Harris screens two-dimensional Avatar

James Cameron’s Avatar disappoints us in all the ways we expect monolithic blockbusters to disappoint us—shallow characters, hackneyed dialogue, implausibly grandiose action stunts, etc. Its story takes place in the near future on a moon called Pandora, on which a band of creatures called the Na’vi live. The U.S. invades their land in order to extract a valuable energy source of theirs called “unobtainium.” The military sends a marine named Jake (Sam Worthington) to infiltrate the Na’vi community in disguise and, much to their chagrin, he becomes enraptured by the Na’vi lifestyle and comes to their defense. Yes, the film is cheesy in its oil/Iraq war overtones and, in its use of “unobtainium,” it borders on self-parody. However, despite all this, Avatar also happens to contain unshakeable and breathtaking imagery brought to life in what is by far the most sophisticated use of 3D technology in the history of film. More than a cold technical exercise, the film wins us over with the glee of its own inventiveness and the enthusiasm with which Cameron explores his computer-animated universe.
Simply put, Avatar works for the same reason Star Wars worked—they are, in many respects, exceedingly shallow films. However, they succeed simply by doing what any great film should—showing us things we’ve never seen or even imagined before. Pandora has its share of clichés. The Na’vi people, for one, are standard Native American stereotypes. However, the detail of the flora (some of which illuminates in bizarre ways at night), the strange creatures, the levitating mountains and gargantuan trees—this is the kind of richness of detail that generates legions of cultish followers, losing themselves in Cameron’s geeky mythology. For the rest of us, Cameron’s vision charms in a way that most multimillion-dollar spectacles do not.
Admittedly, I use the word “us” deceptively. With its mix of technical ambition and narrative facileness, Avatar is precisely the kind of movie that alienates as many as it wins over. James Cameron is just the kind of director to make such a polarizing movie. With Titanic in 1997, he carried out a meticulous reconstruction of the famous ship, the film ultimately costing $200 million dollars and grossing more than any film ever made up until that point. Yet we all know people, many people, who not only hate Titanic, but hate it with a proud vengeance. I think this dislike may have something to do with the height of Cameron’s ambition. There’s something off-putting, perhaps even vaguely creepy, about a single man going to such great lengths simply to entertain us.
There’s also been a more biting criticism of Cameron’s ambition, one that sees hypocrisy in the very substance of his supposed moral vision. This is a film about the dangers of modern technology. The U.S., a highly mechanized power system, needs to terrorize the more nature-attuned and enlightened Na’vi community in order to sustain itself. Ultimately, the Na’vi’s main advantage over the U.S. is their connection with the natural world. Strategically, they can do more with their understanding of nature than the U.S. can with its colossal machines. Now, why does Cameron need to make a multimillion-dollar technological extravaganza in order to warn us about the dangerous and unnecessary extravagance of modern technology?
That’s a reasonable criticism, but I’d suggest that Cameron is more aware of this contradiction than he is given credit for. In fact, the film is very much about this contradiction. Jake, the story’s hero, needs to invade and work against the interests of the Na’vi people in order to understand their moral superiority. In fact, were it not for the military technology that disguises him as a Na’vi citizen, he would have had no access to their community to begin with. He needs to burrow into the core of U.S. military power in order to learn its evils and move in a new direction. So, do we need big technology to learn the evils of big technology and consider alternatives? I don’t want to portray James Cameron as a profound moral thinker, but he spends more time considering this question than one might think.