Avatar: The Film That’s Good For Somebody Else

(x-posted to The Valve)

A lot has already been written, at the speed of the Internet, about Avatar, and much of it has been great. I was very impressed by Aaron Bady and Gerry Canavan’s posts for the Valve, and you should go there if you want polished, whip-smart criticism of the film’s infantile racism (Bady) and its creeping, well-disguised hopelessness (Canavan).

I would add that Avatar is an excellent example of a strange phenomenon within our culture; namely, the idea of pieces of popular culture that are good for other people, others younger or less enlightened than yourself. This connects both to the silly idea that Avatar is somehow important because it is in 3D, as well as to the ideological paradoxes that keep end-of-history capitalism running smoothly in the United States. We find ourselves back at Slavoj Zizek’s favorite joke, about the physicist with the rabbit’s foot: whether you believe in Avatar or not, it still works. Or, as Shawn Levy put it, writing for the Portland Oregonian: “Is it a great movie? Maybe not. But it is a great step forward in moviemaking. Shrug it off if that makes you feel better, but starting today you live in a post-Avatar movie world.”

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Is Levy right? Well, taking the movie piece-by-piece, the answer is clearly no. 3D has already been with us for a while, and a lot of movies are coming out in 3D next year, judging from the trailers before Avatar. Avatar leans heavily on the excellent 3D nature films that have been showing in IMAX theaters for years; moreover, it also borrows from modern psychedelia, especially blacklight decorations at nightclubs, raves, and the Burning Man Festival. (Apparently, about half the plant and animal life on Pandora has evolved to glow prettily.) Cameron’s vaunted “performance capture” is just a slightly improved version of the technology that brought Golem to life in Peter Jackson’s film versions of The Lord of the Rings.

Nonetheless, the argument goes that the film is more than the sum of its parts, precisely because they all combine to create an “immersive” experience. Yet this isn’t true, since every conversation about Avatar becomes a conversation about the flaws of the screenplay and the immense vision of James Cameron. On top of that, since the film constantly refers in jarring ways to things happening on Earth (environmental devastation, the Bush Administration), the narrative dream is constantly interrupted by an audience forced to think back to (for example) the “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq. In truth, Titanic was a much more immersive film because it had an involving love story and fewer jabs in the audience’s ribs (yes, we all know the ship is going to sink, but the immediate parallel is gone because we don’t travel on such crafts anymore).

So what you get from Avatar is not an actually immersive or groundbreaking film, but rather a film advertising itself as those things. It is precisely because the film only signifies art’s greatest qualities, without embodying them, that professional and amateur critics alike protest so stridently in its favor. By making us its advocates, Avatar gives us something important to do. Levy again: “But, as I insist, you don’t buy a ticket to Avatar for a good read. You buy one, rather, to share the sensations that overcome Jake when he ventures out into Pandora inside of his avatar for the first time.” It is easy to detect the implied command: “you buy a ticket” really means “you should buy a ticket.” But the command is presented in the blurry language of inevitability, just like the idea that Avatar‘s historical importance is completely independent of what anybody thinks about it, and therefore they should think it important. Why should critics be insisting that we buy tickets to a Hollywood blockbuster? Shouldn’t they be putting that effort into something like An Education? But they won’t, because it’s depressing to try to bump the ticket sales of a small film. Much better to feel partly responsible for a “cultural phenomenon” that seems to be promoting consensus values, like the worth of the environment and indigenous cultures, and that is guaranteed to do well at the box office.

But all these depersonalized efforts to assess the film’s formal qualities — special effects and the like — have much more serious stakes when it comes to the issue of its content. Here again, the viewer takes himself out of the equation: I can’t think of a single person who did not find the “environmentalism” of the film overly simplistic and obvious, or who actually liked it when the military commander says “we will fight terror with terror.” Yet there seems to be a general assumption that these messages are good for someone, perhaps those large popcorn gluttons sitting to your immediate right, or the little children sitting to your left. In the same way, Harry Potter is good for children who don’t read, and Sherlock Holmes had to be a mediocre action film because otherwise the proles would find it too boring. But none of this really explains why you should see Avatar, only to be told things you already know, or why so many adults should have flocked to the Potter books themselves.

The answer is that such works do not engage our conscience, intellect, or imagination; they ease our minds. By pretending that a film such as Avatar is politically or artistically significant for others, we avoid more pressing, inconvenient truths, and we dodge the challenges presented to us by more accomplished works of art. It’s not just that Avatar doesn’t come anywhere close to being Silent Spring or The Jungle (Upton Sinclair’s classic novel of jungle adventure). It’s that I shudder to think how well The Phantom Menace, George Lucas’s important parable about the Executive Branch, would have done in the post-Avatar world in which, starting today, we are all living.

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