Reviews of Avatar (2009) and related work

Avatar (2009Moving picture, 162 minutes)

Review refers to the 3D version.

In 2154, an STL shuttle is used to bring a valuable mineral implied to have special properties related to local magnetic anomalies from mining sites on an Earth-like planet orbiting a gas giant around one of the stars of Alpha Centauri, to Earth. The human colony on the planet is small and extremely expensive, owned by a non-governmental for-profit organization protected by its mercenaries.

Since the atmosphere is poisonous and there are humanoid creatures native to the planet, it is implied that the humans originally wanted the natives to do the mining, the way it was done at Potosí. To this end, they devised a psionic telepresence system called the Avatar Program, allowing anthropologists and others to live with the natives in a familiar form. Despite native refusal to cooperate, the program continues, and the mining operation sets its sights on a large source of the mineral, located beneath a major native dwelling.

SF blockbuster by the numbers. The Avatar Program is chimerical: intradiegetically in the sense of combining human and extraterrestrial biology, extradiegetically in the sense of “existing only as the product of unchecked imagination”. Cue forbidden blue giantess-otherkin-catgirl loving patterned after the giant women of The Coming Race (1871).

Despite Cameron’s usual longing looks at hard sci-fi, this is mainly a visual spectacle on a thin and sometimes kitschy script. The absence of an application for the valuable mineral—despite its joke name, Unobta(i)nium—makes mining impossible to evaluate rationally, the ecofeminism is badly warped (Na’vi religious leaders and deity are female, prosaic leaders male etc.; this gender bias is portrayed as utopian) and the reality of the Pandoran hive mind undermines the environmental message.

References here: Interstellar (2014), Story of Science Fiction (2018), “Snow in the Desert” (2021).

moving picture fiction

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022Moving picture, 3.2 hours)

Seen in 2022.

Review refers to the 3D version. Cinemark, variable frame rate, no IMAX.

In the 2160s, human colonists return to Pandora with a long-term plan. Earth is supposedly becoming uninhabitable. Viewing Jake Sully as a threat to resource extraction and mass migration, the humans copy the mind of Sully’s rival, Miles Quaritch, into an avatar-like body to capture the leader of the resistance. Their conflict comes to a head in 2170, with Sully, his wife Neytiri, and their five children retreating from their forest home to a reef where humans are hunting intelligent whale-like natives for a substance that stops human ageing.

The unobtainium industry plays no foreground role in this first sequel. The focus shifts to family life, including the Hollywood standby of a physical threat to the children of heroic parents. “Amrita”, the ambergris-like fictional substance extracted from the head of the similarly fictional tulkun, has a specified effect, but that effect is never shown, so it too is relegated to the background, excusing the simple foreground plot.

Curiously, there is neither a retcon nor a true MacGuffin in these choices. The series up to this point is internally consistent: The setting’s technology has developed in a logical way, the main drivers of the plot are solidly economic and ecological, and Sully’s rebel force is rebellious in a substantial way, unlike—for instance—The Last Jedi (2017). Pandora’s ecology is still soft SF, but there is internal consistency in that aspect, too.

The whole production is, in a sense, predigested. It’s cinematic baby formula: Carefully composed, tasty, nutritious, and unlikely to provoke an allergic reaction, except in accusations of appropriation. It doesn’t have much depth or texture, but it seems to be building towards both. Sully’s adoptive daughter Kiri develops a special-teen relationship with nature that resembles Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982). Meanwhile, Sully’s enemy is the Göring of To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971): Reincarnated and forced by circumstances to reinvent himself in paradise, a development that is not completed in this outing. Those are good choices, adding enough complications to the simpler story of Sully and his fights.

I would have been happier with a broader focus, but I appreciate the effort made to keep the scripting compatible with logical large-scale developments. The softness of the SF aside, it’s fun to speculate about whether a film like this helps the work to preserve the natural world on real Earth. An ecocritic like Neil Evernden would probably reject that notion, but Cameron’s love of nature is evident even in the fictional setting, just like Miyazaki’s love was evident in Nausicaä.

moving picture sequel fiction