Archive for December, 2022

Why Avatar 2 sucks

I saw Avatar 2: The Way of Water yesterday.  Sure, it was way too long, by maybe two hours.  But that’s the least of its problems.  Plenty of spoilers follow, but I don’t care.

First of all, the alien life looked great; the flora and fauna were truly alien.    But the alien people (the Na’vi) looked nothing short of ridiculous.

They look like poorly drawn World of Warcraft cat people.

This is a pet peeve of mine.  In science fiction movies and TV shows (here’s looking at you, Star Trek and Star Wars) almost every alien race looks human.  It’s so dumb: two eyes, above one nose, above one mouth, on a head, with two arms above two legs.  Evolution doesn’t really work that way.  What are the chances that these things would evolve to be humanoid?  It breaks the 4th wall for me, takes me out of the moment.  Where are the truly alien aliens?

Unless H. R. Giger is helping you with creature design, the truly alien aliens are found in science fiction novels: see Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir or Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky for two very recent examples.

Oh, I know—I know why directors do this.  It’s so we can relate to the aliens.  We can root for them as characters.  It humanizes them.  But why should we be able to relate to aliens?  Why should we humanize them?  That seems—rather humancentric to me.

The answer, of course, is that we’re not watching true science fiction at all.  We’re watching unsubtle allegory.  The Na’vi could be talking teapots for all it matters to the “lesson” being beaten over our heads.

Now, it’s not just physical appearance.  The aliens don’t act alien at all.  They act like a high schooler’s ideal of what indigenous (human) people act like, except with a little bit of ululation, because… tribal societies always do that?  What the fuck is with the ululation?

Why can’t aliens in science fiction movies look and act… differently than humans?

As an aside, the “secret” behind the whale-hunting is a total rip-off of the 1981 Hugo and Nebula award-winning The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge.  Listen:

The Hegemony’s humans’ interest in Tiamat Pandora lies in mers the Tulkun, a species of sea-dwelling creatures whose blood contains a smartmatter virus a goo that halts the aging process. Mers Tulkun are hunted as frequently as possible…the “water of life” goo produced from their blood allows for virtual immortality.  [Yoinked from Wikipedia]

I have other complaints. The score was about as interesting as an Andrew Garfield Spiderman movie.  The choice to transition from subtitles to English was… distracting.  (Speaking of subtitles: Papyrus font?  Really?)  Everyone’s English-language accent was completely different.  Jake Sully sounds like he’s about to challenge Apollo Creed to a boxing match.  The spooky girl sounded like Emily Dickinson.  I think Vin Diesel was in there somewhere, maybe?  And Wes Studi?  Because, of course, native American.  It’s not like anyone has any name I could remember.  I think Jake’s wife was played by Zoe Saldaña, but who knows?  She only had maybe five lines in the movie.  And how many kids does Jake have?  Two boys (maybe)?  One or two daughters?  They don’t have names, certainly.  And the two sons are indistinguishable except for size.

Oh, and the feral kid from The Road Warrior is thrown in there, for some reason.  Yee haw.  His story arc makes as much sense as a latter-day Star Wars movie.

Making Colonel what’s-his-face the villain (again) was lazy writing.  I thought we had a cool new antagonist when General Nurse Jackie showed up… but no, she was quickly forgotten.  It’s back to Colonel Quidditch, again.  It’s insulting to the viewers: we don’t think you can handle a different bad guy.

Which is why everything is in black and white…like a middle school Disney novel.  Phil Hartman’s Frankenstein’s monster saying Humans BAD.  Natives GOOD.  Everyone is a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out of a character.  There’s not only little nuance…there’s no nuance at all.  You can predict the ending two (long) hours before the end—based solely on tropes.  But I guess that’s what people want.

The plot has the intellectual depth of a choose-your-own-adventure.

Which beings me to the so-called movie’s greatest sin: it’s supposed message.  For let’s be clear, the movie doesn’t pretend to be science fiction, or even space opera.  It’s not even ordinary allegory, but more of a medieval morality play.  Written for third-graders.

On top of that, the message is muddled.

On the surface, the message is as subtle as an elephant farting during a performance of Ave Maria.  And it is, of course, the same message as the first Avatar:  Indigenous peoples I mean Na’vi are good.  Europeans I mean humans are bad.  Yay, environment.  Fern GullyDances With WolvesThunderheart.  I don’t even necessarily disagree with this “message”.  But…

Was the moral of the story really what you thought it was?

The message I get is: violence is the way.  The only real method of achieving anything is through killing.  (In this, the message is a lot less liberal granola than people think it is).  Consider: the only Tulkun (whale-alien) character we get to see in any meaningful way is the outcast—the whale who was ostracized for fighting back.  The other whales are dismissed as jokes because of their pacifism.

What a missed opportunity!  What an interesting species!  Why not focus on them?  What sort of philosophy and culture must they have had, to let themselves be slaughtered?  It reminds me of the Wheel of Time’s “Way of the Leaf”.  At least Robert Jordan showed the Tuatha’an in a more respectful light.

But no, James Cameron’s Titanic-sized ego demanded that he make the film some sort of allegory, even if he couldn’t decide on what he wanted to say.  But here I must quote Tolkien on allegory:

“…I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned – with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”   [Bogstad, Janice M.; Kaveny, Philip E. (9 August 2011). Picturing Tolkien: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy. McFarland. p. 189.]

Ultimately, I left the theater thinking: what is the “way of water”?  Violence?  Environmentalism?  Lowering your heart rate?  Forgiveness?  Slitting your adopted feral kid’s throat?  Family?  Racism?  Screaming?  Ululation?  I have no idea.  At one point Rocky Balboa narrates what the “way of water” actually entails­—but at that point I wanted to see more evil New Zealand scientists being ripped in half.


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