Okay, I caved. It took me long enough.
I think my colleague hit the nail on the head with this one when he said, “Whenever I ask someone why I should see 'Avatar', they tell me ‘because it’s visually stunning’. I need a better reason than that to want to sit my butt in a chair for three hours and watch a movie”. The story, as the universe at large would tell it to those who stubbornly refused to see the movie, was one we had heard before. Fern Gully in Space. Pocahontas on the Moon. Imperialism at its best with some good old-fashioned furry undertones thrown in.
So I went in expecting the environmentalists on magic mushrooms. What I didn’t expect was what nobody had told me, and what I believe to be the true core of this movie.
Maybe you know people who play any number of games including tabletop RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, online MMOs including World of Warcraft, Live Action Role Playing Games such as NERO (lightning bolt man aside). Maybe you’re one of those people. If not, let me explain it to you. You live your normal hum-drum life; go to work, take out the trash, perform all manner of assorted mundane activities which constitute your reality. But then, for a few hours, a weekend, sometimes longer depending on the game, you can become someone else in a fantasy world. You insert yourself into a communally agreed-upon reality in which your normal problems don’t matter anymore and in fact pale in comparison to the epic adventures which await you while in the guise of your alter ego.
This is 'Avatar'. Jake is a marine whose real life sucks because his spine was severed so his legs don’t work and his PhD brother was shot for no particular reason (oh and everyone wishes it had been Jake who was shot instead). Anyway, Jake gets the opportunity to step in for his brother on a mission to an alien planet. In Jake’s world, science has progressed enough to create “avatars”. Biomechanically engineered bodies whose genes are some splice between that of their driver and that of some alien species (in this case, the blue cat-people we’ve seen in the trailers). Jake’s genetics match his brother’s closely enough to be able to drive his brother’s avatar. The government doesn’t want to throw out all the money they invested in creating the avatar, so Jake is asked to step in.
Jake, of course, likes his life better as a cat-person. He can run, fight, explore the forest with his cat-person girlfriend, fly on dragon monsters, and learn all about this other society that the anthropologists have so far been unable to penetrate for whatever reason. The movie depicts the troubles of the cat-people as the white oppressor tears apart their forest (big surprise, I know). To me, more importantly, it depicts Jake’s dependency upon the life he lives while outside of his own body. He becomes more and more negligent of his actual body (frequently forgetting to eat, shower, etc.) as his obsession with driving his avatar deepens. As Jake becomes increasingly dependant upon the life of the avatar to escape his real life, the movie shows us less and less of Jake as a human. The human world still asserts itself at semi-frequent intervals, but without Jake. We are shown the army base and other characters interacting (perhaps even around Jake’s body while he is out in the jungle with his furry friends), but Jake himself is absent from his own world. At one point, Jake admits that reality has flipped – he begins to wonder if his life as a cat-person is (in fact) reality and his humanity is the dream.
It isn’t just Jake who depends upon some outside body to escape from his life. The movie is full of characters who seem unable to function as people without the assistance of some technologically advanced shell in which to insert themselves. The Big Bad Evil Chief of the White Men Colonel Miles Quaritch has a giant robot suit (reminiscent of a less-colorful malevolent power ranger), cute tough girl on base Trudy is a pilot and seldom depicted outside of her plane (certainly when she is she is not given an important role or personality which doesn’t center around the machine).
There are only two characters in the movie who don’t seem to be utterly dependent upon their avatars to survive. Dr. Grace Augustine and Norm Spellman, both scientists who have cat-people selves, seem to have reached some equilibrium with their alternate realities. Unlike the others, they have important and meaningful interactions while still in their (gasp) human bodies. Though the core of their work is performed as the avatars, it is continued through into their real lives as politics, scientific advances, and well… real life unfolds.
The endings these characters receive further re-enforce their levels of dependence upon their other selves. The Colonel is killed after a massive fight with Jake and his cat-girlfriend while still in the power ranger suit. Trudy dies in her plane. Grace dies on the cat-person operating table while they attempt to put her spirit permanently into her avatar. Norm is allowed to stay with the cat-people, it is unclear whether he remains human or becomes perma-furry.
The one that gets me the most is Jake. The entire movie would have been a beautiful tragedy, a statement about what happens when you allow some imagined alternative life to overcome your true existence, if not for this ending. The cat-people use some cat-people magic to transport Jake’s soul into his avatar. He becomes a cat-person.
What? Really? Come on, James Cameron, give us something to bite on! What kind of message is this? “If you wish hard enough, all of your problems will go away because your escapist universe will accept you permanently and you can live with the fairies and dragons and your online girlfriend happily ever after”. I think I’m going to be sick. This tells every WoW addict out there that, if they just play enough WoW, WoW can become their true reality. They don’t have to live in their mothers’ basements, they can be elfish wizards!
Please don’t mistake me, I’m all for a healthy dose of escapism. However, there’s a limit to it. Too many people who want to escape their lives become like Jake. Instead of dealing with their problems to make their lives better, they chose to ignore them permanently. And Avatar tells them this is a good idea because it will make all of their problems dissolve into cat-person bliss.
And yes, Jake’s reality as a cat-person was better than that as a human, but who is to say that if he had taken half the time and effort to improve his real life that he had invested into being a cat-person this would not have changed? Jake tells us at the beginning of the movie that medical science has advanced enough to be able to fix a spine, he simply can’t afford the procedure. Granted, there is nothing he can do about his brother’s death, but you can’t tell me that Jake was a hopeless cause. He was smart, talented, obviously capable, why couldn’t his human life have been made not to suck rather than the movie giving him an easy out? Jake’s humanity, thus devalued, is something to shed not work at. And it tells us that our problems are too great to overcome without magical cat-people.
Suffice to say I was less than happy with 'Avatar'’s ending, despite having enjoyed the ride more than this snarky review will let on. As much as I hate to admit it, it was visually stunning. It was an interesting story (if trite and overdone). And I will perhaps watch it again, if only to prep a paper on the dangers of addiction.