James Cameron returns to project his self-loathing onto the movie screen.
Director James Cameron’s smug and biased attacks on corporations and America got old back in the '80s and '90s. I doubted that his first film in a decade had anything new to say, so I decided not to watch it at the theater but instead, to wait until it was released on DVD. It was time to see if Cameron, now in his semi-retirement, had finally grown up. Having watched the film, I can now safely say that "Avatar" is a gigantic, annoying, beautiful, overlong, loving and -- at the same time -- hateful film.
If a key ingredient to great filmmaking is to submerge the audience into a new, alternative world, then Cameron has executed this in a breathtaking and commendable way. In this respect, "Avatar" truly is mind-blowing. It is no exaggeration to say that the technical wizardry of the first ninety minutes is mesmerizing. Additionally, it is clear that every single dollar of the $400 million budget ended up on the screen.
I could forgive Cameron for the film not having much of a story. Jake Sully, a paraplegic played by Sam Worthington, is given an avatar of the Na’vi, a native culture on the planet Pandora. He is sent to study the species -- at least that is the official story. In reality, however, Sully is working for the military and an entity known as “the Corporation.” He feeds them information so that they can exploit the planet and steal the precious energy source known as “Unobtanium.” It is clear why movie critics have never accused Cameron of subtlety.
Despite these conspiracies being typical of this filmmaker, one can enjoy the first ninety minutes if one realizes that it is not as much a film as it is an ode to nature. Cameron clearly cares passionately for the environment. He wants to connect to it both physically (the Na’vi use this fluffy-plug type thing on the end of their braids) and spiritually. Whether one agrees with Cameron's position or not is irrelevant in so far as one can at least appreciate his heartfelt love for nature, of which every single scene is a testament.
While this love is Cameron's main strength, it is also his downfall. After the mesmerizing first half, "Avatar" drastically shifts gears as Cameron suddenly goes from love of nature to hatred of her alleged oppressors -- i.e. Cameron’s audience. It quickly becomes clear that his greatest passion is hate: of the supposed evils of Western civilization (in other words, of the white man), of the U.S. military and, of course, of capitalistic/corporate greed. As with that other neo-communist auteur, Michael Moore, hypocrisy is ever present: "Avatar" is a screed of hate against capitalism, while the director himself is one of its most fortunate beneficiaries.
The main problem with Cameron’s ideology is that he sees Western civilization as inherently evil. The premise of the film is that if a planet like Pandora existed -- where peaceful humanoids live in harmony with nature -- Westerners (and especially Americans) would destroy it in their quest for material wealth. As a Canadian, I must admit that I have far more faith in my American neighbors, who are the most inclusive and tolerant people on our planet.
In Cameron’s universe, it is not just America, but the white man who is evil. This is best exemplified in "Avatar" by Colonel Quaritch (Steven Lang), who is a brutish xenophobe with a deep-seated hatred for nature. This theme comes back throughout the film, but nowhere more so than near its conclusion when the Colonel first brutally and fatally stabs a dog-like creature, and then attacks Jake (as the Na'vi avatar), whom he considers a traitor to his race.
Meanwhile, Cameron constantly points out that the Na'vi are connected to the land on which they live. We’re hammered with how the Na’vi are a species connected to the land. They are peaceful warriors and an example for us mere humans. They are wholly good, and we are completely bad. Because the last hour becomes as preachy as a priest at his fiery pulpit, the film ground to a halt. Certainly, there were explosions and the Na'vi are murdered in extraordinary and spectacular fashion, but beyond saying that white people are genocidal mass murderers, there is no story left to tell.
Ironically-- an irony apparently lost on Cameron -- the Na’vi’s great savior ends up being none other than the white man himself, Sam Worthington.
I felt empty when "Avatar" ended. It was as if I had witnessed an angry man’s vision of the world, a man who fails to see joy in a child’s smile, but who sees conspiracies around every corner. He is a man who sees his fellow neighbor as evil personified.
"Avatar" proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Cameron is not much of a man. He is a child on a never-ending temper tantrum. Like all members of his extreme political faith, he lives in a fairy tale world, and so it causes rage when that carefully constructed vision of how things should be doesn't translate into reality. Perhaps this explains why he’s known to be a tyrant himself and why he's had four failed marriages.
When all is said and done, "Avatar" is more about a man projecting his own self-hatred and self-loathing onto the screen than anything else. It’s all about Cameron, the man who doesn’t trust corporations, who claims that Western culture is ugly, racist and greedy. Yet, at the same time, Cameron is the man behind "Avatar's" stunning box office records and its release on DVD and Blu Ray which made him even richer than he already was.
As an aside, there is a reason why the DVD has no special features and why the Blu Ray, while slightly better, only has the bare minimum: they are planning to release a special edition of "Avatar" shortly before Christmas. This edition will have all the features we missed the first time around. And Cameron, corporations' main critic, knows full well that fans of his films will buy this second edition as well, which means he will make double his profit. In other words, if he wants a conspiracy, he should look in the mirror.
Cameron’s delusions are, in the end, just that -- delusions. Since he will not be satisfied by his childish temper tantrum in "Avatar," audiences worldwide should brace for more of the same from him -- coming soon, to a theater near you.
Peter Sheldrick is a screenwriter living in Toronto.