Nisi Shawl on Avatar

Thanks to Nisi for providing this interesting view of Avatar, which I think is useful for fiction writers. – JeffV

Sort of following up on Cynthia’s post about Up In the Air:

I’ve seen the hit, Oscar-winning movie Avatar twice. Not because I dig it so very much, but because I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything—especially anything the director didn’t realize he was putting in there. And that goes double for catching him leaving things out.

I do agree with Richard K. Morgan’s two-word review, but I had a bit more to say the first time around, when I wrote about Avatar on the Carl Brandon Society’s list serve. I can say even more about it now, and with more authority. So herewith my remarks, which include modifications and expansions of my original bullet points

I allowed my first viewing to be a submersive one. Easy to do—the forest scenes in particular had an aqueous quality to them, and the 3-D effects made of the darkened theater an undersea of the unconscious. I felt like a filter feeder, bound to the rock of my understanding while waves of gentle beauty pulsed through me, filled with the food of perception. Or something.

During my second viewing I tried to pay attention to certain hierarchies of information. Avatar opens with an aerial shot of Pandora. The viewpoint swoops and glides above a voice describing this original encounter as a dream. Visual primacy belongs to the film’s true star: flying. That’s its big draw—definitely a powerful one.

A 12-year-old I know thought Avatar was the best action movie he had ever seen. He. Male. And he is white. David is, I believe, this film’s target audience. The truism runs, “The Golden Age of science fiction is eleven.” Add a Golden Gender and a Golden Race and you’ve pretty much got the demographic profile of the readers of a certain sort of SF from a certain era. Hollywood looks to find these same characteristics in the viewers of SF movies right now. William Gibson says, “The future is here; it’s just unequally distributed.” The corollary is that the past is here as well, also spread around quite clumpily.

Note that for David, Avatar was not SF. It was “action.” Which makes me think SF has crossed another watershed, and the genre itself is less othered as a genre. Speaking as a geek, I am glad of this.

Other happy-making elements included the hero’s delight in his functional fake-Pandoran body; it pleased me mightily that his position in the unmarked (white, male) state was compromised by physical and financial challenges. I had a crush on the Female Chopper Pilot, and would have been perfectly satisfied without her noble death. She and the female romantic lead got to fight and wound and kill, and that’s another fabulousness. I grew up watching Zorro movies where all women got to do was gasp and writhe their eyebrows around. Maybe the more adventurous attempted to (unsuccessfully) brain the villain’s sidekick with a candelabra. Not so in Avatar. Joy unalloyed.

The hero, the White Saviour Dude, asked the Young Indigenous Clan Leader for permission to speak to his clan when rallying them to the WSD’s cause . And the WSD also admitted he couldn’t save Pandora w/o the YICL. This was kind of lame and tokenistic, but it was present, and would not have been in the film if it were made a decade ago. Call this scene 50% joy.

I practice an African religious tradition closely related to the “pagan voodoo” the Scientist Leader Woman disparagingly equated with hallucinatory nonsense. I totally resented that throwaway comment. It didn’t have much to do with the plot; all it accomplished was to alienate me and set me up to expect more thoughtlessness. No joy. None.

Here are a few more major moments of fail:

* When Scientist Leader Woman continued to explain Pandora’s value as a neural network and talked of Na’vi uploading and downloading data, she used language the Corporate Executive Man would relate to. And I found it extremely unrealistic that he would fail to monetize this info and think of the network in terms of shareholder value. CEM was incredibly stupid, pretty much unbelievably so, for not stopping the Armed Goons Guy from wrecking CEM’s chance to capitalize on SLW’s discoveries. Humans could upload and download themselves into created bodies, but the process was real expensive. So they already have an app, and CEM overlooks an opportunity to learn something that might improve it? He’s fired.

* Home Tree bites the dust, the Old Indigenous Clan Leader dies, other Na’vi are dead and/or injured. So the refugees’ first act on reaching their sacred grove is to whip up a ceremony to save the life of WSD’s friend, SLW? Granted, she had interacted with the Na’vi before, but this was presented as WSD asking for a favor, and getting it, and who really cared about the rest of the casualties?

* Only WSD was capable of uniting the various Na’vi tribes against the humans? Only he thought of it? Really?

* Only WSD thought of praying to the Goddess/global neuronet for help in protecting said Goddess/global neuronet from AGG? Really? Or maybe WSD is the only one the Goddess/global neuronet can hear? Why would that be?

Aiming to defend Avatar against charges of colonialism, some fans have pointed out that WSD rejects his culture, the dominant culture, in taking on his role as the Uber Na’vi. Doncha know that is how the story generally goes, though. This objection merely strengthens the case it’s being used to oppose.

My end analysis: Avatar is indeed a beautiful “Dances with Flying Blue Cats.” I both enjoyed watching it and cringed at what I saw. Some things have changed. Some things still need to. This movie is way cooler than the first Star Wars, and probably just as influential. But we can do even better. So let’s.

7 thoughts on “Nisi Shawl on Avatar

  1. Cameron said they would make an Avatar 2 only if they thought it would be better. I haven't seen Avatar yet, but summing up your review, I hope to God he's right. We need better movies out there, especially ones using budgets such as those as Avatar's. Anyway, you've got me interested.

  2. Pingback: Cynthia Ward on “Watching Avatar While White” « Booklife

  3. > lets do better

    Yes! Lets! Please! Please find a group of bored high school students with nothing to do this summer, a library or church basement , and a bunch of 3-5yr old donated laptops loaded with Ubuntu and Blender3D, watch a bunch of youtube and/or other online tutorials and produce a damned short!

    Then NEXT summer go feature length…

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