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Given all the buzz about Avatar, I really wanted to see this in the theater. Of course, thanks to that same buzz, I had a pretty good idea what to expect: beautiful effects coupled with a relatively unoriginal story.

There’s been a lot of criticism about this one.  Over at i09, Annalee Newitz  criticizes it as a white man’s guilt movie. Others describe it as a mutant love child of Ferngully, Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and the Smurfs.

Valid points, but they miss one very important question: All those mind-blowing special effects, and your subtitles are in Papyrus font?  Really?

Moving on to more serious (and spoilery) thoughts, in no particular order…

Terrorism.  Colonel Scar comments late in the movie, “We’ll fight terrorism with terror,” or something to that effect.  Implying that the Na’vi are the terrorists.  (We do see evidence that the Na’vi have been attacking the equipment, and Neytiri was ready to put an arrow through Jake.)  So in this movie, the terrorists are the good guys?  Fascinating … and it makes me wish the movie had the courage to explore this more directly.  Instead, the Na’vi’s terrorist acts are off-screen.  The humans move into the terrorist role, blowing up the tower tree, and Jake leads the Na’vi in a more “honorable” battle.  (See David Forbes’ review here for more on the terrorism theme.)

Aliens. I wanted to see some. The USB port is a nifty idea, but these people laugh, smile, cry, and kiss. They hunt with bow and arrow.  They’re heterosexual (as far as we see, at least) and monogamous for life. Okay, that last is a bit alien.  But basically, they’re big blue CGI humans.  I’ve had coworkers who were more alien.

Story. Predictable.  “Oh, that must be how they’re going to transfer Jake into his Na’vi body at the end.”  “Oh, so Jake’s going to have to level up to master dragonrider to redeem himself.”  The latter piece bugged me.  Only five Na’vi — and the chosen one, Jake Sully — have ever figured out that all you have to do is fly higher?  Sorry, but that was way too easy.

The Chosen One. I don’t mean Jake Sully. Sure, Jake rode the dragon and rallied the troops (half of whom promptly got mowed down by machine guns).  But Grace was the one who merged with the tree of souls.  Depending on how you interpret Jake’s prayer scene near the end, Grace is the one who shared that direct knowledge with the hivemind.  When Pandora wakes up and starts trashing bozos, I see Grace as the key character, and I wish the movie had done more with that.

Unobtanium.  Really?1

White Man’s Guilt.  Blatant parallels to North American colonization history here.  Blue stand-ins for Native Americans?  Check.  Technologically advanced civilization wiping them out in order to plunder?  Check.  Schools to teach the natives English?  Check.  Romanticized view of “how we were meant to live”?  Check. But this time, the white man is also the savior, allowing me to feel good about myself.

It does make sense for Jake to have a key role.  He’s the one who knows what the Na’vi are up against.  He should be involved in the planning.  But the idea that in 3-4 months, he goes from clueless human to the Awesomest Na’vi Savior?  Now we’ve gone from SF to fantasy.

Pandora had the ability to save itself, and did so.  (See my paragraph on Grace’s role.)  Jake wasn’t needed in the savior role.

ETA — Sexism: Was hurrying to get this post written, and forgot to include this one. Thanks Catherine for jogging my brain.  Jake “becomes a man,” and is now entitled to choose a woman.  The movie never goes anywhere with this aspect of Na’vi culture, but damn — there’s an awful lot packed into one line.  (As a good guy, Jake of course gives his intended the right to choose/consent.)

 Overall: Enjoyed it.  Suspect it might drag a bit when seen on DVD.  (Too many “behold the nifty” scenes.)  Worth seeing for the effects.  Papyrus font not too distracting after the first few minutes.

Comments and thoughts welcome, as always!

  1. I’m told this is supposed to be an inside joke. Sorry, but no. When 90% of the audience doesn’t get it, and when a good portion of those people are kicked out of the movie to roll their eyes, then your joke has failed.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

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Comments

mtlawson
Jan. 11th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC)
I’ve had coworkers who were more alien.

That's a scary thought.

Blatant parallels to North American colonization history here.

A lot of mass migrations and/or empires were created this way. Sure, we look at it and see Europeans vs Native Americans (or Europeans vs Africa), but it could just as easily be Romans vs Gauls, Islamic Empire vs Byzantines/Germanic Tribes, Chin Dynasty vs Rest of China, or Mongols vs Everybody. Not that it makes it right, only that we're putting our own stamp on the movie because of what we know. You could even argue that the destruction of three Roman Legions by Germanic tribes at the height of the Roman Empire could be used as a basis for the way the movie turned out.

Considering that some conservative commentators are upset with the film because it's anti-American and anti-right wing, I'd give the whole thing a tempest-in-a-teapot "meh".
jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 02:56 pm (UTC)
True, and I'm definitely seeing it through my own cultural lens. On the other hand, the face painting + long black braids + archery + a few other factors felt specifically like the Hollywood "Native Americanish" tribe.

There's definitely an anti-military/anti-corporate tone, but I thought it was interesting that they commented early in the movie that these were *not* Marines anymore.
mtlawson
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:07 pm (UTC)
On the other hand, the face painting + long black braids + archery + a few other factors felt specifically like the Hollywood "Native Americanish" tribe.

I suspect that if Cameron went any farther out there in designing the aliens, it would be harder for the audience to connect with them. Aliens composed of energy plasma or looking like spawn of Cthulhu wouldn't generate much sympathy from the audience.

There's definitely an anti-military/anti-corporate tone, but I thought it was interesting that they commented early in the movie that these were *not* Marines anymore.

Saying and doing it are two different things. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

Please tell me there isn't a "can't we all just get along?" moment in the movie.
jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:13 pm (UTC)
"Saying and doing it are two different things."

Yep. One line of dialogue with no real follow-up doesn't do much, but I definitely noticed the line.

There's a lot of scientist (good guys) vs. corporate/military (bad guys) going on, and diplomacy vs. shock & awe. But I'm happy to say there is not a "Can't we all just get along?" moment.
tsubaki_ny
Jan. 11th, 2010 04:07 pm (UTC)
I think you're allowed to see it through your cultural lens, since Cameron et al (et most?) have more or less the same lens. :-D
asakiyume
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC)
I was amazed when my kids told me this--that conservatives were genuinely upset that it was anti-American, but, wow, okay.... I think there's a lesson in this: If you don't want to identify with something... DON'T!

As a subnote, though, I wonder how the movie would have been acceptable to them?
mtlawson
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:13 pm (UTC)
Without being snide about it, I suspect anything that puts what we're doing to fight terrorism in a good light would be a start. More "corporations are good" stuff as well. They are probably genuinely perplexed by the concept that the aliens wouldn't want the "help" we're giving them.
asakiyume
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
*Nods*. I think some things, like terrorism, can trigger a whole package of predetermined responses.

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