AVATAR: The Biggest Movie Ever! (Why?)

Everyone and their mother-tree watched this movie. Why does nobody talk about it?

What are your favourite movies? Your favoruite TV shows? Who are your favourite fictional characters? What’s your favourite quote or catch-phrase? Before we dive in, I implore you to think about these things for just a minute, and reflect on why they matter to you. Now, let’s talk about Avatar.

There’s no point in writing an introduction to the movie itself, because you’re probably familiar with it even if you live under a rock. There’s even less point in writing about the buildup and hype surrounding it since there was virtually none amongst general audiences, except for a few people talking about how it was big step forward for 3D, visual effects and performance-capture. In that vein, the movie most certainly fulfilled its purpose – James Cameron is, after all, an experimentalist. His previous effort, Titanic, exists because of his desire to dive to the bottom of the ocean and explore the actual wreckage, and despite my undying love for that film, there’s no getting around the fact that its strengths are not in its writing. Similarly, the characters and concepts in Avatar are borderline functional. They’re functional enough to support the weight of the massive spectacle as a spectacle, but unlike Jack and Rose, Jake and Neytiri don’t come close to providing nearly the same heart and believable chemistry, so their dialogue being just as wooden hurts tenfold. Pandora itself is as much a character in this story as the Titanic was, but it’s not one that people seem to have much affinity for nearly six years on. Why then did more people watch this movie than any other in history? Why was it such a massive success despite the fact it only ever comes up in conversation when Cameron talk about its potential sequels or if somebody mentions the fact that it made money? I believe the reasons for this weird paradox are two sides of the same coin.

Avatar is, in its entirety, a movie that is both broad and vague.

Depending on their context, both of those things can be pros and cons in equal measure. Here, the former is what allowed it to permeate boundaries of language and culture, achieving unparalleled domestic and international success, but the latter is what damages it far beyond repair. The film will likely hold that top spot for the foreseeable future, but next time it’ll be registered by our collective consciousness is when it’s eventually eclipsed. We will forever hold Cameron’s efforts in the field of motion-capture in high regard, but because of characters like Caesar and Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, not because of Jake and Neytiri, despite Zoe Saldana’s lifelike performance. When we talk about 3D, the film is absolutely responsible for changing the way we watch movies, perhaps its one major lasting impact, but that’s more because of how the added feature inflates ticket prices. How many films are actually shot in 3D each year? A couple at most, and it wasn’t until Gravity, four years later, that people were convinced that the technology could be used to enhance a narrative. Don’t get me wrong, Avatar’s visuals do most certainly benefit from the added layer of spectacles between ourselves and the spectacle, but Cameron’s filmmaking is so bizarrely unfocused, or focused on the wrong things, that the images barely hold weight to begin with, except during two or three scenes.

When we first land on Pandora, men in giant mechanical suits walk by like it’s a regular occurrence, which I’m sure it must be for the soldiers and for Jake Sully, but it begs the question: does the decision to put us in his point of view for the intro to this futuristic technology pay off? Or would the film have benefitted from either a third person perspective, or from making Jake himself unfamiliar with the military elements of the story, allowing him to see the machines with a fresh pair of eyes? The latter seems like a viable option, but in the process we would have lost the only thing that makes him a character at all – his military background. Perhaps the former, then? In comparison, the introduction to Raleigh and Yancy in Pacific Rim takes place in world where Jagers have been around for a decade, and every character we meet is familiar with them, yet there’s a certain majesty and sense of awe when we first get to see Gypsy Danger in action. Granted, this may not be the most apt comparison since Avatar is far more about the evils of technology than its good uses, pitting it directly against a natural ecosystem, and while we do eventually get to see floating mountains and plants that glow in the dark, Jake’s actual introduction to Pandora, subsequently ours, turns its giant spaceship into a mundane looking satellite (can you recall what it looks like without looking it up?), and its robots and futuristic tanks into background noise in favour of an environment very similar to our own. We’re used to seeing trees on Earth, and slightly bigger trees become the focus of Jake’s landing. Slightly bigger mountains. Slightly taller crops. The animals he first encounters are slightly bigger dogs, and dinosaurs with slightly different shades from the ones in our illustrations. When Cameron does break Earth-bound evolutionary logic, it’s perhaps the one time designs actually stands out: plants start to glow in the dark, as frog like creatures spin in mid air instead of flying in straight lines. It doesn’t make sense, but it works.

The floating mountains, when we eventually do see them, are too close together and shot from too neutral an angle to really have the overwhelming impact that something of that nature should. In The Lord of the Rings, we see the giant statues of Aragorn’s forefathers from the ground up when the characters first see them, as well as from far above later on as they pass underneath. We understand what emotional connection the characters have to them, from Aragorn’s nostalgia to Frodo’s feelings of insignificance, and it helps us get a sense of how deep the history and legacy of this world actually runs despite the fact that the effects don’t really hold up. In Avatar, we’re almost level with the mountains as the helicopter flies towards them, except for a brief shot that shows us their size in relation to the helicopter with no other information. We see neither their relationship to the ground nor to the sky, let alone to the inhabitants of the planet, and it doesn’t really help that Sam Worthington barely has any reaction to them. All we know about them is that they’re big, and they float because of their magnetic relationship to the planet’s surface. For a filmmaker trying to stress the deep connection between cultures and their environments, Cameron allows even his most interesting ideas to fall victim to his need to showcase physical detail above all else. That’s why it works in the moment, but it’s also why it doesn’t when you think back on it. It’s neither a sweeping shot of Middle Earth, nor the joy upon first seeing The Hogwarts Express. Neither a Helicarier rising above the clouds during a moment of peril, nor the Starship Enterprise being brought out of retirement. Neither Luke looking at the binary sunset on Tatooine, his hopes and dreams far off in the distance, nor the view from the top of the Titanic as it stands vertically above the water, while characters look down at the deadly plummet below. It is simply an idea. A grand idea no doubt, but an idea executed only with scientific concepts in mind, as opposed to human emotions. An idea that’s all about specifics as opposed to relationships, and that’s what most of the film is. Big ideas that look great on a massive canvas, but rarely cross over into the territory of substance. And yet, there’s also just about enough that does enter that realm of personal connection for it to stick, which is perhaps the film’s biggest triumph.

When I considered writing about this movie, I had the sudden realization that I didn’t actually remember much of it, except for two very specific scenes (I’ll touch on those in a moment). I remembered the experience of watching it; sitting down in front a gigantic 70mm IMAX screen and then applauding once it was over. I remembered lining up for the 3:45am screening because the first one at midnight was sold out, and I remember watching it for a second time on a much smaller screen a few days later. I remember being thoroughly underwhelmed despite having enjoyed the digital 3D, which was still a novelty back then. I remember hearing about the re-release that eventually pushed it over $2.7 billion, and I most certainly recall looking at the special edition BluRay and wondering if the visuals would hold up on a television if I ever decided to watch it again. I did eventually, though it was just a few weeks ago and on the big screen as part of BAMcinématek’s recent 3D showcase. The visuals do hold up. The movie doesn’t.

I have to admit, I was quite taken aback by the 162 minute runtime printed on my ticket, and I’m pretty sure I had lost all interest in the story by minute 120. Could it really have been almost three hours long, and had almost nothing to show for it except its CGI? Well, yes and no. It’s almost confusing to write about a movie that both did and didn’t have a major global impact, but the key to it seems to lie in that same broad/vague dichotomy I mentioned earlier. It’s a film that almost undoubtedly lacks specificity. Even the terminology feels lazily concocted. Calling the material you need Unobtanium is the equivalent of people chasing a mythical object known as ‘the MacGuffin’, and Eywah, the name for the cat-people’s* God, is simply an anagram of Yaweh. That’s on the vague side of the things. The broad side however, is a little more complicated.

*The Na’Vi. I had to Google what they were called.

The culture found on Pandora is an amalgam of various tropes in American fiction, drawn from Native American, South American and African tribal cultures, and while we can most certainly debate how offensive this may or may not be, the fact is that it did function as a stand-in for indigenous peoples in general, while the American Military ended up a substitute for colonizers and invaders, like the British Raj, The French Colonial Empire, the Nederlands-koloniale Rijk, and the American Military. Avatar ran theatrically in over 75 countries, and by virtue of being countries that aren’t Nepal, each of them had a colonial history one way or another. The two scenes that really stick out above any others are the ones that involve the visual depiction of a military invading territories that aren’t theirs. Sure, it was technically an international coalition, but the camouflage, demeanor, accents and terminology were all distinctly American. Corporate greed is by no means unique to America, though Giovanni Ribisi’s Parker Selfridge does share his last name with Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American Entrepreneur best known for setting up shop abroad (Selfridges is the second largest department store in the UK), but whether or not the parallel was intentional, Ribisi’s character represents the most malicious and heartless of corporate interests, which coupled with the military angle to the conquest made it ripe for a world that had witnessed America’s continuing military occupations in the Middle East. The tanks roll in and destroy the Na’Vi’s religiously siginificant trees, and there’s twice as much impact when they mercilessly open fire on the massive tree-trunk that is their entire village. It’s also a scene that barely involves the main characters. It doesn’t need to when it’s so deeply rooted in metaphors for military conquest of indigenous populations, coupled with corporate greed destroying the environment, further doubled down on with the massive structure crumbling amidst ash and flame in what is likely the first instance of a studio film using intentional 9/11 imagery. It’s that scene that really sells the experience, because it’s everything rolled into one, and it contains the kind of visuals that would impact people from both rural and urban areas, in both the global West and East. Do you hate what corporations are doing to your lush green surroundings? This movie is for you. Do you hate what terrorists did to one of your cities? This movie is for you. Do you hate what some other country did your city? Do you hate what your own country did to your city? This movie is for you. Do you hate your religion and culture being attacked? This movie is for you. Do you hate your boss or the organization you work for and wish you could rebel against them? This movie is for you. It’s a movie that’s SO broad that everybody from every corner of the globe can find some sort of familiarity in it because of how wide the net of totalitarianism is cast, but the buck stops there.

Sometimes broadness is specific, but you know what’s always specific? Specificity. The vague approach to characters like Jake and the concepts around him really shoot the film in the foot. To compare, look at all the things that ARE exact: the personal connections between people and animals through their ponytails, the downloading and uploading of memories through a magical tree like it’s the internet, the Kecak-like ritual where the Na’Vi sway arm in arm as they connect with nature in order to preserve life, the Na’Vi word Tsamsiyu meaning ‘warrior’, something the tribesman call Jake with vitriolic sarcasm…. And then you have the rest of the language, which may as well be gibberish. You have the system by which Jake connects with his Avatar, a tanning bed with a couple of cheap wires hanging near his head, not even touching him like a familiar VR device would. You have Neytiri, who snarls and moves like a feline creature, but has no identity beyond being a warrior, the same as Jake. This isn’t a story about being consumed by that identity or trying to move past it, it’s a story of these two vague warrior-ish people falling in love. The introduction to the Tree of Souls isn’t interesting because it’s shiny, it’s interesting because of the personal connection the people of Pandora have to it. It’s simultaneously a religious and scientific phenomenon, where brainwaves become hard-coded into the planet’s biology, and people can feel the essence of their loved ones when they connect with it. That’s so neat! It’s like our Facebook pages that will once day become epitaphs when we die. But that scene is immediately cut short so that two people whom we barely know (and who barely know each other) can lock ponytails and “[mate] in front of Eywah” in the most awkward sex scene not set to Leonard Cohen.

The Na’Vi had the potential to be an interesting, memorable culture with unique beliefs and practices (they even have a matriarch!) but the film is satisfied with the bare minimum it puts into making it seem as broadly tribal as possible. It’s something that works for making it accessible as an initial step, but what point is there in opening the door for everyone when what’s inside is for almost no one? The film’s more interesting characters (played by Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang) don’t actually have much screen time, and the reason they’re interesting is because they’re broad cutouts, which is not something that can be complemented by non-characters. They’re the most specific characters in the film by default.

And really, isn’t it the characters that keep us coming back to the cinema? Aren’t the experiences that last the ones that are set against the backdrop of interesting people? What would Raiders of the Lost Ark be without Indiana Jones? Or Iron Man without Tony Stark? Or The Dark Knight without The Joker? Even if you take an exception like 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the entire point is the coldness of the human characters, it still has one of the most unique and interesting villains. For all its strengths and all its weaknesses, Avatar’s biggest failure ultimately comes down to the fact that its broad themes and arguably relevant metaphors are neither grounded by nor seen from the perspective of anyone remotely interesting. The few things that work do so because they aren’t tethered to the characters. The technological designs, the flora & fauna, the scenes of invasion. Can you imagine how much richer the experience would’ve been if those things factored in to the stories of people who mattered to us?

Ultimately, my critiquing the film this way has little meaning in the face of its box-office haul, and I’m not being cynical when I say that. For a couple of months, a film that opened pretty decently managed to keep on selling tickets, over and over and over again, all across the globe, a yet unparalleled phenomenon that I can’t possibly undo, nor would I given the chance. People flocked back to the theatre to get a taste of Pandora week after week, so who am I to tell them that their reasons might not be as deep or meaningful as they believe? I don’t know if ‘post-Pandora depression’ was a real thing, but as long as people are watching something that makes them happy for a few hours, there’s not much I want to do to stop them. However, if we’re talking about the worth of a film in the long run, in a deeper cultural sense and in a way that changes our understanding of each other and of the world around us, then there’s plenty to critique. Big as it may be, Avatar isn’t something that really matters to many people, the way something like this past weekend’s Mad Max: Fury Road will a few years down the line.

I know it seems like a juvenile point to bring up, but it’s a relevant one in 2015, where things like these are indicators of what’s on people’s minds. When was the last time you saw an Avatar meme? Or heard somebody make an Avatar joke that wasn’t deriding the movie? Or heard someone simply quoting the movie in conversation? Furthermore, Tumblr is a hub for intense, obsessive fan dedication to fiction, and do you know what you’ll find if you search the #Avatar tag there? Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Pages and pages and pages of these two inter-connected shows whose mythologies are tied directly to the stories of their main characters, characters who have entire libraries worth of fan art and fan fiction and deconstructive essays dedicated to them. It’s the same for any other media no matter how many or how few people it’s seen by as long as it matters to them. So perhaps Avatar’s legacy is the zeroes at the end of its box office tally, or perhaps its legacy is to perpetually be confused with a world and a cast of characters that people feel deeply connected to. Maybe it’s both. And in the end, isn’t that the ultimate irony?