Avatar, or our sad fantasies of a dream world

Until yesterday, I sincerely couldn’t be bothered to contribute my personal take to the already irritatingly loud buzz that keeps growing around Avatar, but too many people I know and respect have said good things about it for me to repress the sudden urge to write up a shiny rant.

(Yes, there will be spoilers, which leaves you with the amusing conundrum that you need to see the film before you can know why you needn’t have seen it.)

Avatar has been largely celebrated by the masses and the media. That it has been enjoyed by many is a fact that cannot be refuted. In fact, even I enjoyed it to some extent: the cutting-edge technological prowess, the lush colourful fantasy world, the immersive eye-candy. It would be pointless to call Avatar anything but bliss for the senses.

Even the overall action follows a pattern so predictable and well-proven that it couldn’t possibly have failed to overwhelm the viewer with adrenaline-fuelled excitement.

But as soon as the 3D glasses are taken off, the effect wears off and evolves into one of two possible feelings: most people leave with a dreamy head; I left with a profound taste of unease in my mouth, as if I had been cheated in ways I couldn’t yet put my finger on. So I turned to the Internet.

Naturally, critiques abound, usually raising valid issues all related but in my opinion only peripheral to the central flaw. The recurrent comments include:

  • It’s Pocahontas in Space/Fern Gully/Dance with the Ewoks or the white guilt complex all over again.
  • The confrontation is strictly manichaean and all the characters are one-dimensional and never truly challenged.
  • The action is littered with incoherences (Na’vis chat in the no-comm zone, etc).
  • The plot is simplistic and the world greatly under-used (awkward human/na’vi interaction, etc).
  • The hippie, green, anti-capitalist message is at odds with the blockbuster nature of the work ($1B mark in three weeks, good job).
  • It’s bad quality science-fiction.

All of which are obviously accurate and described in enough details elsewhere. The converts typically counter these arguments by arguing that they are inevitable because of the budget and by claiming the freedom to use archetypes to structure the story (as does Lionel Davoust in his convincing essay, in French). I personally refute the idea that a big budget is ever an excuse for a simplistic development (e.g. Matrix, Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight, Wall-E, etc), and while I have no problem with archetypes, I found their use too superficial to convey any kind of message.

However, one particularly interesting article details what Avatar could have been, based on a much earlier script codenamed Project 880. It’s interesting because it addresses most of the issues above and fills in the numerous narrative blanks which anyone who stopped staring at the wonders of Pandora for over a second couldn’t help noticing.

For instance, in Project 880, humans are fascinated by Pandora as an Eden compared to their ravaged Earth, which is shown and the motivation of several characters. The human-Na’vi relationship is also more complex (in Avatar, it is awkward and skilfully avoided, at best). And Jake Sully gains respect from the Na’vis by sweating and performing well in a hunt, possibly thanks to his past marine training (character building, how exciting!), not by dropping on the back of a giant orange dragon and magically riding it at the other end of the narrative ellipsis.

Project 880 had a broader scope, developed human and Na’vi characters with actual motivations, more interesting plot twists and a richer background that tied everything together. And at some point during the production, this vast science-fiction script was transformed into a one-dimensional manichaean naive fantasy film.

Note for the purists: this is not to suggest science-fiction is superior to fantasy. There is bad science-fiction and good fantasy; this just isn’t it, and it’s worth pointing out that a paradigm change happened along the way.

It is easy to imagine why: simplifying the film alleviated any risk of confusing viewers and helped maximize the audience. Nevertheless, there was definitely a risk that by streamlining the concept to death, people would be disappointed by its superficiality.

But they weren’t. They loved it.

Partly thanks to the distraction of the spectacular world they were placed into and the steady pace at which they were led through it. But most of the trick consisted in tapping one of the fundamental weaknesses of humans today: their laziness.

And here comes what I consider the central problem with Avatar: it is a tremendously passive film.

Cinema, like any art, isn’t a passive medium. The spectator engages with the piece emotionally, intellectually. Art plants seeds in his mind and lets them flourish through his imagination. He inhabits the characters, feels their doubts, struggles, joys and tears. He immerses himself in the story and might even end up changed in his own self at the end of the journey. It is a celebration of human nature and life.

This is why good films need rich, human characters and a powerful story to shake them.

But because Avatar is so shallow, because its story is so linearly binary and its characters uni-dimensional, it requires all the power of its fantastic visuals to stun the viewers into a wonder-induced stupor so that they can be guided passively through the bump-free narration. They can fully engage with their senses, but not their human emotions, let alone their intellect. It elevates the whole film to a state of dreamy fantasy, a happy ending fairy tale for adults.

It’s a happy tale indeed, in a black and white world where no sacrifices, no hard choices have to be made, where efforts are unneeded (Jake succeeds at everything without much pain), where small tribal minorities and Mother Nature (Good) win over a fully-equipped technological army of trained warriors (Evil), where only minor characters nobody cares about die and where the hero wins everything at the end without any loss (or any psychological change). Even when the great Hometree falls, the utmost catastrophe moments ago, laments last but a few minutes before the matter is set aside and everyone hugs below the backup Tree of Souls.

No wonder so many people claimed they “wish they could go to Pandora.”

But nobody can go there because it doesn’t exist, cannot exist, outside of a dream. Dreams, like funfair rides, are beautiful, free of disappointment, and in them the spectator can happily veg out.

Sadly, Avatar marks our time, not as a technological milestone, but as the ultimate product of an era in which society is so disillusioned with its responsibilities that it welcomes total abandonment to passive fantasy narratives which elegantly conceal our denial to marvel at true human nature and reality.

Indeed, in order to maintain the illusion, Avatar is soothing, devoid of any asperity that would let some humanity in. It brings no answers, no questions, no disturbance.

It is a bright, vivid but passive journey into an ephemeral dream world everybody would rather live in than our own.

The question is, who will take care of our world then?