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ON FILM: Mining gold

Avatar hits the mother lode but doesn’t dig that deeply.

By Philip Martin

This article was published January 29, 2010 at 12:53 a.m.


Na’vi Princess Neytiri (motion capture of Zoe Saldana) counsels the conflicted Jake (motion capture of Sam Worthington) in James Cameron’s Avatar, which has become the highest grossing movie ever.

— Last week James Cameron’s Avatar officially replaced Cameron’s Titanic as the biggest movie of all time - or at least the movie that has earned more than any other. It still has about $50 million - a couple of weeks - to go before it passes Titanic as the U.S. box-office champion.

Now, we should probably keep in mind a few things. First of all, if we were adjusting these totals for inflation, Gone With the Wind would still be the all-time box-office leader with something like $6 billion in ticket sales, as opposed to the $1.843 billion that Avatar has collected as of this writing. Far more people bought tickets to see Titanic (and Gone With the Wind) than have bought tickets to Avatar. The numbers for Avatar are further inflated because of its unprecedented number of 3-D showings, for which theaters charge significantly higher prices.

Still, most people didn’t think Avatar would come close to this kind of box office. Maybe Cameron did, maybe he’s not surprised that he has done it again, but you can count me among those who thought a science fiction eco-fable featuring computer-generated warrior fairies would probably have less broad appeal than a romance centered on a famous disaster. After all, my mom liked Titanic. I don’t think she cares much about the plight of the Na’vi.

From my point of view, Cameron’s success is annoying to the extent that people expect me to have some theory on the movie - on its success, on its “message.” I don’t. I think it’s a brilliantly realized, technically superior movie.

I don’t hate it: I think it’s pretty obvious, a dumb story with simply awful dialogue but in the end, it’s probably worth watching once for the innovation. We’ve been talking about the eventual obsolescence of motion picture actors for 20 years now - Cameron’s “performance capture” rig has brought us to the brink of that particular abyss. It’s something worth thinking about.

What worries me is how everyone - from right-wing ideologues to the Vatican - seems to have so much to say about the movie’s “ideas” and Cameron’s cosmology. While Cameron’s obviously not a dumb guy, the point of Avatar is to make a whole lot of money - more money than any other filmmaker has ever made. It’s a pop product, not a work of sustained coherency. Do you see Vedic references in the movie?Well, maybe Cameron planted them just for you. He made the Na’vi the color of Sri Krishna!

And sure, it’s a metaphor for colonial imperialism and you can, if you want to, see the bellicose earthlings as stand-ins for Crusader Nation. There’s nothing subtle or surprising about Jake Sully’s character arc in Avatar - he’s an infiltrator who ends up going native.

He falls in love with a princess. He undergoes an apotheosis reminiscent of Jesus Christ.What passes for philosophy in the film is a cafeteria plan featuring tidbits of New Age, American Indian and Christian theologies.

Which is perfectly all right for a big, dumb movie built to make money but hardly worthy of serious examination. Avatar isn’t only critic-proof, it resists serious criticism. You might as well analyze a beach ball.

So understand, I’m all right with Avatar; it’s OK if you like it, if you want to go see it again and again. It’s your (or your parents’) money. I don’t even care if you want to go online and pretend that you’re a Na’vi, if you write little poems in “your” little language or Photoshop yourself into a cyan-skinned cat person - lots of people go down lots of online rabbit holes without incurring ridicule.

But please understand this - I’m not interested. I don’t really care how your Na’vi fantasy team is doing anymore than I care about that Hogwarts gang or any of those bloody elves. Avatar is a movie, and though I recognize that it’s a very accomplished one, it’s not a great one and it’s honestly depressing to hear people who ought to know better discuss it like it’s got something meaningful to tell us.

The chief importance of Avatar is that it’s yet another signifier of the infantilization of our culture. We shout and bray at each other, and consider thoughtfulness a weakness. We are entertained by crudespectacles and bored by adult conversation. We are mostly children these days, petulant and rude and convinced of our own specialness.

Cameron is not to blame for this. He may have created Pandora, but not our current troubles, or our smug, self-regarding softness. He just found a very lucrative way to exploit them.


MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 01/29/2010

Print Headline: ON FILM Mining gold


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dunsparrow says... February 19, 2010 at 5:23 a.m.

Mr. Martin, what on earth are you doing in Arkansas? You have an amazing mind. Do something with it.

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Hawkes says... May 19, 2010 at 11:14 a.m.

When I finally saw "The Hurt Locker" - and was surprised at how negligible a piece of work it was - I thought I'd check out all ten of the Oscar-nominated domestic films. Only one - "A Serious Man" - is worthy, and mighty worthy, at that. The rest - what appalling ordinariness. And I've just seen "Avatar", as it has just now been released on disc. I couldn't agree more heartily with your review. Keep up the good work.

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Morgancub says... May 19, 2010 at 12:28 p.m.

Well said !! i'm the type that will watch a really good movie many times, because of the actors or the script.. Not so with Avatar. just can't get excited about it.. Star Wars was a pretty good movie.. It was 10 yrs old before i ever saw it !!
Are we totally bankrupt of entertainment ideas.. do you realize that almost every action hero from the comic books has been put on film, some with success... Richie Rich & Lottie as well.. We are infantile
in our searches for distraction.. Housewives of whereever & reality tv.. The first couple of Batman movies were comical as they were meant to be. But then they turned dark, almost to the point where they were unwatchable.. I couldn't believe some of the people that were so caught up, to the point of lunacy..
If you brought back the morning soaps from the beginning, i'm sure they would find a huge audience... "Goodbye Mr.Chips"

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