As a piece of entertainment, Avatar is probably the greatest cinematic thrill I have ever had. Other films that created similar experiences would be The Matrix, for much the same reasons, all three of Raimi’s Spider-Man films, and Ang Lee’s Hulk. These express the pure, raw, undiluted, visceral experiential thrill of cinema, which is one of the fundamental reasons I adore this art form over all others – when done properly, cinema can transport you. Indeed, transportation is important, particularly in science fiction in which world-building is key. In a recent poll of Greatest Science Fiction Films of All Time, I voted for Avatar because, more than any other sci-fi film, I felt it took me to another world (the poll was won, unsurprisingly, by Blade Runner). It was a world I could feel, believe in and care about, which is key to the film’s environmental ideology. To quote Carol Kaesuk Yoon of the New York Times, Avatar “has recreated what is the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world” [Kaesuk Yoon, Carol (January 19, 2010). “Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist’s Dream”. The New York Times: p. D-1].
In addition to a visceral thrill, I genuinely find watching Avatar to be a spiritual experience, which is rare for me. I would identify my top five films of all time as emotional, intellectual and spiritual experiences, the others being Titanic, perhaps unsurprisingly, Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings, and Heat. These films touch me on multiple levels, and when I encounter disparaging responses, I am both aggrieved and saddened that others do not share the positive experience that I have: “It’s fantastic, I want you to feel fantastic as well, you don’t, you’re being mean, stop it, etc”. It’s not that I’m right and you’re wrong (although…), it is that I want more people to be happy.
I think a key reason I don’t understand the problems that some other people have with the film, and even find the criticisms offensive, is that plot, characters and dialogue are not major concerns for me. I understand that the plot is prosaic and can be seen as “baggy” or “clunky”, but that is not a problem for me. Indeed, the extended version works better for me because there is so much more of Pandora, its flora and fauna, as well as the culture of the Na’Vi to enjoy. One of the key pleasures of re-watching films for me is the accumulation of detail, and the visual detail and attention to detail is a marvelous creation that I revel in. Is Avatar‘s plot formulaic and predictable? Yes, and I have absolutely no problem with that. And as we know, familiarity is a key ingredient in popular story-telling.
I honestly do not have any problem with the supposed “bad” dialogue in this film, nor Titanic or John Carter that are also berated for their dialogue. What makes dialogue by James Cameron “bad” and that of David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino (or indeed Michael Mann) “good”? The standards to which dialogue “should” be held have never been made clear to me, it seems like some piece of cultural knowledge I never acquired.
As for the characters, they are means to an end – what matters to me is what is going on and who it is happening to is largely unimportant, especially because I feel involved. Rather than being distanced from the film by grumbling over the lack of characterisation in Jake Sully (which I do not deny), I find myself within the experience and concerned with what will happen next and, indeed, what I would do. This is immersion (in however many dimensions), which film, at its best, can accomplish. I understand and share the pleasure of in-depth characterisation, but I do not see it as a requirement for high quality – they are one method of textual pleasure, much like 3D, special effects, music, shaky cam, cuts or fades, etc. In the case of Avatar, I also think there is something very deliberate and effective in making the characters archetypes, as I believe the film creates a contemporary myth and mythic characters work best as archetypes. Indeed, the character of Jake Sully is himself an avatar for the contemporary audience that are disengaged from the world and must learn to re-connect. This is the spiritual aspect of the film that is so easily missed – the film does not preach for a return to the woods and nature, it is entirely metaphorical and urging people to reconnect with our world, through a re-invigoration of cinema. There isn’t a lot of characterisation because it would be completely unnecessary and indeed a hindrance to the myth/metaphor.
Furthermore, while I can understand that many find Avatar preachy and didactic, I have no problem being lectured on an issue I absolutely agree with and believe should be expounded, the issue of conservation and anti-environmental exploitation. I also loathe cynicism, so the cynical response that somehow Avatar’s message is invalidated by it being a hugely successful commercial product raises my hackles. This position has no evidence, it appears to be no more than an assumption, and that arrogance bothers me as well. Indeed, research has shown that some reacted very positively to the film, reducing their carbon footprint and attempting a re-engagement with their environment. Good for them. And others would rather refuse to accept that a piece of wildly successful commercial entertainment could have a socially positive, therapeutic effect. What does it take for these people?
As for the accusations of racism, I find them problematic when they come exclusively from middle-class (predominantly white) academics. If indigenous people were shown the film and found it offensive, I’d credit that, but instead, people of the Amazon, Iraqis and Palestinians as well as environmentalists have spoken of their identification with the Na’Vi, which appears to contradict the critical/academic response. It’s fine to be offended on behalf of others, indeed that is a crucial aspect of social justice, but if those for whom you are offended are not, does it not make sense to support their position? The presentation of the Na’Vi is idealised, which is perhaps a stereotypical view of indigenous peoples, but when the presentation is positive, and detailed, and not simply explained away in terms of their beliefs just being their beliefs but demonstrated as something tangible and, for lack of a better term, real, that hardly seems racist: “It’s not racist to try to save humankind by targeting your efforts directly on transformation of the consciousness and practices of those currently doing most of the destroying” (Rupert Read, “Avatar: A call to save the future”, Radical Anthropology).
Academia has an unfortunate tendency towards cynicism and not accepting potentially positive suggestions, seeming instead desirous of vague criticisms about the status quo. An interesting comparison is Fight Club, that is a direct assault on consumerism through an aggressive narrative and visual style. Fight Club was a box office flop that became a cult favourite – Avatar reached a far wider audience and has sparked constructive political activism. This, surely, is something to be applauded.