Film Club / Even if It’s an Experience That Changes Your Life?

Directed by James Cameron


Yeah yeah. Ok. Let’s get all the obvious remarks out of the way first. Pocahontas Dances with FernGully Wolves in Space right? The most successful movie of all time that left no cultural footprint apart from everyone talking about how it left no cultural footprint? A movie that’s all about the special effects and 3D trickery and underneath there’s nothing else there – yeah? 

(It sure does look pretty tho).

I hadn’t watched this movie since I first saw it in IMAX 3D which was an experience and a half. I mean – who doesn’t like James Cameron? Guy practically defined American sci-fi cinema for a generation or two. If you’re into movies and you’re not a fan it’s a bit like saying that you’re into food but you don’t eat eggs or something you know? Like ok maybe you have an allergy or something – but at the very least I think you have to say that he knows what he’s doing right?

Looking back I can remember how incredibly pumped I was to see it. Like I was expecting something that was going to change cinema forever and make my eyeballs explode from visual overload. 

But then what we got was – well – Pocahontas Dances with FernGully Wolves in Space. A movie that was so gorgeous that I wanted to put my hand into the screen and scoop up the picture and stuff it all into my mouth. But yeah in terms of the actual story I mean I remember when the Big Tree went Boom I was actually kinda (dare I say it?) bored? Like it was all just so predictable and for me – well – that’s one of the worst things a movie can be. Like I want the thrills and the shocks and the emotions that come from something happening that I don’t expect (like in a sense – isn’t that what a story is?).

So watching it last night on my laptop in my room I was curious to see what would happen. Without the benefit of IMAX and 3D glasses was the whole thing going to be a bland and unfulfing experience? Like eating a pancake with no toppings on it? 

Yes. Ok. There were still bits I found boring and I even almost fell asleep at some points (it was a long day at work ok?). But there were definitely aspects of it that were way more interesting than what I first thought… 

Although first thing to mention is that wow – the first third or so of this movie is an actual masterclass of filmmaking. It just hits every single beat so well. Every shot. Every bit of dialogue. Everything is there to orientate you and get you immersed as soon and as effectively as possible. Does that make things slightly cheesy? Hell yes of course. Giovanni Ribisi in particular should be wearing a sign around his neck that says “Evil Capitalist” but fuck it – as compared to pretty much every poorly constructed, shoddily engineered mainstream movie I’ve seen in the past – oh – 10 years or so – Avatar is god-tier which I think mostly extends from the fact that it feels like James Cameron always knows exactly what he’s doing

And I think it is worth pointing out that what he’s doing is erm – actually kind of weird? Like for me one of the big accomplishments is how it takes something very strange and bizarre (“So there’s a movie with a bunch of large blue aliens who are like every persecuted minority everywhere?”) and makes it into something that just seems… normal? Which ok yeah is basically the trick of pretty much every major blockbuster but still. I mean even the aesthetic is.. a little niche. Like Pandora basically looks like the front cover of a particularly trippy 70s sci-fi book blown up to blockbuster proportions. I mean they’re basically riding dragons at one point. Plus you know – floating islands. Big trees. A planet that’s basically an internet. Not to mention dreadlocks that let you connect to animals like an organic USB. This is the kind of stuff that most people would normally find to be laughable. And yet – Cameron makes it work. To the point that when you see it you’re just like: well ok yeah sure. 

And that’s before you get to the concept that the movie takes its title from. 

I mean – I can’t be the only one that’s noticed that it’s a strange title for the movie right? (Not only for the movie but for the whole franchise no less). Mostly because as far as I can see – Avatar isn’t really about avatars that much. I mean if anything it’s more about Pandora. The avatars are just… the vehicles that we use to get there. 

Then again: watching this movie in 2022 is very different to watching it in 2009. I mean back then “white supremacy” used to mean something different to what it means now. And the idea of someone using advanced technology to become a member of a persecuted people hits different now to say the least. Lots of people talk about Avatar as being yet another example of the “white savior” narrative along with other movies such as Dangerous Minds, Amistad, John Carter, The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves etc. But the interesting thing about that is that Avatar is a movie where the heroic white guy literally becomes a member of the people he’s fighting for. And not just in the fact that he becomes an honorary member or whatever but that by the end his white skin becomes… blue. 

I mean yeah there are a few dissenting voices so refer to JakeSully as a “demon” and insist that he is a part of the Sky People but the narrative of the movie shows us that by the end – due to his heroic actions and killing of the bad guys – he’s earned his place as one of the Na’vi. Which is a beautiful modern conception of identity right? We don’t need to be constrained by the bodies we’re born with and we can use science in order to take on the identities we want – which make us feel more fully ourselves (cut to: JakeSully waking up on an operating table and then breaking into a run full of exhilaration at the reality of his new life). 

But then there’s the question of what level of reality we’re supposed to be operating on. Because there’s the very heavy sense (that the movie almost makes explicit) that actually the JakeSully and his adventures is meant to be the avatar for us watching the movie. Jake is our point of view character and it’s through him that we get to go to and experience the wonderful world of Pandora. He doesn’t know anything and gets to ask all of the dumb questions almost to the point where his character really should have just been called Jake Audience Surrogate. 

And the movie is obviously very aware that it’s a movie. Even to the point where they plug JakeSully into the machine and then he’s bombarded with coloured light and goes off into a world that’s basically a dream. The only way that could have made it more obvious is if Sigourney Weaver had given him 3D glasses before the whole thing started. 

But then does that mean that life inside the Avatar isn’t really real? It’s just an experience? Even if it’s an experience that changes your life? I’m not sure. And I think Avatar kinda intentionally positions itself in the place between both states. Like I know how this sounds – but there is an awful lot of rejecting binaries in this movie. Especially in JakeSully himself. I mean he’s first  introduced to us as a twin but – notably (because his brother died) – he’s the twin who’s alive. So he’s the only twin. Which is an interesting formulation. Then there’s the way that he’s half on the Scientist side and half on the Marine side. He’s half on the human side. Half on the Na’vi side. He’s half a product of technology and half living in the natural world. He’s half awake and half asleep. Like: without wanting to say anything offensive even his body is split into two halves. 

And yeah – all in all I think that Avatar mostly wants to have it’s cake and eat it too. Guns are bad. But they’re also kinda awesome. Humans are terrible. But look at all of the things we can do. Capitalism is slowly killing the planet. So buy a ticket and watch this movie. Look at how we can use all of this sophisticated technology to create a world that feels completely natural and real. It’s only a movie. But it’s also reality. If that’s what you want it to be. 

I see you Avatar.

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