Avatar - James Cameron - The Way of Water
Credit: 20th Century Studios
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Avatar — James Cameron

October 10, 2022

As the one-dimensional cartoon Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) tells his new recruits, “You’re not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora,” James Cameron is writing himself into the history of cinema. The director draws a clear connection from what is seen as the introduction of color to movies — the scene in which Dorothy walks out from her monochrome life into the Technicolor world of Oz — to his 3-D and CGI revelations in Avatar. The Wizard of Oz was, of course, by no means the first movie to use color, but the imagery was so compelling that it became mythologized so. Cameron is aiming for something similar, believing the images of Pandora powerful enough to bend history toward himself and his art. But he also uses the comparison to evoke the idea of Hollywood in the most general and empty way, like how Gregg Turkington talks about Casablanca or The Oscars in On Cinema (2012-) — with all the weight of iconicism and none of the specificity. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) projecting himself into an Avatar, a synthetic body of Pandora’s native Na’vi, is not dissimilar to how we project ourselves onto these larger-than-life movie characters; his Avatar is ten feet tall, the height that five-foot-eight Humphrey Bogart would roughly look on the big screen.

It’s an old-fashioned way to think about movies, but despite the cutting-edge technology Cameron was actively involved in creating for many of his films, he has often said that storytelling itself never changes. And so he’s made a movie with zero new elements, constructed entirely from clichés but playing them straight in a way few modern movies would dare to. The contemporary blockbuster seems to always point back to real life — and therefore to unreality — whether by the constant diffusion of superhero humor, the cynical construction of biopics such as Elvis by situating its story through the eyes of a liar and huckster, or the way Top Gun: Maverick can only be read as being about Tom Cruise himself (no one believes in Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, and they aren’t supposed to). They all seem to think a modern audience is too canny and ironic to give themselves over to escapism, but Cameron is a true believer. Anecdotally, he appears to be right. The audience at my IMAX 4K screening buzzed with excitement and pleasure, with one person cautiously saying, “I think the second one might be even better,” if that’s possible.

Cameron knows what he’s got, so much so that he reverses the famous Jurassic Park scene where the characters’ reactions precede and hype up the film’s own leap in CGI. He doesn’t need to use film language to emphasize anything, as the reactions and characters are superfluous, tacked on as a formality. The images speak for themselves. The now-remastered CGI holds up so well because of his careful design, again in contrast with contemporaneous fare and its neurotically corporate vision and cruelly lazy execution, which make brand-new titles look older than Avatar’s thirteen years. Yet Cameron shoots it with a loose handheld camera and documentary whip zooms, according his highly choreographed shots a whiff of naturalism. It’s not enough for the CGI to look real; every formal choice must point toward realism, because he wants us to truly believe in Pandora. 3-D, therefore, adds depth to get even closer to real life. He isn’t interested in carnival tricks, but rather the immersion of one into a world that goes inwards, a world we want to reach into.

Jake Sully is the ultimate cipher, for he was chosen to pilot the Avatar only because he shares the DNA of the original pilot, a twin mentioned so briefly that they only seem to exist to frame Jake not in the shadow of someone in particular, but as a shadow as such. Worthington gives a performance, wonky accent aside, that’s so non-specific (anti-specific?) that all biographical detail vanishes, including the troubling implication that he may have killed children as a soldier. No wonder Cameron is bringing him back for the next four sequels; he’s a character designed to be as easy as possible to project ourselves onto because he has to be our Avatar. Quickly, Jake becomes obsessed with his own Avatar, only eating what he has to so that he can go back in as soon as possible. It’s deeper than freedom from his disability; when the General offers his “real legs” back, he turns him down. Jake wants what he’s always dreamt of, which is to fly, and to fly for something larger than life.

Escapism has become such a powerful force for Jake that it starts to feel like “out there is the true world, and in here is the dream,” as was the case with the much-publicized “Avatar syndrome.” After the film’s original release, people apparently found Pandora so compelling a world that they didn’t want to return to their humdrum lives after. It’s an idea expressed most powerfully in the ending of 1954’s Brigadoon when Gene Kelly returns to the place where the titular town once was. Even though it’s not supposed to appear again for another hundred years, his real life seems too bleak to bear next to the magical, escapist world that director Vincente Minelli had often teased over his long Hollywood career. Kelly can only walk out into the highland mist, and even though he’s greeted by a miracle (Brigadoon’s inexplicable return), it can’t help but feel phantasmatic; is this real life, or is he dead? It does seem hard to imagine that the now-lost forum post where this syndrome was discussed — which the mainstream media seemed to be endlessly fixated on — would miss the parallel they are drawing with the text of the movie. But it doesn’t matter; again, it’s too compelling an image not to be mythologized. Like a permanent extension of the film, the syndrome plays so clearly into its vision that it almost seems part of Cameron’s plan.

The problem is that Cameron is an incredibly literal thinker; he isn’t attuned to the magical thinking of Hollywood and its audience like Minelli is. 3-D is a powerfully literalizing force — I spent two full hours seeing the characters as the size they were on the screen. When my eyes eventually adjusted, they also flattened much of the depth. Pandora is surprisingly thinly conceived; despite the great care that went into its visualization, most of its environs prove unremarkable. Wonder is not found through anything strange — the animals are mostly horses but a bit different, or dragons but a bit different — nor through anything larger than life, but simply through vagueness, as if there were a perfectly rational, real explanation that we just aren’t given. As there is for the Na’vi’s incredibly generic religion of interconnectedness which is revealed to be pretty much factually accurate (all of Pandora’s nature is connected through a brain-like network): “I’m not talking about something pagan,” Sigourney Weaver’s head scientist tells us, as if we could respect it if that’s what it was, just some strange foreign religion.

It’s hard not to respect Cameron for framing the humans’ creation of schools for the Na’vi as an act of imperialism, but his literalism also means that he misses the spiritual dimension of this act. It’s not simply that American imperialists are comfortable killing women, children, or Native Americans — whom the Na’vi obviously parallel — if they get in the way of the ultimate goal of profit, but a more pressing need for them to expand to the furthest edges of space, which is what stands out as morally good and inevitable. Maybe this is why Cameron seems okay with Jake in the fake body he was given to gain intel for the General, to become a leader to the Na’vi. Even though he’s changed sides, he’s still influencing them from the inside, if transparently and to a supposedly good end. Building a school seems good on paper; when he and the Na’vi fight against the encroaching Americans, some of Jake’s human friends join him, one putting war paint on her plane, as if these imperial technologies — like the Avatar itself — can become good if they’re just used in a good way. It’s an idea that is increasingly necessary to hold on to if you want to suggest that some moral good can come out of Hollywood, as the film and military industries become increasingly intertwined. 

CGI, in this movie and those that evolved from it, has set itself in contrast with the Hollywood lineage Cameron has placed it within. It is purely literal, and has nothing to do with the exaggerated, artificial, and evocative sets of The Wizard of Oz or any other great bit of Old Hollywood escapism. (They never tried to convince you that they were real, but they were beautiful and true enough to ring emotionally through the shining surfaces.) When the General tells Jake he has to wake up from this dream, it’s an injunction that’s seemingly hard to support, especially given the latter’s intimate relationship to the audience as their surrogate. Yet the final image shows him transferred permanently to a Na’vi body, his eyes open, transforming what we see before us into the true waking world. His human life is reduced to a dream soon to fade from memory. But we can’t stay on Pandora; we have to leave our seats and go home. Even if we could stay in that dream, it certainly wouldn’t be a means to fight for anything, only to recede into fantasy and become as half-formed as Jake Sully. We’d be walking off into a highland mist from which we would never return.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.