For dinner tonight, I had pasta with pumpkin-peanut sauce, pumpkin beer, and the movie Avatar. (I'm talking about the one with blue people, not M. Night Shyamalan's latest catastrophe.) I was prepared to dislike it; I had heard from some people that it was overrated, that it won its Oscars for the effects, and that the analogy to present day Earthling racism, genocide, and war profiteering was so heavy handed that viewers should wear helmets.
Those people are assholes. I have seldom seen such tight writing in an effects-laden blockbuster in my life. It was -- is -- epic, in every integral sense of the word. It's the story of becoming the man you were born to be, of leading a people to victory -- a planet to victory -- with nothing but guts and faith to guide you. Shit, if that ain't cinema I don't want to watch what is.
It's beautiful. The ecology feels like a real ecology, like it all could have evolved together. The Na'vi, the blue people on the posters, their skin is even blue realistically! Everything on this planet glows with phosphorescents, so of course the intelligent species does too.
Some of the signposting is obvious, but I would not say that it is too obvious. After years of avid movie-watching, I can tell where I'm being led, and I personally don't mind that most of the time. I did not mind it here; it's just normal signposting. Of course Jake becomes a Big Bad Archeopteryx rider. Duh. The clans have to be united under a common symbol, and there he is. Boom. It's not beating the viewer over the head to tell them beforehand, "Hey, dude, there's this old symbol of a badass archeopteryx rider uniting all the clans in time of need. It's sweet, right?" That's actually called good writing.
But that isn't the themestick I heard Avatar was beating people with. That themestick was the Bad White People Destroying Good Natives And Good Nature Because They Are Bad allegory. Now, to start with, that's not just some allegory that's tacked onto the screenplay in order for some producer to feel good about himself. It's not an unnecessary twist of the core themes like the Bush critique built into the V for Vendetta movie or the exhausting Christ imagery and evils-of-war panoramas in Children of Men.
This "high-handed theme" is not just a theme. It's the fucking plot. And that plot is not more over-the-top than, say, Fern Gully or The Lorax. Anyone who thinks they've been smacked in the face by it ought to be smacked in the face again, because they are just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
With that out of my system, let me talk about what I really thought was cool in this movie.
1. The effects. Hell, yes. The entire non-existent planet looked real. I had no idea the Na'vi would look so good, or so natural. It's amazing, and the visuals actually served to help bring me into the world-building, to make me care about the safety of this bizarre, beautiful world and what would happen to it. I nearly cried when Eywa took Grace. I flew with our main pair when they soared. It was beautiful.
2. The humanity of the bad guys. Yes, it's there, and not just in Trudy. The Colonel is a wretched son of a bitch -- which some people are, especially (I expect) when they've spent the better part of their lives fighting for their lives in awful terrain against hostile civilians. He's a character you see a lot in Vietnam War histories. That shit gets to you. So, good job on a believable villain. Now, Parker, the commander -- there is an interesting piece of work. He's driven by his job, by fears of disappointing the people in charge of him, by probably many things of which we are ignorant. He gives the orders to kill the Na'vi, and he gives them staunchly. But he can't watch the Home Tree burn with the Na'vi still inside it; he has the monitors turned off. He turns away rather than watch the bombing mission on the Tree of Souls. He does exactly his duty, and I get the idea he doesn't sleep very well at night or like himself when he looks in a mirror. That's fascinating; I wish we got more of that, but it would jeopardize the integrity of the story. And anyway, the story isn't about him.
3. Jake's identity crisis. This is what the story is about. Personally, I think questions of identity are at the heart of every good story, so I guess I'm biased. Jake's identity struggle is blatant, however, and relayed through his video log voice overs as well as through his actions. He says the life he lives as a human becomes the dream, and his Na'vi avatar's life is the real one. He's a double agent who defects. A John Smith who actually does go native. He's Dances With Wolves. It's simple, yet it becomes brilliant through Jake's integrity, fearlessness, and depth of attachment to the world of Pandora. His experience is what sells the world -- and the story -- to me. He is a true warrior, and I cannot fault that. I wasn't sure I'd like him until the scene when he first wakes up in his avatar's body and runs just because he can, because these legs still work. (I nearly cried then too.) A lesser story would have succeeded in sedating him.
4. And ultimately, I think that is why I love this film. It never holds back. In the words of Vincent from Gattaca, it doesn't save anything for the swim back. It runs straight forward, does not pull its punches, does not stop to make sure the audience is following every step, does not ask forgiveness or permission. It just runs -- and then flies -- straight to the inevitable conclusion to its well-developed premise. That is why it is not high-handed. This is not a story sitting around waiting for viewers to catch up; every scene adds something to the story, to the characters, to the world. Every character is stock. Let me repeat: every character is a stock role. The idealistic scientist. The greedy, violent soldier man. The double agent who goes native. The chief who refuses to listen. The jarhead next chief. Pocahontas. It's not that the story is original, it's that it is played with such depth of feeling, and every stereotype fleshed out into a real individual, that it becomes its own singular story despite all that. I love it. I will watch it again. I'll even pay money for it. :)
And damn but I wish I'd seen it in a theater.