Register Thursday | March 22 | 2018

Horse V. Dirtbike: Why Avatar’s Problems Are Beside the Point

Last night I left a movie theatre at ten past three A.M., soused on root beer and spectacle, and ambled home with my roommate Lee, giddier than I’d been in months. For anyone lucky enough to possess even a single nerdy neuron in their body, Avatar is basically the equivalent of getting a blowjob from Lara Croft in the gattling turret of the Millennium Falcon. For anyone predisposed to ruining any movie they see by grinding it through the gears of colonialism, or crying “9/11 allegory” anytime anything that explodes hits anything that’s erect, it’s bound to incite the most resounding chorus of tongue-clucking this side of District 9.

Here’s why all these people are wrong. And hate fun.

Despite what Armond White tries to tell you, Avatar isn’t really a movie about the Iraq War, 9/11 death wishes, or the “white man’s need to lose his identity and assuage racial, political, sexual and historical guilt.” It’s not about the noble savage triumphing over the American military-industrial apparatus or allegorizing New World conquest. It’s not even really a three hour, $300-ish million Greenpeace commercial. It’s about technology. But it’s not about brawling mech robots or bioelectric flesh portals. It’s a movie, like all of Cameron’s movies, about special effects.

My friend Adam once pitched me the idea that Cameron’s Terminator sequel, Judgment Day, is less about all its “the future is like a black highway at night” fatalism and much more about the emergent technology of early-90s CGI duking it out with 80s-era animatronics. And even though Arnie’s metal puppet endoskeleton routs Robert Patrick’s shape-shifting, synthetic alloy T-1000, when Schwarzenegger’s model descends thumbs-up into that blast furnace he’s relinquishing himself to his enemy’s molecular gooeyness. Ultimately, the T-1000 wins. Why? Because he’s more fun to watch. (The whole Terminator FX drama kind of comes perversely full-circle in McG’s Terminator Salvation, where an entirely CGI 80s-era Schwarzenegger shows up to clobber Christian Bale’s John Conner.)

It’s an interesting idea, and one which crops up again and again in Cameron’s films. If T2 is about practical effects v. computer-generated imagery, then the original Terminator can just as easily be read as practical effects v. the human body, or even the most special-est of effects—the Austrian Oak’s brick shithouse build—played against Michael Biehn’s lean swimmer’s physique or Linda Hamilton’s prescriptive domestic femininity. Likewise The Abyss and Titanic: both stories of arrogant human ingenuity stymied by mysteries of the ocean deep. And let’s not forget True Lies, in which a horse-riding Arnold pursues a terrorist escaping on dirtbike, a scene that winks so deliberately at machine-stick-nature narrative tropes that it was later referenced (intentionally or otherwise) in Jonze’s Adaptation.

Of course, to identify this pattern is to acknowledge the very contradiction that appears again in Avatar as the blue hammer-headed elephant in the room. How can a film celebrate the technologically-unsullied spirit when it is itself a zillion dollar exercise in techie showboating? It’s the predicament that forms the shaky foundations of White’s polemic, and what bogusly animates others who will take Cameron to task for being insincere. It’s similar to that paradox at the centre of the Wachowski’s 2008 Speed Racer: a $120-million Warner Bros. movie championing the handmade craftsmanship of the Mom-and-Pop Racer shop in the face of corporate steamrolling. But these problems aren’t real problems. These incongruities don’t jeopardize these films’ stability. They’re just unsophisticated narrative conventions employed by filmmakers whose strengths lay largely outside of storytelling. To get caught up on these snags is unproductive, and presents something of a double standard. Just look at Christopher Nolan’s (mostly) lauded reinvigoration of the Batman franchise. If we can forgive Nolan for bungling some of his action set-pieces because he knows how to tell a compelling story, why can’t we grant Cameron a bit of leeway?

If Avatar offers up images of an otherworldly indigenous population whose incandescent bluish hue reflects shades of everything from Disney’s Pochantas to Mallick’s The New World to Dances With Wolves, Fern Gully and White Men Can’t Jump, it’s only because, like so many other “going-native” stories, it's trading in tropes, not allegory. Again, just think about True Lies. It’s not a story about Islam-ophobia, U.S. Foreign Policy or suburban ennui. It’s a story about those stories. Cameron knows what he’s doing. Not to belabour the point, but come on. Horse versus dirtbike. Charlton Heston wears a Nick Fury-style eyepatch. Tom Arnold is in it for chrissakes.

Avatar possesses these same flourishes in spades, but for some reason it’s being taken more seriously. The planet in the film is called Pandora. The humans occupying it are mining something called Unobtanium (which Lee informed me is the actual name of a sci-fi device describing extraordinarily rare fictional materials, like Vibranium or dilithium.) You might as well call it McGuffonium. You can clearly spot one of the cerulean-skinned Pandora natives humping (no, there’s no other word for it) a tree. Stephen Lang—elsewhere cast as Stonewall Jackson and George Pickett—plays the might-makes-right military foil. Even Cameron has acknowledged that the whole story is just a cockamamie pretence for a camera test which frames helicopters battling pterodactyls. If you don’t find that awesome, you should at least find it hilarious. How can anyone pretend that someone who writes bits like that into a screenplay with his own name on it isn’t self-aware? You might as well tell yourself James Cameron doesn’t know how to use an automatic teller or touchtone phone.

Like George Lucas, or to a different degree Tarantino, Cameron’s a fanboy filmmaker who works with pulp mishmash. This isn’t to say that he’s necessarily being postmodern or pop art about the whole thing. He’s just trying to naively entertain, in the same way that he enjoyed being naively entertained. If the Na’vi and their ponytails, war paint and feral hissing conjure images of the “dark continent” or “New World savages” it’s because their hippy-dippy tribe sensibility has a long (and yes, often not-so naive) history of playing to an audience’s sympathies.

How else are you supposed to imagine aboriginal elseworlders living on a lush, arboreal moon five light years away? You’ve got two choices: elven treehuggers or insectoid behemoths that spew asteroids out of their asses. You go down the first route and you get Avatar (or Return of the Jedi). The second? You end up with Starship Troopers, which nobody got because the general population hasn’t evolved to the point where they can establish emotional transference with eight-legged bugs that look like sphincters.

Fact is, you’re allowed to make dumb movies. You should even be encouraged to make them when they’re so masterfully cool. Not every American action film has to leave you gagging on so much irony that you can’t even choke out “Yippie-Kay-Aye Motherfucker!” Not everyone who knows how to shoot a cyborg has to be as smart and crazy and European as Paul Verhoeven.

So Armond White is right to call Avatar “dumb escapism.” It is. Superlatively so. It’s also immaculately-rendered and perfectly shot. The digital 3D effects set, raise, and napalm the bar for the technology. It follows up on Cameron’s promise to make a film that employed the technology in a way that wasn’t gimmicky. There’s no audience direct-address of an alien warchief pointing at the camera saying, “Well I couldn’t possibly save this planet, can you?” It’s just fluid, seamless 3D effects, helped all the more by the fact that James Cameron knows more about composing an action scene than Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich put together. The way Cameron can use 3D to give a sense of depth alone is enough to make you wish Orson Welles had access to the technology.

Roger Ebert wrote that Avatar made him feel like he felt when he first saw Star Wars. And while my own indoctrination in Lucas’s long, long ago came on well-worn VHS copies, Avatar did remind me of how impossibly awesome it was to first see Jurassic Park or Cameron’s own Terminator 2 as a kid. Except now I’m pushing twenty-four and dour and cynical and I’m supposed to pretend like I don’t care about things like whimsy and spectacle and 3D alien dinosaurs dismantling robots armed with giant bowie knives. Regardless, my imagination, as they say, was captured. How could yours not be? As a kid did you ride the tilt-a-whirl at the Lion’s Carnival with your arms defiantly crossed, pining for the days when you could freely smoke premium cigarettes and pretend to know about red wine and whatever “magic realist” literature is?

So sure, it’s pretty moronic to weep for the willow when it's destroyed by marine gunships, but it’s just as moronic to act surprised when the rag-tag rebel humans eventually ingratiated by the Na’vi—a maternal botanist (Sigoruney Weaver), a nebbish academe (Joel David Moore), a Latino pilot (Michelle Rodriguez), an ambiguously Middle-Eastern scientist (Dileep Rao), and paraplegic-marine-cum-warrior-god-blue-guy (Sam Worthington)—assemble like live-action Planeteers. And anyways the real dummies aren’t the ones who buy it, but the ones who would expect Avatar to be about anything other than poison-tipped arrows flying towards you or a battalion of marines getting trampled by some dreadlocked space panther. The whole movie is basically the Ripley-in-robot-suit versus xenomorph queen climax in Aliens, except with all the audience allegiances inverted. If you demand nuance and sophistication in your films, you should probably try a) any movie that’s not organized around the premise of stuff popping off the screen or b) any movie that isn’t directed by James Cameron.

So save any talk of the film’s ham-fisted thematics or easy narrative beats for upper-level seminar tables or boring dinner parties (or your frustratingly well-written New York Press articles). Just don’t forget that “The Blue Man’s Burden: Post-Colonial Fantasia and the Absolution of White Guilt in James Cameron’s Avatar” should be a punchline, not an actual dissertation, let alone an actual discussion.