James Cameron has opened his considerably well-financed Pandora’s box of movie-magic tricks and unleashed a film of astonishing beauty and brutality. His original otherworld — called, not surprisingly, “Pandora” — is breathtaking to behold, a feast for the 3-D enhanced eyes.
(All that time, years ago, filming the Titanic wreckage has yielded some stunning sea-like creatures on planet Pandora).
The film’s technical feats have been duly admired elsewhere and, despite its taxing length, Avatar — for reasons recounted above — is immensely watchable.
But for all its imagination and innovation, the movie ultimately disappoints. Not so much, as some have argued, because of Cameron’s tendency to moralize but because its moral center is off, its ethic inconsistent and inchorent.
Cameron takes on several hot-button global grievances: environmental degradation, the exploitation of indigenous peoples, military zealotry. Framing these inter-related social ills is the story of the Na’vi, the native inhabitants of Pandora, who are portrayed (in typical Hollywood fashion) with an idealized goodness and nobility. They are also faithful devotees of the “All Mother.”
(Last month, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat offered an interesting critique of the film’s bland pantheism, situating Avatar within Hollywood’s long tradition of nature divinization, and noting Americans’ increasing appetite for such metaphysics, over and against the messy materiality of western monotheism).
But it’s Cameron’s inability to imagine a resolution without violence that makes Avatar’s ending such a letdown. While jabbing hard at America’s aggressive foreign policy, he renders the Na’vi relentlessly bloodthirsty. As the “All Mother” is worshiped as the great healer, reconciler, and source of all life, a chilling disregard for all creaturely existence plays out with video-game abandon.
When the funny glasses come off, it’s clear that Avatar, despite the eye-popping visuals, is just another conventional shoot-’em-up picture. For many, this is fine: Good popcorn entertainment. Harmless holiday fun.
Maybe so. But Cameron’s lack of imagination in dealing peaceably with the moral crises of our time just adds another layer to the thwarted creativity, failure of imagination, and outright fatalism of a movie-obsessed generation who will face these dilemmas with increasing urgency in the years to come.