God bless James Cameron, then, for continuing to fight the good fight, for believing the investment of massive amounts of money and time might eventually close this irreconcilable gap between realism and reality—that a film might actually peer into other futures or other worlds even as the very act of locking down its final edit immediately consigns it to the compost heap of fading verisimilitude. When other genres become obsolescent, they at least have the possibility of creating their own hermetic worlds—“realities” like John Ford’s west, Freed-unit musicals, or noir’s post-war cityscape. In those cases, at least, the individual titles echo the look and logic of one another to produce a viable or at least internally consistent universe. The lone science-fiction title, on the other hand, is destined to be the orphan on the playground—isolated, alone, and tragically vulnerable to withering ridicule (another explanation of Star Wars' continuing success, perhaps, is the ability of each installment—no matter how terrible—to nevertheless bolster the overall logic of the entire franchise).
So what does Avatar bring to this struggle? It’s no “game changer,” certainly, but those who really believed it would alter the destiny of the cinema are probably descended from the same genetic stock that actually bought “fright insurance” in the lobby before seeing William Castle’s 13 Ghosts (1960). As far as that goes, hats off to Cameron (or whomever) for showing that exploitation humbuggery hasn’t yet died in Hollywood, even if that now means hiring neurologists to discuss “thresholds of belief” rather than radio spots extolling the skele-tastic wonders of “Emergo!”
As a basic good v. evil shoot-em-up in space (or more accurately, in a terrarium illuminated by black-lights), Avatar isn’t all that bad—certainly not deserving of much of the wrath it has incurred (which, to be honest, is simply displaced disgust with the entire blockbuster mentality of Hollywood). I certainly enjoyed Avatar more than Titanic (1997), a three-hour ordeal that had me hoping there would be NO survivors.
If only Cameron could have left well enough alone.
Unfortunately, unlike Castle and other cine-hucksters of old, Cameron clearly intends to say something of import in Avatar—and thus begins the great unraveling. Perhaps this stems from a sense of guilt—if someone is going to spend this much money on a film, it should do more than simply grind Cool Ranch Doritos into the spectator's eyes for two hours. And so we enter the truly dangerous Pandora of the Hollywood allegory.
No surprise, I guess, but as a “lesson” about American foreign policy, Avatar is just flat out insulting. Pandora?! Unobtanium?! Surrogate jarhead converted to a path of peace, Priuses, and NPR? The movie revels in a brand of politics that probably only makes sense over mimosas at the Ivy. One can almost imagine the series of meetings on the Universal lot to see if the script was sufficiently obvious enough so that all those Bush voters out there would “get it.” Perhaps the fantasy was that America’s unwashed dumbasses would emerge from the multiplex and into the bright light of the mall to toss their newly purchased copies of Going Rogue into the fountain, eager to hurry home and begin work on a new solar array for the barn. Thank you Hollywood for showing me that Arabs are people too, with their own strange traditions and primitive wisdom, and that all of the world is one living organism interconnected by fiber optic trees.
But for an allegory to be effective, there must remain some sense that it is actually an allegory. Before racing the hare, the tortoise does not stop to opine, “By participating in this unlikely contest, I hope to teach you some important lessons about hubris, determination, complacency and the work ethic.” We used to give 6-year-old children more credit at storytime than Avatar currently ascribes to its saturation release audience. Without some room for the viewers—no matter how stupid one imagines them to be—to make a few connections on their own, an allegory becomes a tedious lecture, which Avatar most assuredly is.
Other questions linger about the “politics” of Pandora. Do those pterodactyl things actually want to be raped by the Na’vi? What the hell do they get out of this “marriage” other than an opportunity to be flown into a wall at 200mph? Isn’t that an exploitation of natural resources on par with digging for unobtanium? Also, isn’t it a little disturbing that this race of perfect beings—so profoundly invested in the communal balance of all nature—can only be saved by the one guy who has the balls to subjugate the biggest and most badass of all the birds, an act that transforms him into an Oz-like God now worthy of delivering the obligatory St. Crispen’s Day speech? It’s like the moment the high school quarterback shows up in his Trans Am, bringing a parking lot beer party to a halt as everyone stops to acknowledge the potent alliance of hormones, charisma, and technology that has just taken the stage. Avatar wants to take Dances with Wolves (1990) into space—but in moments like this, it veers dangerously close to a multi-billion dollar remake of “The Apple”—that infamous episode of Star Trek wherein Kirk vows to de-pussify a society that knows nothing of sex or violence.
Will the final battles of Revelations feature dueling scores between Enya and Gustav Holst? Avatar suggests yes, they will.
No, as far as noble savage narratives go, there’s nothing going on in Avatar that wasn’t done better and more subtly by The Searchers (1956) a half century ago—or even earlier (odd, isn’t it, that A.C. Doyle would end up this Christmas on one screen with Sherlock Holmes and on the other, in more distorted form, with this echo of The Lost World?)
Utterly predictable in its plot and politics, Avatar is slightly more interesting as an allegory of the cinema. In fact, I can’t remember a film so uniquely positioned for one of Zizek’s patented “return-of-the-real” analyses—not necessarily through the film’s conventional metaphysics of digital disembodiment—but in the warring production paradigms the film so conveniently spatializes within its diegesis.
Pandora is a world of absolute digital perfection—a realm wholly unencumbered by the rules of the physical universe, and hope upon hope, the inevitable decay, obsolescence, and natural shock that this fleshy reality is heir to. But within Pandora there remains a sucking wound of the Real—the human encampment, a final refuge of principle photography, quite literally a “pit” where a few figures still walk, breathe, and act without the transcendence of digital processing. In this respect, Jack Sulley’s “crossing-over” in the film’s final moment (just before the pant-pissingly pretentious shock-cut to the title: AVATAR!) is less about the transmigration from human to Na’vi as it is a fantasy about arriving at last in the elusive future-cinema of absolute control, one no longer answerable to time, history, sets, actors, or light.
But here too Avatar is ultimately doomed. The mistake is in thinking that total control will someday equal total realism, as if the Real were a thing that might eventually be conquered by extremely determined and expensive forms of representation (as Letterman riffed in the weeks preceding Avatar’s release, “The film is so amazing, you will actually believe there are actors on the screen.”) But as “realism” is not a scientific/technological challenge that might be solved but instead an ever-shifting alliance of historical protocols, there is little doubt all of these sfx heavy spectacles will one day take their rightful place next to Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), or in Avatar’s case perhaps, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (the old animated one, not the new Nick Cagey one).
Or maybe not. Which makes this panicked stampede toward “perfecting” digital realism even more sad. At least when men are filmed going to the moon in barcaloungers and smoking jackets, the inevitable decay of their time-locked reality leaves behind a residual drama, the charm of witnessing an historical imaginary and the material world that once hosted it. As the cinema becomes more like painting than photography—all in a paradoxical and ultimately futile bid to signify an ever-retreating real world--even this documentary remainder of the cinema threatens to vanish. I say in the sequel, Cameron gets $50,000 bucks to send the Lost Planet Airmen to Pandora to drag Jack Sulley’s ass back from pixel-pixie land. A quick fight with a guy in a Gamera suit wouldn't hurt either. Not only would it make for a more interesting film, the challenge might prove good therapy for both Cameron and the art of filmmaking.