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Alison Wilde reviews Avatar - the most expensive film yet made / 14 January 2010

film poster showing face of a blue figure

Poster for Avatar © Avatar Movies

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Dearie dearie me...

A disabled character as the central protagonist, beautiful animation, Sigourney Weaver, a critical perspective on (inter-planetary) colonialism and anti environment values - what could possibly go wrong?

Okay, I admit it - I was seduced by the art of this film and the immersive experience, the 3D effects were subtle and added to its wonder (though it was sometimes a little difficult for the eyes). For the first day after seeing Avatar, I was ambivalent but less than critical of the story-telling. Now I am a little ashamed that I added to the box office takings.

Directed and written by James Cameron, the movie stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaner, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang.

It’s hard to know where to start criticising this film (I could complain for hours) and part of me is loathe to spend a minute more of my life thinking about it. But here goes.

Despite good intentions, reminding us to respect cultures other than our own, to appreciate the value of things we cannot know and its obvious messages about the horrors of Western imperialism, the film’s plot is predictable, patronising, lazy, derivative and confused. Alongside many computer game figures, think Disney’s Pocohantas (American Indian princess figure) meets Studio Ghibli (especially Howl’s Moving Castle) and Dances with Wolves. But mostly Pocohontas, this time without the singing.

James Cameron (once again) has very low expectations of his vast audience. I did actually think of leaving the cinema when it was revealed that the RDA, a large mining organisation comprised of mercenaries, is on an expedition to the moon Pandora in search of (..sigh) unobtanium. As the name suggests, Pandora is run according to (ostensibly) matriarchal values by tall, blue, native aliens. Anyway, I stayed for what seemed an eternity, to the end of the film, so I could write a review but also because I thought my thirteen year old daughter was enjoying it (she wasn’t).

In a year that Simon McKeown used motion capture technology to represent real disabled people to creative and captivating effect, it seems wrong that Cameron should use the same technology and his obscenely massive budget to represent disability in such a poor and pointless manner.

Whereas McKeown created images, for posterity, of disabled people with impairments which are likely to be eradicated, Cameron’s story (set in the year 2154) revolves around a newly disabled marine, Jake Sully, who is played by a non-disabled actor Sam Worthington.

Adding insult to injury, Jake is asked to control a non-disabled lab grown avatar, modelled on the body of his newly-dead brother. When Jake is transported into the avatar’s body he is indistinguishable from the native population, the Na’vi, tall, athletic bipeds with tails. Unlike McKeown, Cameron uses the motion capture technology to transform Jake and the mission’s chief scientist, Grace (Sigourney Weaver), into avatars, whereupon Jake is rendered non-disabled (he returns to base, as disabled, when the avatar sleeps).

There is no apparent reason for this character to be disabled in the first place, other than to frame Jake’s moral dilemma; whether to put the good of the Na’vi before the before evil of the invaders. Taking a decision to side with the native people means Jake will remain disabled, as a human being, spurning Colonel Quaritch’s reward of ‘new legs’ for successful infiltration and relevant information.

So although the film is critical of Western military power, it simultaneously communicates a message of disabled warriors as heroes. And in the end, like many disabled male characters, Jake’s heroism is rewarded by the full restoration of his masculinity; the girl, the legs, the cultural power and the biggest ‘bird’ on the planet (I’ll come back to this).

As the title ‘Avatar’ suggests, the films major themes revolve around issues of technology and spirituality- Jake controls the Avatar (as a 3D , non-disabled representation of himself) in its life within the planet’s community and is an Avatar in a Hindu sense, in that he is becoming a new ‘Na’vi’ manifestation of his earthly self.

But, whilst we are being asked to identify with the more spiritual, interconnected and less violent realm of the Na’vi culture and despise military and imperialist values as weak and greedy, the battle’s outcome is dependant in the end on a single white American, marine; it all rests on Jake’s strength of power (and body). The nature/culture divide between the humans and the Na’vi is reinforced in many ways, not least by the voices of the Na’vi as Black, Native American and Hispanic, counterposed with the (predominantly) white invaders.

Predictably, Jake’s storyline includes his redemption through the love of a Na’vi princess and eventual cultural acceptance by the Na’vi. The storyline of love found, lost and found again is both banal and offensive. After she and the rest of the Na’vi renounce him for betraying them, his fate is suddenly transformed when, enacting a spiritual form of rape, he commandeers the toruk, the biggest bird (or flying beast) on the planet.

The smaller versions of this creature (known as ikrans) are used as a crucial form of transport between the moon and the floating Hallelujah mountains. The Na’vi people each choose their own ikran by mutual consent. The toruk, in contrast, is an enormous bird which is the spiritual equivalent of a Lamborghini. His descent on this beast instantly redeems Jake and renders him the new Na’vi leader, conceptualised as a new Messiah. Shallow.

Fans of action films will probably enjoy the extensive crash, bang, wallop scenes where the two cultures eventually clash. I found this hard to endure; tedious, noisy and very predictable.

Frankly, if I want to sit through a 162 minute film, based on CGI and/or motion capture technology, I’d rather it was one with more substance, like the Evian roller babies. Or better still Motion Disabled.

Keywords: alternative technology,film