Film Review: Avatar

Reviewed by Jill Baird

Having just seen ‘Avatar’, I found myself in our French language group being asked to read a critique of the film from the French newspaper L’Express by Raphael Enthoven, entitled ‘Les Mefaits d’Avatar’ – which translates rather poorly into ‘The crimes of Avatar’. Subsequently browsing the internet, I gleaned a little background information and noted a variety of opinions, from ‘It’s simply beautiful’, to my own sense of vague disgust, which I wanted to understand better. I had found it to be a bizarre and confusing mixture of clichés and mixed messages, based on a kind of cowboys and Indians scenario where the natives of a magical forested moon are super-lithe, ten foot tall, animated blue humanoids called the Na’vi, complete with  bows and arrows.  The Na’vi say prayers over dead animals, commune with (magical) nature and have their special sacred place and tree – all of which is under threat from ‘western’ greed for ‘Unobtanium’ (uranium, which also threatened the Navajo.Indians in real life). In order to communicate with their invaders, they have to speak English as well as their own language – not the other way round – just as did native American Indians in the past.

The hero, or saviour, is nice-guy Jake with a nice prosaic name (intended to deceive?) And deceptive he is. His job is to enter a machine which creates a mind-controlled alter-ego – an Avatar, whose purpose is to infiltrate and spy on the Na’vi. Firstly he deceives the presumably well-meaning – we are left unsure – lady scientist to sell Na’vi information to the bad guy general who represents ‘western’ greed and military might. Then he changes sides to support the Na’vi, though the general did promise to restore his legs (is there no end to the humans’ god-like powers?) He sees his chance however. As a Na’vi he gets his legs, he gets the girl, he gets the leadership – he gets to be a demi-god, a saviour. He has no emotion, no apparent sadness for his lost twin brother, no struggle in leaving his own kind, no moral turmoil in the face of his deceptions. In fact, the whole film appeals to sentiment rather than to any depth of emotion. There is no striving to understand, no examination of alternatives to violence. In classic style, violence can only be overcome by violence. We are duped in supposing that this is the war to end all wars!  One wonders whether this is intended as a portrayal of reality, or whether it is farcical cynicism. There is no examination of a non-violent alternative. Gandhi rest in peace!

The greater cynicism may be in the ‘magical’ nature of the ‘other’ world, where representatives of ‘pure spirit’ float bewitchingly through the 3D space between ourselves as viewers and the screen itself and which seems to me to parody our increasing scientific awareness of real ecological, as well as our ancient spiritual awareness of interconnectedness.  Is this a mockery of ‘New Age’ literature or Gaia theory, much of which is to be respected, if not all? Are we being bewitched into feeling hope?  And let’s not forget that, while technology is perceived as a threat, it is also technology that makes the avatars, and the film, possible.

This world of interconnected energy systems, of apparent respect for nature and its inhabitants and its supposed inclusivity nevertheless has humanoids, if not humans, as top dogs. Avatar the word means ‘manifestation of a god’. There is no getting away from the anthropocentric mentality of this film. The ‘god’, or central figure, Jack, being paraplegic, is humbled, but does not remain so. He is martyred in one world to be elevated to a new kingdom in another (sound familiar?). There is nothing new about the social structures of the new world, however, where a dreary conservatism reigns. The anti-male subtext (anti-macho values) is nevertheless somewhat thwarted by the saviour becoming a considerably more macho male than he started out (though of course previously he had been a fighter). What is going on here? The war is won, for the moment. The Na’vi are saved through prayers to their god via the magic tree which causes, predictably at the last moment, all the forces of nature to combine in a major war effort, resulting in glory, with losses. The conflictual cycle of dualism is preserved. Far from inspiring hope, I suggest that this is a film of despair.

While the forest was enchanting, I found the animation to be tediously unimaginative – an odd combination of Jurassic Park and Alice in Wonderland, with barely disguised horses sporting a pair of extra legs upon which the Na’vi ride, bareback of course, and panther-like and dog-like creatures with extra-long teeth and claws, along with some prehistoric monsters.  Then there are the dragons, made docile by grappling with them in order to establish the ‘magic’, but physical, link. These dragons become airborne fighting machines along the lines of sniper planes in the final battle with the monstrous war machines of the humans. Now, Dragons, I like. Derived from the Greek meaning a ‘serpent of huge size’ or ‘water snake’ and also possibly meaning ‘that which sees’, or ‘that which flashes or gleams’, in European culture the dragon may be associated with the cult of snakes and associated with magic. It lives in caves and is therefore connected with the earth. To research the full symbolism of dragons and serpents, which appears worldwide, would require a thesis in itself. There is a painting by Paolo Ucello (1397 – 1475), which has always fascinated me, entitled ‘St George and the Dragon’. On the left, (corresponding to the right brain hemishere) is the feminine, in the figure of the princess who is using her belt as a leash to walk the dragon, who has emerged from his (her?) cave, up to town. On the right is St George on his charger in the process of killing the dragon. Above his head is a whirlwind of a storm, representing (presumably male) divine intervention. Heaven forbid, indeed, that the woman should be allowed her dragon. It would appear that the Na’vi with their tamed dragons now have god on their side, but it is still the god of war. The threat posed by the underworld, the feminine, the gentle, the creative, by right hemisphere awareness, by the unconscious and the uncertain, still holds sway today – we need only to look at our institutions. Let’s not let 3D magic betray us – when imperialism tries to point the finger at itself, as Enthoven points out, it inevitably misses the mark.

Jill Baird Works as an art therapist in HSE Mental Health Day Hospitals in Limerick.

References (Raphael Enthoven, 14 fevrier 2010, 65,)

Wikipedia (The Real Na’vi and Unobtainium, Diane J. Schmidt, Albuquerque Judaism Examiner) (Lovorka Kekez, and policy)