Avatar and Me (and Literally Everyone Else)

Or Listen… Here

If you’ve been a longtime reader/listener here (the hidden part of this site stretches back nearly ten years), you may remember that the conceit of The Battle Beyond Planet X was a defense of the science-fiction genre as more valuable than however I perceived it being perceived. Of course, you look at the ten highest-grossing movies of every year, and more often than not, they’re science-fiction. Superheroes, dinosaurs, space war – science-fiction may just be the least marginalized of marginalized genres (still waiting on that Oscar). This is a perfect reflection of my relationship with the movie and soon-to-be-franchise Avatar, which just so happens to be sitting atop that list of highest-grossers. It is at once a universal experience and one very personal.

In sixth grade, we had to write an essay about someone we admired, and while I assume the expectation was that students would write about a parent (or someone we actually knew), I wrote mine about James Cameron. Despite not being old enough to watch them uncut, I grew up on the first two Terminator movies and all their cousins, like Robocop and The Matrix and eventually Alien and Predator (the horror iterations indeed came later). For students of film history, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park are inextricable as blockbusters that pushed CGI to where it is now. This admiration continued into high school, when I read two separate biographies on the filmmaker, learning about his start at Roger Corman Studios – and all the collaborators he made there – through the harrowing experiences of shooting Aliens and The Abyss – he was harrowed on the former and then brought the harrowing on the latter – ending with astronomical blockbusters in Terminator 2 and Titanic. To an aspiring filmmaker, it was a great story.

However, I never saw a James Cameron movie in theaters. Born in 1993, Titanic came out in 1997 – I still have not seen it – and he’d moved on after that. To be honest, I did see Aliens of the Deep in IMAX, but that didn’t have the same cache as, say, James Cameron’s first science-fiction film since Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Thus, we arrive at Avatar, which remains the number-one movie in the world (after its latest rerelease) as well as the movie I was the most excited about, ever. Prometheus comes close, as does AVP: Alien vs. Predator, but no – it was Avatar. I pored over those trailers and talked about it constantly.

What I remember talking about the most was how much it was gonna tank. “Avatar will be a box office bomb,” or so I informed whatever remaining friends still listening, and I’m wondering now if I was actually expressing ownership. “Nobody will see Avatar because it’s a movie made for me.” Well, if there’s one thing true in Hollywood – about to be tested yet again – it’s to never bet against James Cameron. A proper Gary Oldman everyone saw Avatar, and a lot of them liked it. It scored a number of Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director. But as I walked out of the biggest movie in the world that fateful night at the Jordan’s Furniture in Natick, MA, I made the second declaration about Avatar that hasn’t aged well: “I will never see the sequel.”

After a lifetime of waiting and years of hype, I hated Avatar.

It’s space marines and an alien planet! Instead of LV-426 – already good – this time, the colonial marines are going to Jurassic Park. How could this possibly be bad? I mean, I don’t love the giant blue people in these trailers, but I’m sure it’ll be fine.

Avatar was the capstone to a pretty bad decade in film. Yes, the good movies were very good, including modern masterpieces like Children of Men, Lady Vengeance, No Country for Old Men, City of God, Collateral, Spirited Away, but remember how much the action and horror genres in particular bounced back in the 2010s with The Raid, John Wick, and “elevated horror.” We were bogged down in remakes and franchises. It took another decade for James Cameron to resurface with the long-delayed Battle Angel Alita adaptation, whose development effectively prevented that title from creating an audience, dooming what turned out to be a classic of its own (I mean, I’m sure there were several factors to that underperformance, I just wanted to combine ideas).

A long-standing question asserted itself with renewed force: “Why the hell is he doing Avatar when he could be doing anything else?” Including Piranha II and Alita: Battle Angel (in truth directed by Robert Rodriguez), Avatar might just be the least interesting film on Cameron’s IMDb page. Perhaps True Lies is less “interesting,” but it does have its adherents (like Chad Stahelski, who swiped the horse sequence for John Wick 3). Ironically, it’s also the most quintessential. Avatar is to James Cameron’s corner of science-fiction film as Jodorowsky’s Dune is to the whole pie. Or pan of brownies, with corners. The early Cameron screenplays, like Mother and Labyrinth, included elements recycled for Aliens and Avatar both. At one point on paper, a power loader was fighting an alien creature with neural links to other creatures. Avatar has a real genre pedigree, with those ‘80s roots and a pulpy story harkening back to John Carter of Mars – so why wasn’t it good?

It’s a question with a multidimensional answer, from the score to the Thanator design to the main character to the whole deal about a race of cat people. I’m supposed to care about these guys because they’re being threatened, and because one of them is hot. Is she hot? Zoe Saldana is hot, but this blue version is just confusing! Even looking back, after not having seen the film in over a decade, it’s a real dumb story. Our hero demonstrates his immersion in a foreign species by literally becoming one of that species. What the fuck even is that? I want to see a movie about a Russian guy who goes to America and starts eating hamburgers until he just becomes American and he’s like, “I understand now.”

Of course, the parts I don’t remember are the details of how our protagonist – the awe-inspiring “Jake Sully” – falls in love with the planet and the people and the blue Saldana. What I was missing, and this is likely due in part to my age, was the emotional component that sold the immersion. Surely, I was awed by Pandora, but I didn’t give a flying fish about the Na’vi. I won’t go so far as to say I sympathized with the humans, because that genre of filmthought has practically become a fascist dog whistle. Without a doubt, Stephen Lang turns in the best performance, but part of it was being a truly bad guy. He sounds reasonable, but he doesn’t bend. Can’t adapt, can’t change.

If there was any more to Avatar, I have yet to discover it, but that’s beside the point. The film connected. We talk about how it left no cultural imprint, like a lot of the big movies from that time – remember Tropic Thunder? – but we’re only talking about America. I see clips of Korean variety shows, and Avatar is part of the pool of pop culture references, unlike in America – save one admittedly funny SNL sketch. But even in the States, I don’t know that Avatar requires the same active fanbase as Star Wars or the MCU, because it’s a different experience. We go to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Avengers: Endgame because we want to know what happens next, and because, for some of our less stable neighbors, it’s an obligation. We see Avatar to be transported – to escape. It’s pure and old-fashioned and it just might work twice. (Four times, I’m less confident about – the one Hollywood truth notwithstanding).

This is something that I lacked in 2009, as a moviegoer and media critic, a sense for how everyone else reacted and how much anything “not me” should factor into the calculus. Clearly, this movie meant a lot to a lot of people, despite what professional critics were saying about its bland message and offensive stereotypes. “It’s a white savior narrative,” “It’s Dances With Wolves in space,” “It’s FernGully with guns,” “Native Americans are not aliens.” It was easier for me to adopt those sound bytes because I was already salty, and, you know, it felt like the stereotype part was a deal breaker.

What I didn’t learn until yesterday was that James Cameron was challenged by Indigenous leadership to put his money where his mouth was, and he sort of did.

Indigenous territories contain the vast majority of the world’s resources and biodiversity — forests, oil, goal, uranium,” said panel moderator Atossa Soltani, the executive director of Amazon Watch. “Basically this is why they are now the last stand.”

Cameron recently took up this duty by joining Amazon Watch on a tour in Brazil learn more about the standoff to stop the Bela Monte hydrological dam complex, which would dam the Xingu River and displace some 25,000 local indigenous people and flood a large swath of the rainforest, which would release methane, the most potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere as the trees decay.

“James Cameron has brought an international spotlight to that battle and it has really made a difference,” Soltani said. “The dam auction was happening last week and this would have been utterly unreported by the media.

Film critics (myself included) can continue to criticize Avatar as a white savior narrative in a vacuum of American Indian voices, for example, but there may be more to the movie than the (bad) movie itself. Now, if art can change the world (like how Hwang Dong-hyuk’s 2011 film Silenced inspired legislation that abolished the statute of limitations for sex crimes against minors and disabled people), I’m not sure Avatar is the foremost example, despite some assertions. But you know who is sure? James Cameron.

I watched this GQ feature with James Cameron where he talks about his movies, and was surprisingly touched by the notion that he’s making Avatar sequels because he believes in them. I may beat this drum a lot, but I strongly dislike this current era of blockbusters, and what links Godzilla vs. Kong and the Star Wars and Jurassic Park sequels is that they don’t feel written, directed, and produced so much as assembled – so to speak. Whatever the substance of the belief, this next slew of blockbusters will feel different than what we usually see.

And, man, you can always see this shit coming. When The Matrix Resurrections was coming out, I dreaded the thinkpieces finally defending Reloaded and Revolutions. You fuckers had your chance. In this case, as the marketing machine spins up for Avatar: The Way of Water, evidently starring the late Bruce Lee, we’re going to be told how to think about Avatar, how to remember it, how you were wrong or how you forgot. That’s just how it is these days, but that’s about everyone else. Ignore all that. I’m only focused on me, and whether or not I end up seeing the movie or even enjoying it – that doesn’t matter. I genuinely hope that it reaches people as the original did. I think, at this point, preserving the legend of James Cameron is more important to me than his next return to science-fiction after 13 years.

After all, as was the salve for Prometheus and AVP: Alien vs. Predator: my own Hollywood truth – “I have Prey now.” I don’t need your space Indian bullshit.


5 thoughts on “Avatar and Me (and Literally Everyone Else)

  1. I spotted some Chutisms and some abuse of grammar, but enjoyed the article. BUT! Even with your last pointed statement, I spot some ambiguity. You say you don’t “need” A2, but have you changed your mind about seeing it, given your emotional response to Cameron’s interview?

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