandora? Did the Na’vi come from somewhere else? And what’s up with those gravity-defying mountains, anyway?

Who knows? I’m pretty sure the real answer is that Cameron wanted everything to be “relatable” and/or “cool” rather than scientific and confusing. A wise choice from a money-making standpoint, but praiseworthy? No. And not really science fiction, either.

However, there was a lot more to the movie. I am really intrigued by cyborgs and mind transfer stories because they’re a great way to explore questions of identity, and the avatar concept provides a lot to think about. Unfortunately, most of it is in the category of Unanswered Questions and Missed Opportunities, but my mind was still a little blown by the scene near the end when Neytiri encounters Jake Sully’s human body for the first time. His avatar body is lying outside mere feet away, unconscious because Jake has crawled out of his pod, desperate for air. Neytiri attaches the oxygen mask, Jake is saved just in time, and as she looms over him we see how huge she is compared to him. Wow. How weird must it be for her to know that this puny alien body produced the mind of the person she loves? And how strange it must be for him to see his lover through a different set of eyes, not metaphorically, but literally!

Even more mind-blowing is the fact that Jake goes on to permanently transfer his consciousness into his avatar and kill his human body. This is an important difference from movies like Dances with Wolves, in which the protagonist can return to the privileged world he came from if he really wants to. Jake not only looks inhuman, he can’t even survive in human-breathable atmosphere. He has chosen sides in the most final way possible.

Of course, the Earth of Avatar doesn’t sound like a place anyone would want to return to. This brings me to the other big thing I liked about the movie: its tree-hugging soul. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, Jake utters the most memorable sentence in the film: “They killed their mother.” By “they” he means the humans, the rapacious people he has already dissociated himself from, and “their mother” is Earth -- technically not yet dead, but apparently too far gone to save. Several reviews I have read have complained that the movie is simplistic and preachy on the subject of environmentalism. I suppose that is a matter of perspective. As I see it, Avatar is a science fiction story (actually more of a science fantasy, but let’s ignore that for now), and a time honored function of science fiction is to posit “if this goes on” scenarios to help us think about what we are doing right now. Unless they are foaming at the mouth crazy people, even militant capitalists have to admit at this point that humans have the power to trash the Earth’s ecosystems. The question is whether and/or how we will. Avatar doesn’t get into any of the details of what happened to Earth (though it’s a safe bet that strip mining was involved), it simply posits that it’s been ruined in order to contrast it to Pandora, a planet whose inhabitants -- plant, animal, and humanoid -- interact in a balance that is mediated by a higher power with the ability to smite when necessary. On the one hand, this is an obvious wish fulfillment fantasy: if only we had a strict planet-sized parent to mind us and let us know when we are going wrong! On the other, it’s a sobering reminder: in reality, we don’t, and no one seems to be at the wheel. How can we keep things from going to hell in a hand basket here on Earth?

Preachy or not, if this movie gets its audiences thinking about that question, I’ll be happy.

And about those effects? They won me over. Maybe the uncanny valley wasn’t as much of an issue because the characters being animated weren’t human, but the motion capture and CGI are very well done regardless. The 3-D was cool in a whiz bang kind of way, but I don’t think it really contributed to the story. I’ll be fine rewatching in 2-D.

In sum, Avatar is an interesting and worthwhile movie. Not good, exactly, but rich in theme and implication and things to talk about. I recommend it.

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