‘Upon the foundation of an entirely invented biosystem, Avatar is a brilliant synthesis of mythic tropes, with debts to Lévi-Strauss and Frazier’s The Golden Bough. It soars because, simply, it stones and transports you.’
- Michael Mann in his entry for the 2012 Sight & Sound greatest films of all time poll.
And that should be enough for most people. But the intervening years has seen Avatar’s reputation trampled and dismissed. There’s no appetite or enthusiasm for the inevitable upcoming sequels. We’ve forgotten the thrill that we all experienced back in December 2009, when for one of few times in our lives, we went to the cinema and saw something we had never seen before. I think that denial is on us; perhaps we’re suffering from some collective shame at the realisation that we didn’t learn the lessons of Avatar. We were presented with a vision of cinema where its vast resources and capabilities were given to an artist in order to create a movie of enormous creativity and imagination. And we rejected this, and its place we got a cinematic landscape dominated by Benedict Cumberbatch playing Doctor Strange. We can’t deal with this, we’re ashamed by it, and thus we turn on Avatar and write it off as some simplistic, moralising Pocahontas paradigm.
Because, aside from the unique visual pleasures of the movie (and these are plentiful – Cameron’s distinct use of colour is extraordinary in and of itself) Avatar is vital because it presents one of the most profound pieces of progressive art in mainstream cinema. It is a contemplation on the need for ecological responsibility. An unsubtle polemic for veganism. And a profound riposte to the violence and horror of the action movie genre.
The final point is of course essential, given Cameron’s stature within this field. But it is hard to read Avatar as anything other than a response to the wanton collateral damage that dominates the genre. Aliens (1986) is a masterpiece; but the destruction issued within it is specific and not universal. The film was no advertisement for the necessity of utterly annihilating a hostile force. It is no coincidence that at the film’s conclusion Colonel Quaritch – a space marine, no less – is placed within a mecha-suit similar to the one used at the conclusion of Aliens. His subsequent destruction repurposes that act. For in that film, Ripley was facing a specific horror – the desperate, unfeeling black mass of the xenomorph. It is a horror that is utterly inhuman. It has no pity or remorse or compassion, and Ripley’s turn to violence (she is largely pacifistic in Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)) is a necessity to protect an innocent.
But Hollywood did not recognise this, and made their heroes irresponsible mass-murderers. Avatar seeks to bring responsibility to the genre, by repurposing the lessons of Ripley. It is essential to note that Sigourney Weaver repudiates any use of a mecha-suit in this film (in itself, a crude mechanical ‘avatar’) and instead transposes herself onto an alien lifeform – a superior ‘alternative’ body to the one used by the military.
In as much as this film is a response to violence of the action genre, Avatar also positions itself as a counter-point to the repressive masculinity that dominates the form. Cameron has an essential history of positioning the central characters of his movies as strong women with agency and capability, and Avatar is no exception, despite its rather bland male lead (though Worthington is affecting in his portrayal of a man unable to atone for the waste of his life). Zoe Saldana is the only actor to truly shine through her motion capture performance, such is her hulking physicality and prowling movement, and Michelle Rodriguez positions herself as the de-facto star, spitting out quips and making the audience love her. But more profoundly, Cameron presents the idealised society of the Na’vi as one that does not suffer from gender imbalance (though it is still gendered – would it be possible for an individual to enter the avatar of an opposite sex?) and the film is profoundly female friendly, particularly in its representation of sex. Cameron choose to make the demonstrated physical act as one of intimacy and foreplay and emotional connection – a move that stands in direct contrast to the sweaty presentation that is found in most action films where it is shown to be solely about the male gratification of penetration.
For an already long film, Avatar actually benefits from being even longer. The majority of the extended edition’s additional runtime comes from a prequel set on Earth. It underlines the necessity of Pandora; how it is a world quite unlike the overpopulated, mundane environment that Jake inhabits. It is a world where nature is manipulated and controlled; endangered animals are brought back to life via cloning. It underlines the great compromises we make as a species – we protect and preserve creatures, but in zoological centres and wildlife reserves. We contain and constrain it, and continue to assert our dominance over the rest of the planet. Pandora, with its interconnected biological wildlife, provides a necessary counterpoint to this – you can bulldoze as many trees as you like, and the ecological system will prevail. It’s a fantasy of living which is profoundly appealing, and one that helps us understand why Jake would willingly give up his identity and physicality for it.
Whilst the ecological issues raised by Avatar can seem heavy handed, they remain essential. The biodiversity of Earth has become almost negligible, such is the dominance of the few species that humankind deign to eat. The world is dominated by millions of pigs, and cows and chickens… and not much else, certainly not when placed in comparison with other epochs of our history. Avatar is an interesting exploration of evolution; as a species we had grown to the point where we shape our environment to suit our needs, and any possible progress (that does not consider the more likely outcome of mutually assured destruction) indicates an evolution where flesh and blood are fused with technology, computational hive minds and artificially engineered body parts. The Na’vi experience no such future. Whilst they may be technologically primitive, they gained a greater understanding of the need for responsible living at a far earlier point in their development. The Na’vi seem to miss the capacity for gluttony that resides in our species; where our hunting of animals goes from necessity to survive, into the luxury of sport. This would understandably lead to a far smaller population of the supposed dominant species as seen within the film
It is this attention to detail that demonstrates the true mastery of the form that Cameron is capable of. He is intensely focussed on details and excruciatingly demanding of others. This ensures that Avatar suffers a lot less from the weak physicality and incoherent rendering that is seen in most CGI-dominated films. The move away from physical effects and into the computational realm has only diminished the capacity of cinema to amaze. If you can make anything nowadays in a computer, your anything must have life. The CGI bollocks that passes in most films is ill-defined and unphysical; it holds no perceived weight in the environment in which it takes place. It requires a visionary of Cameron’s stature to ensure that CGI shots are returned to and perfected; few other films take the same care over their effects, only John Carter (2012 – Andrew Stanton) and Pacific Rim (2013 – Guillermo del Toro) spring to mind, and those films are similarly problematic in places that led to them being lazily dismissed. Cameron often slows down the action during his CGI sequences, giving a verisimilitude to the proceedings. Few directors are as confident in their effects shots, and will use rapid-editing to cover up their weaknesses.
Cameron’s world building is extraordinary. Barely mentioned reference to conflicts in Venezuela and Nigeria paint pictures in the audience’s minds of an Earth riddled in war. He creates an ecological world which is more alive than most movies set in America that reminds us of our own personal responsibility. And he has created an action movie that stands alone against the testosterone-fuelled nonsense that dominates the genre. Maybe these were just a few too many successes for us to admit to in one movie.
(Footnote: look I’ve tried to engage with the text as much as possible, but the great sin of Avatar exists outside its position as a work of commerce: that it almost single-handedly led to the death of film projection. And I have my doubts about the extent to which that was a crime; outside of the rarefied, metropolitan cineaste circles, film projection meant limited choice in blockbusters, and I can remember the number of films I saw with shoddy picture, and dropped out or crackly sound. Nowadays, we’ve recast those experiences in a nostalgic light, but they were fucking annoying at the time. But film should be projected from the format it was shot on, and every time I travel up to London to see something in 35mm or 70mm, I’m reminded what a special experience that is, when done right. Avatar killed it off, in its quest for murky 3D faddish projection. There’s probably is sickening metaphor to be made comparing the Na’vi to celluloid…)