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leaving the world: avatar

January 10, 2010

‘If a man could pass thro’ Paradise in a Dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when he awoke — Aye, and what then?’

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

As my friend Liezel said, it’s not  Woody Allen, is it?  I know what she means.  Not that Allen’s movies are particularly cool or cerebral these days anyway; and Emmerich knows there are plenty cruder, more clichéd films.   But there are few movies on the commercial circuit that convey their clichés with such starry-eyed conviction, or  where the stakes are quite as high.  In a decade of CGI-dominated, predictable films, what sets Avatar apart  — what makes it both worth fascinating and troubling—is the naïveté of its message,  the lyricism with which it presents its utterly unconscious material, the starkness of its moral universe, and the manipulative and crude way it resolves its central contradictions.  I’ve seen it twice now:  each time I came prepared to see its flaws — the first time because of negative word of mouth; the second because, well, it was the second time — and each time I found myself swept along heedlessly, transported by the sheer lyricism of the moviemaking.  And each time I felt flat and disappointed the next day, as if whatever had held me the night before had turned to dust.

The plot is simple: humanity is colonizing a jungle planet (actually a moon orbiting a gas giant)  rather wonderfully named Pandora. The RDA corporation is strip-mining Pandora for a valuable mineral with the cringe-making name of  Unobtainium.  The chief obstacle in their way is not only the local environment (the atmosphere is poisonous; and the jungle is a dense, teeming Darwinian hell) but also the natives, a humanoid species called the Na’vi.  They are physically formidable (they have carbon fibre in their bones,  are about twelve foot tall and —the leathery Marine captain in charge of security tells us — they  hard to kill); but more to the point, they  are opposed to the human presence in their forest.    A team of anthropologists  have been trying to ‘civilize’ the  Na’vi and to study them; as part of doing this (to build trust, I guess, and to avoid being killed) they don’t meet them physically: instead, they have their consciousnesses projected into vat-grown alien bodies – the Avatar of the title.   The hero, Jake Sully, gets lost in the jungle in avatar form and accidentally ends up among a clan of the Na’vi called the Omaticaya.  Instead of violent barbarians, he finds, they are sophisticated primitives; prelapsarian stone-agers living poetically in tune with their environment. Far from being a hell-hole, the forest is their paradise, and their spirituality is the worship of Eywa, a Gaia-like Mother Goddess embodied in a sacred tree.  Forced to make a choice, Sully goes over to their side, and organizes the resistance that sends the colony – and humanity – packing.

This is all familiar territory, of course.   The plot is an old science fiction standard; large sections of it (particularly Miles Quaritch, the redneck ex-Marine security man) seem to have been lifted bodily from an old Ursula Le Guin novelette called The Word for World is Forest (Quaritch is the spitting image of Le Guin’s Captain Davidson, whom she calls the most one-dimensional character she ever created).  And within the frame of this story, James Cameron and John Landau have decided to bludgeon us with every noble-savage, white-man-loved-the-Chieftain’s-daughter cliché and stereotype in the book.  From the word go, you know how it is going to unfold. It’s going to be Pocahontas meets Platoon.  It’s going to be The Mission meets Dances with Wolves.  The natives are going to be noble savages; the chief is going to be dignified and wise; his wife will be a sangoma with dreads and second sight; there will be a jealous brave who wants to kill Jake in the beginning but who becomes his comrade in the end;  the aliens will be willowy and high-cheekboned; they will spout Buddhist koans;  they will be wisely in touch with nature and the spirit world …  but most of all, it will be a white man – oops, sorry, a human being – who awakens the natives from their rapturous trance and rescues them from the evil corporation.   And so it all in fact unfolds. Moreover, all of it happens without a trace of irony, cheesy dialogue and all.

And yet, and yet.  And yet the movie  draws you in; and at times manages to move and enthrall. What is interesting about Avatar is the way in which it manages to bring off this predictable story, manages you to suck you into its world; not in spite of but because of the clichés.

Roger Dean's floating islands

One of the ways in which it does this is through its gorgeous visual texture.  In one sense, the centre of the movie is not its story, nor its actors, but the visual technology of the film itself – the hallucinatory beauty achieved through the mixing of 3D digital film making, live action and computer animation.  Cameron famously waited for more than a decade for motion-capture technology to become advanced enough for his project, and it seems in this respect at least he is completely vindicated.  The sophisticated animation techniques give  filmmakers an imaginative reach and power not seen in film before: if nothing else, science fiction and animated films will never be the same again after Avatar.   More specifically, the film works because Cameron has succeeded in translating  into movement (and into three dimensions) the visual and imaginary language of decades of psychedelic SF art.  For me, that was a large part of the visual pleasure of the film.  As a boy who loved science fiction, one of my greatest treasures was Brian Ash’s sumptuous Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction,  which I got, I seem to remember, for my thirteenth birthday; a book that  catalogued the way in which SF art progressed from those crude early twentieth century magazine covers (Frank R Paul’s garish covers for Amazing Stories, for instance) to the psychedelic and otherworldly images invented by the airbrush artists of the 1970s. I remember hours spent gazing raptly at the strange, evocative visions of those artists : Stephen Hickman, Michael Whelan,  and, above all, Roger Dean.

This, by the way is one rather interesting aspect of the film: no-one who has encountered the art of Roger Dean (many will know him from those Yes album covers) could fail to experience a shock of recognition.  Those strange, spindly, dragonfly-like spaceships; the unearthly sculpted landscape, the flying lizard creatures,  the flying islands – all of these seem not just to be quotes from Roger Dean, but straight cribs.    Yet Dean does not seem to get any recognition in the credits.  As one fan site notes, when life imitates art, it’s one thing, but when art imitates art, it’s another.

But more is going on here than visual wizardry and artistic plagiarism.  In a way, what the movie does visually is to split the world into two realms: the technological world of the Corporation, all steel and bulkheads, shot in grim, greyed-out colours, and the magical world of the jungle, which is presented as a fairyland.  And I mean that literally.  In a sense, the visual disjuncture in the movie marks (or perhaps hides)  a genre disjuncture, for it seems to me that in emotional, genre and mythographic terms the jungle aspects of the movie are not science fiction at all, but fantasy.   In entering the world of the jungle, Jake Sully enters the realm of Faerie – not another physical realm but another world entirely.  This is particularly  obvious in the sequences where Jake first arrives at Home Tree,  the natives’  city-in-the-branches.  Butterflies all round, glowing mushrooms, silver leaves, gargantuan trees with buttresses spiraling into the light: this is not Pandora, this is Lothlórien; and the aliens are not humanoids from another planet, they are Tolkien’s Elves, imbued with all the powers and qualities proper to them.

Middle-Earth, of course, is an interesting place.  It serves many ideological and psychological functions and holds many projections; but one of the most important achievements of Tolkien’s mythos is  how it connected myth and archetype with, on the one hand, a distinctively late twentieth-century environmental imaginary (remember this about  Gandalf:  he was always the only wizard who really understood trees) and, on the other hand, a wistful, fey, elegiac romanticism.  At the heart of this romanticism, I always think, is a longing for lost innocence, for youth departed; a yearning for the mythical memory of the time that magic was real, when we were one with the world, before we ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.

This is the psychic and symbolic terrain occupied by Avatar; this is what gives it its emotional and psychological charge: its seduction lies in the starry-eyed conviction, the unblinking naïveté, with which it evokes the the possibility of Paradise, of being at one with the world, of living before the Fall.  Nowhere is this fey, wild magic more passionately conveyed than in the long sequence where Jake Sully, as part of his rite of passage into Omaticaya manhood, has to capture, vanquish, “imprint” , and ride one of the  flying lizards that live in the floating islands  in the sky above the mother tree.  Again, we are in solid science fiction cliché territory ( in this case, most obviously, the movie evokes Anne McAffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books, a series of fantasy bodice-rippers where dragon-riders form a similar life-long bond with their mounts).  But the sequence is ravishingly filmed. This is where the Roger Dean imagery really comes into its own. The camera gives us scene after unreal scene of unearthly beauty: the warriors swarming up a steep hill, snagging a passing root-tendril from a floating island, climbing up into the sky… each shot tops the previous one in eldritch weirdness and picturesque unreality. And the animation makes it all seem more real than real, bringing home on the screen  the romance of the floating, flying world, the brutal, scaly weight of those lizard bodies, and the sheer thrill of flight. We understand, with a wrench, what this means for Sully, who in real life is wheelchair-bound: his  rite of passage seems to have ripped him loose from reality altogether:  an ex- Marine with a shattered body,  locked in a metal pod connecting him to an artificial avatar, he is transported into this astonishing wonderland, scary and beautiful, in which anything can happen. And we the audience are taken along.  Suddenly the plot is forgotten as we watch the lizard riders fly free through the sky; diving down sheer cliffs like so many BASE jumpers, lost in the exultation of flight. To my mind it is one of the most visually intense – and intensely lyrical – sequences cinema has  given us in a long time.

But where to take all this?  Just as the film’s effectiveness lies in its power to evoke the dream of life before the fall, it is in the context of its evocation of  this dream that the film’s ultimate  immaturity, and its betrayal of its narrative responsibilities,  needs to be grasped.  Having created this dichotomy – between the broken world of humanity and the whole one of the aliens, between industrial, technological life and the magical one – the film is posed with the challenge of figuring out how to resolve it. How indeed?

'Arches at Dawn', by Roger Dean

One way is the way charted by Tolkien, at least in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  As you will remember,  in both these stories  we are continually being reminded that the time of magic is ending.  The elves are leaving Middle-Earth; and though Frodo can go with them, sailing to the Western Shores, the last words in the book belong  not to  Frodo but  to Sam.  Sam does not get to remain in Fairyland; he has to return home to Rose and the Shire (a Shire which, though it has been spared Pandora-like mining and Industrial Revolution,  is now increasingly part of the real world);  here Sam will have to labour in his garden and take up adult responsibilities, his feet on the ground.  ‘Well I am back,’ he says to Rose, turning his back on the Elvish world; and I have always thought it is a well-nigh perfect ending.

Arches at dawn, on Pandora...

Philip Pullman makes the same point, in a different way, in the Dark Materials trilogy – not only in Will and Lyra’s courageous decision to close the door between the worlds, but also in Pullman’s intellectual debt to  Kleists’s essay on the  Marionette Theatre.  In this essay, Kleist  argues that the state of grace embodied in lost youthful innocence cannot and should not be regained.   For Kleist, and for Pullman, there is no way back.  We are thinking beings now, separate from the world.  An angel with a burning sword guards the gate of Paradise.   Re-attaining grace requires us to build the  Republic of Heaven in this world: we have to go forward,  use what we learned from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, forsake innocence,  take up adult consciousness.

But the film does not follow this path.  It could have done so: we can imagine a movie in which Jake leaves Pandora in its unspoilt wildness, taking the Corporation with him.  Or the film could give us the real ending, the outcome we secretly know is inevitable: the World Tree killed, the aliens enslaved and alcoholic, Pandora terraformed, the jungle destroyed or preserved only in isolated natural parks.   But this is not the story the film tells; it dares not tell it like this. No: somehow the garden of Eden must triumph…  no, more; it must triumph and maintain its original innocence.  That is what infantile desire (read: Hollywood convention) requires.

But the problem is that this cannot be achieved without breaking the unwritten rules of satisfying and true fiction.  For a fictional victory to be psychologically true, for it to be resonant and satisfying,  something must be lost. Frodo has to lose his living connection to Middle-Earth; Will has to lose Lyra;  Ged has to give up his power.  If nothing is lost, the prize offered by the story will be a hollow clanging shell.  And so the movie descends into bathos: a pitched,  armed confrontation between the Omaticaya and the forces of the Corporation.  With this, despite all the visual  wizardry, the movie loses its magic.  We are back watching some kind of post-Nam jungle firefight.  The point is not only that the Hollywood plot mechanics here are grimly familiar and utterly predictable, right down to that last physical battle between Sully, Neytiri and Quaritch (how many Hollywood movies right now are ending with one key figure fighting a desperate battle in a disintegrating exoskeleton?  I count Iron Man, I count District 9, I count Avatar…  )  It is that, try as we might, we cannot ignore the uncomfortable fact that Sully prevails only by turning the Na’vi  into that which they oppose.  One horrible jarring note is struck when we realize that somehow (it is never explained how) the Omaticaya appear to have acquired a lot of modern day electronic battle-comms gear, whispering tersely to one another over  earbud headphones and microphones.  Another is when the wild beasts of the jungle rise up together against mechanized invasion.  This was not supposed to happen:  As Neytiri explained earlier, Pandora’s  mother-goddess looks after the balance of life and death itself; praying to her for help in an actual battle meant to go one way or the other is to misunderstand what she is about.    The creatures of the wild are not supposed to be recruitable for tactical military maneuvres. But this is a Hollywood movie.  Paradise may be Paradise, and the Balance of Life and Death is all very well, but if Nature really knew what was good for her, she would be revealed to be at heart American, viz. able to use organized aggression in the defense of Freedom.

Wild creatures, fighting for freedom

And so it goes. The movie supposedly ends in triumph, but there is something anticlimactic about it, with the Earthlings sent packing like so many British colonialists after a particularly successful Boston Tea Party. It all feels contrived and dishonest.   And the heart of the dishonesty lies in the film’s refusal to contemplate the possibility of waking up, of coming back from Faerieland.

Waking up, of course, is a difficult challenge. As Jungian analyst Julian Davis often liked to remark (apropos, I think, of the myth of Orpheus), it is easy to enter the Underworld; the hard thing is to bring back into the real world the treasures and the wisdom you found there.  As I have argued elsewhere, Chihiro manages it in Spirited Away, going back into teenage life with her unsatisfactory parents, but having established her own connection with the River Spirit.  The eponymous heroine in Coraline does not:  she abandons the magical world, closing the trapdoor on the possibilities of yearning and desire.  Jake Scully, in contrast,  follows the path of Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth: Ofelia, you remember,  chooses not to go back to the real adult world, opting instead to live in Faerie  forever. Similarly the real climax, the final punchline of the movie is not the political resolution of the humans leaving Pandora: it is the last shot, in which Jake’s Avatar’s eyes open,  signifying that he has died in his human body, and can live transferred to this artificial one, in this fantasyland, forever.

What is this saying about the culture that made it?  Two things stand out.    Firstly, and most obviously, like Dances with Wolves and The Mission, the film’s psychological immaturity reflects and enables an underlying political dishonesty.  It enables an American, first world audience both to have its cake and eat it.   On the surface the film seems to critique present day American imperialism (the head of the mining operation, Parker Selfridge, is a smug, golf-playing, chubby  Bush lookalike, and the beefy Quaritch at times appears to spout verbatim Bushisms) but it never undermines the underlying dichotomies and splits that emanate from the colonialist, imperialist viewpoint.  The most obvious and juvenile manifestation of it is Scully’s role as rescuer, and the movies cheesiest, falsest note — worse even than that Unobtainium, worse than the battle radio — is the moment when Scully leads the Na’vi in the preparations for battle. ‘This is our land!’ he cries; and the appalling dishonesty of that   moment is the dark mirror of the breathless yearning of the dragon flight sequence.  Less obvious, but as insidious, is the movie’s shameless exploitation of the  noble-savage myth.   A lot of what is queasy-making about Avatar is what is queasy-making about a certain kind of alternative modern consciousness in the real world: I am speaking here of the creepy ‘new age’ ideology that deals with an awareness of the unsustainability and violence of modern, industrial life by making ‘primitive people’ and ‘first nations’ the screens on which all our own spiritual and political needs are projected.  Queasy-making  because of the detachment from real life this split requires and enables:  its refusal  to acknowledge the reality of our existence in this broken, post-industrial world and its failure to recognise  the physical and political reality of the ‘others’ upon which these golden fantasies are projected. (This is what made District 9 so fascinating: in all its evocation of xenophobia and racism, it is a much more honest attempt to imagine the encounter with the alien ‘Other’).

The first Avatar: Hiro Protagonist, in Snow Crash. Image by nClaire, posted here:

The second thing is this: linked to this detachment is the way the film evokes the power and centrality of notions of virtuality in modern imaginative life.  The film’s title and central device is crucial here.  Jake Scully’s avatar, at least, is flesh and blood (and, presumably, carbon-fibre strengthened bone), and is, we are told, worth millions.  But in the real America, avatars are a dime a dozen.  These days, ‘avatar’ does not stand for a divine manifestation; instead  it is a word for a few lines of code, a pictogram with which you can denote yourself  – and thereby assume a whole new persona — when interacting with others on the Internet.  This usage of the  word originally comes from Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, where people use avatars to inhabit an imaginary virtual universe called the Metaverse.  Ten years after Stephenson’s novel, the Metaverse has attained actuality, for example in constructs like Linden’s Second Life, where you (or you avatar) can transport your whole social life into a virtual world,  interacting with others, having (virtual) sex, and (crucially) buying property. It all sounds rather awful and boring; but at least it is not real.  Reality…  reality we don’t want.  Not in our dreams.

And this is what Avatar seems to promise, with its gorgeous visual textures, its sumptuous three-D, its notion of projecting your consciousness into another body, another world.  It seems to be a metaphor for the experience of cinema itself, for what it can promise.  The tagline for the movie  is evocative, double edged.  Enter the World, it says.  But what it really means is, Leave it.  The real world is too broken.  Industrial civilization may be raping the planet, but dealing concretely and practically with our accountability for our impact in the real world is asking too much from us.    Let us rather sleep.  Let us depart into the virtual, disembodied world.  Let us  dream.

62 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2010 11:29 am

    Awesome article!

    You mention that there’a bit of cheat in that our hero doesn’t really lose anything (siting other works where there’s a great loss that’s experienced by the main protagonist before the transcendence to some form of nirvana).

    Isn’t the failure, maybe failure too strong a word – insufficiently explored angle is the audience link to Weaver’s role?

    Weaver looked like she was being set up as the mother-figure to Jake.

    Jake is the wayward army hero different and and a disappointment/antithesis to Weaver on so many levels. She’s a thinker, enlightened and pacifist whilst he is, or was, physical, brutal, a killer. He’s disappointment to Mom. She effectively gives birth to him – the avatars in the tank wriggling like babies in the womb – and she enables Jake a new body that is athletic and not the cripple he is in human form. Jake then shows aptitude and excellence in ways that other avatars don’t exhibit and ultimately gains her trust/love and respect. Something he doesn’t have at the beginning.

    She emits little statements like “don’t play with it you’ll go blind” (a motherly caution), she desperately hunts for him after he’s lost on the first away mission and the sense of loss that he’s alone in the jungle. She continually mothers him by insisting he’s fed, showered – she’s looking after him. Further she moves to the cabin in the woods to protect him from bad influences and ultimately they build a bond and she, eventually through Jake’s hard work, achieves that which she wants – acceptance into the tribe, although she doesn’t get accepted in the same way as Jake. Meanwhile the wayward “son” is now potent and post-pubescent – a son now a man that a Mom can be/is proud of?

    Is it not her loss that we’re supposed to identify with as the cost of all of this? Her loss illustrates the danger of and risk of the “transference” of humanity to Na’vi. The cost of our hero – he loses his Mom?

    From Jake’s point of view, – he has a distaste for scientists – he’s a grunt, but he comes to know her and fight for her, and just as he in his Na’vi form starts to accept the notion of an Earth Mother figure as all-guiding in this all natural fantastical world, so he in his Jake form accepts Weaver in the maternal role.

  2. January 11, 2010 12:20 pm

    I am so glad that you brought up the battle climax of this movie. I certainly felt queasy watching this movie. Maybe it was the psyhcedelic visuals and the concept of ccnnected consciousness so beautifully imagined that seduced me- but i opened my heart happily to the world that is Pandora. The trite relationships and superficial rendering of the tribe aside it was magickal and satifying to enter that world. Paradise lost indeed.

    The brutal unimaginative shallow imagining of a solution to the colonisation of mother earth and her tribes is what shocked me. I had not realised that a person could create such beauty adns still be immune to it. The shcok still reverberates in me.

    I would have thought that those who can see- can really see. Can really see people’s essence, can see just action, can see Life’s sacredness. Can see it and therefore imagine a more beutiful response.

    What a shock.

    I expected a solution to violence at least as profound as Sinead O’Connors ‘This is a Rebel Song’

    i am appalled at the depth of american blindness and perversity.

  3. January 11, 2010 8:08 pm

    This is a marvelous review. I still want to see the damn thing for the visual magic, but — I don’t know. . .

    By the way, re my Word for World is Forest (1972): At the end of that book, some peace and balance between the natives and the invaders has been reached — at a very high cost. As one of the previously entirely unwarlike Athsheans says: when something new comes into the world, something that previously was only dreamed, “you cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.” The book was written in part as a protest against American engagement in Viet Nam. I wish it was more out of date than it is. We Americans are still building walls and pretenses about who we are.

    • brian permalink
      January 30, 2010 3:05 am

      when something new comes in? in the shape of strip mining…only a fool would try to accomodate it…..
      Sorry but this is aserious misreading of AVATAR….its all or nothing…if the humans remain, youd see what we se on earth today: decimated peoples and environments…

      cameron is right to end the film the way he did…….see my posts below also on the misreading of Kleist.

  4. Marc Kahn permalink
    January 12, 2010 7:56 am

    Thanks for commenting directly Ursula, I have been a long standing admirer of your work and thought. In particular, your book “The Left Hand of Darkness” offers the reader a fascinating and complex appreciation and entry into the usual “good and evil,” “black and white” nonsense narratives that are so unfortunately common (as in Avatar) today.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      January 12, 2010 4:10 pm

      I second that. And I think the flattening-out of everything in this simplistic way – and specifically the creation of this deep dichotomy between the wise, Gaia-worshipping Na’vi and the crude, exploitative Coroporation – actually allow us to avoid looking in a real way, an accountable way, at the choices that are really at stake. We can project all the ‘gold’ onto an imaginary ‘other’ race, sublimate all our concerns into the easy pay-off of a simplistic cinematic firefight; but it has no subversive edge. It is, as Ursula’s character points out, not just a sentimental but an insane world-view, fundamentally disconnected from real experience. The dichotomies are drawn so sharp, the thinking is so automatic, the projected nobility of the ‘Other’ so unreal that it all floats off away from the real world, from real choices and real difficulties. Which is what Ursula’s books, for all their ‘fantasy’ content are all about: this world, with its sorrow and compromises and losses and fragile beauty.

  5. Harald Winkler permalink
    January 12, 2010 6:32 pm

    Great review, Andries! Have you seen George Monbiot’s version, in which he looks at Avatar in relation to the American Holocaust? Worth a read at

    • andries du toit permalink*
      January 13, 2010 9:49 pm

      I must say I am uncomfortable with Monbiot’s comment, which seems to make political capital out of the movie without really engaging with it. Yes, the right hates Avatar; the pope has apparently issued an encyclical or something against it. This is a man who thinks condoms are from the Devil. Should any of his opinions be treated with any seriousness whatever? Defending avatar against this befuddled nonsense is just to engage in more splitting: the American right disapproves of Avatar, so we should praise it.

      Really now? I think Avatar is as racist as those rightwingers. On the one hand, you have colonialist ideology: progress is good, the natives are a bunch of fleabitten savages etc etc. On the other, the idealisation of the native: they are at one with nature; they are wiser than us. Isn’t it obvious that this idealisation is as racist as its overtly rightwing opposite? The one is negative, the other is positive, but they are both essentially driven by (let’s call it) ‘Western’ desire. Both turn the pre-industrial ‘Other’ into a screen for infantile projection.

      And both are false. They fail to explore the complex realities of pre-industrial societies’ ambiguous relationship with the ecological systems on which they depend: read Jared Diamond for a reality check here. The real Na’vi are as likely to chop down every last tree as to defend it.

      And more to the point, such idealising representations misrecognise the real existence of pre or non-industrial societies, covering them with a sentimental veil.

      I think it is nauseating, and Monbiot should know better than to give credence to such twaddle.

      • brian permalink
        January 30, 2010 1:12 pm

        AVATAR ha managed to bring together right and left in mutual animosity…both are offended by a film and by its messsage and its direct way of presenting them.and both are offended by the NA’vi…vergy revealing.
        The real na’vi dont chop down trees…that you make that suggestion shows a real disconnet with any sort of na’vi.
        ‘And more to the point, such idealising representations misrecognise the real existence of pre or non-industrial societies, covering them with a sentimental veil. ‘

        This statement shows a hatred of traditional peoples who are not pre-anything…you hate them because they resist industrialisation…

        • andries du toit permalink*
          February 2, 2010 7:09 pm

          Hmm, first off, I don’t hate the movie. I loved it. I only crit movies I love. But I was also disappointed with it, because it took such beautiful, amazing material, and reduced it to such platitudinous predictability.

          Secondly, I don’t quite know why you think I hate ‘traditional peoples’ (whatever that is). On the contrary, my reservations arise out of what I think is required for a respectful engagement with the Other. If we can only love the Other by projecting unreal fantasies upon them, are we really respecting them? I don’t think so.

          Thirdly, my remark about the real Na’vi was stupid; because of course there is no real Na’vi. They are a figment of James Cameron’s imagination. But there are and have been real non-industrial, nomadic peoples. And though they often valued and even worshipped aspects of nature, they also were often supremely unconscious of their impact on the environment and did things we would consider destructive. The decimation of the ecology on Easter Island is a case in point, so is the extermination of almost all the large mammals in the Americas in the 10 000 years before European invaders came.

          • Muirgheal Wen permalink
            December 30, 2011 12:13 am

            First, “Rightwingers” are not all racist. I’m about as far right as a person can be and one of my best friends is half African, half Indian. Also, conservatives don’t blindly love progress. As CS Lewis wrote in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, ” ‘Have you no idea of progress, of development?’ ‘I have seen them both in an egg,’ said Caspian. ‘We call it Going Bad in Narnia…’ ”

            Otherwise, I agree with what you’re saying.
            Here I was, Googling pictures of Lothlorien, and I stumbled upon a scholary paper! Another question: Were you made to read Jared Diamond? I was, and it was a good thing that happened to me, but it was hard. Your review was like Jared Diamond if he was talking about something I was interested in (I am interested in land axes, just not as much as I am in Avatar.) and if he had colorful pictures.

  6. Rurik McKaiser permalink
    January 12, 2010 8:37 pm

    Hi DriesMan

    Thanks for this beautifully written and well presented piece of work. I had great fun absorbing your scholarly genius.

    Chat soon.

  7. January 13, 2010 9:14 pm


    I am fresh from watching Twilight movies with the kids, and have held back going to Avatar with them, despite their raves. I am not a 3D fan.

    I am really excited to see Ursula le Guin entering the discussion. As you know, Deirdre has been editing my book. As you know Deirdre did her PhD on le Guin, so you can imagine that I have been thrown in the deep end being a sociologist/ activist and not a literary fundi. Gladly you can play that role for me vicariously.

    Anyway, I have acknowledged le Guin in the front of the book and quoted from her essays The Language of the Night. There is much in that little volume that stirred me deeply.

    Somehow, there is some stuff in Avatar, reading your review, which is similar to the themes of my writing. I read your comments on the noble savage, the white saviour and so on with angst that I may have felt into the trap. I hope not.

    My theme is (hopefully) the reverse: let’s strip away the pathologies of whiteness, let’s understand the ideological representation of blackness as a complex of fears, anxieties, etc, and pierce the veil. TS Eliot meets the San, the Gamawela rainmakers, the independent churches, herbalists, healers. We find an identity which speaks to us (as whiteness) what society does not want us to hear. Our identity will not be negated. Blackness does not need saving from itself. It’s whiteness that needs healing from its pathologies, its delusions of being at the centre of the world, and so on.

    I am beginning to think that the war on terrorism is a war not with fundamentalism, but a war between fundamentalisms. We forget the 19th century imaginary of the world that led to imperialism and colonialism. It was fundamentalist in the full sense of the word with its concept of a universal historical subject (in various ways), a sense of the world that can be known (and controlled) absolutely, subordinating other identities in its path.

    My question is this: Who is the savage and who needs saving?

    In my text, the Anglican church plays the role of the paternalistic saviour, with its successor in the modern day white progressive activist.

    Both continue to see the world outside of their own as a void. Blackness is a void. Black identity is a void. The black maid is a void.

    There are other narratives of freedom that operate without any reference to whiteness, or its texts about needing to save the noble savage. Whiteness fears that this is its negation. It is its own void that it doesn’t want to see.

    Strangely, freedom is on the other side of the void.


  8. January 14, 2010 4:38 am

    lovely! nothing significant to add this time (save that I’m not all that convinced by the 3D).

  9. Jeanne permalink
    January 14, 2010 9:42 am


    Yes and yes. Thank you. Absolutely spot on!

    I was thinking though that one set of references you have chosen not to explore which is actually worth thinking about a bit more is in fact that of science fiction. Yes, the film is really more grounded in fantasy, but one cannot forget Cameron’s connection to SF films. I found it interesting that the boss anthropoligist is played by Sigourney Weaver, which inevitably made me think of Ripley in the Alien films. I wonder if that was a conscious move, or just ironic. Cameron made the second film, which I have always thought in no way compares to the sophistication of the first, directed by Ridley Scott. I would add Scott’s original version to your list of films that explores this kind of subject matter in a far more subtle and honest way than Avatar does. It dealt with all the ambiguities of imperial identity, and in particular how knowledge as science, commerce and war are so inextricably linked. In Scott’s Alien, Ripley opens Pandora’s box and finds herself up against the ultimate monster invader, one that occupies your very body; only to discover that the mission she had been given by her commercial \ military \ scientist bosses had all along been to bring the monster home, since it so perfectly encapsulates what they aspire to. In Avatar, Grace is one of the monster invaders, and steps inside the skins of her victims; but I do not think the film every really acknowledges this completely. Remember the cyborg Ash’s dying words:

    “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? … a perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility … I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

    There is a certain degree of self-knowledge in that, as a narrative. And delusions of morality is, I would say, one of the key problems with Avatar. In Cameron’s version of Alien, as in Avatar, this storyline is taken over for far more simplistic purposes, particularly in context of Cameron’s approach to the resolution of the narrative problem. If I remember correctly, Ripley takes the alien on mother to mother (“get away from her, bitch!”) which by the way echoes the ending in Avatar , with Ripley this time in the humanoid war machine. And then the plot is closed off as she assumes her position in the perfect little nuclear family. It works, of course, as a film; that is one of Cameron’s stregnths – taking the banal logic of the hollywood plot and exploiting it to its full potential. I guess he just does this comfortably in a film such as Aliens and Terminator II than in Avatar, because those are unconscious celebrations of militarism, whereas Avatar is trying to be something else.



    • andries du toit permalink*
      January 14, 2010 1:27 pm

      Wow, those are really thought provoking and insightful comments. I never saw Alien II, so all those nuances are lost on me. I guess I will have to pay a visit to DVD nouveau…

  10. Deirdre permalink
    January 14, 2010 1:15 pm


    I enjoyed your review very much. The problem – for me – with Avatar is that it subscribes wholesale to U.S. mythology about itself. There are two mythologies at work in the film: one, as you rightly point out, is the myth of a return to a prelapsarian state. This is so deeply embedded in all our consciousness that the only way out, that I know of, is the Buddhist concept enlightenment, in which nirvana and samsara are one, so that we accept that our conditioned and contingent world of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) is, precisely, the world of enlightenment, equanimity and interpersonal compassion that we are all longing for. To reach that, though, is a long, long journey and it is one that I walk, but without any arrival date.

    I can forgive Avatar for subscribing to the ‘return to Eden’ myth, because pretty much everything does. The bit I can’t forgive is the part where it buys wholesale into U.S. patriotism. Now this is the subtle part of the film. Quaritch is the colonialist we love to hate, whose response to the Na’vi is simply to kill them. We all know that in the postcolonial context, we do not buy into such reductionist thinking, so we easily disidentify from him and identify with Grace and the Omaticaya instead. Jake Sully (an unconscious echo of Monsters, Inc.?) is more complex, because he’s the archetype of U.S. masculinity – the wounded Marine who all too easily acknowledges his own shortcomings, particularly in the field of science; but nevertheless, he is the rebel who makes good when provided with a new and capable body. And he becomes the leader of the Omaticaya, earning their respect when he flies the giant ikran – which implies that, however sophisticated ‘the natives’ are, they still need help from a real-life, American hero. There is no acknowledgement at all that they would have done fine without an injection of U.S. testosterone, because actually, their thought-systems and social arrangements, Other though they be, are perfectly adequate in their own Otherness. In this way the U.S. mindset does not get beyond itself at all in the film, and audiences go home vindicated in their own unquestioning cultural patriotism.

    Many people have commented on the similarities between Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and Avatar. For example, Davidson is a Quaritch-type, one-dimensional and so macho you can’t but hate him (a possible flaw in his characterization). But her Athsheans are much more subtly drawn than the Omaticaya – less beautiful (who wouldn’t want a Na’vi body? I think this is one of the film’s greatest drawcards!) and the sadness that they have learned to kill that pervades the end of the novel is a lot more realistic than the ending of Avatar.

    All this said, as your review aptly points out, Avatar has no real grounding in reality, and that’s its greatest attraction. We don’t like to swell Tony’s already oversized creative ego, but his text, in its meticulous attention to historical accuracy, is far more realistic in its exploration of the ideas that really keep people apart, and the micro-discourses of power that govern our identities, as well as some of the micro-resistances that such pervasive ideology calls forth.


    • andries du toit permalink*
      January 14, 2010 1:31 pm

      Exactly. The Na’vi are portrayed as noble but a little bit unworldly, and though they have warriors, their bravery is portrayed as hopeless and romantic. It takes an American from the Tribe of Jarhead to teach them some real fighting skills. Nauseating, as I said. It simply reeks of Cameron’s obsequious love of the American military.

  11. January 14, 2010 2:30 pm

    A last reflection before my ego bursts!

    The problem is that the mining company has so many plans for sustainable mining and development, based on the global environmental discourse, that mining-affected communities are an annoyance for not accepting ‘scientifically-based plans.’

    In an ideal world the mining company would not have to deal with people, and would express its own claim to nobility through saving the environment, which will be better after mining than before. After all, the natives will simply stuff it all up again.

    Once again negotiation between equals cannot take place because a residual element of the imperial imaginary, social darwinism, comes with a bind.

    Do we exterminate ‘lower human forms’ or do we save them? Do we see lower forms as part of nature, which is an instrument, or as part of humanity? The noble human instinct for collective survival and compassion which makes the ‘higher human form’ superior wins out, otherwise the claim to imperial superiority fails. This usually resolves itself by one force of imperialism doing the killing and the other doing the saving.

    The saving part is a conflicted role, making trade-offs of its own. The saviour who emerges from the belly of the imperial power is in a quest to save his (?) own claim to superiority, his own ‘higher human form.’ Without him the imperial project would be pure contradiction. The imperialist would become a savage again.

    • Deirdre permalink
      January 15, 2010 11:15 am

      Brilliant, Tony! Your insights into the mining enterprise are spot on. And since you’ve had more experience than most with mining multi-nationals, your comments are well taken indeed. I especially like your remarks about one side doing the killing and the other side doing the saving. In either activity, the ‘natives’ are completely disempowered. Their agency is restricted to looking wide-eyed and innocent, either in alarm at the destruction of their homes or in gratitude to the Great White Saviour. It’s a nauseating justification of the colonial enterprise in a revamped form.


  12. January 14, 2010 4:26 pm

    Also saw it twice 🙂

    After the first time, I could hardly speak to anybody, I felt that my head was so full of contradictory feelings.

    I had exactly the same response to as you had to the essential dishonesty of the plot. The story should be a tragedy. From the beginning, the power of the move comes from its tragic heart – you know “this cant end well”.

    And then it does.

    And it sort of falls flat.

    Wolf comments that possibly the loss of Grace, a mother figure, fits the bill – but I experienced it differently. When she died, my only thought was – “Ah. So that is how they are going to solve the problem of how to get Jake Sully into a Na’vi body”. That is why she had to die. She could not be transferred, as that would dilute the power of Jake’s successful transfer.

    That also stole the heart out of the movie for me – the fact that he actually made the transfer.

  13. andries du toit permalink*
    January 14, 2010 6:46 pm

    I thought the best ending would be this: Quaritch smashes the window of the pod. Jake lies gasping, trying to get to the gas mask. Neytiri comes in through the window, but she is too late, and she holds him dying in her arms. And then Jake sees her through human eyes and realise that her Elvish beauty was how he saw her through Na’vi eyes. Actually she is a D9 style prawn, with clicking mandibles and eyes on stalks. But they gaze lovingly at each other anyway, and he dies.

    That would be cool, wouldn’t it?

    • Zootsutra permalink
      May 17, 2010 12:47 am

      Cool, but far too complex for the marketing suits who insist on happy endings.

  14. January 19, 2010 2:45 am

    Thanks for an excellent analysis, that captured all of my doubts about the movie as well as it expressed the sense of wonder I felt with its beauty.

    And imagine having Ursula LeGuin commenting!

  15. jadesmith09 permalink
    January 19, 2010 7:50 pm

    Quite the best article I’ve read on this film: and I am probably one of the few people who hasn’t seen it. And doesn’t want to.

    I was excited to see the movie while watching the TV trailer, but as soon as I heard about the film’s agenda, I lost interest.

    Thank you for including the gorgeous artwork in this post. Actually, the art of the movie is the only thing that will make me sad I missed it.

    The conclusion, as you describe it, sounds anticlimatic. A sacrifice by the main character would have served the plot’s purpose better, perhaps.

    Thanks for the article! Jade

    • andries du toit permalink*
      January 20, 2010 2:15 pm

      I am sorry you won’t be seeing it. It is eminently worth seeing, and the seriousness of the disappointment arises partly out of the importance of the issues it evokes and the way in which it evokes them.

  16. colleen crawford cousins permalink
    January 22, 2010 11:06 pm

    Finally saw the movie. You have to queue up and book and everything. (This movie is making a fortune). Yes it is very beautiful – in the first half, and until the boring battle scenes, well worth seeing (you could leave after that, Ursula). Want to agree with Andries’s suggestion for the perfect ending: there is a tiny hint of it in the great size of the princess native and the tiny unhandsome (compared to his native self) crippled human Jakescully, but I think the disappointment we feel is because the film breaks a very strict rule of the old stories, and we are cheated and feel cross. The wounded hero – a transitional figure, neither of this world nor the other – (the definition of hero, or culture changer) – MUST die for the new world to be born. Hero stories always end ambiguously, for no-one ever thinks the new world is better than the old (the story is always told backwards) it’s just that the change is inevitable and always organised around crisis. Ursula LG’s comment illustrates this point: the Athsheans cannot unlearn how to kill.
    Because in this movie everything is so vaguely mad and madly vague and it’s so hard to take the story seriously we don’t know a damn thing about the natives, (who perhaps already know how to kill) but I was disappointed at the lack of any stab at a coherent science; the mother figure Grace (Wolf is right) is portrayed as ludicrous and missing the point with her “samples” and vague philosophies about er trees and neurons and so on. (Her opposite is the action boygirl fighter pilot toughie whom we are meant to admire. Damn intellectuals.)

  17. T.Katz permalink
    January 28, 2010 6:12 pm

    Oh yeah, the film has a total annoying ending. Hollywood calling…
    Is there a slight longing for punishment in those wanting a bad ending for persons who take responsibility (aka “heroes”, sad as it is that normal people are not considered taking it)?
    Just a thought. Some of you seem to think that nothing good can come from taking a stand. Yeah, that’s the fear big money and media want us to have.

    I see no law (of nature or else) which is stating a “hero” should always be punished.

    On the other hand we can imagine that the loss of three close friends can be seen as such.

    I agree that i did long for another, more realistic ending too – one without deus ex machina (here a deus ex natura) and without the hollywoodesque slaughter scenes which did add nothing to the message.

    And i really can not approve to the comments on how bad the “black and white”-painting of that movie is. Oh yes, i know that the world has it’s shades of grey. But some things are black, and some are white. Denying this is mostly just a bad excuse to not take responsibility.

    Please see

    • andries du toit permalink*
      February 2, 2010 7:11 pm

      Of course there is good and bad. But what we see here is not the realisation of that. What we see here is splitting – reducing the complexity of reality to a simplistic polar opposition. And that, my friend, is one of the roots of evil.

  18. brian permalink
    January 30, 2010 2:31 am

    ‘ In this essay, Kleist argues that the state of grace embodied in lost youthful innocence cannot and should not be regained. For Kleist, and for Pullman, there is no way back.’

    Kleist never said that, and no spiritual practitioner believes it.

    Here is the dialogue:

    ‘”Now, my excellent friend,” said my companion, “you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

    “Does that mean”, I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

    “Of course”, he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

    infinite consciousness….or enlightenment…The goal of Buddhism..

    But thanks for pointing out whats self evident: Pandora is a dream/faerie world….why else the ‘Your not in Kansas anymore’ reference…

    its the final chapter, because the goal had been attained

    • andries du toit permalink*
      February 2, 2010 7:15 pm

      OK, yes, you are right. My formulation was perhaps unclear. Kleist did believe that grace can be re-attained. But the path (back) to grace lay forward, by entering consciousness, not by seeking regress in childish innocence.

      As for Pandora embodying the final chapter… I don’t think the movie provides support for that interpretation. I think the Na’vi are pictured as living in a prelapsarian state, never having fallen out of grace with Eywa.

      • brian permalink
        February 18, 2010 11:02 am

        whatever do you mean by ‘entering consciousness’?

        Pandora is not the final chapter, nor is it a christian parable, so ‘grace’ is not an issue.
        Your calling them ‘prelapsarian’ is a christian critique,,,such as missionary might make , just before he cut down the tree of souls.
        Its a slap in the face at any traditional culture.

        I dont see 2154 earth making anyheadway with its problems, anymore than ours is.

  19. brian permalink
    January 30, 2010 2:38 am

    ‘Enter the World, it says. But what it really means is, Leave it. The real world is too broken. Industrial civilization may be raping the planet, but dealing concretely and practically with our accountability for our impact in the real world is asking too much from us. Let us rather sleep. Let us depart into the virtual, disembodied world. Let us dream.’

    thats not the message i get…it ways : take action….prevent 12154 from occuring…

    Jake awakens by…going to sleep…he learns to unlearn thanks to the Na;’vi, and he has a real effecgt on the human Hells gate.

    Anhy studentn of buddhism knows the importance of dream yoga: where by while sleeping ones learns to awaken….

  20. brian permalink
    January 30, 2010 2:53 am

    ‘An angel with a burning sword guards the gate of Paradise. Re-attaining grace requires us to build the Republic of Heaven in this world: we have to go forward, use what we learned from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, forsake innocence, take up adult consciousness.’

    this is muddled…the point of Kleists article is that ‘adult consciousness’ is the problem…but then youve left the word ‘adult’ undefined…. Kleists infinite./god….which is the goal of much of indian based mysticism…

    • andries du toit permalink*
      February 2, 2010 7:17 pm

      I am not sure what you are trying to say here. My paraphrase is really of Pullman, who uses Kleist’s idea for his own end. Are you just splitting hairs?

  21. brian permalink
    January 30, 2010 2:59 am

    as i feared:

    ‘But the film does not follow this path. It could have done so: we can imagine a movie in which Jake leaves Pandora in its unspoilt wildness, taking the Corporation with him. Or the film could give us the real ending, the outcome we secretly know is inevitable: the World Tree killed, the aliens enslaved and alcoholic, Pandora terraformed, the jungle destroyed or preserved only in isolated natural parks. But this is not the story the film tells; it dares not tell it like this. No: somehow the garden of Eden must triumph… no, more; it must triumph and maintain its original innocence. That is what infantile desire (read: Hollywood convention) requires.’

    a cynic…its thanks to such attitudes that we have a crisis…
    Jake couldnt go back as he had killed humans….his remaining is due to his transformative journey..or have the jungian/buddhist parallels passed over u? Thats the third alternative, you see immune to…its the way of all spirtual paths

    Your second choice of endings is vile…from any real human perspective…and suggests defeatism… as we also see in Pullmans novel.

    Lucky Cameron didnt hire u as a script consultant.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      February 2, 2010 7:20 pm

      No comment. Though, when I disagree with someone, i just try to speak for myself, not to banish my poor opponent from ‘any real human perspective’.

      As for the second ending being vile – yes, it is. And it is happening all around us. The powers of the world frittering away our future at Copenhagen: what could be viler than that? And it is happening right in front of our eyes.

      • brian permalink
        February 18, 2010 11:04 am

        i suggest you tell them to get some consciousness…

        id tell them that civilisation they stood for was a frightful mistake doomed to destruction..

  22. Carl permalink
    January 30, 2010 5:02 am

    This reviewer missed the whole point of the movie and the messages contained within it. All this talk about “adult consciousness”, “infantile consciousness”, naivete, all the myth and archetypal imagery he brought up, all the psychoanalysis and comparing with other people’s work etc etc….all a lot of useless twaddle. Why??….because he, and a lot of others who commented, have failed to see what the point of the picture was. Why it used all those archetypes and the stunning imagery to convey its point. Don’t for one minute think there wasn’t a message in the movie….there was. But with all this self serving navel gazing and over blown analysis of every little nuance of the film, they’ve lost it completely. The whole message of the film was this….

    Open your eyes and your soul. Open them to the reality that you face in this world we live in. Open to everything…not only the beauty and the wonder but also to the darker side. To the darker side of ourselves and take ownership of that. Instead of hiding behind all the grimy facades that we do. Behind the “isms” we create, the lies of our society, our stupidity and wantonness. Take responsibility for our lives and our actions and not wait to be “saved”. We are the only ones responsible for ourselves, no one else.

    All this self serving analysis is a symptom of the malaise we find ourselves in. What is couched in the guise of “adult consciousness” is nothing more than the attempt of a juvenile mind trying to rationalise their own plight in the light of an idea they barely comprehend. Being “adult” doesn’t mean being cutoff from the “child” within. Unfortunately, that is something which is all too prevalent in modern society. No, being “adult” means to approach life with the wonder and awe of a child, with the wisdom gained by knowledge and experience. That is also seriously lacking with modern society, but has been a constant thorn in the side of humanity for a very long time. We have grown very capable, able to do a great many wondrous things, yet our minds still play the same tricks on us as when we were juveniles. We have failed to grow up spiritually and we are now reaping the fruits of that folly.

    This review is symptomatic of that folly….you are more than your mind/ego. Learn to live a little within your heart/soul and you may finally see the way a bit more clearly.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      February 2, 2010 7:27 pm

      You are right: being adult does not mean being cut off from the child within. But what does it mean? I think it does mean forsaking the cheap and easy pay-offs of the stories a twelve year old boy might imagine himself the hero in (which is how I experience the ending of Avatar)

      Read Le Guin’s take on the same story. Like Cameron’s movie it asks us to open our eyes; like Cameron’s movie, and as you so beautifully say, it is about taking responsibility and accepting the monster within. But the Ashthean’s triumph in The Word for World is Forest comes at a cost, and the beauty of the book lies in the way in which it evokes both the necessity of the struggle and the reality of the loss.

      Finally, regarding the personal remarks. I wouldn’t presume to judge from your writing whether you are living in your heart / soul or not, and I would ask you not to do the same. As for ‘twaddle’… was that necessary? Personally I like it when we disagree with one another on this blog. But if you insult people, you’re only making yourself look bad. Getting passionate about these issues is welcome, but let’s play nice?

    • April 11, 2010 10:04 pm

      Wow, Carl. It appears to me you missed the entire point of the review (or any type of media-related review for that matter)

      We know the whole message of the film, we really do; and you summed it up nicely in some sort of creepy, hippy, over-the-top cheesy paragraph.

      What’s being discussed is the film as a visual medium, as a form of storytelling and also what/how it draws its inspirations or how it could have potentially been “better”.

  23. brian permalink
    January 30, 2010 1:06 pm

    jadesmith: ‘Quite the best article I’ve read on this film: and I am probably one of the few people who hasn’t seen it. And doesn’t want to.”

    you read an article on a film youve never seen and hate, no reason given why you hate it……Maybe if you DID go and see it you turn out to like it
    katz: how is the end annoying?Again , no explanation
    I agree that i did long for another, more realistic ending too – one without deus ex machina (here a deus ex natura) and without the hollywoodesque slaughter scenes which did add nothing to the message’

    ive never had any such longing, as id call that view a longing for a defeatist ending, which explains a lot about modern political life…esp on the left
    ‘…Millions of people love the film and its ending…they dont like to see a whining defeat, as if this will somehow translate into an improved real world.

  24. February 2, 2010 10:33 pm

    Fascinating article! A link to this article was left in the comment section of my own review of “Avatar” on BlogHer:

    My review is not nearly as deep as your and I appreciate your honesty in acknowledging the greatness of the film while still critiquing its shortcomings. As I said in the comment section of my own post, I think you’re asking a lot from a Hollywood movie of this kind.

    The writing skill you’re looking for simply isn’t in Hollywood right now, or probably more correctly, isn’t working in Hollywood right now. And if they were, would the movies make money?

    I know it’s sounds crass but the sociological conscience I think you’re looking for would need to come from a more sociologically sophisticated and aware population, and unfortunately, we ain’t there yet.

    Thanks for putting my brain cells to work today.


  25. February 3, 2010 3:20 am

    Excellent article. Thank you for writing it. I agree entirely and will refer all future discussions of Avatar that I encounter to this thorough and thoughtful piece.

  26. the dude abides permalink
    February 19, 2010 2:31 am

    A very good review, except perhaps …

    “No: somehow the garden of Eden must triumph… no, more; it must triumph and maintain its original innocence. That is what infantile desire (read: Hollywood convention) requires.”

    Is this really Hollywood convention? Everywhere else in your review you cite all the well-known stories that do not do this, stories in which protagonists cross back from the land of Faerie into our world, or pass through adolescence from innocence, but it seems to me that the one-way journey and identification Jake has is unusual, especially if your predecessors are Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas/The New World, neither of which ends happily for the “natives” or the white man who identifies with them. I even suspect that James Cameron has broken with convention by giving us a wish-fulfilment that so clearly overturns or contradicts what so much of human history.

  27. Marco permalink
    February 26, 2010 5:57 pm

    Great article!!! Just saw the movie yesterday, and I agree that Roger Dean deserved some recognition, I even wondered if he was involved with the movie at all!!!

  28. March 13, 2010 11:37 pm

    What a wonderful and thought-provoking article. I am not a spambot. There is however, a small chunk of it that I disagree with.

    It is that, try as we might, we cannot ignore the uncomfortable fact that Scully prevails only by turning the Na’vi into that which they oppose.

    The Na’Vi are hunters and warriors. More precisely, this particular tribe of Na’Vi that the RDA interacted with are hunters and warriors. Neytiri’s first appearance is her kicking the crap out of a bunch of Pandora-sized hyena-cognates.Hell, they only accepted Sully because he was of Clan Jarhead i.e. a soldier. They are not le Guin’s Athsheans; they are Space Native Americans with all that that implies.

    One horrible jarring note is struck when we realize that somehow (it is never explained how) the Omaticaya appear to have acquired a lot of modern day electronic battle-comms gear, whispering tersely to one another over earbud headphones and microphones.

    It’s hardly rocket surgery. It would make no sense for the auxillary outpost used by Grace, Sully and Norm after their escape *not* to have boxes of supplies.

    Another is when the wild beasts of the jungle rise up together against mechanized invasion. This was not supposed to happen: As Neytiri explained earlier, Pandora’s mother-goddess looks after the balance of life and death itself;

    That balance only exists inside Eywa herself and applies only to Na’Vi-on-Na’Vi and Na’Vi-on-animal violence. Environmental annihilation/Scorched-Pandora lobotomy from an alien species is a bit of an Outside Context Problem.

    But perhaps you are less cynical than myself. She is not protecting her neurons but the entire ecology of lifeforms contained within her, that, in a very real sense, *are* her.

    You are right about a lot of things in this article but not that.

  29. Liv permalink
    March 30, 2010 12:12 pm

    I may have missed it, but no one has seemed to discuss the actual physical bond that the Na’Vi make with the flying lizards. To me their was something disturbing and ambiguous about this capture and subduing of these creatures.

    Beyond that, I think that human beings would find such a physical bond with the land and with animals very disturbing, and VERY non-human. The only way we have of understanding such physical bonds as are displayed in the movie is sex. And I think the reason it’s been skipped over in all the discussions I’ve seen is exactly because we’re not comfortable with it. But it’s really fascinating for that reason.

    What would it mean to physically link with another creature in a way that has nothing to do with human sexuality? Would such a physical linking with another creature be erotic in some sense exactly because it is physical?

  30. April 2, 2010 8:28 am

    Dear Prof Andries

    I enjoy the acuteness of your reviews very much…one thought leads to another without end and the many thoughts here evoked many thoughts there …I have read your review on Disgrace and District 9 and also skimmed throught Avatar..what edifices of thought…you make an excellent archeologist of the almost here and now –

    Also amazed to see how thought-full the South African diaspora is, and what a bonus that great writers like Ms Le Guin are popping up here…what a wonderful multilogue…I suppose next JM Coetzee will be leaving a message…

    all this thinking has made me hungry…let me go and fix myself a peanut butter and jam matza sandwhich…if you’ve ever wanted more filling than substrate matzah is the way to go

    • carl permalink
      April 3, 2010 11:36 am

      i really enjoyed reading your critique, and you put forward a lot of interesting points. but as mentioned above, some things i’d say you’re wrong about. Sully and the Na’vi got the advanced weapons / military equipment from the link unit they picked up in the mountains, and the Na’vi are fierce warriors before they enter the final battle.

      I would like to add a little more. you said something about the ending, that Cameron chooses to go with the fairy tail, and to let us sleep in some sweet hallucination in a fictional fairyland, as our own world, Earth, is now getting trashed by civilization. he links Pandora to some sort of Lothlorien – not science fiction, but fantasy. I am by no means an expert, just a fan of science fiction, and quite an idealist in making our own world better, but i think it wouldn’t be that far off target to say that you can’t simply conclude with that. the fact that it ends well is not permanent considering there will probably be two more films. so perhaps the current “Pandora” status will not resemble the way things will look after the third movie. it might revolve. and well, even if this creates an unrealistic divide between Pandora and our Earth, i think it still inspires a lot of people to be more concerned about environmental degradation and imperialism.

      these are some of the statements i disagreed with, more or less. but i think most of what you wrote was interesting, and i’ll think about it when i discuss avatar with others.

  31. Vlad permalink
    April 8, 2010 3:07 am

    Thank you for this blog post. Although you make several good points & I like the comparisons with various literary sources, especially Tolkien — I’m a big J.R.R. Tolkien buff myself — I nevertheless got the impression while reading it that this is just not how I perceived the film when I saw it. You seem to be in the camp of, “Avatar is just filled with recycled cliches.” I’ve heard this before and I still don’t get why this is an issue; if the story is inspiring, why does it matter that it has been “told” before? In any case it hasn’t been told in exactly this way. And finally, all great human stories have already been told since the dawn of time: there’s truly “nothing new under the sun,” as Solomon said. They follow certain schemas & patterns that seem to be evolutionarily ingrained into our consciousness.

    The last paragraph made me think a bit about differing perceptions of the movie. It reminds me of an article I recently read, either in Psychology Today or Scientific American: Mind — I don’t remember which now — that people generally react to Avatar in two ways: one is to be inspired and the other to be depressed. It seems that you fall into the second category. You view the movie as a trip to “Faerieland” from which we have to wakeup. In other words, the premise & efforts of the characters is so implausible in your mind, so unreal, that you feel that the only option for us is to wake up from it. Of course it’s not real in one sense, but you doesn’t seem to feel what I believe is one of the main points: empathic respect for nature, and the reduction/elimination of oppression and its ego roots (greed, anger, & ignorance). And seeing it this way makes me want to LIVE more in *this* world, not wake up from any false one.

    The real clincher is when you write, “But what it really means is, Leave it. The real world is too broken. Industrial civilization may be raping the planet, but dealing concretely and practically with our accountability for our impact in the real world is asking too much from us.” Actually, the impression I got from the movie was exactly the opposite of that — “I *want* to make a difference! There is so much that needs to be done in the world!” It goes back to that psychological issue of different reactions to the movie.

    It’s interesting how the same material can give rise to two different viewpoints, based entirely on one’s personality, past experiences, etc. Not to judge either way good or bad, but it’s regrettable, I think, that someone would endeavour to bash something that has demonstratively proven to be inspirational to many (and not just myself). In fact, I bet that most of the people who’ve seen Avatar have been inspired, which is precisely why it’s been the #1 grossing movie of all time. The idea that it’s been so successful is due entirely to its revolutionary 3D and CG imaging, not its story, is total bunk as far as I’m concerned! (Which is also why it most definitely deserved to be awarded Best Picture, IMO.) Perhaps it’s just that those who’ve been inspired just tend not to blog about it too much — it’s a general internet phenomenon that those who complain about or dislike something will voice those complaints the loudest, more so than those who are content or happy with something.

    Anyway… just had to get that off my chest. Thanks again for the thought-provoking blog entry, and for the pretty pictures! 🙂

    • andries du toit permalink*
      April 8, 2010 8:00 am

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. A couple of responses:

      First off, my problem is not that Avatar contains ideas that have been used before. I’m one of those people who believe that every story has already been told. For example, The Corpse Bride is in many ways a retelling of an old Eskimo myth called Skeleton Woman. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, movies like Spirited Away, Pan’s Labyrinth, Coraline, (and, now, Alice in Wonderland and Where the Wild Things Are) are all recycling the same ideas over and over again. But a retelling can be fresh, inventive, imaginative — or it can be derivative and predictable. I thought Avatar fell somewhere between the two. I thought that visually it is gorgeous, and filled a powerful charge of feeling. But the way the plot unfolds; and particularly the manipulative and simplistic nature of the movie’s politics just spoils that. I still shudder at that ‘this is my land’ moment. People my age still remember needles jumping on records, breaking the spell. It’s like that.

      So I was neither inspired nor depressed. As I say in my first paragraph, I felt disappointed: manipulated, used. I thought wonderful story material had been spoiled by being retold by a 12 year old boy.

      Finally, about wanting to do stuff. Let’s wait and see. My sense is that the movie plays into a singularly ineffective kind of ‘doing’ – one which does not want to deal with the difficult and disappointing compromises we have to deal with in this scarily fucked world. (See my post on “two unconsciousnesses’ for more on that). Certainly the activists who draw on this movie for inspiration, and who berate me for not liking it, seem to me to be living in la-la land.

      Anyway, thanks for your kind words!

  32. stephanie permalink
    April 26, 2010 1:17 pm

    I watched Avatar on Saturday night on DVD (we have not been to a cinema since our baby was born two and a half years ago) and at first I thought maybe my disappointment was due to having waited so long. But this review really captured it for me. And getting a comment from Ursula K herself says it all in my books! Ironically, I had just re-read The Word for World is Forest (well, listened to, I read it the first time) and was just thinking of the key differences. I did not notice, being far less critical of Ursula than she is of herself, that Davidson is one dimensional. I suppose he is, really, but I do think even in his one dimensionality he is motivated. We do get some sense of a real person, and a sense of what drives him. The dude in Avatar (I can’t remember his name now) is just a position, a stand in for a role that gets played out in a hundred movies, particularly, as Andries points out so clearly, in that end sequence. What I noticed most was the point that Ursula Le Guin raised in her response to your review: that there is a loss. The issue is not whether or not the Na’vi were fighters or warriors before. The issue is, there is a substantial, global, spiritual sense of loss in The Word for World, that is the pay off for struggle. Ursula Le Guin captures the notion of revolution, gain, and loss so incredibly insightfully (particularly in Four Ways to Forgiveness) that the first time I read it, I thought, she must have lived through post-liberation South Africa. And killing off a couple of characters does not equate to loss or sacrifice. And it is not a matter of ‘punishment’. I totally agree with your notion of loss of childhood, Andries, that we, like Sam, have to go on. But even outside of that, the bottom line is, we are not going to change society just by choosing to do the stuff that’s the most fun. Sometimes we have to make really hard choices, and often, all the options are unappealing, and we have to choose the best one, and struggle to make sense of it, and struggle to continue to strive for a better world when our struggles seem to be going awry. This is what Ursula Le Guin captures in her wonderful novels, and what Avatar (which I also, actually, really enjoyed on a certain level, which again is put so well in the review) just trashes. Incidentally, I then read your review of District 9 and totally agreed with it as well. I also watched the whole thing (on a DVD in Geneva) wondering: would any non-South Africans ‘get it’? How could they? I kept watching my husband (who is Kenyan) to see his reactions, but then he did live in South Africa for 6 years, so I guess he has gone native enough to get all those exquisite inuendos. Anyway that is a long rave which was inspired by two outstanding, insightful, reviews. I’m still reading Lavinia, so won’t read your review on that one yet….Oh, and by the way, I loved your suggestion of an alternative ending for Avatar.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      April 29, 2010 6:17 pm

      Thank you! I am glad you enjoyed it. And let me know what you think of Lavinia…

  33. Sam Finnemore permalink
    August 4, 2010 1:07 am

    I must have read this a dozen times at least and get more out of it each time. Thank you.

    I do hope there are some new posts in the works sometime soon…

  34. August 24, 2010 6:52 pm

    Andries, I miss your posts … are you going to post again?

  35. April 12, 2011 12:50 am

    Just dropping in to share this link — a critique of Battle: LA that immediately reminded me of your excellent posts about Avatar and District 9. (As I mentioned in a comment.)


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