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Fangrrls on Film: Avatar

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Apr 27, 2018

Film criticism is a very dude-heavy industry. According to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men account for 73% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, resulting in men often shaping the narrative of what makes a "good" film or a "bad" film—what's worth seeing and what's not. And even the most well-meaning, wokest of men wouldn't necessarily catch the microaggressions or tropes that tend to define whole genres.

So, as our answer to years of male critics driving and basically shaping the movie industry with their opinions, Fangrrls on Film re-reviews films from a fangrrl perspective.

Avatar opened on December 10, 2009, to wide critical acclaim for its then top-of-the-line special effects, especially motion capture, and became the highest grossing film of all time—a record it maintains as of the publication of this post. It currently maintains an 82% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. We revisited the nearly decade-old film to see how it holds up through our Fangrrls-purple-colored glasses.

Gather ‘round, mes enfants, and let this fandom old spin you a tale of a time long ago, at the dawn of the Obama administration. Once upon a time, a much-feted and respected director announced that technology had finally caught up to his grand vision and he could finally return to directing and make Avatar, a science-fiction visual-effects extravaganza that utilized cutting-edge technology to fully realize the world of Pandora. Filmgoers flocked to the theaters, and, oh, how they loved it. Everyone was into it. Jokes were made at the Oscars, CNN reported—rather sensationally—that people yearned for Pandora so much the real world depressed them, and na’vikin were—however briefly—a thing.

But when it left theaters, it seemed to vanish, never to be heard from again.

One of the most enduring legacies of James Cameron’s Avatar is that it has no legacy, other than that great Saturday Night Live sketch where Ryan Gosling loses his mind over the font on the poster being Papyrus. Despite being the highest-grossing film of all time (if you don’t account for inflation), Avatar has left little trace beyond a Halloween costume that’s difficult to offload, a Cirque de Soleil show that’s still running in China, and a new land at Disney World. Why?

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It feels like a heavy question until you actually sit down and watch the film again. Revisiting Avatar now makes the film reveal its true colors all the more readily—its entire raison d’etre is special effects and worldbuilding, which does not a fandom create.

Roughly 8 million years ago, I was a book blogger, and I raged about Worldbuilders’ Disease in speculative fiction—wherein a creator is so invested in worldbuilding that they ignore the plot in favor of pointing out all the cool, neat stuff they came up with—near constantly. Avatar is the only cinematic example of this affliction that I can think of. There were parts of the second act during which I completely forgot where the story was going, because the camera would prefer to linger over the beauty and splendor of Pandora and its inhabitants than develop any real plot.

And the last nine years have not been kind to the special effects. In 2009, I remember being entranced in the theater, utterly absorbed by the beautiful setting. In 2018, I actually recoiled upon seeing an avatar for the first time. What once read as stunningly lifelike now reads as waxy and robotic. When the night falls and biolumescience transforms Pandora in the galaxy’s most flatteringly lit club, things still look beautiful, but the glare of the midday sun on the Na’vi just looks wrong now. Special effects have advanced significantly, training our eye to see contemporary effects as correct and older effects as…off.

As for the plot being ignored in favor of the visuals, Cameron has copped to the plot essentially being Dances with Wolves BUT WITH SEXY BLUE CAT PEOPLE IN SPAAACE!!! before, and purposefully so. The FernGully-meets-Pocahontas plotline ends up heavy-handed to the point of absurdity. I’m all for utilizing speculative fiction to interrogate contemporary politics, but the Na’vi-hating, profit-loving villains are so over the top that it begins to border on cartoonish, allowing audiences to reassure themselves “oh, I would never be as bad as all that” instead of inviting them to interrogate their own biases.

One of the great uses of speculative fiction is to look at our real world in a new way, so that we might imagine and even execute new ways of looking at and living in it. But using allegory and metaphor to get across one’s point also runs the risk of creating distance. For instance, the X-Men provide one of the most useful and flexible metaphors for marginalized groups in comics, but they’re still overwhelmingly white. By putting things in fantastical terms, you get more room to maneuver, but you also run the risk of people using that distance to revel in their own privilege guilt-free by ignoring the parallels entirely. It’s not cultural appropriation if the culture you’re appropriating is totally fictional, right?

Wrong, obviously. The Na’vi are clearly designed after and meant to evoke indigenous cultures, especially Native Americans, and the film behaves as if there are no implications to how their speculative status is utilized to allow the audience to revel in a Mighty Whitey story without guilt.

Lastly, I wanted to touch on Zoe Saldana’s performance as Neytiri. We really do not talk enough about her work in this film. In the last nine years, Saldana has become one of the queens of sci-fi action, with a place on both the bridges of the Enterprise and the Milano, and that trajectory starts here. The history of motion capture acting is largely dominated by figures like Andy Serkis, but Saldana’s Neytiri belongs in that pantheon. She brings a prickly, coltish energy to Neytiri and is never afraid to make her ugly or, for lack of a better term, human. I actually teared up when Neytiri bids farewell to her father, because of the sheer strength of Saldana’s acting, even through the obstacles of motion capture.

Of course, that’s when the film isn’t aggressively trying to sexualize her. It’s a well-known story that James Cameron altered Neytiri’s design until she was sufficiently sexually desirable to male members of the crew, and it’s jarring when the film decides to downplay Saldana’s well-rounded acting in order to scream “ISN’T SHE SEXY???” at us in ways that don't feature the character enjoying her sexuality but are imposed upon her by the camera. I mean, look at this scene of Neytiri just drinking water; it made my skin crawl.

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Final Thoughts

Time has not been kind to Avatar. What were once groundbreaking special effects have aged poorly, exposing the plot for what it is—a white savior-fest that tries to obscure its colonialist impulses by making its indingenious people sexy cats. Maybe we were right to forget Avatar as soon as we walked out of the theaters.