By Daniel Mendelsohn
a film directed by James Cameron (New York Review of Books)
Two hugely popular "mashups"—homemade videos that humorously juxtapose material from different sources—that are currently making the rounds on the Internet seek to ridicule James Cameron's visually ravishing and ideologically awkward new blockbuster, Avatar. In one, the portentous voice-over from the trailer for Disney's Oscar-winning animated feature Pocahontas (1995) has been seamlessly laid over footage from Avatar, in which, as in Pocahontas, a confrontation between dark-skinned native peoples and white-skinned invaders intent on commercial exploitation is leavened by an intercultural love story. "But though their worlds were very different...their destinies were one," the plummy voice of the narrator intones, interrupted by the sound of a Powhatan saying, "These pale visitors are strange to us!"
The other mashup reverses the joke. Here, dialogue from Avatar—a futuristic fantasy in which a crippled ex-Marine is given a second chance at life on a strange new world called Pandora, and there falls in love with a native girl, a complication that confuses his allegiances—has been just as seamlessly laid over bits of Pocahontas. In one, we see an animated image of Captain John Smith's ship after it makes its fateful landing at Jamestown, while we hear the voice of a character in Avatar—a tough Marine colonel as he welcomes some new recruits to Pandora—sardonically quoting a bit of movie dialogue that has become an iconic expression of all kinds of cultural displacement. "Ladies and gentlemen," he bellows, "you are not in Kansas anymore!"
The satirical bite of the mashups is directed at what has been seen as the highly derivative, if not outright plagiaristic, nature of Avatar 's plot, characters, themes; themes that do, in many ways, seem like sci-fi updatings of the ones you find in Pocahontas. In the film, the Marine, Jake Sully—a paraplegic wounded in a war in Venezuela—begins as the confused servant of two masters. On the one hand, he is ostensibly assisting in a high-tech experiment in which human subjects, laid out in sarcophagus-like pods loaded with wires that monitor their brain waves, remotely operate laboratory-grown "avatars" of the indigenous anthropoids, nine-foot-tall, cyan-colored, nature-loving forest-dwellers called Na'vi. All this technology is meant to help the well-intentioned scientists to integrate and, ultimately, negotiate with the Na'vi in order to achieve a diplomatic solution to a pesky colonial problem: their local habitation, which takes the form of an enormous tree-hive, happens to sit on top of a rich deposit of a valuable mineral that the humans have come to Pandora to mine.
The problem is that Jake's other master—for whom he is, at first, secretly working, infiltrating the Na'vi with an eye to gathering strategic reconnaissance—is the mercenary army of Marines employed by the mysterious "Company" that's mining the precious mineral. (Anonymous, exploitive corporations are a leitmotif in the movies of this director.) It's clear from the start that both the Company and the Marines are itching to eschew diplomacy for a more violent and permanent solution to the Na'vi problem. The "dramatic arc" of the movie traces Jake's shift in consciousness as he gradually comes to appreciate Na'vi culture, with its deep, organic connection to nature (and—the inevitable romantic subplot—comes to adore a lovely Na'vi princess bearing the Egyptian-sounding name of Neytiri). Eventually, Jake goes over to their side, leading the native people in a climactic, extremely violent uprising against their thuggish oppressors.
So far, it would seem, so politically correct. And yet most of the criticisms that have been leveled at the film since its December premiere have to do with the nature of its politics rather than the originality of its vision. Many critics have lambasted Cameron's film for what they see as the patronizing, if not racist, overtones of its representation of the "primitive" Na'vi; the underlying hypocrisy of an apparent celebration, on the part of a special-effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster, of nature and of an accompanying polemic against technology and corporate greed; and the way it betrays what David Brooks, in a New York Times Op-Ed column, derides as the movie's "White Messiah" complex:
It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.
Criticisms such as Brooks's are not to be dismissed—not least because the ugly complex he identifies is one that has consistently marred Hollywood representations of cultural confrontation from the earliest westerns to the more recent products of a supposedly more enlightened age. (One of the many earnest movies to which Avatar has been derisively compared by its detractors is the 1990 Kevin Costner epic Dances with Wolves, in which a Civil War hero similarly goes native, leading the Indian tribes against his former compatriots.) What's striking is that so many critiques of Avatar 's political shortcomings often go out of their way to elide or belittle the movie's overwhelming successes as a work of cinema—its enormous visual power, the thrilling imaginative originality, the excitingly effective use of the 3-D technology that seems bound to change permanently the nature of cinematic experience henceforth—as if to acknowledge how dazzling it is would be an admission of critical weakness.
An extreme example of this is to be found in a searching critique posted by the critic Caleb Crain on his blog:
Of course you don't really believe it. You know objectively that you're watching a series of highly skilled, highly labor-intensive computer simulations. But if you agree to suspend disbelief, then you agree to try to feel that Pandora is a second, improved nature, and that the Na'vi are "digital natives," to repurpose in a literal way a phrase that depends on the same piece of ideological deception.
But our "objective knowledge" about the mechanisms that produce theatrical illusion is beside the point. To witness a critic working so hard not to surrender disbelief—the aim, after all, of drama since its inception—is, in a way, to realize how powerful the mechanisms that seek to produce that surrender really are.
As it happens, the movie that haunts Avatar—one that Cameron has often acknowledged as his favorite film—is one that takes the form of a fable about the difference (and sometimes traffic) between fantasy and reality; a movie whose dramatic climax centers on the moment when the protagonist understands that visually overwhelming and indeed politically manipulative illusions can be the product of "highly skilled, highly labor-intensive simulations" (a fact that does not, however, detract from the characters', and our, appreciation of the aesthetic and moral uses and benefits of fantasy, of illusion). That movie is, in fact, the one the Marine colonel quotes: The Wizard of Oz. Consideration of it is, to my mind, crucial to an understanding not only of the aesthetic aims and dramatic structure of Avatar but of a great and disturbing failure that has not been discussed as fervently or as often as its overtly political blind spots have been. This failure is, in certain ways, the culimination of a process that began with the first of Cameron's films, all of which can be seen as avatars of his beloved model, whose themes they continually rework: the scary and often violent confrontation between human and alien civilizations, the dreadful allure of the monstrous, the yearning, by us humans, for transcendence—of the places, the cultures, the very bodies that define us.
Humanity and human life have never held much attraction for Cameron; if anything, you can say that in all his movies there is a yearning to leave the flesh of Homo sapiens behind for something stronger and tougher. The movie that made his name and established him as a major writer-director of blockbuster successes, The Terminator (1984), is ostensibly about the poignant conflict between the human race and a race of sentient, human-hating cyborgs—"part man, part machine...fully armored, very tough. But outside it's living human tissue. Flesh, hair, blood...." Its plot, which essentially consists of a number of elaborately staged chase sequences, concerns the attempts by one of these, famously played by Arnold Schwarzenegger—an actor notorious for his fleshly armor as well as for his rather mechanical acting—who returns to the present from a post-apocalyptic future in order to assassinate a woman called Sarah Connor who will, we are told, one day give birth to the man destined to lead a successful human uprising against the cyborgs.
But whatever lip service it pays to the resilience of the human spirit, etc., the film cannot hide its more profound admiration for the resilience of the apparently indestructible cyborg. As the story evolves, this creature loses ever-increasing amounts of its human envelope in various encounters with the woman and her protectors—an eye here, a limb there—and is stripped, eventually, of all human characteristics. By the end, it emerges out of an explosion as a titanium skeleton, hell-bent on pure destruction. (In an interview with The New Yorker that appeared last fall, just before the release of Avatar, Cameron recalled that the inspiration for the movie, which he says came to him in a dream, was this sole image: "a chrome skeleton emerging out of a fire." Everything else came later.)
It would be hard to claim that Cameron—who has managed to wring clanking and false performances from fine actors like Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane (Titanic), and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (The Abyss)—is an actor's director; his films' emotional energy, and certainly their visual interest, lies in their awed appreciation of what machines (and inhuman creatures) can do, from the seemingly unkillable cyborgs of the Terminator movies to the unstop- pable alien monster queen of Aliens to the deep-sea diving capsules and remote-controlled robots featured in Titanic. The performances that work in his films, significantly, are either those of mediocre actors like Schwarzenegger who actually play machines or good actors playing tight-lipped, emotionally shut-down characters, like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986), which Cameron wrote and directed.
The Terminator had a dark sense of humor about our relationship to technology, an issue that is at the core, in its way, of Avatar. In one memorably disturbing scene, a woman can't hear her boyfriend being beaten to death by the Terminator because she's listening to loud pop music with her headphones on; in another, we—and the Terminator—overhear a crucial message on Sarah Connor's answering machine, which greets callers with the sly announcement: "Ha ha, I fooled you, you're talking to a machine. But that's OK, machines need love too." The joke is that they don't—and that's their advantage. It's no accident that, by the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron's hit 1991 sequel to the original, Sarah Connor has become rather machine-like herself—pointedly, even cruelly suppressing maternal feelings for the child she has borne, strenuously working out, hardening her body, arming herself to the teeth with an eye-popping arsenal of hand- and machine guns.
The fascination with the seeming invincibility of sophisticated mechanical objects, and an accompanying desire to slough off human flesh for metal (and a celebration of flesh so taut it may as well be metal: Cameron's camera loves to linger on the tightly muscled bodies, male and female, of the soldiers so often featured in his violent films), is a recurrent theme in the techno-blockbusters that cemented the director's reputation in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Aliens famously ends with Weaver's character, Ellen Ripley, battling the dragonish alien monster queen after strapping herself into a giant forklift-like machine whose enormous pincers she mechanically controls by maneuvering her own slender arms—a technology that puts the puny human, finally, on a par with her gigantic, razor-toothed, acid-bleeding adversary.
This kind of exaggerated mechanical body gear, which endows people with machine-like strength and power, is a recurrent prop in Cameron's films. It's crucial in Aliens and it pops up again in his 1989 submarine fantasy The Abyss, which imagines an encounter between a deep-sea oil-drilling team and an ethereally beautiful, bioluminescent species of marine aliens. Even in Titanic (1997), the clunky "human interest" subplot, about a doomed romance between a feisty Main Line nymphet and a free-spirited artist in third class, cannot compete with the swooning representation of machines: the ship itself, the pumping turbines and purring hydraulics and, later, the awful, methodical disintegration of those mechanical elements—and a lot of glittering modern-day gadgets, too. For the famous disaster sequence is intercut with scenes of present-day dives to the great wreck, during which human operators remotely manipulate treasure-hunting drones by means of sympathetic arm movements.
A violent variation on the same mechanical bodysuits reappears, memorably, in Avatar, which culminates in a scene of bloody single combat between a Na'vi warrior and the evil Marine colonel, who has strapped himself into one such machine. If anything, the recurrent motif of humans inserting themselves into mechanical contraptions in order to enjoy superhuman powers reaches its fullest, most sophisticated expression in the new movie, whose characters can literally become other, superhuman beings by hooking themselves up to elaborate machines. All this seems to bear out the underlying truth of a joke that Linda Hamilton, the actress who played Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies, told about her first, unhappy interactions with the director (whom she later married and divorced): "That man is definitely on the side of the machines."
The awed appreciation for superhuman powers—and an understandable desire by human weaklings to lay claim to them, in times of great duress—that recur in Cameron's work before Avatar surely betrays a lingering trace of his formative encounter with The Wizard of Oz, which so famously shows us a helpless twelve-year-old, set loose in a strange world inhabited by scary monsters and powerful aliens, discovering her own hitherto unknown powers (and learning that certain supposedly supernatural powers are produced by knowing how to maneuver the right gears and levers).
Another inheritance from that visually revolutionary work, of course, is Cameron's taste for plots that have to do with encounters between humans and aliens of one sort or another. Avatar would seem to be the most obvious manifestation of this particular debt that Cameron owes to his favorite movie. Apart from a number of explicit allusions to Oz—the line about not being in Kansas anymore, a corporate stooge's sneering reference to the Na'vi as "blue monkeys," which recalls the blue-tinged flying monkeys of the 1939 movie—the encounter between the human world and the world of the Na'vi is imbued with a sense of thrilled visual amazement that deliberately evokes a similar experience provided by the Hollywood classic. In the latter, Dorothy's life in Kansas was filmed in black and white; only when she awakes in Oz does the film move into dazzling three-strip Technicolor. In Avatar, Cameron quotes this famous gesture. Jake Sully's world, the world of the humans—the interior of the marine transports and fighters, the hangars and meeting rooms, the labs of the scientists and the offices of the nameless corporation—is filmed in a drably monotonous palette of grays and blues (the latter being a favorite color of this director, who uses it often to represent a bleak future); the world of the Na'vi, in contrast, is one of staggering color and ravishing light.
The colors, apart from the opulent greens of the Na'vis' jungle homeland, tend to be lusciously "feminine" on the flora—violet, mauve, delicate peaches and yellows. They grow stronger on the fauna, a series of brilliantly imagined creatures among which, persuasively, certain morphologies recur. (Crests, say, and hammer-heads.) All, the plants and animals both, share one trait that clearly owes much to Cameron's lifelong passion for marine exploration, and which provides Avatar with much of its visual delight: bioluminescence. As the characters tread on plants or trees, the latter light up delicately, for a moment; the ritually important Tree of Souls looks like a weeping willow made of fiber-optic cables. It's a wonderful conceit that had me literally gasping with pleasure the first time I saw the movie.
This visual ravishment—which is the principal experience of the movie and which is, too, enhanced by the surprisingly subtle use of 3-D technology (there are gratifyingly few shots of objects projecting into the audience's field; you just feel that you're sharing the same plane as the creatures in the movie)—is part of a strategy intended to make us admire the Na'vi. Not surprisingly, given all this natural synergy and beauty, the native people, as we are told again and again, enjoy a special bond with all those colorful creatures and, more generally, with the ecosystem (to whom they have given the name Eywa; Cameron, apparently as much a stickler for linguistic as for biological verisimilitude, had his underlings work up a functional Na'vi language).
This, in turn, is part of the film's earnest, apparently anticolonial, anticapitalist, antitechnology message. These creatures, rather sentimentally modeled on popular notions of Native American and African tribes, are presented as being wholly in tune with nature—as preagricultural hunter-gatherers who subsist on the flesh of the animals they kill by means of their remarkable skill at archery. (When they do make a kill, they solemnly apologize to the victims: "All energy is borrowed and one day you have to give it back," Neytiri rather officiously informs the avatar-Jake when he makes his first kill.) They stand, therefore, in stark contrast to the movie's humans (the "sky-people"), with their heavy, rumbling, roaring copters and tractors and immense, belching, grinding mining-machines—the representatives of destructive "technology" who have, we are told, "killed their mother": which is to say, destroyed their own planet.
All this would be well and good enough, in its ecofable, Pocahontas -esque way, but for the fact that Cameron is the wrong man to be making a film celebrating the virtues of pre- technological societies. As, indeed, he has no intention of doing here. For as the admiring scientists—led by a chain-smoking, tough-talking woman called Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver (the chain-smoking is an in-joke: Ripley had the same bad habit)—protest to the trigger-happy Marines, Na'vi civilization is in fact technologically sophisticated: by means of a pistil-tipped appendage, wittily described by Crain as a kind of USB cable, which plugs into similar appendages on both plants and animals, they can commune not only with other creatures but with what constitutes a planet-wide version of a technology with which we today are very preoccupied. "Don't you get it?" an exasperated Dr. Augustine shouts at the corporate and military yahoos who clearly intend to blow all the Na'vi to kingdom come. "It's a network—a global network!"
Dr. Augustine goes on to describe how, by means of the pistil-thing, the Na'vi can upload and download memories, information, and so forth—and can even communicate with their dead. One such upload to Eywa herself, transmitted through the Tree of Souls by Jake's avatar, will, in the end, help lead the Na'vi and their furry friends to victory over the human exploiters. (This, of course, is the Dances with Wolves paradigm.)
In its confused treatment of that favorite Cameron preoccupation—the relationship between the natural and the technological worlds—the film, for all its richly imagined and dazzlingly depicted beauties, runs into deep and revealing trouble. As we know by now, Cameron's real attraction, as a writer and a director, has always been for the technologies that turn humans into superhumans. However "primitive" they have seemed to some critics, the Na'vi—with their uniformly superb, sleekly blue-gleaming physiques, their weirdly infallible surefootedness, their organic connector cables, their ability to upload and download consciousness itself—are the ultimate expression of his career-long striving to make flesh mechanical. The problem here is not a patronizingly clichéd representation of an ostensibly primitive people; the problem is the movie's intellectually incoherent portrayal of its fictional heroes as both admirably precivilized and admirably hypercivilized, as atechnological and highly technologized. Avatar 's desire to have its anthropological cake and eat it too suggests something deeply unself-aware and disturbingly unresolved within Cameron himself.
And how not? He is, after all, a Hollywood giant who insists on seeing himself as a regular Joe—a man with what he called, in the New Yorker interview, a "blue-collar sensibility"; more to the point, he is a director whose hugely successful mass entertainments cost hundreds of millions of dollars obligingly provided by deep-pocketed corporations—a "company" man, whether he knows it or not. And these shows depend for their effects—none more than Avatar—on the most sophisticated technologies available, even as that director tells himself that the technology that is the sine qua non of his technique isn't as important as people think; that, in fact, what makes Avatar special is the "human interest" story, particularly the love story between Jake and Neytiri:
Too much is being said about the technology of this film. Quite frankly, I don't give a rat's ass how a film is made. It's an emotional story. It's a love story. They're not expecting that. The sci-fi/fantasy fans see the trailer and they think, Cool—battles, robots. What you really need to get to is, Oh, it's that [a love story], too.
But of course, when you see Avatar, what overwhelms you is what the technology accomplishes—not only the battles and robots, to be fair, but all the other marvelous stuff, the often overwhelmingly beautiful images of a place that exists somewhere over the rainbow.
Even beyond the incoherence that mars Avatar and hopelessly confuses whatever it thinks its message may be, there is a larger flaw here—one that's connected to Cameron's ambivalence about the relationship between technology and humanity; one that also brings you back, in the end, to The Wizard of Oz; one that is less political than ethical.
If it's right to see the movie as the culmination of Cameron's lifelong progress toward embracing a dazzling, superior Otherness—in a word, toward Oz—what strikes you, in the end, is how radically it differs, in one significant detail, from its model. Like the 1939 classic, the 2009 film ends with a scene of awakening. By the end, the Na'vi have triumphed but the human Jake, operating his avatar from within his computerized pod, has been fatally hurt. His dying body is brought back to the Tree of Souls where, in a ceremony of the greatest holiness, the consciousness of the human Jake will be transferred, finally and permanently, into his Na'vi avatar. (Technology at its best, surely.) In the closing moments of the film the camera lingers suspensefully on the motionless face of avatar-Jake; suddenly, the large, feline eyes pop open, and then the screen goes black. We leave the theater secure in the knowledge that the rite has been successful, that the avatar Jake will live. (And that there will be sequels.)
This moment of waking is, structurally, a crucial one; at the very beginning of the film, during Jake's introductory voice-over, the crippled man has poignantly described the liberating but ultimately deceptive dreams of flying that he often has: "I start having these dreams of flying...sooner or later, though, you always have to wake up." The final image of the redeemed and healed Jake waking up to his new Na'vi life is clearly meant, then, to be a triumphant rewriting of that sour acknowledgment.
But the implications of this awakening—in a character that Cameron himself described as an unconscious rewriting of The Wizard of Oz 's Dorothy ("it was, in some ways, like Dorothy's journey")—are not only different from but opposite to the implications of Dorothy's climactic wakening. When Dorothy wakes up, it's to the drab, black-and-white reality of the gritty Kansas existence with which she had been so dissatisfied at the beginning of her remarkable journey into fantasy, into vibrant color; what she famously learns from that exposure to radical otherness is, in fact, that "there's no place like home." Which is to say, when she wakes up—equipped, to be sure (as she was not before) with all that she has learned from her remarkable odyssey, not the least of which is a strong new awareness of her own human abilities—she wakes up to the realities, and the responsibilities, of the human world she'd temporarily escaped from.
The triumphant conclusion of Avatar, by contrast, takes the form of a permanent abandonment of the gray world of Homo sapiens—which, as Dorothy learns, may contain its own hidden marvels—for the Technicolor, over-the-rainbow fantasy world into which Jake accidentally strayed. This represents something new in Cameron's work, something you can't help thinking is significant. In the director's films of the 1980s and 1990s, in the Terminator films or in Aliens, in the misbegotten Abyss and even, in its way, in Titanic—just before the advent of cell phones and iPhones, of reality TV and virtual socializing, and, indeed, of mashups, of this new moment in which each of us can inhabit what you might call a private reality—the encounters with radical otherness or with extremes of violence and disaster always concluded, however awkwardly in some cases, with a moment of quiet, a return to the reassuring familiarity of life as most of us know it.
The message of what is now James Cameron's most popular movie thus far, and the biggest-grossing movie in history—like the message of so much else in mass culture just now—is, by contrast, that "reality" is dispensable altogether; or, at the very least, whatever you care to make of it, provided you have the right gadgets. In this fantasy of a lusciously colorful trip over the rainbow, you don't have to wake up. There's no need for home. Whatever its futuristic setting, and whatever its debt to the past, Avatar is very much a movie for our time.
David Brooks, "The Messiah Complex," The New York Times, January 7, 2010.
A notable exception was the New Yorker review by David Denby, which begins, "Avatar is the most beautiful film I've seen in years." See "Going Native," The New Yorker, January 4, 2010.
Caleb Crain, "Don't Play with That, or You'll Go Blind," his blog post at www.steamthing.com. Crain is more resistant to the film's beauties than I would be, and sees the director as "cynical" instead of unresolved in his treatment of technology and "primitive" cultures, as I see him.
Dana Goodyear, "Man of Extremes: The Return of James Cameron," The New Yorker, October 26, 2009.