Allegorical movies are tough. On one hand, the social messages are essential to keeping cinema relevant and meaningful. Yet I always grow wary of a movie made for the sake of a message and not for the sake of entertaining audiences. The best way to judge that may be to measure Avatar against another film that it shares some themes with: Dances with Wolves.
Both films, for example, discuss imperialism against the epic backdrop of human emotion and struggle — only one does it here on Earth, the other on a faraway planet. But what about the entertainment value? The story? The characters? Which film goes the farthest beyond preaching and instead involves its audiences in the big question: What would it take for me to go up against my own kind?
Cameron’s first feature film in over a decade (since the box-office titan Titanic), Avatar takes place on Pandora, a tree-hugger’s wet dream of a planet, rife with glowing plants, floating mountains, glorious waterfalls, prehistoric-esque monsters, and pissed Na’vi inhabitants who want humanity to bugger off and stop destroying their planet. Why are we destroying their planet? Well, we’re mining for their oil– I’m sorry, their “unnamed gray rock mineral” that sells for millions. But the story is really about Jake Sully, a crippled Marine who synchs with a hybrid Na’vi/human “avatar” and infiltrates the tribes to learn their ways as a Na’vi. When a radical colonel forces the Na’vi to resettle away from a huge mineral deposit, Sully must choose between the Na’vi culture he’s learned and his own humanity. With breakthrough 3D visual effects and good ol’ fashioned Cameron-action, Avatar is a three-hour allegorical look at the environment, imperialism, corporatism, and any other “-ism” that should help with white man’s guilt and those lovely Golden Globe/Oscar nominations.
The Defending Champion
Kevin Costner both headlines and directs Dances with Wolves, the Civil War-era tale of John Dunbar, a disillusioned Union soldier who must choose between his patriotism and humanity, as white settlers and rival tribes threaten his new Sioux friends. Rife with violence and epic emotional melodrama, Dances with Wolves was the sort of blockbuster that bulldozed the box offices in its time. Ambitious with its long stretches of scenic cinematography and cultural nuances, the film was hailed by Congress as historically relevant and even earned Kevin Costner honorary membership by the Sioux nation.
As with most of the films I reviewed this year (Star Trek vs. Wrath of Khan, District 9 vs. Alien Nation), it’s hard to approach the massive technical gap between these two films. Avatar is simply an amazing technological achievement that will blow people away, and Dances with Wolves can’t really stand against it on a technical level. Every detail of Pandora (although familiar) is executed with such a high degree of anal retentiveness that you can’t help but be drawn in. This is, no doubt, helped by the 3D aspects, which are employed in a way that doesn’t bring the movie to you (as some reviewers are saying) but actually brings you to the movie, pushing you into the depth and detail in a way that had me almost turning my head to look around me, as if the scenery was passing as I watched. Also, quite frankly, the film has some of the most amazing visual moments that I’ve seen in recent years — just watch Pandora’s flying creatures banking hard down a cliff base toward the ocean as massive waves crash against rocks and cascade over the flying flock.
It’s breathtaking, as are the momentous action sequences throughout the film.
So, we’re past that. We can move on to what no amount of visual effects, hype, and cool Halo-like production design can cover: story.
Dances with Wolves and Avatar have very similar stories. To say that Avatar steals from Dances with Wolves is unfair, as the tale of an oppressor fighting against his own after experiencing the majesty of the oppressed isn’t new at all. District 9 tried (and failed) to do it. Hell, even The Little Mermaid did it in a way. The thing that separates these two films is that Avatar has a more compelling and interesting protagonist in Jake Sully when compared to Dunbar. At Wolves start, Dunbar is so fed up with the Civil War that he tries to commit suicide. By providence, he finds a way into a new world with the Sioux that offers him the peace he had been searching for from the film’s starting moments. To say that Dunbar has to “choose” to go against his own people is erroneous, as there is no dramatic weight to the choice. He was ready to desert his Union compatriots via suicide within the first five minutes of the film. Really, if a person’s at the suicide levels of the proverbial barrel, anything above that is really an upgrade…
Sully on the other hand is all hoorah about mining Pandora — or at least indifferent, which is somehow worse . Recently crippled, Sully is eager to prove he still matters as a man and marine, and falls under the corruptive influence of Colonel Quaritch, an over-the-top villain who many times threatens the delicacy of the film’s social message with his campy characterization. At first, I thought maybe Sully would just do anything to walk again, as his Na’vi avatar allows him to not only walk, but move with superhuman agility. But seeing Sully use that avatar to show Quaritch that he is a loyal and effective marine makes Sully’s arc a matter of proving one’s worth despite a handicap.
Being this is the case, Sully becomes a much more involving character. Unlike Dunbar, who essentially absorbs the Sioux culture as a welcomed substitute for his own, Sully is frustrated with the “tree-hugger” culture of the Na’vi, who believe in the interconnectedness of all things and the spiritual potency of Elwa (Pandora’s literal soul). So there’s more dramatic conflict and irony to him having to adapt to and infiltrate the Na’vi culture, and a real hard choice is made when he decides to forgo his former life and uphold a totally different way of life.
The differences between these two characters’ journeys is summed up by a line one of the Na’vi throws at Sully when he tells them he wants to learn their ways. “You cannot fill an empty cup.” She’s right. That’s why its so damn interesting to watch the Na’vi fill Sully’s cup. Now take Dunbar, whose disillusioned cup is already empty and ready for some new culture to be poured in. The dramatic questions are lessened since we know Dunbar will accept the Sioux culture because he’s looking for something else already, and worse, Dunbar knows he is looking for more. Sully is not even on that plane of self-awareness and thus, a more interesting character to follow.
So let’s talk women, shall we? Unfortunately, these type of stories seem to rest on a notion that in order to understand how another culture lives, you have to fall in love and mate with one of them. (This spells a certain amount of doom for the Gay Right’s Movement). In Dances with Wolves, Mary McDonnell is our post-coitus cultural liaison, the adopted white daughter of a Sioux tribe, who Costner rescues. They fall in love, and she helps him achieve his assimilation into Sioux culture, and later provides a dramatic counterweight as the climax approaches. It’s rather simple, even by early ’90s standards, and no matter how much I love McDonnell for her role as Laura Roslin in Battlestar Galactica, this role was woefully beneath her and almost insulting to watch her play.
In Avatar, our girl is a Na’vi princess named Neytiri, an agile huntress whose father orders her to teach Sully the ways of the Na’vi. Begrudgingly, she does so and finds herself drawn to Sully, eventually falling in love with him as he proves he is a capable Na’vi warrior. What’s great about this symmetry is that the love story actually helps the antagonist of the film, for as Sully learns their ways and Neytiri falls for him more because of it, our crazy colonel learns more about what cultural aspects he can manipulate to force the Na’vi off their lands. It’s one of the more genius storytelling moments in this familiar story, and it’s moments like these that prevent this film from simply being a regurgitation with a steroid kick of CGI. Also, unlike Dances with Wolves, the fact that these two future lovers start out as rivals is a tried-and-true storytelling technique that works very well here, and adds a lot of weight to the second half when Sully’s betrayal is made known to the Na’vi tribe.
This isn’t to say that Avatar is flawless. It has one unforgivable flaw that is near criminal.
Dance with Wolves dialogue is rather traditional and really doesn’t bring attention to itself outside of the expected translation scenes between Dunbar and the Sioux people. However, Costner’s readings of his journal entries are really just pathetic and sound more like a Hooked On Phonics commercial than cinematic voiceover. It’s worth noting that Avatar also has Sully narrating his journey in video journals, only Avatar really does nothing substantial with this as opposed to Dances where Dunbar’s journals motivate the climactic moments of the film. Sully’s voiceover reminds one of the infamous Blade Runner voiceover that eventually was cut in later editions. It doesn’t help that the journals are filled with silly and on-the-nose dialogue, which — as I said — is a huge flaw with Avatar.
Some of the most cliched and over-the-top one-liners in cinema history are spoken in Avatar. Most of the character introductions (especially Sigourney Weaver’s Grace Augustine) function exclusively on cliche witty banter like, “they’re pissing on us and not even giving us the courtesy of calling it rain.” However, no one in this film can top Stephen Lang’s Quaritch in terms of just toilet bowl dialogue. He growls frequently, saying “these scars remind me of what’s out there” or “I’m not leaving until I can’t breath” (to which Sully responds, “I was hoping you’d say that.”). He loves his Wizard of Oz puns, and delivers at least four Patton speeches full of hyperbole, stereotypes, and enough alpha-male testosterone to put Roseanne Barr to shame. At one point, I was expecting us to discover this was all overcompensation for the colonel and Quaritch would turn to Sully and say, “Do you like gladiators, Jake? You ever seen a grown man naked?” But by far, my favorite Qauritchism (does that work?) was his subtle set up of the film’s political allegory with “we’re gonna fight terror with terror!” What’s worse is if you watch the film there is not one instance of Na’vi terrorism on the humans, which makes the line even more ham-handed.
And this highlights another one of Avatar‘s major flaws, not just when compared to Dances with Wolves but also as a film itself. The antagonists of Avatar are just too two-dimensional– hell, they’re one-dimensional! There are three “bad” antagonists in Avatar, the main of which is the aforementioned Colonel Quaritch, who rigidly pursues the Na’vi with no real motivation outside of simple racism and the fact he got scarred by one of them. However, that hate seems ridiculously superficial if it’s to motivate the near genocidal acts Quaritch commits later in the film, and really robs him of the emotional complexity that makes Sully, Neytiri, and Weaver’s Augustine so interesting. A moment of humanity, of at least warped self-rationalization on the part of Quaritch, would’ve gone a long way to making the film more balanced.
Second is Parker Selfridge (get it? Selfish?), a corporate-man who just worries about the quarterly report, and along with Quaritch, spews out the same hate-filled lines regardless of what’s happening. He has a momentary shift at the end, but its too ambiguous to really appreciate, and the audience is left wondering what Cameron was trying to accomplish with it. Lastly is Tsu’Tey, Neytiri’s brother who despises Sully for most of the film. He does have a last minute change-of-heart at the film’s conclusion, but it comes across as forced and moot since Cameron made him so dislikable over the film’s first two hours. Dances of Wolves uses a more complex matrix of antagonists, from insane generals to rival Indians to paint a landscape of hostility that Dunbar must help the Sioux navigate.
Lastly, let’s talk about emotionality. Let’s face it. These films are all about making us feel something, and this is where Avatar crushes Dances with Wolves. What is so great about the 3D technology and VFX in Avatar is they serve, ultimately, to make you fall in love with this beautiful planet just as Sully does. As Quaritch readies to destroy it for mere resources, you are appalled and rooting for everyone to save this gorgeous place, rendered wonderfully real in 3D-CGI. It’s not just CGI for CGI, and I don’t think Cameron could’ve gotten audiences to feel that way about beautiful Earth-like vistas (which is more reflective of our society rather then Cameron’s filmmaking). One of the more emotional moments in Avatar concerns the Na’vi Hometree, and it’s Cameron’s careful set up of the tree that earns the emotional beat in spades. The climax rests on this same careful manipulation of beautiful CGI as well.
So, now here’s the part where I cried. I will not spoil it totally. But this climactic scene involving Neytiri and Sully was delayed until the last possible moment, and when it occurs, it tugs at the heart in all the right ways and really gets to what this film is about. It’s just… beautiful…
And that’s why Avatar succeeds, and not so much in the way that Cameron said it would. He promised he would give us a new way to look at cinema. He doesn’t at all. What he does is more important. Cameron reminds us what cinema is about (much like the fun of Abrams’ Star Trek this year). It’s about emotion, excitement, and the “wow” moments. The times when we hold our breaths, our bodies flush, and we must offer ourselves to a world so much larger than the one outside the cineplex doors. This isn’t anything new by Cameron, it’s just a welcomed return to a form of classic storytelling that’s not worried about running times or demographic quadrants and instead aims to manipulate you.
This is Avatar all the way. While Dances with Wolves has the cultural prestige, Avatar has cinematic prestige. And while we can appreciate the messages in both films, we go to the movies to be entertained and to feel something. Avatar gets the audience asking the right questions, not only of the world on screen, but of our world. And while it sometimes slips into simplistic messages to do so, it ultimately uses the emotion behind the narrative to even it all out. It’s sad that lately we have to go to other planets to find good movies, but my trip to Pandora in Avatar was a welcome visit for a person who thought this movie was all hype. Damn you, Cameron, I was wrong…