Summary: An amazingly well-done movie that suffers from a failure to take Socrates’ advice.
Review: I had previously written a somewhat negative review of this film after seeing it in 3D IMAX along with a sizable crowd. I did enjoy it, however. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to compare it to similar blockbusters and breakthroughs in filmmaking technique, as well as seeing it for the second time on a much smaller screen, I’ve come to a more complete and fairer conclusion. I’m still disappointed with it, but it’s not the two-star movie which I had initially recognized. This is a remarkable work of art, but it could have been so much more.
‘Avatar’ is about the collision of two philosophies of life. One, represented by the humans’ mining operation on Pandora, is the use of natural resources to feed an artificial, distant and mechanical kind of living, since Earth’s organic resources have apparently been wiped out (though it would have been more effective if they had shown us this wasted Earth). The other, represented by the typically idyllic but sometimes savage and irrational Na’Vi aliens, is the integration of all forms of life into a kind of harmony guided by a superior, personal lifeform.
The story reveals very little faith in humanity, in direct contrast to Cameron’s previous ‘Terminator’ films, which presented the conclusion that humanity’s self-destructive tendencies were nevertheless canceled out by their potential for selflessness. The Na’Vi, to my disappointment, are not truly alien. There is no study of ‘the Other’, which is unfortunate, as it is a way of encountering God. Instead, the Na’Vi are superhuman. They’re everything Cameron apparently wants us to be. Athletic, beautiful, generally altruistic, feminine, but also in touch with a fierce animal side. It’s a strange contradiction with Cameron’s brilliantly creative mind, since the Na’Vi are, quite simply, not ambitious. They don’t show an appreciation for the idea of social evolution. Cameron praises their refusal of the humans’ offers of technology, medicine, and education, yet these are all things that Cameron has personally invested himself and his resources in for the betterment of humanity. There is no betterment of the Na’Vi, only a keeping of the status quo, simple maintenance. Ironically, this is kind of like a machine. Eywa, the feminine deity of the Na’Vi religion, is a giant bio-mechanism in the form of a planet which shows admirable personality but not the desire for growth. Machines, as of yet, don’t consciously reach out with curiosity to become better machines. We do. In doing so, we often resist control. Eywa appears benevolent, but unlike a good human mother (like, say, Sarah Connor), ‘she’ merely keeps the cycle going, and there is no release of the Na’Vi into an independent adulthood. It’s a nice, even beautiful cycle, but just like doing a Queen’s laundry in the Louvre, it’s going to become tedious eventually.
This is part of the inherent flaw of religions based solely on a deity’s will and/or a cyclical universe. In Calvinist Christianity, since God has complete control over literally everything, there is no sanctioned stoking of independent desire and therefore, no social evolution, no betterment of humanity. The best that Calvinism can ultimately offer is a cyclical heaven in which persons act like programs to fulfill a function. In Buddhism and Hinduism, the universe is a cycle that repeats indefinitely, and the best escape offered in either, to my knowledge, is annihilation.
For all of James Cameron & Co’s amazing designs and well-told story beats, there is essentially no consideration of the complexities inherent in the opposing philosophies of the film. The human bad guys are flat and unsympathetic. The Na’Vi have a couple shades of complexity, but none of their flaws hamper them or are really considered flaws by the protagonist. It’s true that ‘Avatar’ heavily relies on the concepts of the Noble Savage and nods to imperialistic atrocities, and what’s worse, they are again not explored in any depth. This continual failure throughout the film’s long runtime to really explore the issues smacks of propaganda. Perhaps in a rush to tell a successful morally simplistic tale like the original ’77 ‘Star Wars’, Cameron made the critical mistake of which morals to simplify. ‘Star Wars’ was the noble rogues versus the oppressive, fascist state, a story as old as and older than Robin Hood. It’s been mulled over, examined, rethought, and is pretty much universally acknowledged as being morally sound. ‘Avatar’ pits unrealistically evil humans versus unrealistically good and superhuman aliens, a story as old as and maybe older than the 2000s, and an unwelcome addition, in my book. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”. In a similar way, the unexamined idea is not worth having.
For all my complaints, it’s obvious that ‘Avatar’ was a labor of love for James Cameron and his massive team of artists, and they did make a pretty above average movie. In fact, they made a very good one. It’s a full 4-star movie, but it’s terribly terrible philosophy.