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Film Review by Dean Duncan Feb 4, 2015

Wow! I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Star Wars franchise, but if I make just a little effort I can definitely see the devotée’s point. In many ways Avatar is the same kind of beast, and this time I’m beginning to see the light!

It’s shamelessly popular; it’s completely successful. And it’s the kind of thing that makes you grateful for Hollywood. Heresy? Relax! Listen: films that are thoughtful and artful and conscientious are very precious. You can’t have too many of them, though it usually feels that there aren’t near enough of them. But there is, there has to be more than smart, exquisite and good-for-you on the movie menu. Sometimes the Industry marshals all of its ridiculous array of resources, all of its supreme know-how and craftsmanship to the cause of transformative, ingratiating entertainment. And isn’t there a place for joyful grandeur?

That’s the ultimate desire here, I think, and it’s absolutely the result. Happily, it’s not the only result. As was much noised about, Avatar is very important, technically speaking. But the reason it’s not just another Becky Sharpe (1935, and the first feature film shot in three strip Technicolor; famously lacking, though still very much worth your while) is that all of its eye-popping technical and technological advances are ultimately arrayed in the service of story and character and concept.

In this Avatar brings to mind—to my mind at least—Peter Jackson’s various Tolkien films. They have all been wildly lucrative. So, obviously, has Cameron’s unprecedentedly profitable production. Making out like a bandit always upsets certain people. That’s probably, partly, fair enough. (“…and few there be that find it…”) There are definitely some very good reasons for suspecting Mammon. But must we, always?

James Cameron and Peter Jackson are very mindful of audience. They are in these instances very anxious to please, very generous in the helpings they ladle out. The result may be a degree of excess, but not of the kind that is generally criticized, even despised in so many film spectacles. This ingratiating quality (cf. also, Cameron’s The Abyss and Jackson’s King Kong) is in many ways quite youthful, quite guileless, quite appealing. They aim to please!

And speaking of youth—and yes, they’re actually getting to be old guys, but allow the conceit for a moment—it must be acknowledged that C & J also aim to show off. Avatar certainly does. And why not? That’s what youth does. And when youth or youthful is this precocious, and this committed, then it might be well for youth to have its say. Much of Cameron’s swagger here is in his exploitation, his joyfully thorough elaboration of the 3-D format. He loves it, he makes the most of it, and he, together with multitudes of sterling technical collaborators, execute wonderfully. For my part at least, this as impressive, as artful an exploration of 3-D capability as I’ve ever seen.

And what was that I was saying about story and character and concept? Many have disagreed! That may also be fair, but here’s my thing. There’s a context enveloping this blockbuster, an extra-cinematic energy that makes Avatar much more than just cash-grabbing escapist fare.

Is Avatar the first film to so explicitly place its Canadian director? The world in general understands this situation very well, though it’s easy for American audiences to forget it, if they’ve ever been fully or properly aware. The world is very often deeply impatient with and resentful of the US. (Or with corporations. Or with American multinational corporations; not the same/perceived to be the same/the same.) In Avatar the bad guys’ arbitrary, unilateral behaviour might seem the stuff of melodrama—the cigar chomper in this particular melodrama is really terrific, by the way—except that it’s also been, demonstrably and sequentially, the stuff of US foreign and multi-national policy. This, at least, seems to be one of Cameron’s primary points.

And where is this point going? Well first, this is how it is going. Avatar is a parable, or a fable. It is aggressively and unapologetically green. It is also, just as much, about the US in the world, or the colonizer colonizing, or Culture in Contact with Nature. Is all of that too obvious? Well, parables and fables, didactic communication in general, tend to be exactly that. The individual reader/viewer might not like it, but his dislike in no way invalidates the didactic impulse. In all of these qualities, in all of its emphatic and convicted point-making Avatar actually brings to mind the work of Sam Fuller, or George Romero. Both of these extremely important film directors have often been pretty obvious or heavy in illustrating their various ideas, which at the same time can be quite wonderfully and multiply subtle in their implications.

James Cameron, subtle? Well, we are describing a trajectory here, and talking about productive, progressive gradations. More subtle than he used to be! His Aliens (1986) pitted Sigourney Weaver’s protagonist against a formidably malevolent monster matriarch. It was pure us and them, and beyond the tremendous kinesis not likely either to trouble or edify the viewer’s soul. By Avatar , he’s come a long way!

Let’s continue with our George Romero comparison. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) was also quite starkly, quite apocalyptically us-against-them. (And yet: there are those Vietnam echoes, not to mention the disastrous heedlessness of the late-arriving Cavalry…) By the end of Romero’s “dead” cycle, however, those marauding zombies have been transformed into the huddled masses, emblems of courageous and resilient dispossession, not to mention of the obscene plutocratic presumption that makes that resilience necessary.

Similarly, Avatar begins by inhabiting and implicitly sympathizing with the conquerors’ project. By the end, however, it has come to consider, understand and even inhabit the perspective of the previous antagonist. In the end, protagonism and antagonism are actually, completely reversed. Structurally this is very interesting, very bracing. And morally? Well it could be treason, or giving in, through temptation and incremental indulgence, to sin. But not only, and not here. In Avatar this about-face is also empathy and compassion, however bluffly and chest-beatlingly expressed. This, to be specific, is what shock-and-awe must have felt like to the people on the ground. To more specifically interpret or place the analogy, this is political Realism, which is to say national self-interest as irreducible platform and policy, giving way to anthropological ethics and deepest, devoted diplomacy.

What was that I was saying about ingratiating entertainment? Suddenly, to some of you, Avatar, not to mention its present defender, has merely turned strident and obnoxious. Well, to a considerable degree, we apologize. On the other hand, we’ve clearly left empty cash-grabbing spectacle far behind. Avatar is discourse, debate, engagement, the world. Talk about youthful and hopeful. You’ll think what you’ll think, feel what you feel. For me? Fabulous stuff!