Avatar rewatch: Rediscovering the sparkly-strange pessimism of the highest-grossing movie ever

·7 min read
Avatar rewatch: Rediscovering the sparkly-strange pessimism of the highest-grossing movie ever

Pandora is toxic. Without an oxygen mask, a human on the faraway moon will die in four minutes. What a lovely place to asphyxiate, though: Think electro-Eden after a deep cleaning. By night the green rainforests shine with dangly neon foliage, and the moss lights up to the touch. Mountains float. See the bird-like insects with helicopter wings, see the noble hammerhead rhinos. It's supposed to be dangerous, but it looks like a vacation, one you could never enjoy even if it existed. Rewatching 2009's Avatar rewards close attention to this fundamental paradox: Here is a very nice, very lovely, very anti-human movie.

The year is 2154. Earth is an offscreen mystery. American-sounding First Recon grunts swap war stories about Venezuela and Nigeria, and some corporation can mobilize a private military across solar systems. That's it for specifics. The one scene set Earthside sets quite a mood, when Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) watches himself incinerated. It's only his twin brother's corpse, but Jake's own past feels burned away, beyond the never-explained battle damage that left him in a wheelchair.

All Avatar needs you to know is something bad happened to Jake — and his planet.  "There's no green there," Jake warns Pandora's oversoul. "They killed their mother." He's already distancing himself, and his story ends triumphantly when he self-emancipates from his own human body. Cultural memory sillies up James Cameron's epic: the FernGully jokes, the questionable space-race politics, the blue natives. But the film features the single most chilling science-fiction line he's ever written. "The aliens went back to their dying world," Jake narrates near the end. He's talking about us.


Everett Collection Sam Worthington in 'Avatar'

After four whole phases of Marvel passed during delayed release dates, Avatar: The Way of Water will arrive in December. The first film returns to theaters next Friday. It's a bizarre rewatch, and weirder than it needs to be. The story isn't not Pocahontas, with Jake as the goofball outsider learning indigenous wisdom from tribal princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). In theory, he struggles internally between two sides. Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) represents Jake's military past and Earth First humanity. But when Jake transfers his consciousness into a Na'vi body, Neytiri beckons toward a vast world, and the "energy that flows through all living things." He rides a pterodactyl, and then a dragon.

So the choice is: muscle-bound jerk who never goes outside vs. gorgeous cool warrior offering flight lessons. That non-conflict extends to individual character dynamics. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) warms to jock-y Jake even though she knows he's feeding Quaritch intel. Norm (Joel David Moore) gets bummed when Jake steals his role as chief inter-species diplomat, but they're always pals. Tsu'tey (Laz Alonso) is Neytiri's promised husband — so it should cause problems when she mates with Jake instead. (In the immortal words of Grace: "Oh s---!") Forgiveness comes quick, and the romantic triangle unites against the Sky People. These sound like mistakes I'm complaining about, but filmmakers overrate plot and underrate how much people enjoy hanging out inside a movie. Thirteen years before we ruined the word from overuse, Avatar was happy to be a vibe.

No digital effects age well for long, or is that just my opinion? With all due respect to Cameron's side hustle as a CGI prophet, I prefer The Terminator's ancient jagged-skullbone prosthetics to anything on Pandora. But there are very recent, ludicrously expensive special effects that already look worse than Avatar. The director maintained his run-and-gun sensibility in the performance-capture wilderness. Notice how almost every individual shot moves constantly, with multiple planes of action flowing together through who-knows-how-many disparate elements of filming and post-production. Because the movie is so colorful, it looks better (and more recent) than a host of grimcore super-odysseys that followed it. Lately CGI landscapes have gotten worse on big-budget TV, which over-depend on LED walls and repetitive staging to fill in flat worlds. When the Na'vi scale the Hallelujah mountains, you feel stratospheres.

CCH Pounder plays Neytiri's mother. Wes Studi is her father. So all the major Na'vi performers are people of color, while the chief authoritarian Earthers are stern Lang and weaselly Giovanni Ribisi. Whatever your thoughts on the aboriginal allegory, there's a clarity in this casting. It's common to align Avatar with the destruction of indigenous American societies, but the movie works fine a parable for any white-western cultural assault. Actually, at this point the movie probably reads better as a Middle East meditation, with "unobtainium" filling in for oil and much talk about a "pre-emptive attack" and a "shock-and-awe campaign."

So the real-world parallels are obvious — but was Avatar ever about the real world? The other central paradox here is how Cameron, the adventurer-environmentalist who loves the ocean, could only create this hyper-naturalist vision inside his machines. He's always been a heavy-artillery romantic, so it's a statement of purpose when Jake-Neytiri's hot mating night gets rudely awakened by a tank. Cameron himself seems to consider the performance-capture tech as a mechanism for rehumanizing, bringing the movements and emotions of performers into alien characters. But it's telling, I think, that Dr. Augustine describes Pandora as "a global network," which the Na'vi use to "upload and download data." Pandora may symbolize an unpolluted Earth, but that sounds precisely like the internet. For all the teasing about the Na'vi's erogenous brain tails, that organic connection clearly reflects a digital sensibility. When Jake "connects" with a steed, or a tree, or even Neytiri, it's a spiritual act of peer-to-peer content-sharing. Imagine if the internet was real!

The idea of "global network" as a fundamentally positive thing is, unfortunately, the most 2009 thing about Avatar. Now we're in history's flux vortex. And somewhere in the general terror of the last several years, I decided I was very excited about the upcoming Avatars. During bleak times, it was nice to think of James Cameron working away in his own distant galaxy, boldly claiming mid-2020s release windows when the world could collapse tomorrow.

And his saga — at least its first part — sanctifies the joy of escape as an act of redemptive moral rebellion. Jake's life on Pandora is often described as a dream. The climactic thrill is that he never has to wake up. The Way of Water may deepen these themes, or set off in a new direction. I'm optimistic that Jake and Neytiri's family includes a human kid, because the best Avatar scenes clash the different worlds together: human and Na'vi, real performer and performance-captured CGI, gray high-tech and rainbow forest. Yes, there are the epic battles when when Shoulder-Mech killers battle the Na'vi cavalry. But I'm also talking about the late moment, calm, sweet, and odd, when gigantic Neytiri cradles teeny human Jake in her lap.

A few pure CGI scenes can be weightless, and I don't think I ever noticed the whole Austin Powers game the movie plays with Na'vi private parts, draping immobile necklaces over nipples and carefully obscuring butts with tails. The patter ("Who'd you expect, numbnuts?") sounds retro — more 1950s than 2150s — but that's an additive flavor. If the screenplay is sentimental, it's also inventing a whole new flavor of fatalistic sincerity. Jake starts to look pale, unshaven, half-starved. He's spending too much time avatar-ing around, leaving his human self declining in a (coffin-shaped) dream pod. Another science-fiction story might use this opportunity to make some point about getting lost in fantasy or technology. "Life out there is the true world," he says, "And in here is the dream." He could be a drug addict. But Avatar's complex message is that Jake should leave humanity behind. His body is a caterpillar husk. All hail the blue flesh.

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