Thursday, 31 December 2009


I was reluctant to go, not being a lover of splashy special effects and not much else. Also violence nowadays goes way past my tolerance so I was all ready to leave and go home if necessary.

I liked it. A lot. There was a great deal more than special effects. The violence was there but it illustrated genuine conflict rather than the usual gory porn - of which there was none.

It has its flaws. I'll leave the in-depth discussion to after the READ MORE link so if you haven't seen it stop here.

But I'd recommend it.
Special effects A
Violence control B
Gender balance A
Characters B
Dialogue C (but with some good moments)
Politics B
Beauty A
The Na'vi are Noble Savages of classic kind: physically stronger and more agile than civilised humans; morally aware, deeply interconnected; religious without being cowed; linked to ancestors, passionate, loyal, aggressive and generous.

Cameron uses a blend of various tribal cultures to bring them alive for us. They have dreadlocked hair, painted skin, plaited and crafted decorative jewellery, belts etc.
This can easily be seen as stereotyping even racist. But how else do we create poetic images of an ancestral culture? The Na'vi are as much drawn from white Celtic ancestry as from colonial peoples on other continents. (The Celts were the early colonised too of course but they were white subordinates, mainly of the English.)

The military-industrial complex as the Enemy is vividly presented in ways that Left or radical rhetoric find it hard to do. The massive machines crunch and threaten what is human, supposedly to serve humans by extracting vital resources. The soldiers are manipulated with pep talks about 'survival' against 'hostiles' in a realistic way.
The human world is "dead" and all human scenes are shown in metallic colours that emphasise their techno, alienated state. The contrast with the quiveringly alive colours of the Na'vi world is obvious.

Ultimately although Avatar makes a brave picture of persons standing up to a machinelike civilisation, the ending is naive. The desperation for minerals (or fuels) would bring back a great force of conquest. But that is to disregard the nature of the film which is heroic saga, fantasy epic, rather than sustained political realism.
Cameron points his doom warning like an ancient prophet, rather than a political economist. But the warning is there loud and clear.

In religious terms Avatar is very good, a Pagan world realised. We have the Earth Mother who is immanent spirit in all things. We only borrow our lives and must give them back. The Na'avi thank the beasts they kill to eat as their relatives - trees, plants, animals are "all our relations."
But the Goddess is said not to interfere in the struggles on the planet, yet then she does - which disappointed me. I liked the first point better. However the animals drawn into the final battle could well have responded to the Na'avi under threat as their "cousins" so it becomes a moot point whether this is the deity or not. Such is the difficulty with an immanent "everywhere" divinity.

Though beasts are nominally respected in the most intense scenes with them, they are not. They are dominated. A young warrior is expected to duel with a flying dragon beast and subdue it much like "breaking" a horse. Why was there no "dragon whispering"? Why no partnership with the beast?
Nonetheless although the Paganism is flawed it is thrillingly there in a better realised screen presentation than I have ever seen before.

Politically Avatar is weak. The military and scientific groups among humanity are conventional and realistic enough. But the tribal politics are crude, a king and priestess and a bunch of warrior hunters. What did they use to navigate conflict in decisions? Was there a Council?
It appears that our hero can send out orders and get them obeyed by other tribes. How? Why? Because he had taken on the powers of legend. But how otherwise did the Na'vi mediate conflict and determine their laws?
Tal tells me that there is much more detail in the Pandorapedia that was not evident in the film.

Avatar is excellent on gender. We have a heroine who is strong, skilful, active and innovative - she does not just reflect the feelings or follow but initiates. Several times, including the crucial last event, she rescues our hero. Where else on the big screen does the final duel have heroine rescue hero? - except in comedy perhaps. Yet it is more interesting than that for that last duel has hero rescue heroine, who then repays the favour. Neat.
Nor is the heroine an isolated example of strong women. There's a scientist who has the breadth of mind to understand much of the Na'vi meaning. She attempts to block the military agenda but unsurprisingly fails.
There's also a great pilot who flies into battle with heroic wisecracking courage.
Among the Na'vi there's a queenly priestess plus a glimpse of another female leader.

I'm perhaps asking too much of the big screen in feeling even so there was a lack of gender depth. Unlike the Serenity/ Firefly opus which I recently much enjoyed discovering, the females in Avatar only connect to males and service their needs. Principally the hero's. But Serenity/ Avatar shows that gender balance can be imagined in-depth. Avatar had to please its backers no doubt so we couldn't go too far on gender. So B rather than A.

Oh but did I mention the sex scene was a bore? I liked the restraint, as heaving blue giant bodies would have made me heave. But why didn't they join their telepathic plaits - or do something other than a boring American kiss n cuddle?

Where Avatar gets murky, inspite of its many remarkably good points, is the white American rescuer hero. As Will Heaven at the Telegraph points out in no uncertain terms, the theme of the white rescuer is dubious. Tribal people, this theme tells us, cannot lead themselves out of trouble: they need the superior white guy to do that for them.

The point is hard to tease out. Yes Jake is a white American male, and a soldier at that. A conqueror. He bags the native princess and by her Pocahontas sponsorship wins acceptance in the tribe so he can later be its saviour.
But in Avatar he does it by becoming a Na'vi far more intimately than living among the tribe, adopting their dress and learning their language. He lives in a Na'vi body. So as he becomes the incarnation of an ancient Na'vi folk hero, he does it as a Na'vi. He looks to us like a Na'vi and his retuirn visits to his human body almost become an irritating diversion. As he says his human life has become the dream, his Na'vi life has become his reality.

There is also the pragmatic point that he can become the saviour of the Na'vi specifically because he has inside knowledge of the human military machine. This neatly reverses his original mission to spy on the Na'vi from the inside!
He can therefore exploit a blend of Na'vi ancestral knowledge of the territory, with his own trained knowledge of his own (?) people's weapons and tactics.
Tal comments: Knowing, for example, that while the Na'vi bows cannot harm military gunships when shooting from the ground upwards, when shooting from Ikran-back (Na'vi flying beasts), with the added speed of the beasts flight behind the arrow, they can pierce a gunships canopy.

Yet even allowing that Jake becomes a Na'vi as much as an outsider possibly could, even living in a Na'vi body, and that his leadership twins Na'vi folk legend, intimacy with territory and human knowledge of human military resources, even so. He is still white American male rescuing the native tribe. He's not a Na'vi person emerging from Na'vi life to save the day.
This is perhaps too much for America to stomach. After all they only just permitted themselves a black president. Autonomous heroes of colour will have to wait a bit.

Nor do we see much of other Na'vi wisdom; command politics again. A council of war would have been interesting with different ideas hashed out. Perhaps we can forgive that one in the cause of heroic legend.
He does, Tal reminds me, claim a "right to speak" among the senior Na'vi before everyone gathered. Implicit is the idea that all Na'vi have this right. But we don't see how conflict is discussed and mediated. Since Cameron is criticising the dominance type of system exemplified by the military industrial complex, I feel he should have shown more of its alternative option.

Over all as I said I liked it very much criticisms notwithstanding. I do not bother to critique what I do not respect. I came away strengthened, inspired, confirmed in so much that means so much to me.
The interconnectedness of life. Ecology. Strong women partnering men who can be vulnerable as well as strong for themselves. Sheer beauty. Violence portrayed as a conflict rather than mere gore. Dreamlike other reality.

Avatar for all its faults has a real grandeur. It's glorious especially to a Pagan. So go see it and get the DVD.


  1. I challenge the idea that the ending is naive. The movie establishes that interstellar travel is incredibly expensive, and takes a long time. Not to mention the company broke several international treaties waging what was effectively a private war with the native people, and is probalby up to its ears in legal trouble.

    Plus, as said before, the travel time between Earth and Pandora is somewhere in the region of seven years, so the Na'vi have plenty of time to prepare.

  2. Good point Tal. Maybe we'll see a sequel.

  3. Also, regarding the whole 'beasts are dominated' thing; not really. Likely I understand it better, but that thing they do with their hair is commonly referred to as a 'neural jack'. In laymans terms, a mind-link between Na'vi and beast. You don't get a better partnership than that.