Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Nagging Questions About James Cameron’s Avatar

I saw Avatar about two weeks ago, and I fully intended to blog a review. However, the damn computer ate my meticulously assembled and snarkily crafted masterpiece, and after that, it just had been Too Long to Bother reconstructing it. However—James Cameron just won TWO Golden Globes for the thing, and once again his tone-deafness to human social interaction was thrust upon my consciousness. The man makes terrible acceptance speeches, which shouldn't be a surprise, since he writes terrible scripts.

He also makes terrible faces--this one makes me just want to smack him. He also has terrible hair.

So, with a nod of acknowledgment to MovieLine's own wonderful article, here are my own Nagging Questions about Avatar.

1. Does the DNA really matter?

There is much technical babble in the movie about how the ten foot tall blue cat people bodies inhabited by the humans were created by mixing human and Na'vi DNA, which meant that when one of the scientists was no longer able to participate in the program (what happened to him, anyway?) they imported his identical twin brother to operate the avatar. This is why crippled Marine Jake Sully ends up on a planet he has no information about: his DNA is the key to keeping an expensive avatar available.

But is it really about the DNA? After all, in order to drive the avatar, Sully climbs into a modified tanning bed/sensory deprivation tank and closes the lid. From then on, it's pure virtual reality video game. There is no physical contact between the two bodies, and no reason to believe that consciousness is somehow free to move across space—but only if there are trace amounts of DNA on the other end. This is clunky plot cooking—Cameron thinks he needs a newbie on the planet in order to show us the world through the experiences of someone who hasn't seen it before. This is the same hamfisted storytelling that sent Billy Zane chasing Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet through all the decks of the sinking Titanic with a gun! Why tell a story that is simple, understandable, and affecting when
you can amp up the melodrama instead?

Would a blood transfusion have given a REAL scientist enough compatible DNA, maybe?

2. Why aren't the Pandora Helicopters Powered by Dyson fans?

It's 2010, and we have a fan with no blades—in the 22nd century, a bladeless helicopter would be AWESOME.

3. How do alien predators get enought to eat to stay alive?

One of the persistent problems with Avatar is the piling on of movie clichés—Pandora might look like nothing you've ever seen before, but the rest of the movie is the equivalent of the turkey tetrazzini you are still eating a week after Thanksgiving. You've seen it before, and it was better before it was rewarmed. (Or, as Shakespeare would put it, we're tired of the baked funeral meets which coldly furnish the wedding feast.) One of the worst instances of this is the behavior of the giant predator that chases Sully on his first day in the field.

The predator sneaks up behind Sully as he's facing down a herd of large, meaty, dumb hammer-head dinosaurites. So, once he's got Sully, Sigourney Weaver, and a third scientist within reach, as well as a herd of large, meaty, slow moving dinosaurs, does the predator grab dinner and run? Of course not! That wouldn't be sufficiently clichéd, so it has to stand stock still and scream. Same evolutionarily successful behavior as the ice monster from JJ Abrams' Star Trek too—what are the odds? So, does it tenderize the meat? Is that why they do it?

Then, rather than go after the LARGE, MEATY, SLOW MOVING HERD of meat snacks, or grabbing the two IMMOBILE scientists—the monster takes off after the Marine—the one guy who has any hope of out running the monster. Not that Sully has a realistic chance of outrunning a giant predator, but movie predators all seem to be victims of Zeno's Paradox¸ unable to ever actually close the distance.

4. Why does Cameron think the Na'vi live in harmony with nature when they brainwash it?

Or as MovieLine so delightfully puts it—isn't it kind of rapey? I mean, how do you tame a Pandoran horse? Do you approach it with gentleness and kindness, teach it to trust you, work with it daily over weeks and months, until the two of you learn to respect each other? Or do you take your USB ponytail, plug it into the animal's brain and violently override its will with your own? Oh, yeah, kind of rapey.

Then—in the case of the banshees—the poor animal has only one rider its entire life. Offensively patriarchal and violent. Oh yeah, that's right. We're talking about James Cameron again.

5. Why spell Na'vi with the extraneous apostrophe anyway?

This also appears to be one of those stupid conventions to signal "non-English" and "alien." It's not like the Na'vi have a written language that we ever see, and it's not like the apostrophe stands in for a tongue click, or an inhalation, or some other verbal interruption. Just spell the damn word "Navi," or even "Nahvi." Or for laughs, make them a race of grocers and sign makers, who are famous for their liberal use of extraneous apostrophes. "Banana's $.69/lb"—I know you've seen those signs.

6. How terrible a Marine is Sully—did the guy get ANY training in tactics and strategy?

So Sully decides to take a stand against the humans and he gathers 2000 warriors, a number that ridiculously worries the humans inside the compound. All the Na'vi warriors have is body paint and spears. Meanwhile, the (presumably) outnumbered humans have battle helicopters, ambulatory armor, and automatic weapons—just for starters. So, when you are badly outgunned, out armored, and generally more vulnerable than your enemy, the logical thing to do is—FULL FRONTAL ATTACK! Of course! Because as you ride over the fallen bodies of the numerous dead, it gives you the advantage of. . .the leverage of. . .Oh. Wait. It gives you EXACTLY NOTHING. Dumbass.

Now I'm no Marine, and I've never studied military strategy, but even I'm thinking "why don't you round up a herd of those hammer-head things with the skin that is impervious to bullets. Those ones that can knock over giant trees with their skulls. Then drive them in front of you and let them trample down the walls, smash the armor, and then you can take on the puny humans mano a mano." I mean, say what you want about George Lucas, but even the frickin' EWOKS had more sophisticated military strategies than Cameron's alleged Marine.

7. Did Sully HAVE to be the guy to ride the dragon?

This one is just offensive. Only 5 Na'vi in the history of the planet have ever raped ridden the leonopteryx—why did Jake Sully have to be the sixth one? Wouldn't that have been a great opportunity for one of the other stock red shirt Na'vi to have a moment of heroism? Someone who knew the risks, but was willing to sacrifice himself to save his people? Oh, wait—my mistake. That would have been good storytelling, and we're talking about James Cameron.

8. Does Cameron think that just because they won this battle the mining companies won't be back?

In the end of the movie, the puny humans are sent packing off-planet, under the watchful eyes of ten foot tall blue cat people carrying automatic weapons. "Only a few were allowed to remain" exposits Jake Sully in voice-over. And then the Na'vi go off and celebrate under their fiber optic Grandmother Willow. But the Native Americans didn't get to keep their land or way of life after the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the Empire Struck Back, so don't go thinking that this is Happily Ever After.

Oh, wait—this is MY mistake. This is just the set up for Avatar Part Deux; The Electric Boogaloo, and an endless series of video game spin offs and paperback series novelizations. Cameron learned SOMETHING from George Lucas in addition to "Awkward Dialogue 101."

9. Is Colonel Quaritch really JJ Jameson?

Separated at birth?

10. Where did Sully get his lighter?

After Sully outruns the stupid (and very very hungry--see #3 above) predator, he's stuck in the jungle at night at the mercy of advancing leopard/wolf/dogs. We see him dunking a branch into a convenient tree hollow full of kerosene and lighting the resulting torch. The guy just ran through the jungle and lost his gun, his pack, all his equipment—where did he get a Bic lighter from? Let's not even talk about why anything is flammable on a planet that is entirely bio-luminscent and where the Na'vi never build fires.

Worse to my mind is the scene at the end where Neytiri manages to struggle free from a fallen animal that had pinned her legs and kept her from saving Jake from Colonel Quaritch until she is able to shoot him in the chest with a HUGE arrow. And he still won't die! So she shoots him a second time, and the second arrow is the one that finally does the Bad Guy in. But where did that second arrow come from? The Na'vi are usually mostly nude, and while they carry honking big bows, I never saw a quiver.

Where did Neytiri store that second arrow? From the same place Bugs Bunny is always able to pull lighted sticks of dynamite? (Cartoon Law Amendment E)

11. Why do the alien Na'vi have human fingernails?

We already know why the females have breasts, but fingernails are not accounted for.

12. Did James Cameron give proper credit to the screenwriters of Fern Gully?

FernGully: the 1992 movie in which a non-human female teaches a jarhead about the importance of environmentalism, and then the bulldozers come and knock down the trees.

13. Is the Ambulatory Armor really just Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots?

Separated at birth--again?

14. Where is the Air Bender?

I'm certain there are more nagging questions—feel free to post them below


Victoria said...

Oh my God this made me laugh. I hope we're not the only two people in the world who thought this movie was truly awful, but I'm glad at least that I've found someone else who agrees. Dances with Smurfs, anyone?!

Ace said...

Are those armor suits anthropomorphic machines, something a mecha anime fan would know about ?

Cate Ross said...

I'm not up on anime, so I'll have to ask my anime-savvy friends. However, it wouldn't surprise me to find another source from which James Cameron steals--I mean, "pays homage."

Cate Ross said...

Do those armor suits also look like Rock-'Em Sock-'Em Robots?

Daniel said...


Question 1: answered in the movie- listen to the words don’t just look at the pretty pictures

Question 2: bladeless fans weren’t released by the time he’d started making the movie

Question 3: did u see how many animals there are on Pandora for it to eat? It didn’t attack the ‘slow moving herd’ because they outnumbered it and would pwn it anyway.

Question 4: dude, ur just trying to find things to complain about

Question 5: its spelt like that cause the guy who wrote the language for the film wanted it that way

Question 6: he’s a marine, not a strategist. Someone else tells him where to go. And do u think that theyd be able to round up those huge rhino things? There frickin massive

Question 7: sully was the guy who the movie was focusing on. Whoever the movie focuses on is gonna get the most things happening to him/her. U would hav thought it was weird if someone else rode it

Question 8: yeah, it leaves it open for a sequel or ur imagination

Question 9: it’s a character stereotype

Question 10: most people if they were going on a ‘field trip’ like that would carry an emergency pouch or something on a belt. That where the knife would’ve come from too. the 'kerosene' is plant oil, the sort of thing that comes out of a lot of plants and is flammable. She shoots him with the first arrow and he starts dying, the second was just added for affect. If u looked closer u’d see that they carry the arrows around with them in the same hand that theyre holding their bow with

Question 11: duuuude... do u know what human fingernails are for? Its for the same purpose. If ur gonna ask that sort of thing why not just ask why theyre even humanoid. Answer- luck

Question 12: it’s a typical sort of storyline. After so many years of making movies original options tend to run out. Eg. Pocahontas has the same sort of story

Question 13: see ‘question 4’. They don’t even look similar, I think the lack of a head has something to do with it. anyway if ur gonna criticise mechas, check out some anime and then u’ll hav so much more to complain about

Question 14: theres lots of things called avatar or even the sort of avatars u get on xbox etc.