I was, I think, eight years old when I first saw Star Wars. I was with my family, visiting my mother’s sister in Rochester, NY, and somehow it came up around the dinner table that my brother and I had never seen the Star Wars movies. My cousin, who was something like thirteen at the time, was flabbergasted, and promptly after dinner marched us upstairs to their tiny TV room.
Viewing conditions were less than ideal : the TV couldn’t have been more than seventeen inches, there was no sound system to speak of, and we were watching the non-letterboxed, full-screen version. Still, that remains one of the most indelible cinematic experiences of my life. (I even remember saying to myself, “Well, the music’s pretty good, at least,” when the first blast of the score sounded with the yellow letters scrawling across the screen). I was an instant convert. It didn’t matter that I was sitting on the floor, or that the screen was tiny, or that you couldn’t read the introductory text because the pan-and-scan process had cut off a good third-or-more of the screen. It was mesmerizing.
I bring this up in the context of Avatar because the ambition of Cameron’s film is to do to film now what Star Wars did when it first came out – open our eyes to the wonders to a new world that the cinema is poised to enter. Star Wars was far from the first epic space opera; it could be argued that the genre began as far back as 1927, when Fritz Lang’s Metropolis graced the silver screen. Star Trek and its attendant (for the time) technical wizardry predated Star Wars by a decade. But nothing up to that point could have prepared audiences for either the grandness or the execution of Lucas’s vision. Who knew that film could allow us to be privy to the destruction of a planet, or to the vastness of interstellar space? Star Wars revolutionized cinema because it demonstrated that film was a medium that could show us things that we could see nowhere else. That, too, is the aim of Avatar – we have seen 3-D films before, but never like this, never so gorgeous or so flawlessly done.
Sadly, Avatar lacks the thing that made Star Wars sublime, what made it so glorious an experience even in those less-than-ideal viewing conditions of my cousin’s TV room. There’s simply not much of a story there. The film is beautiful, and it opens your eyes to hitherto-uncharted cinematic territory, but nowhere is there grand storytelling to be found. It’s entertaining, it’s visually stunning, and it boldly goes — but it’s ultimately hollow, as well. In that it reminds me more of another technically revolutionary film, 1927’s The Jazz Singer, which as the first talkie was revolutionary and a box-office hit but also a film that most would agree isn’t very fun to watch anymore. Avatar is already dated, distinctly of its time. Truly great films are for all time.
On the face of it, the story seems to be a rich one, and one that we’ve seen followed with stunning results in more than one past film – the lone man, sent to learn about and extract concessions from an alien people, who discovers that those people have more to offer him than the society he left behind. It’s Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, The Mission, even Lawrence of Arabia. (On a side note, thinking about the latter two made me wonder why Cameron decided to make the Na’avi a jungle people when so much of what appeals to a viewer in those other ‘gone native’ epics is in the purity and uncluttered vastness of the plains and the desert – as Ali reprimands Lawrence, ‘I think you are one of those white men that love the desert.’ It is not so far in effect, after all, from the urban jungle to the real one, a contrast that Cameron sadly does not think to explore). Where Avatar fails is in being unable to acknowledge that it’s not so easy to abandon everything that you have been – indeed, it goes out of its way to make it easy for Jake to leave humanity behind. He has no family (the premise of the film, in fact, is that he takes his dead brother’s place on the ship to Pandora), he is confined to a wheelchair, he apparently has nothing connecting him to his mission except his desire to make enough money to receive treatment to be able to walk again. Furthermore, Jake’s only human connections are his boss Grace, who’s already more a fan of the Na’avi than she is of the corporate thugs financing the mission to Pandora, and Colonel Quaritch, the base’s head of security, who is nothing if not an asshole. The movie’s central conceit, made unambiguously clear in the first scene that Jake inhabits his avatar body, is that Jake’s experiences in an alien body can be somehow more real than those in his own body. This leads to some groan-inducing pieces of dialogue, most notably when Jake refers to the humans as ‘aliens’ toward the end of the movie.
This is what makes Avatar, for all artistic purposes, a failure : its reduction of complex problems to their most absurd and simplistic dimension. Of course Jake would choose to go native. But where is the acknowledgement that it is not so easy to leave everything you have been behind? There is a reason that those other movies about tormented, cynical souls going native are tragedies, not simple action-adventure romps with triumphal endings. Lawrence takes Damascus, only to see all that he has fought for dissolve into the infighting of the Arab tribes with none of his national ambitions, and ultimately goes back to England a citizen neither either of his native nor of his adopted land. Mendoza and Gabriel defend their mission, and they die for it, as they know they will; and even they are there with the larger goal of bringing Christianity to the Indians. Jake, on the other hand, gives up nothing and gains everything.
There is a good deal of the noble savage running through this film, and that is ironic given that their savior must of necessity be, for all intents and purposes, the hero white man. I don’t know that either the heartfelt environmentalism or the thickly-laid white guilt that Cameron gives the movie are mislaid. But without a true-to-life, high-stakes story to support them, how can you really care? Avatar is gorgeous and explores uncharted cinematic waters, but its beauty is, proverbially, only skin-deep. There is no humanity in it. Perhaps that is the point : its central character chooses, after all, to leave humanity behind. That seems a poor moral, though, to those of us who cannot escape to new bodies on Pandora.
Gentleman of the day: