James Cameron?s new movie, Avatar, offers a visual entrance to a world of incredible wealth of beauty, ferocity, and grandeur; but as a movie, it offers none of those things. There is almost nothing in this movie that is new or relevant. If you are seeking fresh ideas, you may want to go shop somewhere else. Elements of this movie are clearly inspired by (I say it's "inspired by? instead of ?it ripped off? at the insistence of the director that his movie was so many years in the works) a lot of things that many Americans are not immediately exposed to. But nerds of my caliber know better, if they are avid enough to get past the sensationalism.
Anyone who has read Orson Scott Card?s phenomenal Ender Series, has ran into the idea of a "mother tree" (Speaker for the Dead, 1986). A tree that an alien species depends on, makes their home, communicates with, and are bound to in a spiritual and physical sense, that carries their memories and history. All such--very specific--elements are depicted unashamedly in the screen in wondrous detail, with the exception that it is now the "home tree" instead of an actual "mother tree." Likewise, floating mountains, as repeatedly depicted in the trailers, were an integral part of the anime The Vision of Escaflowne (1996), as well as others. People familiar with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1982, 1984), another anime, will recognize a bit more: nature?s own revenge, tendrils to connect and communicate with, and so forth. If familiar with Princess Mononoke (1997), you?ll see even more stark similarities: savage-animal riding with primitive weapons, of course, but also a great forest spirit, who incidentally also brings people back to life, and, even more astonishing, the exact same contrast between a mining-based industry with guns, and natural harmony. The entire plot, I would argue, could be summed up by putting together the same Princess Mononoke and 1990?s Dances with Wolves (this latter in terms, especially, of the romance plot, and of the classy change of heart and sides). Military mecha, showcased throughout this film, are, of course, also a popular Japanese icon, but the style used in the movie is also suspiciously similar to the military mecha last seen in Matrix: Revolutions.
Speaking of The Matrix... I will be surprised if there is no lawsuit once the money rolls in. I do not want to give the movie away, but the premise of the avatar, and its thematic development, particularly as one scientist (played by Cameron-veteran Sigourney Weaver) explains how it all works, has a particular Matrix feel to it. A certain wire connection also seems to be taking place, in a more "organic" way. Too close not to raise some eye brows.
It was also rather disappointing how unambiguous the rampant Platonic elements are. One could spark the same nerdy debates that raged when The Matrix first came out. But here the dualism goes beyond merely the mind-body (or soul-body) dualism, but is even more problematic in the chasm created between good and evil forces, so flatly portrayed.
And of course, evil takes the shape of... a greedy corporation. This is no surprise with Cameron, since the ?Company? was the real horror in Aliens, the Company and its incessant greed. The depth of Cameron?s political wisdom is clearly incalculable. After all, this company is willing to do whatever it takes to get richer, even if it has to destroy an indigenous population. Sounds familiar? It should. It should remind you of every white-guilt theme you have ever heard. Money is bad. Colonizers are greedy, evil people.
?We give them education, technology? the company man complains, ?what else do they want?? How about a bit more depth or realism? Why are the bad guys entirely remorseless and single-minded (even if the company man puts on a guilt-laden look here and there), and why is there no element of evil in the indigenous people? In short, why are the company people and its mercenary force as human as the original Terminator and why are the Na?vi so infernally humane? Why are the aliens alone what I'd actually understand to be a truly "human" force? Sure, there?s a few good guys in for the ride. Among these is Jake, the main character played by Sam Worthington fresh from playing a purely-good machine with a heart in this year?s Terminator Salvation (not a Cameron film), a purely-good human and Na'vi avatar with ?a good heart.? This is as flat a character as they come. The only flaw he was given by the director is his ability to say ?shit? here and there. Since Cameron obviously saw Princess Mononoke, he should have taken some tips from it about character depth. I suppose that is another Platonic element in Cameron?s mythology, embodiments of true ideal forms.
The film is indeed beautiful, and the 3D is simply breath-taking. It will draw you in, and keep you there. But it offers almost nothing by way of an original story, and its shallow characters seem irrelevant throughout, whether they live or die. The dialogue, for something supposedly years in writing, is riddled with cliches ("I trusted you!" yells the Na'vi romantic interest, in perfect English). In the end, one comes out entirely enmeshed in the wonder of the world, which is truly beautiful. But it may as well have been a documentary about this world, since there?s no story here to speak of.