A lot of the hype surrounding Avatar stems primarily from two divergent schools of thought. The first puts the emphasis on the technology that rendered the diegetic world of Pandora come to life, while recognizing that the storyline itself had many of the stock characters and tropes that are abundant in adventure films. The other school of thought does exactly the opposite. While identifying the unique nature of the cinematography, it dwells on the plot and its components, sometimes blowing things out of proportion to an extent to suggest that Avatar is a “racist” film. All the reviews of the film Avatar that I have been exposed to fall in one of these two camps and it seems a comprehensive cinematic analysis for a general audience is yet to be done. So here I go, taking you through my utter apathy for the Avatar franchise.
When movies are made, there are a lot of different influences that affect the finished product. Unlike a lot of books, paintings and music, films generally don’t have a real auteur. This makes it quite complicated to attribute all parts of a film to a single entity, or the meaning that is derived from it. However, the average audience does not care about the politics of representation in a film or at least pretends not to, but being oblivious to it does not enable them to escape the cognitive biases through the images portrayed onscreen, as they passively sit in the darkness of a movie theatre. Similar to the climate, trends in culture don’t just arise due to spontaneous generation, and this is the reason for it.
I’m more interested in what the commotion about Avatar means for us as a society. In North America, we often like to think of ourselves as a generally tolerant and fairly liberal society that has moved on from the baggage of racism, slavery, colonialism and sexism. Despite this, individual groups of people are still very much affected by these things in terms of how they perceive others. So, when films like Avatar cause an audience to become very much polarized in their opinions, all of the closeted biases of people come to light, and others, like me who were generally unenthused by both the cinematography and the general performance can distantiate themselves to understand what it all means.
The Na’avi are characterized as these apparently idealistic and harmonious group of humanoids that live symbiotically with the environment around them; led by an unquestioned benevolent chief who maintains peace. This is apparently all fine and dandy by us, although the idea of cults promising utopia is not foreign to us. That’s only because it is juxtaposed against this is the seemingly corrupt human society with purely materialistic goals. This is the sort of dualism that engages the audience, setting up expectations so you immediately know which group you want to side with. It doesn’t really matter anymore that that Na’avi are actually pretty darn superstitious and primitive by our standards, and that in reality, they would be the proverbial others for our concretely civilized world. We simply choose not to look at that because blue tree-worshipping humanoids are much more exciting than anything that is more moderate and less-idealized. Idealization of anything has a broad appeal and titillates the yearning for the simplistic in the hearts and minds of a generally lackadaisical audience.
A romantic plotline is always a plus for any potential blockbuster. It baffles me how after years of supposed breakthrough in the way people think about relationships (i.e. through the feminist and sexual revolutions), a good old fashioned romp in the forest readily turns into true love, even when it’s quasi-bestial. Time and time again, it reaffirms the traditional hierarchy and paradigm about relationships that is prevalent as if the aforementioned social movements might as well have not happened.
The special effects of Avatar is likely to be the most salient feature to be remembered for years to come, when the socio-cultural underpinnings of the film have been analyzed to death. The concept of having the actors perform the movements of the animated figures is definitely a remarkable breakthrough, though not enough to salvage Avatar from a generally overrated movie.
I wasn’t exactly disappointed by Avatar overall. It just didn’t keep its promise of an escape, which posing as a regular moviegoer, I sought. It didn’t show me escape. It took me on a roundabout trip around the regular power play between groups of people and a heternormatively driven subplot. Simply nothing awesome to be shaken up by.
Crossposted at: http://thylacinereports.wordpress.com