Thus Spake Zuska

How Do You Review Avatar?

Maybe you tell us why they’re blue.

First the name. Avatar–if you play computer games, you may know this very well–is a character you use inside an unreal world. The word Avatar has its origins in Indian mythology. An Avatar (ava-tara in Sanskrit) is god’s visit to earth to fix something that is broken. Vishnu, one of the three gods who protects creation, by necessity visits earth often. Vishnu, the puranas declare, is dark-blue in color (the original story teller was inspired by blue oceans, blue sky?).

Thank you, Scientific Indian.

Maybe you go pretentious.

The point, though, is that every art is defined by its medium. The reason I’ve referenced Greenberg in the context of Avatar – and please pardon the pretentiousness of the above paragraph – is that I think Cameron has deftly realized the potential of his medium, which is film.

That’s Jonah Lehrer’s take.

Maybe you go anthropological.

The trope is highly derivative of Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” and “Children of God” which is probably why it all seems so anthropological. In this story, rather than have the natives possess a feature or essence that earthlings just can’t understand, they possess a set of cultural traits that earthlings can totally get, if only they would put down their guns and test tubes and corporate quarterly reports long enough to whatever whatever.

That’s Greg Laden.

Maybe you want to pretend you are trashing the movie, but you like it, but you are making fun of it, but you are pondering larger issues, too, but hey! those alien women are hot!

Speaking of which, one thing I was wondering about was that the aliens, and in particular the lead female character, were hot: lithely sexy, and barely clothed. It had me wondering what kind of rights the lead actress, Zoë Saldaña, has retained to the image. After all, it’s clearly her, despite the distortions of the alien form, and that image is now in a great big digital bucket on some computers somewhere, and could be trundled out and reused in other films. I imagine it would be valuable information to the porn industry, which you just know is itching to get its hands on that technology. There must be some kind of legal protections for digital likenesses being hammered out somewhere, because one thing this movie is going to do is start making that potential problem acute.

I’ve been belittling the movie, but it really wasn’t that awful.

That would be PZ Myers.

Or maybe you want to tell it like it is.

Behold, the ultimate in guilty colonialist fetish fantasy epic porn filmmaking, ever.

That would be Mark Morford’s review, “Please mount my hot blue alien” at SFGate. Please do go read it. It’s fab.

Comments

  1. #1 Roadtripper
    January 7, 2010

    Wait, there’s fetishism in this movie? Thanks a lot Mr. Morford, I never would have noticed.

    I’m trying to recall if any other movie has ever pushed so many people’s SNOB button so hard, but I’m drawing a blank. Guess that’s one more reason for me to like Avatar.

    It’s a fucking movie, people. How about we all just lighten the hell up?

    Rt

  2. #2 Samia
    January 7, 2010

    Yes, it’s a movie. See: Moff’s Law. To me, popular media reflects and perpetuates certain social attitudes. What we as a society find entertaining says something about us, something that bears examination IMO.

    Zuska, you may be interested in this review of Avatar at Sociological Images.

  3. #3 Ray Ingles
    January 7, 2010

    Roadtripper – 2001 almost certainly went too far in the other direction, being too oblique… but it proved you could have a beautiful, F/X laden eye-candy-fest and have a complex, thoughtful, involving plot.

    I saw Avatar in 3D. It was impressive on a technical level, and some of the acting was good. Everything aside from that was, unfortunately, subpar. Which is a shame, ’cause Cameron’s done better on plot before. (Though it has been a while…)

    On a technical, geek level I enjoyed it. On most every other level I was unsatisfied. I know it’s “a fucking movie“, and I’m not reorganizing my life around my disdain for its failings. But don’t people review movies? Discuss them?

  4. #4 Dr. Free-Ride
    January 7, 2010

    In response to @1, were this my blog (which it is not), I’d be sorely tempted to invoke Moff’s Law (originated here, although I first saw it here):

    Of all the varieties of irritating comment out there, the absolute most annoying has to be “Why can’t you just watch the movie for what it is??? Why can’t you just enjoy it? Why do you have to analyze it???”

    If you have posted such a comment, or if you are about to post such a comment, here or anywhere else, let me just advise you: Shut up. Shut the fuck up. Shut your goddamn fucking mouth. SHUT. UP.

    First of all, when we analyze art, when we look for deeper meaning in it, we are enjoying it for what it is. Because that is one of the things about art, be it highbrow, lowbrow, mainstream, or avant-garde: Some sort of thought went into its making — even if the thought was, “I’m going to do this as thoughtlessly as possible”! — and as a result, some sort of thought can be gotten from its reception. That is why, among other things, artists (including, for instance, James Cameron) really like to talk about their work.

    (The rest of the rant is definitely worth a read, so click over and read it.)

    However, this isn’t my blog, and I wouldn’t want to be uncivil.

  5. #5 Dr. Free-Ride
    January 7, 2010

    (I should’ve known Samia would point to Moff’s law, too!)

  6. #6 Cara
    January 7, 2010

    Morford nailed it (so to speak).

  7. #7 Barn Owl
    January 7, 2010

    Morford’s review is hilarious.

    There are some interesting posts and comments on the ableist aspects of Avatar, at FWD/ Forward. Ridiculous sparkly elf-eared alien porn themes, racist tropes, and disability stereotypes – well, that’s essentially the trifecta of why I won’t waste my money or time seeing this film.

    OT on the sidebar ads at the SFGate: $550,000 for a house in Daly City? Little-boxes-made-of-ticky-tacky Daly City?!?

    Crikey.

  8. #8 Roadtripper
    January 7, 2010

    Moff’s law is all well and good — point taken. But given the level of vitriol I’ve seen, there seems to be something else entirely going on when it comes to Avatar. There is, IMHO, a difference between reviewing/analying a movie vs. taking a humongous DUMP on said movie, along with anyone and everyone who had the gall to actually enjoy it. If Morford’s review is ‘telling it like it is’ then I’ll ‘tell it like is’ right back: Morford can kiss my pale hairy butt! His ‘review’ of Avatar is at least as offensive as anything I saw in the movie itself.

    And another thing…

    My “lighten the hell up” was a suggestion, nothing more. Moff’s “shut the fuck up” sounds to me like an order. All I can say to that is:

    No.

    Rt

  9. #9 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 7, 2010

    It’s a fucking blog post, people. How about we all just lighten the hell up?

  10. #10 Zuska
    January 8, 2010

    Roadtripper: you seem extremely upset about someone criticizing just a movie. If you just enjoyed it for what it was and nothing more, why are you so defensive about Morford’s critique? In other words, what is it that you enjoyed in Avatar that you feel needs defending? Perhaps you can explain to us how Morford was wrong, and that Avatar is not laced through and through with racist, sexist, ableist, pornified, Noble Savage tropes blended together for the enjoyment of white nerd boys. We are wrong, we are wrong – explain to us how we are wrong.

    Or maybe we are right, and that’s why you’re so cranky? We’re killin’ yer buzz?

  11. #11 Zuska
    January 8, 2010

    Samia, thanks for that link (comment #2 above). That review is very insightful, a great added perspective. Everyone should go read it!

  12. #12 Roadtripper
    January 8, 2010

    Actually, Zuska, it’s not that I don’t see the fetishism Morford’s talking about — I just think his objection to it is completely misplaced. He’s like the guy complaining about the cold soup who’s never heard of gazpacho. It’s supposed to be that way, d00d! That’s exactly what the film-maker was going for, and he succeeded! You signed up for this when you bought your ticket. If you don’t like it, go see another film.

    What really annoys me is that the “racist, sexist, ableist, pornified, Noble Savage tropes” in Avatar aren’t anything that we haven’t seen in dozens of other movies, yet I don’t recall any of the other movies with those same tropes (to which Avatar is often compared) getting puked on to nearly the same degree.

    Seriously, what gives?

    Rt

  13. #13 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 8, 2010

    Seriously, what gives?

    (1) Avatar was just released.

    (2) Avatar is making like elevnty bajillion fucktillion dollars per fucking microsecond, because every fucking douchebag on earth is pissing away their money to see it.

    (3) Every fucking shit-ball sci-fi-loving masturbator d00d is furiously stroking himself off and splooging all over the Internet about what a motherfucking genius the director of this film is what with the fucking HAWT blue people.

    Gee! I can’t possible figure out why anyone would write a review of this movie when there are so many 30-second shorts made by NYU film students on Youtube that could have been reviewed.

    Are you really this fucking stupid? If so, how the fuck did you even figure out how to turn on your computer? Or are you just embarrassed that Morford has you 100% pegged as a pimple-faced loser white-d00d masturbator imagining yourself with a bunch of fucking HAWT blue chicks doing your bidding?

  14. #14 Roadtripper
    January 8, 2010

    Well, thanks for clearing all that up, CPP. As always, you’ve given us a lot to think about, with some weapons-grade bullshit and vitriol thrown in. I’ve been warned not to get into pissing contests with skunks, but here’s a reply anyway.

    1) No shit, Sherlock.

    2) I don’t doubt for a minute that the success of Avatar is what’s motivating much of the vitriol. People hate success.

    3) Yes, a great many of the positive reviews of Avatar are from drooling fanboys who haven’t had a critical thought in their whole lives. Their reviews are as useless as Morford’s.

    As for those Youtube shorts from film students: you’re absolutely right, the ones I’ve seen deserve a hell of a lot more notice than they’re getting. Life ain’t fair, is it?

    Part of my mind refuses to take off the “hard SF hat”, so when I was watching Avatar, I knew the Na’vi looked much too human to be realistic on any level, but the reasons for this were so obvious even you could figure them out. Cameron needed aliens a mass audience could relate to, and obviously, it worked. Now if some people are so sophisticated they’d rather sneer at something than enjoy it, I almost pity them. But that would be wasted pity.

    No, Morford hasn’t got me ‘pegged’, sorry to disappoint you. I just find his militant objections to HAWT-ness laughable. And he knows this is what Cameron was going for, so what’s his complaint? That Cameron did his job too well? “OMG Avatar = pr0n!!!1!!”

    Personally, I don’t go in for the ‘tribal’ look — my choice for HAWT-est character in Avatar was the pilot, Trudy Chacon. “A bunch of fucking HAWT blue chicks” doesn’t really do it for me, but a professional woman with a rebellious streak who can kick some ass: now that’s impressive.

    Alright, post some more abuse, if that’s all you’ve got.

    Rt

  15. #15 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 8, 2010

    I just find his militant objections to HAWT-ness laughable.

    He’s shooting machine guns at the movie?? I hand’t heard about that.

    “A bunch of fucking HAWT blue chicks” doesn’t really do it for me, but a professional woman with a rebellious streak who can kick some ass: now that’s impressive.

    I knew you were a pimple-faced white-d00d masturbator!! SPLOOGE!!!

  16. #16 SKM
    January 8, 2010

    I also want to thank Samia for the link to the Sociological Images review. I am still working my way through the pieces to which they link–all great stuff.

    And while I strongly disagree with Roadtripper that people who buy a ticket to Avatar forfeit their right to criticize Cameron’s work, I am very glad for the heads-up about all the bullshit tropes in the movie so that I don’t put money towards something I don’t believe in. See, criticism of movies is useful!

    This “Noble Savage” crap is embarrassing to behold, and I wouldn’t reward Cameron for puking it up. That’s not even getting into the ableism or pornification.

  17. #17 SKM
    January 8, 2010

    My “lighten the hell up” was a suggestion, nothing more. Moff’s “shut the fuck up” sounds to me like an order–Roadtripper

    Actually, without your later clarification that it was a “suggestion”, there really isn’t much difference. “Lighten up” and “shut up” are pretty much the same in this case because your implication was that we shouldn’t criticize the movie, and Moff provides a stronger argument.

  18. #18 Roadtripper
    January 8, 2010

    Thanks, Prof, I needed a good laugh. Really, you’ve put down so many people on ScienceBlogs I was starting to feel left out. My life is complete now. You oughta sell some fucking t-shirts or something!

    Rt

  19. #19 Zuska
    January 8, 2010

    I think my favorite of all of Roadtripper’s inane natterings is when he puts it right out there that the only reason women characters of any sort – HAWT blue chicks, professional women with rebellious streaks who can kick ass – exist in films (as in real life) is so that he can get off on them. Not, like, so they can be the subjects of their own narratives. Just so that he, Roadtripper, can have a variety of hawt ladeez to choose from in his scifi porn when he is alone back in his room lovingly stroking his dick.

  20. #20 Roadtripper
    January 8, 2010

    Dear Zuska,

    You are completely full of shit.

    Rt

  21. #21 SKM
    January 8, 2010

    Dear Zuska,

    You are completely full of shit.

    Looks to me like you would know, Rt.

  22. #22 Zuska
    January 9, 2010

    Rt: Duly noted that you have not denied that you don’t give a crap about women being the subjects of their own narratives, and that your main interest in the hawt ladeez in scifi films is to make sure you have variety for your masturbatory fantasies.

  23. #23 mo
    January 9, 2010

    Moff’s Law, Definition:

    Some shit small minded, angry and shallow elitists made up to bash a movie they really loved and will view more than two times in a cinema, to pretend they are more intelligent than the masses to which they belong.

  24. #24 mo
    January 9, 2010

    I agree in some parts with the review @ Samia, but the movie is awesome.

    Well, of course it’s a white, European fantasy, what are you expecting? But Jake is of value to the Na’vi, for inside knowledge. How are they expected to fight a war against a vastly superior military with sticks? This also happened a few times in European colonies*. I never heard a complaint that the Fremen in Dune didn’t conquer the galaxy without the help of the Atreides. If it sparks debate about colonialism, all the better.

    You are really beating on the wrong bush here, how about you don’t talk about how racist it is, as it only retells some colonial conflicts, like in Africa, but use it to educate your peers on colonialist atrocities?
    Most US people on the internet only seem to consider it an allegory on native Indians and Iraq, which is wrong, US centric, and says something else about you than you bash the movie for?

    Spoiler:
    * It is implied in the movie that Jake is not chosen by mighty-whitey fate, but the planetary consciousness selects him on purpose to study him, somewhat like a lab rat. The whole Fauna including Na’vi and Fauna are just pawns to it.
    This doesn’t make it a racist trope, but a starfish alien trope.
    Remember people, this is a science fiction movie, not Pocahontas.

  25. #25 SKM
    January 9, 2010

    This doesn’t make it a racist trope, but a starfish alien trope.

    It can actually be both.

    Well, of course it’s a white, European fantasy, what are you expecting?

    More.

  26. #26 Isabel
    January 10, 2010

    Oh the irony… Mark Morford is a poseur and an unrepentant elitist (he’s been called on it plenty of times and his response is always “whatever”) who can’t understand why the rubes who choose not to live in cool cities like SF prefer squirrel meat to sushi. And he LOVES new electronic gizmos especially for all the new ways they provide to consume porn, which he LOVES (not that he doesn’t have a hot girlfriend, as he frequently reminds his readers). All of which he writes about at great length in his columns. In fact,I think every column of his I ever read in the Chronicle when I lived in SF was on one of those two subjects.

    But most annoying of all is his lazy, pretentious writing with its repetition of content-less adjectives like “juicy”. Though I was impressed with this review, I don’t think he used the word juicy once.

    I enjoyed Avatar last night.

    Btw Zuska have you tried swimming? It is pretty low stress on the joints. And it makes you feel great!

  27. #27 skeptifem
    January 10, 2010

    I <3 CPP. for serious.

    Someone tried to get me to go see avatar because its “about the environment”. yeahh. okay. not really.

  28. #28 Barn Owl
    January 10, 2010

    Someone tried to get me to go see avatar because its “about the environment”

    Oh, yesshh! The promotional partnership between Avatar and McDonald’s supports that notion, right? Because before you eat your Avatar Big Mac (TM), you must thank the feedlot cows that gave their lives for your burger. Same goes for those corn plants that were sacrificed to make your soda.

    It’s all about the environment and the community of nature. Yep.

  29. #29 becca
    January 11, 2010

    It’s a beautiful movie. Mind you, I saw it in 3-D and I’ve never seen a movie in 3-D before, so perhaps I am just easily impressed. They probably could have shown nothing but the creatures in a xeno-zoology lesson movie-textbook and I would have been splooging (metaphorically). Though it might have had better plot that way.

    So the fact that it has beautiful people, and only beautiful people, even if they’re blue, should not shock us. I’m not sure that’s sufficient to call it ‘pornified’. People aren’t wearing much, but there’s not much sex. Soft-core, at worst. Or prudes who think any nudity = sex are responding to it based on their disgust for being attracted to blue people.

    It is *not* a movie with a great plot or awesome character development. But it sure was pretty. I don’t bash people for using their brains and analyzing it (Moff’s law is a pretty awesome formulation of that folly), but I don’t think there’s anything wrong about enjoying this movie by turning off that part of your brain (at least, this movie isn’t any worse than 97% of other hollywood blockbuster sorts).

  30. #30 DrugMonkey
    January 12, 2010

    I’ve never seen a movie in 3-D before

    whut?

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!