Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Avatar: A Ladybrain Review

It’s Oscar season, and what we lady enthusiasts are most concerned about are how women—fictional and actual—are represented among the most-honored films of the year.

Thus begins the first of 10 ladybrained reviews of the Best Picture nominees for the 2010 Academy Awards.

In the months since seeing Avatar, its unholy success has brought one phrase to mind: irrational exuberance.

What you’ve heard about the story is true. Avatar is a poorly written, predictable rehashing of typical narratives about white men adopting the ways of Native Americans. More well-informed bloggers have written about the film's racist messaging, which makes for interesting (and infuriating) reading. There's plenty to say. Ah, but if one brings up the film’s considerable weaknesses, it’s a near-certainty that someone will then bring up visuals.

That no one can talk about this movie without mentioning the special effects is telling. There’s a reason that six out of nine of the film’s Oscar nominations are in the technical categories. The reason that Avatar earned zero acting or writing nods is that the acting and writing sucks.

Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a parapalegic former (U.S.?) marine who takes an experimental job on planet Pandora, replacing his dead brother. Turns out, the experimental program involves virtual-reality-type living through spare bodies called avatars. The avatars are modeled after a native species of Pandora, the Na’vi, tall humanoid-types who have cat-like faces, blue bodies, dreads and tails that can connect to animals and plants. Wheelchair-bound Sully likes hanging out in his avatar because it allows him use of legs again. But meeting the intriguing Na’vi woman Neytiri doesn’t hurt either. After Sully’s avatar stumbles upon the Na’vi and discovers that their nature goddess Eywa has taken a liking to him, the Pandora security force (think Blackwater with an even worse track record) assigns Sully to ingratiate himself with the Na’vi, halfheartedly hoping for a diplomatic solution to pillaging Pandora for the valuable metal that rests underneath the Na’vi’s sacred forest. The metal’s name? Unobtanium. My partner assures me that was some intentional geek joke, but alas, I’m not in on the knee-slapping.

And wouldn’t ya know? John Smith, I mean, John J. Dunbar, I mean Lewis Gates, I mean Sully proves himself a real native-natural. He learns that the Na’vi brand of environmentalism is something to respect. He falls in love with Neytiri. When the Blackwater-esque force inevitably gives up on diplomacy and charges Pandora with tanks and bombs, Neytiri realizes that Sully has known about the pillaging all along and gets pissed. Sully redeems himself by fighting “the man” (Ironman?) and a very large, freaky pterodactyl. The forest and the environmentalists rule the day, and Sully becomes a real boy! I mean, a real native!

This is a long movie (150 minutes) featuring a lead actor who would much better serve an Old Spice commercial. It was unclear whether he was supposed to be an American marine, because hints of an Australian accent peppered the first half of the movie, and then completely took over the second half.

Sigourney Weaver is good as scientist Grace Augustine, but her character, as-written, doesn’t give her much to work with in terms of depth or dialogue. Zoe Saldana is also passable as Neytiri, and villains Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang, as Metal Developer Dude and Bloodthirsty Species-ist Ironman Blackwater Guy are somewhere on the scale from “meh” to “shrug.” But to be fair, Lang’s bicep veins and flat-top pulled out amazing performances.

And make no mistake, as decidedly un-dynamic as any of these performances are, you know who the good guys and bad guys are, because the good characters are white as snow, and the bad guys are unredeemable devils. Don’t look for layers of meaning in a James Cameron script, people. These characters have one, and only one dimension. There’s good and there’s bad, and no in-between. I said there’s no in between! The bad guys always lose and the good guys win. What’s that you say? Ted Kennedy drowned a woman but also did a lot of good as a politician? La la la la I can’t hear you!

Before I deign to mention the inevitable, let’s analyze the strong women characters in Avatar. Weaver’s Grace Augustine is a brilliant scientist who is passionate about the Na’vi, but she can also be culturally condescending. And although she is working for a peaceful plundering of Na’vi resources, she works for the plunderers all the same.

Within the Na’vi social structure itself, females seem to have a respected place. The tribe is ruled by a male and female partnering—the male is the political figurehead while the female is the spiritual leader, similar to the gynarchies we know historically existed in some Native American tribes pre-colonialization, and in other parts of the world. The spiritual world within the Na’vi culture is just as important, if not more important, than the political side—at one point the spiritual leader overrules concerns about Sully because she and Neytiri see that the nature goddess Eywa favors him. And when Eywa speaks, the Na’vi listen. The tribe, and the species as a whole, worship the Eywa and, as an extension of her, they respect all life on their planet (call off the geek hounds, I know it’s technically a moon).

The leading lady, Na’vi Neytiri, is very strong, smart and compassionate. She saves Sully’s life from some sort of hell-hound at the beginning, and from Blackwater Villain Guy at the end. In between, she teaches him how to connect his avatar tail to animals and plants, how to hunt and even how to frolic. The Na’vi women in general seem to have the same expectations and rites of passage as the males, including hunting and animal-riding. When Sully and Neytiri finally consummate their months-long flirtation, her betrothed is upset that she’s with someone else, but there isn’t really the same sense of being sexually deflowered or ruined like a ladybrain might expect, since that theme is rampant in other such love triangle scenarios.

You see that? I found something to talk about besides the visuals of Avatar, which frankly, although different from other humanoid alien worlds, still looked like a video game. Let’s just end there, and hopefully make this the only review in the history of Avatar that kept the visuals-talk to one sentence or less.

Feminist Grade: B

Although this is white-dude written and directed, the female characters are strong, mostly positive ones.

Moviegoer Grade: D +

"I see you. You're overrated."

1 comment:

  1. First, I'd like to say that I fully intend to borrow "somewhere on the scale from 'meh' to 'shrug,'" and I will try to give you credit as often as possible, but there may come a time when I need to appear clever and sassy, and I fully intend on passing off your cleverness and sass as my own. The aforementioned phrase was just one of many that made me laugh (out loud), and I found the piece to be funnier than CNN's "Audiences Experience 'Avatar' Blues," which was funny in a sad way. Finally, I enjoyed your insightful commentary, and I thank you for sharing the contents of your ladybrain.