Avatar: Only Slightly Less Imaginative Than a Bruce Springsteen Song

I know, I’m the last person in the industrialized world to see Avatar, but I waited for several reasons. First, I was under the impression that it was based on a video game, rather than the basis for a video game, and if there’s one “artistic” genre I’m less into than films based on comic books, it’s films based on video games. Second, not only do I not go to the movies, but I rarely even watch movies. I don’t go to the movies because I don’t like sitting up for that long, and because somehow I’ve ended up living in America’s hub for people who like to pretend they believe zombies really exist. We all know that people who are into zombies like to make spectacles of themselves in public — hence the existence of the thousand or so “Cons” that take place in this city every year — so going to the movies in my neighborhood often means enduring the presence of unwarrantedly smug drama club dorks who lack senses of humor, analytical skills, and the ability to determine when and where it might be appropriate to make histrionic displays of themselves via affectedly amplified snickering and banal “witty” commentary/audience participation (hint: at screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show only, which would not even transpire were everyone in America to suddenly sprout good — or at least non-embarrassing — taste). I don’t watch movies because I generally disapprove of the direction the movie industry has been heading in since the late 80s (and, really, since the advent of the industry itself) and can only think of about ten movies that I enjoy watching for the reasons the people who made them intended. Even ten’s a stretch. Third, it’s a James Cameron movie. I pride myself on knowing nil about the movie industry and on my inability to name one set designer or screenwriter despite having spent five years living in LA, but even I know James Cameron is to blame for some of the more egregious examples of pointless cinematographic excess; in addition to having been tricked into seeing both Bruno and Joe Dirt in the theater, I also count Titanic among the tortures I’ve endured under conditions of extreme air-conditioning and Gummi Bear-and-fake-butter-induced nausea. Finally, I like to strike while the iron is between zero and forty degrees. I don’t want my movie reviews getting lost among all the timely ones, do I?

But alas, one night during an HBO free trial in December, Davetavius somehow convinced me that Avatar might be funny. It was, albeit in a very dispiriting sense.  Probably most disheartening of Avatar‘s many worrisome features was the loud and omnipresent dearth of vision, creativity, or even the ability to imagine anything more than a third of a derivative degree removed from current reality. That fundamental lack underlies both the hilarious tedium of each of the ideas presented and the deep concern the movie’s commercial and cultural success instilled in me, specifically because almost every word of the critical praise it garnered centered on just how original and inspired it was perceived to be by the blunderers we’ve entrusted to tell us what to think about the products of our culture industry.

For those of you lucky enough to have missed the movie, it takes place on a moon of some planet in the Alpha Centauri system called Pandora. It’s called Pandora because, like, when we go there, we, like, get into more than we bargained for. The unnecessarily complicated and terribly developed story is that Pandora is the reachable universe’s primo source for a mineral called (I swear to god) “unobtanium.” It’s called that because, like, it’s really hard to, like, obtain. We aren’t told what it is, exactly, that unobtanium does (or even is — the term is apparently used by scientists and engineers to refer to materials that are as of yet undiscovered that might make theoretical processes feasible should those materials ever be discovered, but in this movie it’s an actual substance that purportedly has an actual use and an actual monetary value), but we are ham-fistedly informed that it’s a BFD because the US has decided to set up a base on Pandora in order to mine it. The only problem is that the atmosphere on Pandora is poisonous to humans. Luckily, by 2154 , we’ve figured out how to make “avatars,” which are fabricated alien bodies linked to human minds via some voodoo mechanism whereby the human mind enters the alien body while the human is asleep and uses the alien body to putz around on the alien’s home turf until the alien gets sleepy, at which time the human wakes up and the alien goes back to bed. (Lord knows why we’ll be able to create living beings that we can operate like robots but won’t be able to come up with a better mechanism for controlling them; I guess it would have screwed up this ingenious story. And lord knows why they’re called avatars; I suppose because James Cameron rightly surmised that an audience of online gamer geeks would mistakenly think it very clever to name these beings after the graphic images they use to represent themselves in virtual worlds despite the fact that they are supposed to be real creatures living on real planets in other solar systems.)

Sigourney Weaver made the ill-advised decision to play Dr. Grace Augustine, the head of the avatar program, who hops into a pod herself every night in order to inhabit the world of the Na’vi, the blue creatures who live on Pandora (creatures that from this point on will be referred to as “blue fuckers”). One of her team dies right before he’s to be shipped out to Pandora. The avatars are expensive to create and are matched by DNA to the humans who they’ll be taking turns with to sleep, but (because shit just works out in the movies) he has a twin brother named Jake Sully, an ex-Marine who has been disabled in combat and displays the kind of machismo, naivete, stupidity, and simplistic morality we dumbasses here in the US seem to think add up to a complex, sympathetic male character. Sully takes his brother’s place, but Dr. Augustine doesn’t think much of him and only takes him out as a bodyguard. His avatar gets lost on an outing away from the base and the real stupid shit begins.

Sully finds himself lost in the forest when a female blue fucker named Neytiri shows up and saves him from some sparkly, terrifying beast. She’s no fan of the avatars who have been hanging around as she and the other blue fuckers see them as warlike dolts who have no understanding of how things work on Pandora, but she decides he’s worth saving when some Pandoran dandelion that floats around in the air and likes to hang around nice people decides it likes him. She takes him back to her parents, who happen to be the blue fuckers’ high chief and priestess, and explains what occurred in the forest. They decide to let her school him in blue fucker bushido despite the fact that every other avatar they’ve ever met has been an asshole, and an extremely ridiculous montage of warrior training among CGI plants and animals ensues. The montage culminates in the viewer gaining an understanding of just how blue fucker society operates, which can best be summed up as, “whoever can rape a pegasus is one of us, but whoever can rape a pterodactyl can lead us!” (I’ll explain.)

After showing him how to hop around on leaves and sleep in the world’s craziest hammock, Neytiri explains to Sully that the blue fuckers can use their hair, which is basically a USB braid, to connect to their planet and control some of its creatures. She then introduces him to the Pa’li, the creatures that the blue fuckers ride around on to fly around and hunt, which look a lot like blue pegasuses. The way one forms a bond with one’s pegasus is to jump on its back and force one’s braid into a receptacle on the pegasus, after which point one can control the pegasus and use it as an aerial vehicle. Sully manages to rape a pegasus, an event that signifies his mastery of blue fucker bushido, and is then accepted by the blue fuckers as one of their own. That is, until the military-industrial complex fucks everything up.

If you rape the pegasus, you’ll be one of us, Jake!

Sully, while a waking human back on base, is recruited as an informant on the world of the blue fuckers by Colonel Miles Quatrich, head of an organization called Blackwater. Wait, I mean Sec-Ops. Sec-Ops is a private security firm that works for RDA Corporation, and they ain’t got time for Dr. Augustine’s pussy-footin’ around and “learning” about these commie-ass blue fuckers. They want to head straight into the heart of Pandora and blast Hometree, where the blue fuckers live, right out of the ground in order to get at the giant unobtanium deposits that (naturally) lie beneath it. Quatrich, who looks like a real-life version of Chip Hazard, tells Sully he’ll help him get the operation he needs to walk again if he’ll help him figure out how to best part the blue fuckers and their unobtanium. Sully adheres to the deal until he — SURPRISE — falls in love with Neytiri, the blue fuckers, their rugged communal way of life, and their USB connection to Mother Pandora.

A bunch of action-packed bullshit ensues wherein Sec-Ops attacks Hometree, Sully attempts to thwart them, they succeed anyway, and the blue fuckers find out Sully was on the wrong side to begin with and shun him. I thought that the movie might end once all that transpired, leaving us with some kind of inchoate message about militarism, environmentalism, and rich white people’s fanciful and stupid ideas about “traditional cultures,” but I was wrong. It got even more ridiculous and went on FOR ANOTHER HOUR.

Having been shunned by the woman and the blue fuckers he loves, Sully mopes around for a few minutes before — Eureka! — he figures out how to redeem himself. He seeks out the Toruk, a creature that has only been ridden five times in the history of all the blue fucker tribes, and manages to rape it. He then heads over to the Tree of Souls, where the blue fuckers connect their USB cables to Mother Pandora, to convince them that he’s OK after all, and that an endearingly dumb and reckless American ex-Marine is the right man to lead the blue fuckers to a resounding triumph over corporatism and militarism. They stop praying to the celestial DNS server for a few minutes, allow him back into the fold, and then resume chanting and praying to Mother Pandora to not allow a bunch of GI Joes kill them all. Mother Pandora intervenes and the film ends with Sully (who has somehow been made into a permanent blue fucker and no longer wakes up as a human when he goes to sleep) and a few other blue fuckers overseeing the Americans’ shame-faced retreat from Pandora back to their own planet, where they will presumably ruminate over the error of their ways among the ruins of their own long-since plundered ecosystem.

Only the chosen one can rape the pterodactyl!

I told you it was unnecessarily complicated and poorly developed. And blisteringly stupid.

Avatar is a science fiction movie. It admittedly differs from the specimens of the genre that those stranded aboard the Satellite of Love might consider true sci-fi, but the general public puts it under that rubric. In fact, IGN called it the 22nd best sci-fi movie of all time. That’s a problem for the genre that purports to take us beyond the realm of what we can know and into the realm of what we can imagine.

As I watched Avatar, I for some reason (probably because predicting the next thing that would happen got boring once I realized I would never, ever be wrong) began thinking about the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and asked myself how the genre of science fiction and the movie industry as a pillar of American culture had changed in the time that had elapsed between the two films. What were the general cultural values and concerns being communicated in each of these films? What kinds of stories were being told about the world? How had cinema as a means of artistic communication and social commentary changed since 2001 was released? What do the methods of presentation in both films tell us about the ways in which our society has changed in the era of advanced mass communication? And, of course, how was gender represented?

I came to a few distressing conclusions. Naturally, I’ll get to the feminist criticism first. By the time Avatar came out, we’d traversed 41 years in which women’s status in society had purportedly been progressively improving since 2001 was released, but the change in representations of women in popular media, at least in epic sci-fi movies, doesn’t look all that positive. In 1968, we (or Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke) could imagine tourism in space. We could not, however, imagine women occupying any role in space exploration other than as flight attendants. In 2009 we (or James Cameron) could imagine female scientists and helicopter pilots participating in extraterrestrial imperialism, and we could even tolerate warrior-like blue female humanoid aliens as central figures in the plot of a movie, but we still couldn’t imagine a world in which traditional gender roles and current human beauty ideals aren’t upheld, even when that world is literally several light years and 155 years away from our own.

Provided that we accept the absurd and self-important idea that extraterrestrial creatures would resemble humans at all, why would they look like ten-foot-tall, blue fitness models posing for an elf-fetish magazine?

If that reference seems odd, compare Neytiri to this “night elf” (I rue the day I found out about cosplay — thanks again, Japan):

Both the female and the male blue fuckers are tall, thin, ripped, and look like members of one of the bands in Strange Days, and they’re all wearing goddamned loincloths. There’s a reason Fleshlight makes an alien model that is purported to replicate a female blue fucker’s two-clitorised vulva, and that reason is that James Cameron couldn’t imagine a world in which aliens don’t look like people he’d want to fuck. Don’t believe me? Check out this excerpt from a Playboy interview he did about the movie (google it — I’m not linking to Playboy):

PLAYBOY: Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley in your film Alien is a powerful sex icon, and you may have created another in Avatar with a barely dressed, blue-skinned, 10-foot-tall warrior who fiercely defends herself and the creatures of her planet. Even without state-of-the-art special effects, Zoe Saldana—who voices and models the character for CG morphing—is hot.
CAMERON: Let’s be clear. There is a classification above hot, which is “smoking hot.” She is smoking hot.

PLAYBOY: Did any of your teenage erotic icons inspire the character Saldana plays?
CAMERON: As a young kid, when I saw Raquel Welch in that skintight white latex suit in Fantastic Voyage—that’s all she wrote. Also, Vampirella was so hot I used to buy every comic I could get my hands on. The fact she didn’t exist didn’t bother me because we have these quintessential female images in our mind, and in the case of the male mind, they’re grossly distorted. When you see something that reflects your id, it works for you.

PLAYBOY: So Saldana’s character was specifically designed to appeal to guys’ ids?
CAMERON: And they won’t be able to control themselves. They will have actual lust for a character that consists of pixels of ones and zeros. You’re never going to meet her, and if you did, she’s 10 feet tall and would snap your spine. The point is, 99.9 percent of people aren’t going to meet any of the movie actresses they fall in love with, so it doesn’t matter if it’s Neytiri or Michelle Pfeiffer.

PLAYBOY: We seem to need fantasy icons like Lara Croft and Wonder Woman, despite knowing they mess with our heads.
CAMERON: Most of men’s problems with women probably have to do with realizing women are real and most of them don’t look or act like Vampirella. A big recalibration happens when we’re forced to deal with real women, and there’s a certain geek population that would much rather deal with fantasy women than real women. Let’s face it: Real women are complicated. You can try your whole life and not understand them.

PLAYBOY: How much did you get into calibrating your movie heroine’s hotness?
CAMERON: Right from the beginning I said, “She’s got to have tits,” even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals. I designed her costumes based on a taparrabo, a loincloth thing worn by Mayan Indians. We go to another planet in this movie, so it would be stupid if she ran around in a Brazilian thong or a fur bikini like Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.

PLAYBOY: Are her breasts on view?
CAMERON: I came up with this free—floating, lion’s-mane—like array of feathers, and we strategically lit and angled shots to not draw attention to her breasts, but they’re right there. The animation uses a physics-based sim that takes into consideration gravity, air movement and the momentum of her hair, her top. We had a shot in which Neytiri falls into a specific position, and because she is lit by orange firelight, it lights up the nipples. That was good, except we’re going for a PG-13 rating, so we wound up having to fix it. We’ll have to put it on the special edition DVD; it will be a collector’s item. A Neytiri Playboy Centerfold would have been a good idea.

Sigh. I’ll take flight attendants in place of a sociopathic obsession with disembodied CGI female body parts that men invent in order to avoid confronting the fact that women are human beings. Fuck, I’ll take stewardesses. Neytiri is permitted to talk, to take an active role in training Sully how to rape pegasuses, and to participate as a warrior in the fight against Chip Hazard and his robotic blue-fucker-ass-kicking devices, but she’s not allowed to not be a sex object. That shit is the real final frontier, and something tells me we’ll be imagining visiting other branes by jumping into bags of Doritos before we’ll imagine women being allowed to be human beings. She’s also not allowed to take an active role in choosing a mate, as we discover when she tells Sully that once one has raped a pegasus and become a real blue fucker warrior, the time has arrived for one to choose a mate. Even though she has already raped a pegasus, is adept enough at it to instruct Sully on the subject, and happens to be the daughter of the blue fuckers’ HNIC, the prerogative to choose a mate is left to him as the man — even though he’s only an honorary blue fucker — to choose her as a mate, at which point she must passively acquiesce. How romantical.

It probably isn’t fair to compare Avatar to 2001: A Space Odyssey, seeing as 2001 is one of the few movies I reluctantly label as “art” and Avatar tops Biodome on my list of the dumbest movies ever made, but it seems necessary. They’re both dubbed “epic science fiction” films, they are both purported to reflect the philosophical problems confronting the societies from which they emerged, they’re both considered to be among the greatest science fiction films ever made, and they’ve both inspired the production of thousands of paragraphs of analysis, criticism, and praise. They should be compared, if only on the basis of presentation and approach, in order to get a grip on the ways in which the medium has changed and the ways in which its message-delivery mechanisms have changed. Both of those changes have a lot to tell us about the trajectory our society has been on since the 60s.

Special effects technology has obviously made astronomical leaps since 1968, but that expansion of capabilities seems to have led to a crippling, rather than an enhancement, of the imagination. 2001 won an Oscar for effects. So did Avatar. Yet one second of 2001 holds more visual interest than more than two hours of film in Avatar. We now have the technology to create realistic images of absolutely anything we can dream up, but Pandora just looks like a sparkly jungle with a few gravity-defying mountains. The visual effects display such a drastic lack of creativity that it appears that Cameron paid more attention to making Neytiri “smoking hot” than to creating an alternative world, even when presented with unlimited possibilities for doing so.

Given that it was made in the late 60s, 2001 unsurprisingly explored humanity’s relationship with technology, the meaning of space exploration for human society, and several other philosophical problems that postwar America found itself faced with in the midst of the Cold War and the saturation of the culture with technology obsession. It did so by urging, expecting, and even requiring the viewer to think about the meaning of what they were seeing. 2001 was carefully executed on every level in order to create a visual and auditory experience that would inspire confusion and immediate identification with the idea that we were facing something big that needed to be grappled with. Visual effects, rather than serving as distractions or “eye candy,” operate as intellectual catalysts, and the laconic dialogue allows the audience to experience the film and consider the ideas being presented without the intrusion of a screenwriter who assumes they are too stupid to understand what is occurring. Nothing is spelled out, nothing is obvious, and nothing is trite, because Kubrick had enough confidence in his audience to entrust the interpretation of the meaning of the film to them. That’s a really big deal.

Avatar also (sort of) approaches some of the major issues facing contemporary aughts/teens society, including the immorality of late-stage capitalism, the disastrous reality and potential of militarism and environmental destruction, and humanity’s relationship with nature, but in Avatar, everything is spelled out, everything is obvious, everything is trite.

Cameron can only seem to conceive of an ideal society five light years and nearly two centuries removed from our own if it exactly mirrors an episode of Fantasy Island in which he’s the guest star, but it’s cool. He’s got a revolutionary political message to communicate: if we don’t all buy Priuses and reject militarism and imperialism right quick, we’ll destroy our planet and rudely intrude upon blue fucker utopias everywhere, thus ruining countless enlightened neo-primitive sex parties attended by the universe’s hottest aliens.

Despite the fact that he sets up the blue fuckers as a foil to all he believes is wrong with modern and future American society, Cameron is obviously a paternalistic racist, though he isn’t exactly unique in that respect. Privileged white urbanites hold some pretty hilarious ideas about “traditional cultures,” don’t they? Cameron clearly based the blue fuckers on his own nebulous and ill-informed ideas of various traditional cultures around the world, conceptions no doubt derived from the romanticized image Hollywood liberals seem to have of ways of life they’d like to convince everyone but themselves to embrace. Cameron repeatedly mentions Mayans in interviews about the movie and compares different facets of blue fucker society to Mayan society — which is no surprise since Mayans seem to be the new Cherokees among kombucha drinkers this week — but I wonder exactly how much he knows about what life might have been like for the typical Mayan. He probably doesn’t care any more than does the average LA dipshit who can be overheard extolling the virtues of some “traditional culture” that he has actually culled from his own narcissistic political and dietary allegiances and projected onto a society he knows nothing about. I’m sure that once the blue fuckers defeated the American war machine, they returned to their traditional ways, ways that include recycling, doing yoga, and having sex parties in their bedazzled jungle, where they drink their own handcrafted glitter palm wine and eat free-range pegasus-milk feta and (non-GMO) space maize tacos. (Maybe we’ll get to see that in the sequel.) Unfortunately, “traditional cultures” (and even their sci-fi/fantasy derivatives) tend to be fairly savage by current LA standards, what with all the pegasus rape and hunting and whatnot, but don’t worry. Traditional hunters and fantastical pegasus rapers thank the pegasuses and dead animals for allowing themselves to be oppressed, and they make sure not to let any dead animal parts go to waste, which they certainly did/do out of an au courant, Stuff White People Like sense of moral duty rather than basic necessity. (Just ask any foodie.)

Cameron’s conception of “traditional cultures” is nearly as nonsensical as his idea of what’s wrong with American culture and his suggestions for how we might reach a utopian neo-primitive future. Sec-Ops and RDA Corporation are obvious, although clumsy, stand-ins for the US military-industrial complex and its ties with big oil, and the blue fuckers and their USB network clearly represent “traditional cultures” and their purportedly closer relationship with the biosphere, but what is the point? I suppose it’s not terrible that Cameron is trying to sell an anti-militarist, anti-imperialist, pro-conservation message to people who are too dumb to have arrived at such ideas on their own, but I doubt it will be effective. In the first place, the blue fuckers only end up defeating Sec-Ops by praying to their goddess, Eywa, to intervene on their behalf. What is the take-home message? That we should pray to some hot goddess that the military-industrial complex and rapacious corporations won’t succeed in destroying the Earth? That we should all get together and chant in order to bring about world peace and humanity’s harmony with nature? Is there even one person who wasn’t already convinced that imperialism, war-mongering, and environmental destruction are bad that has been swayed by twinkly special effects? I sincerely doubt that CGI can do a job that hundreds of far greater intellects than James Cameron’s have been working at for decades (if not centuries), and it’s fairly offensive that people are claiming he’s breaking any new ground. It’s also pretty snicker-worthy that Cameron is attempting a criticism of exploitative capitalism when he’s carved out a place for himself as the world’s most commercially successful film producer by exploiting and reflecting (and thus abetting) the stupidity of the public in order to enrich himself.

The effects are unadulterated eye candy and do nothing but distract the viewer from whatever hackneyed message Cameron is attempting to beat us over the head with, and the story line and dialogue are so stupid and insulting that I would have been offended if I could have stopped laughing. Even assuming that the issues Cameron pretends to be asking us to explore still hold some ambiguity and some intellectual ore that hasn’t already been mined (they don’t), Avatar won’t prompt anyone to ponder even these picked-over concepts because it’s just too stupid. Americans might have been dumbed down by five decades of television and commercial pop music to the point that we can’t think about large and potentially revolutionary ideas anymore anyway, but even if we have miraculously retained the ability, if the media asking us to do so are insults like Avatar, forget it. There is no room in a philosophical work of cinematic art for manipulative schmaltz, one-liners, video game graphics, tits, or ridiculous inter-species love stories. In the words of my friend Brian, “Avatar makes sure to include every single commercial emotion you could have,” and thus it manages to communicate nothing and inspire even less.

44 thoughts on “Avatar: Only Slightly Less Imaginative Than a Bruce Springsteen Song

  1. I can’t read the whole of the review because I fear for the wellbeing of my mind and spirit, but I’ve read some of it. I really missed your posts, and I must say you are an awesome writer!

    As for the interview with Camer, for crying out loud! This is what happens when men with too much money and self importance are allowed to make things while they keep their hand firmly inside their trousers. Not only is the shallowness and nihilism so self evident it is difficult to believe it’s real. But also, Cameron’s “ideas” (for lack of a better word) are so affected by his business mentality that it shines trough in everything he says.

    “And they won’t be able to control themselves. They will have actual lust for a character that consists of pixels of ones and zeros”

    Come on! How much clearer does it have to get? He might as well have added: “They won’t be able to help being attracted to this thing I am creating.”

    How very convenient for him. And when you combine it with this:

    “: Most of men’s problems with women probably have to do with realizing women are real and most of them don’t look or act like Vampirella.”

    He might as well come out and say: “I’m going to use men’s sexual attraction for women and manipulate it so that they are only sexually attracted to what I give them. And since they won’t get it in real life, they’ll be forever frustrated and forever dependent on my product.”

    Men like Cameron (and Mr H.H.) have discovered how to keep men under their control, to make the most profit out of them. Give them what they want, which they won’t get anywhere else, and they’ll keep coming back for more, like well behaved addicts.


  2. James Cameron to Playboy:
    “The fact she didn’t exist didn’t bother me because we have these quintessential female images in our mind, and in the case of the male mind, they’re grossly distorted…..
    Most of men’s problems with women probably have to do with realizing women are real and most of them don’t look or act like Vampirella. A big recalibration happens when we’re forced to deal with real women, and there’s a certain geek population that would much rather deal with fantasy women than real women. Let’s face it: Real women are complicated. You can try your whole life and not understand them.”

    In other words,
    “Men have grossly distorted ideas about women embedded in their heads, but most of men’s problems with women are probably to do with the fact that we have to realise that women are human beings too. And in being “forced to deal with” that bitter reality, we have to try and understand that female human beings might actually have values and priorities other than being our ideal sex objects. Some of us (all you Playboy readers should probably be part of this ‘some’ because I just made a whole new “smoking hot” avatar porn fetish), would rather deal with otherworldly distorted ideas of sci-fi sex objects like the ones that conform to our porn culture, and long for a day women live to satisfy us, than deal with female human beings that seem to have unpleasant claims about their rights and needs. Trying to understand that is just simply harder than rocket science. So lets face it: Female human beings are complicated because a lot of the time what they want doesn’t fit in with our distorted ideals about them, and so we’ll just have to accept the fact that our wives are gonna be like that too, and we’ll just have to deal with them until they’re horny again.”


  3. Fantastic review, ND :) What Cameron said about his inability (and that of ‘geeks’) to understand women reminds me of when I used to work at Apple, which I now call Crapple, because I had such a miserable experience there. Women and minorities were not represented in the slightest. But I digress.

    I don’t see how anyone can look at ‘Avatar’ as real sci-fi. The sci-fi I love contains doubt, darkness and dystopian visions of the future, which may well help us avoid such scenarios in reality. I admire the works of Philip K. Dick and Neal Stephenson, for example. Hollywood probably made Mr. Dick turn in his grave what with its slick interpretations of his writings. He’s interesting to me because he has this Gnostic take on everything, that imperfect beings created reality as we know it. I can go with that theory! And he liked cats, so that makes him a kindred soul too. Neal Stephenson, on the other hand, has several characters in his books who I can say with confidence are empowered women/ girls. Princess Nell of ‘The Diamond Age’ is one. I appreciate that he creates female characters who are not only not frightened of technology, but fully emerged in it, and they often use it in a much more interesting way than the men in the same story.

    There are many others, to be sure. I think James Cameron should really just retire at this point. Sadly, it’s unlikely ‘Avatar’ will be the last of his monstrous and Titanic failures. And I don’t care how much money they made! That only goes to show that he understands the chicanery of empty commercialism.


  4. To James Cameron:

    No. Really, we’re not at all that hard to understand. You think we are because you want some easy, one-size-fits-all way to make us into the love slaves of your dreams. You can’t deal with the fact that each one of us has her own unique opinions and perspectives, and that you may actually have to put forth an effort to get to know us. Thus, you write us off as “complicated,” and proceed to make CG versions of an ideal that doesn’t exist.


  5. I used to wish people like Cameron would stop pretending they aren’t going out of their way to be creepy and sexist. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

    On the plus side, Avatar is only viewed as being one of the best movies ever because it was big budget and recent. Most lists of “best moveis evah” will be dominately by big budget rubbish from the last 5-10 years, with one or two actually decent things mixed in.

    Give it another 5-10 years, and Avatar will be forgotten. There’ll be more high-budget crap to complain about to replace it, though.


  6. “real women are complicated. You can try your whole life and not understand them”

    Cameron though is a walking, thinking, taking cliche whose intellect covers the gamut from A right through to B.

    Brilliant review. Good to see you back. Oh and I’ve not watched the film.


  7. Avatar is an adult version of a children’s cartoon called Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest from 1992 without the songs and with more sex (I think it’s Australian). It’s also missing Robin Williams as a bat that escaped from an animal experiment lab. It’s freaky seeing how Cameron has lifted whole scenes from it and barely reworked them for Avatar. It shows up on cable (Fox Movie Channel) every once in awhile.


  8. Thanks for this fabulous review!

    I have dodged numerous pitches that “it’s so worth seeing for the visuals” and even some people who found it disheartening to come back to the real world when the theatre lights came back on – well OK, that latter one was from my pervy step-brother that I no longer speak to.

    I sat through Titanic back in the days when I could be cajoled into being a “good sport” and am still not over my resentment of Cameron and his big loud long smelly audio-visual flatulence. His words in the interview only give me more reason to loath him.


  9. I was urged to see this thing, too. I am so glad I didn’t. I read some NA perspectives on it first, and heard it was damn near the same as Dances With Wolves, where some white guy ends up being the best member of the tribe ever for no real reason. People told me it was about the environment. Another feminist blogger said it was all about wanting to fuck aliens.

    On the other hand, you are being a bit too harsh about the potential impact of messages about the environment and militarism, even the really superficial ones. I was way into stupid pop culture shit for a long time, and outside of fighting with some dudes about their sympathy with the rapist in HardCandy, I really didn’t have to think much at all. It was more like eating a candy bar, a small piece of pleasantness to spend my wage slave money on. The small first steps towards thinking about the world are important. I kinda laugh at the shit that blew my mind back in the day, it was really lightweight. However, it set me on a course for where I am today, and some Avatar fans might end up doing something important after expanding upon their knowledge about the environment. Fictional stories can make people care sometimes. It is a starting point.

    That playboy interview was gross to the max. “She has to have tits”? God. I guess you don’t have to understand half the people on earth to make great entertainment for them, eh? To produce movies about them? What a knob.


  10. I just can’t believe Cameron would actually say all of that in an interview….its like he doesn’t care that he’s not talking in a “private” environment. You would think that he would act more professionally. And I really didn’t like the movie with all its “preachiness” and was actually rooting for Sec-Ops towards the end. Although, I would like to say Col. Quadtrich (or whatever) is a fucking Col. Badass, you know that tvtropes thing…


  11. Isn’t it really weird how he says:

    ‘I designed her costumes based on a taparrabo, a loincloth thing worn by Mayan Indians. We go to another planet in this movie, so it would be stupid if she ran around in a Brazilian thong or a fur bikini like Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.’

    why?? does he think Mayans aren’t from the planet earth?

    I mean why the fuck would an alien in a taparrabo be any less stupid than an alien in a bikini?


  12. “why?? does he think Mayans aren’t from the planet earth?”

    That’s a good point. I guess people tend not to distinguish between alien/foreign and alien/ET.


  13. Disappointed that I am not the first to make the Ferngully comparison, but also reassured to find that other people also think that it really is that close to it. Haven’t seen Ferngully in years, but watching Avatar I was so convinced it was a close rip off – thought I might be misremembering, good to have it confirmed.

    Agree, this IS the best movie review ever :)


  14. As usual, spot-on hilarious denigrations of the masscult. I no sooner dried my eyes from laughing over the “Avatar” review, when I scrolled down to “Pussy, the Restaurant” and had to break out the kleenex all over again.
    Your columns help remind me of the short answer for why I generally avoid mainstream culture like the fuckin’ plague…because mainstream culture *IS* the fuckin’ plague. And seldom more so than when it makes pretense to being ‘hip’ and/or ‘meaningful’.

    Keep fighting the good fight, ND.


  15. Excellent. When you ever feel like putting yourself through more agony it would be great if you would take on the HBO series “Game of Thrones”. It’s being massively advertised for here in Europe, and I’m guessing equal hyped overseas. I found all this a bit odd, being a rather complex fantasy epic based on actual books and all(!), until I saw the show itself. What a one-dimensional misogynist porn-stereotyping mess.


  16. @Ylva – so is “The Borgias”. I sampled both series in the same week. There’s a new “hero” emerging in “quality” TV programming now a la Tony Soprano. Some a-moral, power hungry asshole who uses women, lies and cheats, yet we are supposed to relate to him or want to fuck him or be him or some shit like that because the camera is on him and the writers write in a couple of human traits and a sprinkling of vulnerability.

    It drives me insane – especially when the quality of acting, writing and production values are high. Somehow that makes the misogyny more insulting.


  17. Having found your page just recently, decided to go through the most recent articles, and so my reply to this one is almost as late, in internet time, as your column is to the movie. There’s symmetry in that, and it pleases me.


    First off, I commend your critique of Ferngully II: Dances With Smurfs (aka, James Cameron’s Avatar). Having not watched it myself, I never encountered the blatant sexism (I opted to not see it because of the blatant Noble Savage/White Man’s Burden issues that were telegraphed so far ahead I couldn’t bear to give up money and time to support it). Still, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that it was sexist as it was racist, and that Playboy interview was simply appalling.

    All that said, one line did kind of rankle a bit:

    “I don’t watch movies because I generally disapprove of the direction the movie industry has been heading in since the late 80s (and, really, since the advent of the industry itself) and can only think of about ten movies that I enjoy watching for the reasons the people who made them intended. Even ten’s a stretch.”

    If you were to confine that critique to Hollywood studio flicks, I’d probably agree with your overall tone (though I’d suggest that even in that a few exceptions slip through). But once you start factoring in foreign and independent filmmakers in the U.S., there’s still a LOT the art form has to offer, even in the sci-fi and fantasy categories (for examples of each, District 9 and Pan’s Labyrinth). They aren’t necessarily perfect, but if perfection’s the standard, virtually no fiction will meet it because we still live in a consumerist, racist and misogynist world that will filter through into virtually any work (indeed, it will pollute works that might otherwise be considered fine and dandy if it weren’t for the existence of the culture we live in).

    By completely writing off the medium of film, you end up encouraging the creation of more crap like Avatar–after all, if the studios can’t entice you even with the good stuff, why should they bother making it, when they can get lots of money with ten-foot-tall half-naked blue catgirls? If you want to see more of the good stuff, you have to make the effort to find the good stuff, and then support it when you find it.


  18. Freemage is a capitalist. I am not, and I don’t think ND is either.

    The theory of supply and demand is useless when you’re agitating for total revolution, as we are.

    Why settle for less?


  19. Reeeeevolting.

    But I’m glad James Cameron confirmed what I’ve always known; geeky men have astoundingly unrealistic expectations. Funny how the least desirable a man is, the more he demands perfection from women. So many times, I have fought the reflexive urge to throw up in my mouth, upon hearing the typical Nice Guy entitlement rant, which usually consists of how unfair the world is because a supermodel isn’t being served up to them on a silver platter. Meanwhile, life goes on in the real world, for people with real problems.


  20. Anyone who can write so eloquently about 2001: A Space Odyssey definitely might be worth listening to…at least occasionally.

    Just a random guy’s opinion.


  21. Oh so true, Sugarpuss.I’ve actually known some pretty darn hostile ‘geeky’ types, which comes from my experience of working in the tech industry. Once, when I worked at a start-up, some miserable, grouchy engineer dude sent me a valentine e-card, which portrayed a man creeping through a girl’s window. I wish I could remember the verse, but it went along with the uber creepy imagery. I complained to my boss that I thought it was inappropriate, to say the least, but as this engineer was more valued than I was as a customer service associate, my boss suggested not taking action or giving him warnings unless something further happened. It was pretty depressing, as that was one of my first jobs.

    Then, when I worked at Crapple, I ran into the surprisingly aggressive, angry, drunk geek. You know, the ones who keep leaving iPhone prototypes in bars? Are they ever something to behold. I think all the rage in their case comes from not having people skills, yet still believing they are the ‘Nice Guy’ as you mention, Sugarpuss. But the sad thing is, they already are pretty much handed everything on that ‘silver platter.’ So the anger is really is an entitlement thing. And believe you me, tech geeks can be just as frightening and horrendous to deal with, as a jock who feels he is entitled to every woman he sees and wants. Though I admit, the nerds do seem to come across as more pathetic and whiny overall.


  22. @Hecate: Well, technically speaking, the dudes of Crapple aren’t real geeks anyhow. However, I am not at all surprised to learn that their attitudes stink to the same degree as their inferior workstations.


  23. Is that surprising, though? I mean, geeky men are men, but geekier, why wouldn’t they behave much the same as not geeky men?

    Well, excepting that they’d complain about being oppressed by the patriarchy as well, firmly believing it only benefits certain men and they are terribly rebellious in the way they choose to support it, I guess, but that’s also hardly unusual.


  24. Hi, I’ve just discovered this blog recently and been working my way through a lot of the posts, I think it’s great and so well written.

    I agree with most of what you say here about Avatar – and jesus fuck that Playbro interview is appalling. But having read this and read the comments, seriously, how can no one have taken even slight issue with the throwing around of the word rape here?

    Sure, there are for definite problematic aspects to the imagery of penetration in the whole creepy hair braid animal connection crap. And of course the context is one of domination and submission which echoes our fucked up way of looking at both animals and women. It’s definitely off that the same braid connection is used when the na’vi are riding each other, mainly because of how the whole thing is presented poorly and weirdly by Cameron and co. But that’s not how the na’vi have sex, if I recall correctly. It’s part of sex. Like, you know, kissing, or holding hands, or talking, or stroking (we also stroke animals and it’s not sexual). It’s weird and problematic in the movie for sure because it’s just inserted in there with little explanation.

    But on no planet, whether earth or James Cameron racialised wank fantasy planet, is that rape. Stroking your pet and getting it to do what you want it to do, it might be an idea people disagree with or don’t see a problem with, but it’s not remotely comparable to what rape actually is and what it signifies and what it means for the people that go through it. I’m really not comfortable with how often that word was used in the article. If we accept that rape isn’t a joke, and that the word shouldn’t be used to mean things which are not rape, how can we fling the word around so lightly here? And saying it repeatedly. I try my best not to say it unless that’s precisely what I’m talking about, and not to say it repeatedly. It’s a triggering word with violent and uncomfortable associated imagery and if I can avoid putting those images in women’s heads unnecessarily or unless I’m making a point I do. If you disagree with my view that the braid connection thing isn’t rape, still saying it once would have sufficed.


  25. Sarah, no one has a problem with you petting your dog. But if you are forcing some appendage of your body into your dog anus or vagina in an attempt to control it’s movements, then I think you are raping your dog.


  26. Hitting the nail on the head as usual, lizor ;) Also, the expression in the eyes of those flying creatures when they were ‘taken’ was hardly one of joy, but rather one of terror, CG-animated as it was. I should probably know what the dragon/ bird things are called, but alas, am not enough of a fan to bother looking it up.

    A mindset that has always bothered me, and one I feel can be put under a sub-category of rape culture, is the biblical philosophy of ‘dominion’ (in the book of Genesis) over animals. It’s always sickened me, and not just because I’m vegetarian. That kind of arrogance should be consistently hunted down and killed off wherever it’s found. It’s no coincidence that those who inflict cruelty on animals later graduate to acts of cruelty against other humans.

    “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

    – Genesis 1:26

    Sorry, God, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one, mkay? ;)


  27. A link to a documentary I found kind of interesting, and is relevant to this line of discussion, especially towards the end:


    You may find the New Age tone of it a tad cloying, but essentially, we have a very polite and socially conscious couple saying that really, we pretty much have to just stop violating each other already. Easier said than done, particularly in a patriarchal setting, but that message should be broadcast often. And much as some of their rant smacks of conspiracy paranoia, I can believe what they are saying about the global energy conflict as well. Well at any rate, I’d rather have an esoteric discussion about the torus, than James Cameron’s energy-consuming ego any day :D And in the form of a donut, it is quite delicious :) Did I just go wildly off track there? Hehe.


  28. But the animals in Avatar’s tails are neither their vaginas, anuses or mouths, and the na’vi’s tails are not their penises or any other sexualised object. It’s problematically unclear what it means, sure, but it seems a large leap to imply it’s sexual rather than just some stupid and poorly conceived ‘connection’ metaphor. I don’t understand why that has to be unnecessarily called rape, rape is a lot worse than that. And the aggression is really unnecessary, I’m making a feminist criticism here not an anti-feminist one.


  29. @ Sarah. You are splitting hairs. I am unclear as to the exact meaning of “But the animals in Avatar’s tails are neither their vaginas, anuses or mouths, ” but I take it to mean that because the writers invented a new orifice which is entered with an appendage, producing distress and, ultimately, control, it’s not akin to rape.
    And your point about the appendage not being a penis is a non-starter. You know very well that people get raped with all sorts of objects.

    The point is we have bodily penetration connected to and leading to domination.

    “it seems a large leap to imply it’s sexual rather than just some stupid and poorly conceived ‘connection’ metaphor”. Not at all. If you are uncomfortable accepting the fact of the ubiquitous normalizing of bodily domination, I can understand that. It’s pretty overwhelming. But your argument sounds like nothing more than denial.

    Speaking of normalizing – Hecate, you got it in one. There’s your template for hierarchy and domination right there. The fantasy concoction is that with domination of a group of people or a species comes care, protection, stewardship – all the supposed aspects of responsible ownership that justify all sorts of dysfunctional relationships from marriage to factory farming.

    And I agree with your point about what I would rather watch. Thanks for the link!


  30. Sometimes ‘conspiracy theories’ have a grain of truth in them.

    Plenty of people think feminism is a conspiracy theory. Plenty of nominal feminists think ‘patriarchy’ is a conspiracy theory. Plenty of otherwise-feminists think racism and classism are conspiracy theories. You can hopefully see where I’m going with this.

    (Disclaimer: however, let it be said that even I do not believe in reptilians, except very broadly as a metaphor for colonialism.)


  31. Thanks lizor :) You’re welcome! I try not to fill up the board with too many links, but if I think it’s a good one, I will.

    Yes, there’s a real condescension there.You describe it well. I’ve felt that vibe so many times in my life, I’ve lost count. Funny, I’m actually pretty sturdy and well-built, but being female always means you’ll be treated as the ‘weaker’ of the species. It’s always that attitude of ‘don’t worry your pretty head, hon, the big men will take care of it (and you).’ How could that attitude not lead to the worst kind of violence and domination? They take care of women all right, so they’ll never walk or speak again, in most cases.

    As for the animals, I am with the dolphins of ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ who cheerfully sing ‘So long, and thanks for all the fish!’ to the clueless hoomins before earth is destroyed by said cluelessness. There is no way to not be destructive if one’s ultimate goal is dominance. It’s pretty much impossible. But men plunder and plod along as usual, ham-fisted as ever.


  32. Hecate: Metaphorically, they certainly are. Turn everything we “know” about reptilians into a metaphor and it’s all extremely true about certain demographics.

    Slimy? Check.
    Vampiric*? Check.
    Drawn to evilness, greed, soullessness, depersonalization, and domination out of sheer infantile insecurity? Check.

    * In the sense that they suck time and energy out of others, and steal and whitewash all of those people’s best/most revolutionary ideas.

    Certainly sounds like your average colonizer to me. I just don’t necessarily think they are descended from literal alien reptiles, and maybe you don’t either. ;)


  33. Haven’t finished the article but this is a minor point I want to comment on and I want to do it before I forget.

    I was skimming the comments before to make sure no one else already said it and I saw someone mention Neal Stephenson. He happens to be my favorite author (I even use Princess Nell’s name as a screenname when I’d rather not use my own), and I admit I’ve done a little Wikipedia searching on him once or twice, when I was bored or checking to see what he’s written that I haven’t read. This is how I know that he came up with the word avatar-as it’s currently known, ie, a computer image representing a user-in his book Snow Crash. However, he was redefining what was originally a Sanskrit word for the manifestation of a deity who’s descended to earth. A definition which I think fits the movie more.

    And possibly is even more problematic, I suppose.

    Going back to finish the article now. I’ve been going through your blog for a couple days now and I like it a lot. I wish you’d stop hating on tool though. :/ oh well


  34. Whats with the diss towards cons, online gamers, and cosplay? Seems unnecessary. And as someone who has been to anime conventions, played games online, and cosplayed found it rather insulting


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