Presence, reality and Avatar

[From The New York Review of Books]

Volume 57, Number 5 · March 25, 2010

The Wizard

By Daniel Mendelsohn

a film directed by James Cameron


What’s striking is that so many critiques of Avatar ‘s political shortcomings often go out of their way to elide or belittle the movie’s overwhelming successes as a work of cinema—its enormous visual power, the thrilling imaginative originality, the excitingly effective use of the 3-D technology that seems bound to change permanently the nature of cinematic experience henceforth—as if to acknowledge how dazzling it is would be an admission of critical weakness.[2]

An extreme example of this is to be found in a searching critique posted by the critic Caleb Crain on his blog:

Of course you don’t really believe it. You know objectively that you’re watching a series of highly skilled, highly labor-intensive computer simulations. But if you agree to suspend disbelief, then you agree to try to feel that Pandora is a second, improved nature, and that the Na’vi are “digital natives,” to repurpose in a literal way a phrase that depends on the same piece of ideological deception.[3]

But our “objective knowledge” about the mechanisms that produce theatrical illusion is beside the point. To witness a critic working so hard not to surrender disbelief—the aim, after all, of drama since its inception—is, in a way, to realize how powerful the mechanisms that seek to produce that surrender really are.

As it happens, the movie that haunts Avatar—one that Cameron has often acknowledged as his favorite film—is one that takes the form of a fable about the difference (and sometimes traffic) between fantasy and reality; a movie whose dramatic climax centers on the moment when the protagonist understands that visually overwhelming and indeed politically manipulative illusions can be the product of “highly skilled, highly labor-intensive simulations” (a fact that does not, however, detract from the characters’, and our, appreciation of the aesthetic and moral uses and benefits of fantasy, of illusion). That movie is, in fact, the one the Marine colonel quotes [as he welcomes some new recruits to Pandora – “Ladies and gentlemen, you are not in Kansas anymore!”]: The Wizard of Oz. Consideration of it is, to my mind, crucial to an understanding not only of the aesthetic aims and dramatic structure of Avatar but of a great and disturbing failure that has not been discussed as fervently or as often as its overtly political blind spots have been. This failure is, in certain ways, the culimination of a process that began with the first of Cameron’s films, all of which can be seen as avatars of his beloved model, whose themes they continually rework: the scary and often violent confrontation between human and alien civilizations, the dreadful allure of the monstrous, the yearning, by us humans, for transcendence—of the places, the cultures, the very bodies that define us.


The fascination with the seeming invincibility of sophisticated mechanical objects, and an accompanying desire to slough off human flesh for metal (and a celebration of flesh so taut it may as well be metal: Cameron’s camera loves to linger on the tightly muscled bodies, male and female, of the soldiers so often featured in his violent films), is a recurrent theme in the techno-blockbusters that cemented the director’s reputation in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Aliens famously ends with Weaver’s character, Ellen Ripley, battling the dragonish alien monster queen after strapping herself into a giant forklift-like machine whose enormous pincers she mechanically controls by maneuvering her own slender arms—a technology that puts the puny human, finally, on a par with her gigantic, razor-toothed, acid-bleeding adversary.

This kind of exaggerated mechanical body gear, which endows people with machine-like strength and power, is a recurrent prop in Cameron’s films. It’s crucial in Aliens and it pops up again in his 1989 submarine fantasy The Abyss, which imagines an encounter between a deep-sea oil-drilling team and an ethereally beautiful, bioluminescent species of marine aliens. Even in Titanic (1997), the clunky “human interest” subplot, about a doomed romance between a feisty Main Line nymphet and a free-spirited artist in third class, cannot compete with the swooning representation of machines: the ship itself, the pumping turbines and purring hydraulics and, later, the awful, methodical disintegration of those mechanical elements—and a lot of glittering modern-day gadgets, too. For the famous disaster sequence is intercut with scenes of present-day dives to the great wreck, during which human operators remotely manipulate treasure-hunting drones by means of sympathetic arm movements.


As the characters [in Avatar] tread on plants or trees, the latter light up delicately, for a moment; the ritually important Tree of Souls looks like a weeping willow made of fiber-optic cables. It’s a wonderful conceit that had me literally gasping with pleasure the first time I saw the movie.

This visual ravishment—which is the principal experience of the movie and which is, too, enhanced by the surprisingly subtle use of 3-D technology (there are gratifyingly few shots of objects projecting into the audience’s field; you just feel that you’re sharing the same plane as the creatures in the movie)—is part of a strategy intended to make us admire the Na’vi.


Even beyond the incoherence that mars Avatar and hopelessly confuses whatever it thinks its message may be, there is a larger flaw here—one that’s connected to Cameron’s ambivalence about the relationship between technology and humanity; one that also brings you back, in the end, to The Wizard of Oz; one that is less political than ethical.

If it’s right to see the movie as the culmination of Cameron’s lifelong progress toward embracing a dazzling, superior Otherness—in a word, toward Oz—what strikes you, in the end, is how radically it differs, in one significant detail, from its model. Like the 1939 classic, the 2009 film ends with a scene of awakening. By the end, the Na’vi have triumphed but the human Jake, operating his avatar from within his computerized pod, has been fatally hurt. His dying body is brought back to the Tree of Souls where, in a ceremony of the greatest holiness, the consciousness of the human Jake will be transferred, finally and permanently, into his Na’vi avatar. (Technology at its best, surely.) In the closing moments of the film the camera lingers suspensefully on the motionless face of avatar-Jake; suddenly, the large, feline eyes pop open, and then the screen goes black. We leave the theater secure in the knowledge that the rite has been successful, that the avatar Jake will live. (And that there will be sequels.)

This moment of waking is, structurally, a crucial one; at the very beginning of the film, during Jake’s introductory voice-over, the crippled man has poignantly described the liberating but ultimately deceptive dreams of flying that he often has: “I start having these dreams of flying…sooner or later, though, you always have to wake up.” The final image of the redeemed and healed Jake waking up to his new Na’vi life is clearly meant, then, to be a triumphant rewriting of that sour acknowledgment.

But the implications of this awakening—in a character that Cameron himself described as an unconscious rewriting of The Wizard of Oz ‘s Dorothy (“it was, in some ways, like Dorothy’s journey”)—are not only different from but opposite to the implications of Dorothy’s climactic wakening. When Dorothy wakes up, it’s to the drab, black-and-white reality of the gritty Kansas existence with which she had been so dissatisfied at the beginning of her remarkable journey into fantasy, into vibrant color; what she famously learns from that exposure to radical otherness is, in fact, that “there’s no place like home.” Which is to say, when she wakes up—equipped, to be sure (as she was not before) with all that she has learned from her remarkable odyssey, not the least of which is a strong new awareness of her own human abilities—she wakes up to the realities, and the responsibilities, of the human world she’d temporarily escaped from.

The triumphant conclusion of Avatar, by contrast, takes the form of a permanent abandonment of the gray world of Homo sapiens—which, as Dorothy learns, may contain its own hidden marvels—for the Technicolor, over-the-rainbow fantasy world into which Jake accidentally strayed. This represents something new in Cameron’s work, something you can’t help thinking is significant. In the director’s films of the 1980s and 1990s, in the Terminator films or in Aliens, in the misbegotten Abyss and even, in its way, in Titanic—just before the advent of cell phones and iPhones, of reality TV and virtual socializing, and, indeed, of mashups, of this new moment in which each of us can inhabit what you might call a private reality—the encounters with radical otherness or with extremes of violence and disaster always concluded, however awkwardly in some cases, with a moment of quiet, a return to the reassuring familiarity of life as most of us know it.

The message of what is now James Cameron’s most popular movie thus far, and the biggest-grossing movie in history—like the message of so much else in mass culture just now—is, by contrast, that “reality” is dispensable altogether; or, at the very least, whatever you care to make of it, provided you have the right gadgets. In this fantasy of a lusciously colorful trip over the rainbow, you don’t have to wake up. There’s no need for home. Whatever its futuristic setting, and whatever its debt to the past, Avatar is very much a movie for our time.


[2] A notable exception was the New Yorker review by David Denby, which begins, “Avatar is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years.” See “Going Native,” The New Yorker, January 4, 2010.

[3] Caleb Crain, “Don’t Play with That, or You’ll Go Blind,” his blog post at Crain is more resistant to the film’s beauties than I would be, and sees the director as “cynical” instead of unresolved in his treatment of technology and “primitive” cultures, as I see him.

[4] Dana Goodyear, “Man of Extremes: The Return of James Cameron,” The New Yorker, October 26, 2009.

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