I saw Avatar yesterday, and it was a pretty darned good movie. If you think you might like this kind of thing, just go see it.
As with James Cameron’s earlier film Titanic, the star of this film is the magnificent setting and the way it is presented. The lush world of Pandora is beautiful, the CGI that creates the aliens is every bit as good as everyone else says, and the 3D unobtrusively helps you understand the the complex action in the forest scenery.
The characters and the plot are simple and relatively straightforward. For some reason, this bothers some people. They point to the thin characterization and simple plot as if it were some kind of terrible failing, and they’re proud of themselves for having seen past the special effects, which is a silly attitude. Seeing past the special effects in Avatar is like seeing past the songs in Rent.
Another thing that bothers some people about Avatar is the politics of it all. For example, here’s Peter Suderman at Reason’s Hit & Run blog:
And the Na’vi, the movie’s marble-skinned alien natives, are easily the most convincing humanoids ever to leap forth from a Hollywood effects house’s CGI server-farm — that is, at least in terms of the way they look and move. The realism stops, however, every time they open their mouths and reveal themselves to be crude, one-dimensional native stereotypes: instinctive and animalistic purveyors of cheap mysticism and nature worship.
So despite its genuinely impressive technical innovations, Avatar isn’t much a movie: Instead, Cameron’s cooked up a derivative, overlong pastiche of anti-corporate clichés and quasi-mystical eco-nonsense. It’s not that the film’s politics make it bad, it’s that even if you agree, the nearly three-hour onslaught of simplistic moralizing leaves no room for interesting twists or ambiguity in the story or characters: corporations are bad, scientists are good, natives are pure, harmony with nature is the ultimate ideal…
Good grief. A “three-hour onslaught of simplistic moralizing”? There’s maybe three minutes of political content scattered throughout the whole movie. Admittedly, some of it is pretty clunky—references to pre-emptive strikes, shock and awe, and fighting terror with terror—but it all goes by in a few seconds. Maybe James Cameron was trying to send me a message, but so what? I was busy enjoying the rest of the movie.
I think Suderman must have gone into this movie with an attitude, because he sure missed a lot. For one thing, the native people’s connection to nature isn’t just some kind of “cheap mysticism” or “quasi-mystical eco-nonsense.” The Na’vi are connected to nature for a reason. Anybody who’s familiar with science fiction literature will see it coming, but it’s also spelled out quite clearly in the movie.
Also, Suderman and other right-wing critics seem to miss the rather important fact that the bad guys are stealing from the natives and destroying the places where they live, just like any corporation using eminent domain to take someone’s land. A libertarian shouldn’t have any problem with the natives trying to prevent that.
On the other hand, Roger Ebert says it has an anti-war message, apparently missing the fact that the Na’vi good guys have plenty of weapons and don’t mind fighting back.
I’m not saying Avatar is pro-war and pro-property rights, but neither is it about anti-corporate mystical eco-nonsense. It’s about these people on this planet, and some of them are human and some of them are alien, and…really, it’s a big special effects movie. Just go see it and have fun.