Lush jungles in vibrant hues, floating mountains in expansive sky, all inhabited by a cast of striking humanoids, otherworldly vegetation, and creatures straight from the dreams of James Cameron—Avatar is certainly a feast for the eyes. Cameron has beautifully crafted the world of Pandora, the fictional planet on which our story takes place. He even created a whole new language! Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of the rest of his canon. While I cannot deny having cried at the end of Titanic back in 1997, it took me awhile for the idea of Avatar to incite interest. Were it not for James Cameron’s more politically conscious story, coupled with his use of innovative digital technology, I might have unfortunately passed on this film.
In an MSNBC article, Avatar raises the bar on 3D technology, James Cameron discusses filmmaking. “The ideal movie technology is so advanced that it waves a magic wand and makes itself disappear.” Just as Cameron had hoped, the beauty of Pandora and its creatures, the drama of the Na’vi and their interaction with the human characters held me in rapt attention during the whole two hours and forty-two minutes. Not once did I experience the uncanny valley phenomenon, otherwise known as being creeped out by digitized human(ish) interpretations that you might have experienced, for example, in Polar Express. Case in point, there are moments in Avatar when I found myself thinking, “Yeah right, like they would be able to survive that!” And then I would remember that “they” are a bunch of giant blue humanoids on a far away planet, and would realize that perhaps James Cameron had done a great job of suspending my reality and creating a compelling film. What makes the film even more appealing to a greater audience is the way through which he explains the Na’vi spirituality and their connection to the rest of their planet through science. This seems to invite all personality types to partake in the pleasure of Pandora.
It was certainly worth the wait, as Cameron had intended to produce the film in 1999, a few years after the success of Titanic. Yet, at that time, the technology needed to realize his vision did not exist. Ten years later, here we are, revisiting the 3D film phenomenon—this time, with sturdier, more hip glasses and not enough theatres outfitted to accommodate it.
Our story critiques the motives of corporate America. In his lust for a particular precious metal and, in turn, the potential procurement of millions of dollars, the CEO in Avatar, played by Giovanni Ribisi, threatens the biosphere of Pandora. It is the attempt to purge the forest of its indigenous peoples, the Na’vi, that motivates our protagonist, Jake Sulley, played by Australian actor Sam Worthington. The devastation of imperialism, particularly that which indigenous tribes have endured, is deeply rooted in the history of the Americas. Cameron has effectively inserted into popular discourse a poignant reminder and critique of imperialism, which, set in a contemporary context, also serves to illuminate the negative aspects of capitalism, militarism, and even the outsourcing of military operations. Of course, there is still an aspect of the white male colonizer's fetishization of the native, particularly of the native female. In the end, the white man, while becoming one of the Na'vi, still embodies the role of king. Yet, we must remember, while this film is more politically conscious of imperialism than your basic blockbuster hit, it still is a product of James Cameron.
On the other hand, I also appreciate the film's critique of ethnography. As much as I value Anthropology, there is always a fine line between study and fetish, subject and object. Sulley’s colleagues all have PhDs in Na’vi Studies—the director of the program, Dr. Grace Augustine, is played by Sigourney Weaver—and yet they fail to interact as honestly and intimately with the Na’vi as Sulley, with no previous experience. His character helps to present a more balanced anthropological perspective by representing a more holistic approach to intercultural communication—from personal interaction to academic methodology.
While there are moments in the plot and dialogue that may seem trite or obvious, the overarching anti-imperialism theme, by no means perfect, still remains a redeeming quality. Jake Sulley, on his way to Pandora proclaims, “All I ever wanted was a single thing worth fighting for.” He certainly finds several things worth fighting for among the Na’vi—not just for the rights of the indigenous Na’vi, or for the use of his legs, but also for the heart of our feisty and lovely Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana of Star Trek fame. All in all, Cameron has successfully crafted a magical world, having used enough innovative digital technology for us to forget that it’s fiction. I could go on, but I suggest instead that you go see it for yourself. That is, if you’re brave enough to fight the crowds.