James Cameron’s new film may not suck, exactly, but it was still unimaginative.
This is the best alien you could come up with. Really? (allmoviephoto)
Dear James Cameron,
Happy New Year! I'm sure this year, like most, has at the very least been good to you in a material sense. If your films are any indication, then at this moment you are probably weaving through the Himalayas' most daunting stretch in some sort of hyper-advanced single-occupant aircraft, your plane's gleaning chrome wingtip slicing off chunks of ice from the jagged mountainsides, each hairpin turn bringing you within inches of death.
But I'm not writing a letter to you to discuss your lifestyle or personal aircraft. No, I'm here to write about your latest film, Avatar.
Avatar, of course, has been a remarkable success. You know that. Your film has now grossed enough money—more than $1 billion worldwide—to allow you, should you so chose, to fund your own expedition to an alien world and to begin tearing it apart for resources to ship back to earth. And the critical consensus, which shook to the core the worldviews of some, is that it doesn't suck. Congratulations on this—you successfully dodged the pitfalls associated with pursuing a bloated, long-awaited, nerd-anticipated project over the course of many years. The global fanboy/girl community is familiar with the sort of failure often brought about by such endeavors, and applauds you for avoiding it.
I'm among those who liked Avatar overall. I got what I hoped to get: An exciting, sensational spectacle with dialogue and a storyline that weren't horrifically terrible. Although many say the dialogue was painful, I actually thought there were fewer cringe-inducing moments in your movie than there were in Clint Eastwood's new Nelson Mandela biopic Invictus. It's true that Avatar won't earn any Best Actor nominations from the Academy, but on the whole, I thought the movie's pace was rarely slowed by poor acting or writing.
Some say Avatar is racist because it features a white protagonist helping to save Pandora's inhabitants, the Na'vi, a group of primitive alien tribal people. While there's a case to be made on this front, I'm not fully convinced. Either way, that's not an argument I'm interested in rehashing here, because some folks have done it already.
Instead, I'd like to write about the profound failure of imagination you displayed in this movie. I have no idea what you were thinking when you created the Na'vi. I can get over my disappointment with how much they looked and acted like humans. You are, after all, a creature of Hollywood, and because of that, a tiny but persistent part of you will always assume that we, the viewers, are morons. If the aliens don't look like people, you and your colleagues probably figured, Americans won't be able to identify with them. Such reasoning, of course, completely ignores the lessons of last year's—sorry, but it's true—much better District 9, which had us rooting for aliens who looked like Rush Limbaugh's soul.
But I was much more annoyed by how you wasted the completely blank slate you had with regard to the Na'vi's culture. You could have easily hired 20 research assistants to read all of the best extraterrestrial-focused science fiction of the last three decades and have had each bring you the 12 craziest, coolest ideas they found. Instead, you gave us "aliens" whose beliefs and rituals look remarkably like a Westerner's stereotypes of countless Native American and African cultures, from their hairstyles to how they dress and hunt. Not to get all nerdy on you, but we're to believe that these creatures evolved from a completely different genetic lineage on a planet light years away but somehow are so anatomically and culturally similar they wear … loincloths?
The Na'vi weren't the only squandered bit of potential, either. Sure, there was plenty of wonder to be had in Pandora's beautifully conceived flora, but far too many of the digitally created animals seemed to have rather clear real-world or mythological earth-based counterparts. The alien-wolves and alien-rhinos and alien-pterodactyls were cool, yes, but when you're working with what is essentially a limitless budget, why not have your graphics wizards come up with something a bit more … creative? Honestly, a five-year-old would come up with alien pterodactyls.
I can't honestly say Avatar was bad, James. It wasn’t. But I can say that it could have been much, much more imaginative. Given your career and the subject matter, that’s the last flaw I would have expected Avatar to have.
Sincerely, Jesse Singal
Jesse Singal, a former associate editor at Campus Progress, is a freelance writer in Boston.