“Cameron is Hollywood’s dream boy: a superficial auteur with impeccable brand recognition.”
Within three weeks of its release, James Cameron’s Avatar became the second highest grossing film of all time, surpassed only by Titanic, Cameron’s previous fiction film. The bloated science fiction melodrama made $77 million in its opening weekend, the most profitable ever for a non-sequel. 20th Century-Fox puts the official budget at $237 million for actual production, with another $150 million for marketing, which means nearly forty percent of the budget was spent on selling Avatar — not merely a film but an “IMAX 3D experience.”
Another way to think of it is that Newscorp, Rupert Murdoch’s umbrella corporation that controls 20th Century-Fox, Fox News Channel, The New York Post, and hundreds of other media outlets, spent nearly $400 million on selling the James Cameron “experience.” When he won an Academy Award for directing Titanic, Cameron referenced that film’s screenplay — which he wrote — and called himself “the King of the World!” Now the press unironically throws this nickname around in nearly every major public discussion about him. In a country where television commercials pass for cultural events and corporate sponsorship is a measure of social success, Cameron is Hollywood’s dream boy: a superficial auteur with impeccable brand recognition.
It may not be an official sequel, prequel, spinoff, or remake, but Avatar has done so well because it’s a part of the James Cameron franchise, which has been in dire need of a makeover since the late ’90s. His name was tainted slightly after he made three mediocre documentaries about the bottom of the sea, and Fox attempted to revitalize his waning marketability by slapping his name with a producer credit onto commercials for their awful science fiction television series Dark Angel. Avatar itself is largely a 161-minute commercial for James Cameron, and if it really is, as Cameron claims, a harbinger of the future of cinema, then what it prophesies is the ascension of film as a promotional tool for the artist as a product.
Successful advertisement often abuses and exploits certain values that are either irrelevant or in direct opposition to what is actually being sold, Pavlovian triggers constructed to trick consumers into buying shit when they want Shinola. Beef companies, which raise their livestock on grassless industrial compounds, illustrate their product packaging with images of pastures, barns, and farmhouses, symbols of wholesomeness derived from the kind of agriculture that they are directly opposed to and which they actively destroy. Avatar is one of the most expensive motion picture ever made, produced by a subsidiary of one of the most powerful corporations on the planet, yet it carries an anti-capitalist message that many critics have derisively (and accurately) compared to environmentalist children’s movies like FernGully: The Last Rainforest, and Disney’s Pocahontas.
On the film’s fantasy world, an earth-like jungle moon called Pandora, an indigenous population of eco-friendly aliens, the Na’vi, square off against an American corporation that is trying to strip mine the place for a laughable gravity-defying mineral called “unobtainium.” Able to feel the “flow of energy” that runs through all life, the mystical Na’vi are, of course, able to thwart the brutish, mostly Caucasian humans, who are, with a few token exceptions, depicted as bureaucratic worms and fascist thugs. Several conservative film reviewers have chided the film for bringing American audiences to applaud the defeat of their own countrymen in war, even though Cameron bends over backwards to point out that the military in question is really a private army of mercenaries. It’s tempting to congratulate Cameron for managing to slip such subversion into a major blockbuster, but any relevance to Blackwater and Iraq seems accidental, and it’s not so much a result of sincere political concerns as it is an inevitable side-effect of shameless plagiarism.
A rather accurate summary of the film’s plot can be imagined by cobbling together the Poul Anderson novella Call Me Joe (a crippled man remote-controls an alien body) and the Ursula K. LeGuin novels Rocannon’s World (a white man leads a race of tribalistic aliens on a war against humans) and The Word for World Is Forest (forest-dwelling primitive aliens rebel against human colonialism). Everything in Avatar from the flying steeds and the whimsical rainforest aesthetic to the anti-imperialist jingoism and tree-hugging spirituality comes from these stories (it’s also a notable that Anderson, coincidentally, wrote a novel called The Avatar). Cameron’s limp politics are no more heartfelt than his two-dimensional heroes, and even less original.
Of course, despite their recognition within science fiction circles, neither Anderson nor LeGuin has the brand power of James Cameron. Regardless of artistic merit, their stories have little to no market value and are, thus, worthless in a capitalist film business. Their various materials — such as Anderson’s penchant for having primitive societies triumph over more advanced ones and LeGuin’s mythological sensibilities — are simply repackaged and resold under a name with some cachet, a name that can move product.
The designated hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a crippled ex-Marine who, in his “avatar body,” becomes the courageous leader of the Na’vi against the evil corporation that is trying to exterminate them, is little more than a simplified version of John Carter of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian novels. He’s flawless: uneducated but willing to learn, tough but tender-hearted, patriotic but ready to fight for the little guy. This is a hero Middle America can believe in, at least enough to spend fifteen dollars for an IMAX ticket. The dialogue feels like a series of marketing decisions to help sell the characters, catchphrases and buzzwords to help pitch them to the exact niche they’re supposed to fill. The first time we meet the corporate executive (Giovanni Ribisi), he is, naturally, too preoccupied with his new putter to pay attention to his top scientist (Sigourney Weaver), who is, of course, the humanistic voice of reason. The cast does what it can, especially the pitch-perfect Stephen Lang as the stereotypical military fascist villain, but the most gifted actors couldn’t hide the fact that these characters are merchandise, living action figures no more significant to the story than the flying warships and alien monsters.
In his recent book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges called Michael Jackson’s memorial service a variety show, a celebration of celebrity that ignored the bitter irony that Jackson’s life was actually destroyed by celebrity. Avatar is also a variety show, a celebration of the blockbuster at the expense of film art as a whole. Any message concerning the dangers of corporate greed, which Cameron treated with nearly as much laziness and forced concern in Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, is quickly lost in the splendor of Avatar‘s 3D effects — which are, as even the most praising critics have pointed out, the real focus of the film. Any minuscule portion of Avatar‘s absurd budget could have gone to hiring a decent screenwriter to clean up Cameron’s mess, but this could have potentially destroyed the illusion of his auteur status. He had to protect the integrity of his vision, which, plagiarism notwithstanding, seems to be a thin excuse to play with his fancy new toys.
Journalistic pieces about Avatar almost invariably discuss how long it took for film technology to catch up with Cameron’s vision. Americans tend to enjoy decadence for its own sake without the unsettling regal overtones it carries in the Old World, and something as expensive and time-consuming as Avatar is treated as if it must have some cultural value by the mere fact of its costliness. By this grade, production value is proportional to artistry, and spectacle is substance itself. A blockbuster amongst small movies is a celebrity amongst ordinary citizens, important by merit of fame. But the means do not necessarily justify the ends. Avatar is the filmmaking equivalent of flying the space shuttle to Disney World, a high-tech extravaganza millions of dollars in the making that ultimately only delivers superficial gratification on par with the butter-flavored popcorn served in the IMAX theater.
Appropriately enough, this monstrous offspring of twenty-first century computer technology, masquerades as a Luddite rant, bluntly contrasting the big mean human machines with the pleasant and paradisical biological splendor of Pandora. This, like its feigned respect for aboriginal cultures, is just a stolen part, a support beam to hold up Cameron’s juvenile fantasies, which seem more appropriate for an eighth-grader’s notebook doodles than a serious film artist’s would-be masterpiece. If you were to walk into the film two hours in, not knowing what the images meant out of context of the entire story, the action-packed climax would seem to feature: a knife-wielding robot battling a panther; pterodactyls in a dogfight with helicopters; an elf with a machine gun riding a dragon; and the forest battle from Return of the Jedi, complete with infantry troops and walking tanks, recreated with an Apache cavalry charge and a stampede of giant rhinoceros.
Cameron, however, cannot hide behind the “it’s a kid’s movie” argument that George Lucas uses when he is confronted with the essential vacuousness of the Star Wars franchise. At least Star Wars was upfront about its silly bombast, and all the more enjoyable for it. Avatar has no humor, about itself or anything at all, and its action scenes feel flat with a generic strain of seriousness. This isn’t just a film for adults: it’s a film for adults in every movie theater around the world, even in countries so poor and suppressed that they barely have a cinema of their own. It’s a techno-hegemon, and either Cameron thinks we won’t notice, or he doesn’t care.
Avatar is also the latest and most profitable reincarnation of a truly American narrative form, the story of a majestic white male who not only assimilates himself into a non-white culture, but becomes the most powerful, respected, and ideal member of it. Cameron has admitted being influenced by Kevin Costner’s unbearable western Dances with Wolves, but this tradition goes all the way back to James Fenimore Cooper. It feeds white guilt without burdening audiences with lifestyle changes — or, even more inconvenient, changes of opinion. Cameron, like Costner and Cooper and dozens of other artists who bought into the outdated concept of the “noble savage,” patronizingly reduces tribal cultures to a romanticized closeness to nature and pseudo-spirituality, which is all the more impressive considering Cameron pulled his particular culture out of thin air. The humans in Avatar, being intelligent, science-minded people, know that the Na’vi’s deity is really just a massive network of tree roots, and that their holy sites are just deposits of precious minerals, but aren’t their quaint little superstitions beautiful and pure?
I suspect Cameron sees himself in Jake Sully, an idealistic Philistine with more confidence than talent who easily commandeers cultures he has only a passing familiarity with — the international film scene, in Cameron’s case. He is, after all, the “King of the World,” and this, his first narrative film in twelve years, is the most financially successful made in that time. Two sequels are already in the works, along with novelizations, action figures, video games, and all sorts of other avenues for him to saturate the entertainment world. Film as franchise-building and advertisement is more profitable than film as art and storytelling, and Cameron will probably continue to take the world by storm, even though his magnum opus has all the profundity and entertainment value of a fireworks display.