I already offered my problems with Avatar when I reviewed it two weeks ago. While I don’t want to repeat myself, that review was written shortly after the film’s opening, before the popular opinion of it had a chance to congeal. In general, opinions of the film haven’t been totally different—though they have been much more positive—from my own: The consensus seems to be that Avatar is visually impressive, if not all that original in terms of story and character.
What has been surprising, though, is how critics and audiences alike do not seem to care about the film’s weaknesses. Almost every review I’ve read, whether from an established critic like Roger Ebert or simply someone’s Twitter feed, has acknowledged the film’s simplicity and derivativeness, and then completely ignored them. In fact, some people have gone even further, saying that the smallness of the story and the characters actually makes the movie better. Sam Adams at The A.V. Club wrote that it’s the film’s political message—and not its visual inventiveness—that is so revolutionary.
Adams’ argument is that the simplicity and obviousness of the film’s message enhances its role as a political invective:
[T]he movie can—and, I think, ought to—be seen as a polemic, which makes criticism of its obviousness beside the point. Having Lang’s colonel refer to his plan to bomb the Na’vi into submission with the words “shock and awe” is not subtle, but it’s not meant to be. Cameron means to be confrontational, and to be sure, audiences looking for a diverting night out are not allowed to overlook the parallels.
These “parallels” are as plentiful as they are obvious: There is colonial conquest of native tribes, there is Western imperialism, there is American interventionism, there is religious persecution and oppression, there are even globalization and corporate greed.
Adams’ point would be somewhat valid, if the movie begat any rethinking at all about these themes. Take, for example, the movie’s treatment of corporate greed. Adams says that “the money-hungry company, willing to sacrifice any number of lives in the pursuit of profit, is a frequent Cameron bugbear.” Um, isn’t it everyone’s? Is anyone “pro” money-hungry companies that are willing to sacrifice any number of lives in the pursuit of profit? I guess the movie did force those people to face serious moral questions on this issue, but for those of us already anti-Insatiable Avarice, it was a little rote.
Avatar similarly fails as an allegory for the war in Iraq—the political message most discussed in reference to the film. There are, as Adams and seemingly every reviewer of Avatar has pointed out, many obvious similarities between the mercenary force in the film and the U.S. military. They wear the same uniforms, they have the same gung-ho attitude, the protagonist himself is a former Marine, etc. And the conquest of the Na’vi bears some resemblance to the war in Iraq: It is a doomed attempt to wipe out a less technologically advanced insurgency that relies heavily on home-field advantage.
Nevertheless, these parallels only correspond to the most crude caricature of the war in Iraq. Liberals have occasionally tried to characterize the war as a brutal, oppressive conquest in pursuit of oil, but no serious defender of the war actually believes that. And so the parallel ultimately fails, since the only people who will accept it as viable are those already in agreement with its point.
Adams also thinks it is “revolutionary” for the film to portray the Na’vi “insurgency” so sympathetically, since it will inevitability correspond to Iraq or, worse, terrorists. But this is completely unfounded. Insurgencies are almost always sympathetic, since they are natural underdogs. Insurgents, from another perspective, are called “revolutionaries” or “freedom fighters,” and people love films like The Patriot and Braveheart and The Last of the Mohicans for this reason. Even films where the enemy is the U.S., like Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai, are not rare.
It’s also not as if the Na’vi do anything at all that would make us think of them as terrorists. They don’t harm innocents—they even try to save some of their enemies—or provoke violence. Their religious beliefs are bland and non-controversial. They’re at peace with nature. Even their weapons—bows and arrows, etc.—speak of nobility and grace more than violence and destruction. There is absolutely nothing at all that makes it hard to sympathize with the Na’vi.
And this destroys the polemic, as opposed to enhancing it. Instead of looking at the Na’vi as “Iraq” and the Colonel as “U.S.”, we look at the Na’vi and see “good guys,” and we look at the Colonel and think “pure evil.” But nobody watching this movie (except maybe Michael Moore) thinks the U.S. is “pure evil.” We may be misguided, inept, corrupt, destructive, and a lot of other things, but we’re not “pure evil.”
Perhaps Adams’ worst argument is about how the film evokes 9/11 imagery: The destruction of the sacred Hometree of the Na’vi supposedly inverts that catastrophe, making the U.S. the bad guys:
The corporation’s most villainous act, overseen by a calmly coffee-sipping Lang, is the destruction of Hometree, the Na’vi’s ancestral home and the root of their connection to Pandora. Its support structures blown apart by missile fire, the massive tree, hundreds of feet tall, collapses in a shower of flame and debris, its incandescent embers wafting through the air as the bereaved Na’vi wail their grief. The resonance with the familiar images of lower Manhattan is inescapable.
This parallel is almost offensively misguided. For one, 9/11 was so traumatic because it was entirely unanticipated by almost the entire population. The Na’vi and the humans had been at a stand-still for months. Also, al Qaeda did not use missiles. This may seem semantic, but it’s not; the fact that 9/11 included planes as weapons was a key part of it’s iconography. This is also related to the second major issue with the parallel, that 9/11 was not a military operation, but a suicide attack. Nobody in Avatar’s fictional army sacrifices their life for this attack. Finally, and maybe most egregiously, there are no civilian deaths in the Hometree attack—it was purely a symbolic, religious disaster.
And while I don’t think this 9/11 parallel was intended (and if it was, it was a worse failure than the Iraq stuff), the rest of the allegories surely were. But it’s not meant to be nuanced or complex or to offer any new insight into what they evoke. They merely serve as a cheap and lazy way of illustrating who the “good guys” are and who the “bad guys” are. Once this is clear, the audience waits around for the protagonist to realize this and then gets an epic fight sequence, from which the film’s lack of novelty has drained any suspense or stake. This does not make for a film that is “revolutionary”—it makes for one that is boring.