Why I hated Avatar.
The 3D effects worked fine during the interminable cheezy commercials. Minimally, they worked during the film itself, but they were never breathtaking or disruptive to my sense of space. Perhaps some delicate miscalibration between the screen surface, the print of the film, the 3D glasses, my eyeglasses, and my aging eyes? No such problem at other 3D experiences -- the best being the battle scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Admittedly, that was an IMAX 3D experience, so the comparison is unfair. But since the 3D-ness of Avatar didn't enchant me, I had 2h40 to catalog the 1D-ness of the sci, the fi, the characters, and the underlying fantasy.
I say, when you violate familiar laws of science, either come up with an explanation, or else be so visually and poetically overwhelming ("The Matrix"), or have such a brilliantly original story and cast ("Being John Malkovich") or be so endearingly quirky ("eXistenZ") that we forget to care. If I had only known to suspend belief in gravity, time, biology, and physics, I wouldn't have asked how those flimsy stand-alone plastic masks enabled the Earthling "sky people" to survive the toxic atmosphere. I wouldn't have doubted that animals and vehicles so incongruously shaped could fly at all (let alone turn on a dime), nor cared how islands floated. Magical terms like "vortex," earnestly invoked, were not plausible stand-ins even for "movie" science. No one explained how a raw material mined from a remote planetary system would even be relevant on Earth four light-years after its extraction.
But if the movie was lazy on the "science," it was completely AWOL on the narrative. We forgive a long movie if a compelling storyline needs time to be resolved, and suspect that many great scenes have been left on the cutting-room floor. Not so here. If anything, the creators were like the new instructor grasping for content to fill the allotted class time. Even the characters' names signal their origins in central casting: "Parker Selfridge" is the rep for capitalism (ably played by Giovanni Ribisi who has little room for maneuver in the straitjacket). Whole modules are imported from stock libraries and thrown together in a shambolic mash-up. For example:
- the noble-savages-victimized-by-Western-capitalism module, where the indigenous population borrows scripts from the cowboy & Indian drawer
- warrior culture in deep harmony with Mother Nature
- bows & arrows & sleek, bareback horsemanship
- the new-kid-in-town-steals-girl-away-from-her-BF module running scripts from every teen movie from the past half century
- new BF is awkward dork who moved here from out-of-town
- he falls off horses and steps on people's tails as old BF glares and plots
- new BF gets his mojo on and bitch slaps old BF back to the playground
The forces protecting the extraction operation are mercenaries rather than enlisted soldiers, so the movie dodges the inflammatory image of the hero killing his own comrades-in-arms. But more insidiously, it evades the disquieting picture of the nation's own military -- and you know which nation is being pictured -- directly involved in the rape of a developing society. And that brings us to the context in which this movie appears, and on which it constitutes a commentary.
The faintly sketched-out back story here is that planet Earth has so thoroughly depleted its own natural resources that the human race survives only by plundering those of distant celestial bodies. But don't look for any environmentally friendly moral. When "tree-huggers" and advocates of a "diplomatic solution" are dismissed as sissies by the commando-banker coalition, we naïvely assume that this machismo will be discredited by the action of the story. After all, the mercenary rapists mock the paraplegic volunteer as "meals on wheels," and such harassment is not PC. But what happens in the end? It's diplomacy that unequivocally fails, and armed struggle that prevails. The mercenary force launches a massive incursion, what Ronan Crowley calls a "preposterously fantastic restaging of 9/11 as experienced by oversized blue (Native) Americans" (or are those Native Arabians?). Their violence paves the way for the next expedition -- who can doubt that it's on the way? -- to obtain the unobtanium. If the blue folks gain a temporary victory, it's not because they negotiated, it's because they seized their bows and arrows and waged war, exploiting their own superior numbers and familiarity with the terrain. Sound familiar?
But wait -- they had these advantages all along, and yet were losing. If they achieve a temporary victory, it's only because they are led by an Earthling who betrays his own team and exploits the tribes' superstitious belief (= what we call other peoples' religion) in their legendary hero. In other words, left to their own devices, these quaint, folkloric natives present no threat to the imperial agenda, which can only be defeated by treason from within. Notice, moreover, that the hero's hybrid DNA is outwardly manifested by the dual perspective he acquires during his immersion among the "enemy." This understanding itself is despised by headquarters as a taint, and the racial purity of the imperial leadership, in evidence on the flight deck, shows how far they are from any such corruption. How weird was it on a warp-speed space ship not only to find no Vulcan or Scotsman, but no Indian, no Chinese?!? And this ship presumably comes from the post-national Earth of the future.
The distracting thing about sci-fi fantasy is that the interesting fantasies have nothing to do with defying gravity or getting to live twice or dodge bullets by freeing your mind. Rather, they work as wish-fulfillment applied to non-fictional reality. At this hour, and not at four light-years' distance, military and paramilitary forces are clashing with pre-industrialized societies over mission-critical raw materials. (Or should I say lifestyle-critical, or fortune-critical?) The wars come down to house-to-house, hand-to-hand combat and hopeless forays into terrains known intimately to the defenders. Over time, it seems inevitable that the wars will be waged over essentials -- water, food, aerable land -- and that famines and environmental disasters will create millions of environmental refugees.
The fantasy escape that Avatar offers is, in effect, that "united we stand." We, the consumer-society ticket-buying public, don't really want to see the blue people retain control of their unobtanium, for then how will we power our appliances? We can get sentimental for a few hours over the plight of the outer-space natives, but that catharsis gives us the fortitude to go on ignoring their terrestrial counterparts, safe in the knowledge that the next space ship will get the job done, if only we can maintain our solidarity and racial purity.
I bet you're glad your 3D glasses worked for you, and sorry, no doubt, that mine didn't work for me.