The Avatar Backlash

Today is the last day of the holiday break, and this afternoon I’m going to see Avatar for the third time — seems a fitting way to end the holidays, since Avatar has been much on my mind throughout this period — and tomorrow it will be back to the grind, with little time available to follow the progress of this remarkable film.

This viewing comes at a point when the initial rush of enthusiasm by critics for the film has passed, and an entirely predictable backlash has developed–and rebuttles to the backlash are starting to appear.  For those who aren’t following it all that closely, here’s how it lays out:

  • Initial Response: Overwhelmingly favorable reviews, 93% ‘Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, 83 grade on Metacritic, critics are generally in synch with the user ratings on IMDB (8.8) and Box Office Mojo (A-1 and number 2 rated film overall).  Everyone is enthralled with the act of creation that Cameron has achieved.  There are minor grumbles that the story is itself is not as original as the telling of it, but very few critics offer more than a minor complaint.
  • Backlash: Critics and users begin to come out of the woodwork with a rap against the film that the story is basically unoriginal (a combination of Dances With Wolves and Pocohohantas, with a little Ferngully thrown in), the dialogue is frequently bad, and thus no sophisticated film viewer can possibly rate it highly.  There are also various subgroups of critics including the politically driven, who see in the movie a ‘white guilt’ trip and/or an exercise in America bashing.
  • Rebuttle: The backlashers fail to recognize certain subtleties and depth of content that elevate the film in spite of the triteness of its story.

I wrote an initial “gushing” post about the movie on the heels of my first viewing that traced my enjoyment of the film back to my days as a teenager devouring any sci-fi I could get my hands on, and especially the great Martian series of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  A few days later I read an interview of James Cameron which showed I was on a wavelength that was pretty close to what Cameron had in mind:

James Cameron: “It’s a double-edged sword. Obviously, he’s able to go into his avatar through a futuristic technology, but on the other hand he’s living this very primitive and ultimately somewhat spiritual life. He becomes this warrior on behalf of this disadvantaged culture. Not disadvantaged – they’re sort of being bullied or dominated by the highly technological earth forces. So it’s definitely a love/hate. And it’s the same thing with movies, but you’ve got to learn to balance the two. As a film director, you can embrace the technology and go crazy and have a big mad love affair with the technology, but you still have to tell the story that’s about people, emotions, and all that. The big irony of this film is, you know we’re doing this story that takes place out in the rain forest, a very simple story, almost classic in a sense, almost an Edgar Rice Burroughs kind of adventure, and yet it’s being done with the most advanced technology in the history of film. So there’s this weird juxtaposition. I take the actors to Hawaii and we’re out on some muddy trail someplace learning how to shoot a bow in the woods and not get bitten by mosquitos so that they’ll have enough of a sense memory of what it’s like to move through a rain forest so that when they come back to this very sterile stage environment, they can recreate that.”

And Cameron in another interview:

This story could’ve been written in the ’30’s. It could been an Edgar Rice Burroughs type story or a Rudyard Kipling story or a western, absolutely. But it’s an adventure story of a guy from one culture dropped into another culture.

And finally:

Ya know, in the old school way — in the way tat MEN will respond to.  It’s fine for a guy to be attracted to wmen, but I need themale audience to respond to this guy and say, “Yeah, I see why people would follow him.”  So ultimately he becomes a messianic leader who leads them into battle…in the old school Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard way. Where a guy kinda wanders into another culture, then rises through the ranks–or whatever–a Lawrence of Arabia kind of story.

So clearly Cameron had a very clear idea of what he was trying to do …. and in my view the question becomes not — did he come up with an original story — but rather, given the type of story he chose to tell, how well did he execute it?  And I think that was the level on which the original wave of reviewers were operating, while the backlashers challenge not so much the execution, but the original set of assumptions.

It’s intriguing to me for many reasons, one of them being that this pattern that Cameron is experiencing is very similar to what Burroughs himself experienced in his own life.  He wrote Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars initially as serials in pulp adventure magazines while  — and even after Tarzan of the Apes became enormously popular Burroughs couldn’t get a single publisher to publish it as a novel and eventually incorporated his own entity (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.) and got it published by creating an entirely new relationship between author and publishing house.  Eventually, Burroughs works were translated into more languages than everything but the Bible – but still critical acclaim eluded him.  Sound familiar?

I’ll take time out for a brief sidebar.  While taking a graduate seminar in the modern American novel, I was lucky enough to find myself sitting around a dinner table with my fellow classmates, our professor Elaine Safer, and acclaimed (and innovative)  novelist John Barth.  This was shortly after Barth had written  Giles Goat-Boy, a story of a boy raised as a goat who discovers his humanity and becomes a savior.  As Barth’s Wikipedia entry notes:  “In the course of the novel Giles carries out all the tasks prescribed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Barth kept a list of the tasks taped to his wall while he was writing the book.”  The discussion turned to semiotics as a tool for litereary criticsm, and  Roland Barthes, and I got a chance to raise a point with Barth — which was that I had a problem with semiotics because, while interesting anthropologically, it did little to discriminate between excellent fiction of the sort Barth was writing, and good old fashioned pulp fiction of the type written by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I’ll never forget Barth’s response.  A look of delight washed over his face and he said:  “I love Edgar Rice Burroughs!”  Whereupon the two of us embarked upon a ten minute recounting of the various Burroughs trivia — much to the consternation of the rest of the group, none of whom had ‘wasted time’ reading pulp fiction of the sort that Burroughs wrote.  But Barth’s underlying point was — this is archetypal stuff that resonates and is worth reading.  I was delighted, maybe even a bit smug.  It seemed my youth had not been entirely wasted!

Which brings me to my final point.  Criticizing Cameron for the story being “too familiar” is shortsighted on a number of levels.  First, it ignores the extraordinary act of creation that Cameron has achieved on multiple levels — of which the story itself is only one.  The vividness and detail with which he has imagined Pandora is unequaled in modern popular fiction (with the possible exception of Burroughs and Tolkien).  The execution of that vision– the choices, hundreds of thousands of them, that have gone into the creation of everything from the details of the Na’Vi and their culture, to the flora and fauna of Pandora, this is an accomplishment of staggering proportions.  And to execute it all in sumptuous 3D is yet another extraordinary achievement.  To dismiss this as “sure the CGI is great, but it’s a hollow achievement” is to diminish one of the most important aspects of the creativity that is on display in the movie.

Secondly, the backlashers may be to some degree “tone deaf” when it comes to distinguishing between crude stereotypes on the one hand, and deeply felt archetypes on the other.  If what Cameron had created was crude stereotype, he would never have achieved anywhere near the popular acceptance that Avatar has achieved.  Sure, the ‘hoi polloi’ out there do not apply the same rigorous criteria that the sophisticated backlashers do — but the mere fact that the film has been so hugely embraced by virtually the entire ‘everyman’ population of the world is, ipso facto,  clear evidence that Cameron has achieved archetype, not stereotype.  People may be simple; they aren’t stupid.

I will leave it at that, but will add more tonight after my third viewing of Avatar.

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~ by Michael Sellers on January 3, 2010.

7 Responses to “The Avatar Backlash”

  1. Nice Website. You should think more about RSS Feeds as a traffic source. They bring me a nice bit of traffic.

  2. I agree with your review. I really enjoyed Avatar and completely appreciate the technological achievement behind it. I don’t feel an emotional pull towards it as say, Lord of the Rings, which is probably because of the simple story and characters. However, I don’t feel as though people should rally against it because it doesn’t have a complex new plot. I agree with you – he executed it well and that’s what matters. I was engrossed the whole time, isn’t that the whole point of entertainment?

  3. Fantastic . . .
    looking forward to receiving your feature for ERBzine . . .
    It will be well received by ERB fans and all fans of SF.
    Bill

  4. Great review, Michael!
    Bill Hillman
    Editor and Webmaster for the
    Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute Websites and Webzines
    http://www.johncarterofmars.ca
    http://www.edgarriceburroughs.ca
    http://www.tarzan.com
    etc., etc.

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