The Major Motion Picture is, along with presidential elections and natural disasters, one of the few events still capable of giving our fragmented culture a sense of unity, brief though it may be. The buzz surrounding the release of such a movie, the “countdown” widgets and the midnight showings, speak to America’s genuine need for them, so desperate in part because it is so rarely fulfilled. If the idea of a divide between “good” art-house movies and “entertaining” Hollywood blockbusters rings true, it is only because the latter usually are mere entertainment—which is precisely why the few mainstream movies that do manage to be more than simple entertainment are met with such ecstatic excitement. And these rare treasures, the good blockbusters, are ultimately the ones that really matter, because only they—unlike the rarefied art-house films—have an appeal universal enough to provide the moments of healing unity that we all crave.
James Cameron’s _Avatar_ was one such movie. From the gaping interval since Cameron’s last feature—_Titanic_, which was, until _Avatar_, the top grossing film of all time—to the speculations on its budget, everything about it was larger-than-life, which fed equally into both feverish anticipation of and feverish skepticism towards the film before its release. When it finally opened, less than two weeks before the end of the decade, its box-office performance was predictably extraordinary. Critical reception was also overwhelmingly positive; most reviews focused on the gorgeous and immersive 3-D visual effects. Even _the New Yorker_’s notoriously snarky David Denby began his review with the disarmingly blunt declaration that “_Avatar_ is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years.”
Few critics, though, ventured beyond these purely sensual pleasures to praise _Avatar_ as a whole. They were careful to qualify their rhapsodic odes on its beauty by pointing out its hokeyness, its unoriginal plot, its flat _characters_—in short, everything constituting the depth that supposedly makes “good” movies good. The “entertaining/good” dichotomy remained intact and for all their enthusiasm, even the most positive reviewers were unwilling to extend their praise from the former category to the latter. _Avatar_ was also criticized on political grounds by non-film reviewers, who objected to the questionable racial politics that it inherited, along with its appropriated plot, from movies like _Dances With Wolves_. David Brooks, for instance, accused it of perpetuating the racist “White Messiah” narrative, in which a manly Caucasian hero saves the defenseless and oppressed natives, cementing their impotence even while superficially sympathizing with their noble cause.
Contrary to the party line faithfully toed by all these venerable pundits, though, _Avatar_ is, without qualification, a _good_ movie in the strongest possible sense of the word. Its mass-culture ambitions are all that separates it from a masterpiece of a Bergman or a Kubrick, and the deftness with which it navigates the often conflicting demands of artistic integrity and mass appeal speak even further to its status as a great work of art. It was not media hype, or marketing, or even eye-popping visuals that made _Avatar_ the most popular movie ever made. It was because _Avatar_ is a great movie, a movie that earned every ounce of its excesses and every cent of its profits, and a movie that deserves to be hailed as a classic of cinema.
The most common criticism leveled at _Avatar_, that it has an unoriginal plot, is pedestrian and irrelevant—it is like criticizing “Hey Jude” for having an unoriginal chord progression. In fantasy movies—that take a risk by stepping out of the realm of immediate credibility, demanding a larger-than-usual suspension of disbelief—an unoriginal plot is more or less a structural necessity: the familiar story helps orient us in the movie’s unfamiliar universe. Even beyond the fantasy genre, though, movies—or, for that matter, stories in general—hardly ever have original plots; instead they tend to stick to the dozen or so plots that work, which is precisely why we like them so much. And even if the charge of unoriginality is a legitimate criticism, Avatar should still be lauded for at least having original characters—which is more than can be said of _Star Trek_, _The Dark Knight_, _Lord of the Rings_, and many more of the decade’s most popular movies.
The problem with the more serious criticism of _Avatar_’s racial politics is that it glosses over the fact that the Na’vi are _aliens_, and therefore not racial minorities. This point may seem pedantic but it is actually crucial. _Avatar_, like all popular movies, is meant as fantasy fulfillment—the world it constructs is a phantasmic projection, the negative impression of the dissatisfaction with modern life from which its audience wishes to escape. People ensconced in the comfort and stability of late-industrial civilization, in order to live with the ennui and claustrophobia that is an unavoidable by-product of their security, must fantasize about breaking out of the confines of the society so they do not have to deal with the consequences of doing so in real life. These escape fantasies are solipsistic—their content is determined entirely by the needs of the psyche that generates them. They comprise the negative space of a society, and the imagined Other that appears in them—in this case, the Na’vi—can be anything that approximates the shape of that space. By the same token, Dances With Wolves was not _really_ about Native Americans—they just fit the space. Given that these fantasies are necessary coping mechanisms, without which modern life would be unbearable, _Avatar_ should be commended for placing them in a fictional fantasy world instead of playing them out at the expense of real-life oppressed minorities.
The fact that the Na’vi are aliens is crucial because it means they are _not human_. Native Americans might be different, but they are still no less human than white people, and therefore still bound by those laws of human corporeality from which so much of our unhappiness originates. The Na’vi, though, are _physiologically_ different from humans in ways that point straight to the heart of what makes human existence so painful. First, they, along with all the living creatures on their planet, are bioluminescent; terrestrial light is a gift given to them freely by nature. We, by contrast, had to steal it from the gods. The human dream of filling the world with light, which we have only brought to dubious fruition with the advent of the light bulb, is for them a pre-given reality. Another difference is their ability to fly by riding winged animals, something humans have always dreamed of but have only accomplished through the nerve-wracking technology of the airplane.
By far the most important difference between Na’vi and humans, though, is _zahelu_, that is, the Na’vi ability to overcome the isolation of embodied existence through direct neural interface with other living creatures. The central nexus of human sadness, from the fall of Adam onward, has always been our estrangement from the natural world of which we are still inescapably a part. The rift between nature and culture cannot be resolved either by returning to nature or by eradicating it completely—it remains indefinitely an unresolved tension. And, from agriculture and domestication of animals to deforestation and repression of our own instincts, we have only been able to bridge the gap through brute domination. The Na’vi, through _zahelu_, are able to achieve what we cannot: a relationship between culture and nature that is mediated by symbiosis rather than domination; this symbiosis is made possible by their biological interconnection with nature, from which culture is freely given and need not be forcefully imposed. Their culture is not entirely free from domination, of course—the scene in which Jake Sully violently tames his mountain banshee is ample evidence—but even the Na’vi’s moments of violence fit into a paradigm of symbiosis. Jake tames the banshee by binding it with rope, but it still must “choose him” first. In contrast, even the most seemingly symbiotic interactions between humans, not aliens, and nature can still be reduced to domination.
The irreconcilable divide between the Na’vi and humans is underscored by the ubiquity of technology—the “extensions of man”—in the human side of the story. It is significant that the humans cannot even breathe the air on the Na’vi planet, Pandora. While the Na’vi are seamlessly integrated into their environment, the humans require technological enhancements even to survive in Pandora’s atmosphere. And it is surely no coincidence that Ewya, the spiritual network through which all life on Pandora is biologically interconnected, sounds a lot like a naturally-occurring Internet. The clearest foils, though, are the giant metallic exoskeletons, the closest thing the humans in _Avatar_ have to _zahelu_. In the climactic duel between Col. Quartritch, sheathed in a bayonet-wielding robot, and Neytiri, the comparison comes into perfect focus: for all our technological prowess, we are still prisoners in our own bodies, and we can interact with the outside world only through physical manipulation—the dream of a direct connection between mind and world remains a fantasy even 150 years in the future.
Or rather, it remains a fantasy with one crucial exception: the _Avatar_ program itself. Animal Collective anticipated _Avatar_ by almost a year when their album _Merriweather Post Pavilion_ (whose cover art, incidentally, features a strikingly _Avatar_-esque design of green leaves over a blue and purple background) had in its first track the memorable line: “If I could just leave my body for a night.” That line expresses in the simplest terms possible what may well be the deepest, strongest, most tragically impossible desire a human being can have; and _Avatar_ dares to let us see that desire gratified. That, above all else, is perhaps the secret of the movie’s appeal; it shows us a world in which technology has made it possible, at least to an extent, for human beings to _leave their bodies_ and enter into an existence that, unlike ours, is truly worthy of its bearers. Beneath all our idealistic fantasies of a perfect world, it is ultimately the inescapable limitations of our own bodies, our hated corporeal frailty—signified just as much by Dr. Grace’s smoking habit as by Jake’s disability—that is the source of our pain, and from that pain we will never be free. _Avatar_ lets us believe, if only for a few hours, that someday we might be.
This all should make clear why _Avatar_ is such a superbly enjoyable movie, and why interpretations that reduce it to a point-for-point allegory for some aspect of existence—capitalism, imperialism, whatever—do it such an injustice. By breaking free from the confines of reality and into the realm of fantasy, it offers us a vision of the reconcilement that in reality will remain forever beyond our reach. What remains to be shown, though, is what makes it a good movie. Blockbusters have always fulfilled our fantasies; that is what makes them blockbusters. What makes _Avatar_ any different from the rest of them?
The public reaction to _Avatar_, along with the predictable mixture of wild enthusiasm and cynical derision, included a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented facet: many people, in the days after seeing the movie, reported experiencing considerable emotional pain upon having to confront the fact that it was just a movie and not real. An article in the _Daily Mail_ reported that fans were “plagued by depression and even suicidal thoughts at not being able to visit the planet Pandora,” and a thread on the “_Avatar_ Forums” website entitled “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible” was flooded with over 1,000 posts, so many that administrators had to start a second thread. Many writers have criticized this phenomenon, bemoaning people’s increasing preference for artificially synthesized fantasies over real life. _Boston Globe_ film critic Ty Burr, in an article about how _Avatar_ “feeds into our desire to escape,” encouraged people not to abandon reality: “It’s real 3-D out there,” he wrote, “and it’s _amazing_.”
All these criticisms, however, miss the point. Popular movies—science fiction and fantasy movies especially—have _always_ fed into people’s desire to escape, and people have always had trouble dealing with the fact that they aren’t real. In almost every case, though, fans who are unable to cope with this disappointment sublimate it into grotesque perversities: for _Star Wars_, the elephantine world of novels, comics, video games and other merchandise that constitute the “Expanded Universe,” along with the prequels and the odious _Clone Wars_ movie; for _Star Trek_, the quasi-religious devotion of Trekkies, one of whom once famously served jury duty in a Starfleet uniform; for _Twilight_, the public obsession over whether Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are “actually in love,” as though their on-screen romance were not real enough. If _Lord of the Rings_ has managed to avoid a similar fate, it is only because of the utterly exhaustive Extended Edition DVD set, calculated to ruthlessly sate even the deepest and most elusive escapist desires.
_Avatar_ has not yet inspired such perversions. Instead, it has forced people to directly confront the pain that they would otherwise have channeled into unhealthy escapist activities. The author of the above-mentioned _Daily Mail_ article wrote that “the world of the sci-fi epic _Avatar_ is so perfect that the line between fact and fiction has become somewhat blurred”—but this is the exact opposite of the truth. On the contrary, for all those suffering _Avatar_ fans the line between fact and fiction is all too clear. One fan, whose wounds of separation must have been especially deep, has made a furtive attempt to start “an actual Na’vi Tribe” in Pensacola, Florida, but most have simply taken to the Internet message boards to find solace. The question, then, is: what is it about _Avatar_ that so distinguishes it from other movies? Why has it made some people unable to repress the pain that always accompanies the return from any fantasy world more perfect than reality?
One common mark of a work of “high art” is the deliberate interpenetration of form and content—for example, the abundant references to theater in Shakespeare’s plays, or Don Quixote’s obsession with romantic novels. Through this self-referential turn an artwork may represent itself, as well as its audience, within its own narrative. In film, this maneuver is often accomplished through some indirect visual reference to the film medium. An archetypal example is Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film, The _Passion of Joan of Arc_, in which the breaking-wheel on which Joan of Arc is to be tortured clearly resembles a rotating film reel, the spikes suggesting sprockets. The scene also features a monk who peeks into the room through a camera-like peephole, forcing the audience to confront the uncomfortably voyeuristic nature of the filmic medium. In this way, movies, in addition to creating an illusory world, may at the same time acknowledge the inauthenticity of the depicted world, as well as its relationship with its audience.
Perhaps _Avatar_ has been so successful in getting people to confront their pain of separation because, like Dreyer’s film, it also includes an element of self-representation in the form of the _Avatar_ program itself. Like humans controlling avatar bodies, we can only experience the movie’s fantasy world from a distance. We share in Jake Sully’s joy as he explores Pandora, as he joins the Na’vi and fights to defend them against the greedy humans invading their world. But his adventure is haunted all the while by a silent but ever-present specter: the fact that, despite all appearances, he is not really there. No matter how much he feels at home in his avatar body, it is still an extension of the paraplegic human body that lies languishing in a metal cocoon. His experience, like ours, is vicarious, regardless of how beautiful and immersive and _real_ it may seem. In this way, _Avatar_ represents, within its own plot, the tragic lacuna between itself and us, thereby forcing us, however subliminally, to come to terms with it.
Contrary to Ty Burr’s criticism that _Avatar_ feeds the unhealthy desire to escape from real life into illusion, the movie reminds us that “real life” is itself structured by illusion and always has been. To be human is to live in illusion, and to experience reality through the lens of illusion. Before the age of modernity these illusions took the form of religions and myths; now, in our disenchanted world, we must create our own illusions; or, in the case of movies, partake of the illusions created by others. We should not, however, fetishize “real life” without any illusion as something that is valuable in itself simply because it is real. Movies are illusions, but we need illusions to sustain us in our real lives. _Avatar_ also reminds us, by means of its brilliantly self-referential structure, that illusions should nonetheless not be mistaken for reality—and, more importantly, that the gap separating us from the illusions we create, preventing us from entering into them once and for all, is a painful wound that will never fully heal.
Not all popular movies are so honest about the tragic limitations of their medium. Recall, for instance, _The Matrix_, which was the overture to the last decade just as _Avatar_ ushered in this one. _The Matrix_ was a paean to the sort of jargon of authenticity trumpeted by Ty Burr and his ilk: the machines have imprisoned us in a computer-generated simulation world, we have to wake up from the dream of our lives and embrace authentic reality—you remember. Perhaps aware of the glaring hypocrisy of a _movie_, chock full of CGI special effects, preaching the gospel of reality over illusion, the directors took great care to make the back-story as credible as possible—the baroque narrative contortions of the two sequels were apparently the price they had to pay in order to avoid plot inconsistencies. (James Cameron, in contrast, let us know precisely how much he cared about his back-story by actually naming the Pandora’s rare mineral “Unobtainium,” as if to tell any quibbling sci-fi nerds, “Just shut up and watch the damn movie!”)
For all their diligence, though, the Wachowski Brothers left one massive plot hole unaccounted for: the fact that Cipher, the supposed bad guy, was _completely right_ when he said the Matrix was better than reality. “The desert of the real” is just that, a broken wasteland completely stripped of all but the bare necessities, in which one must constantly run and hide to avoid being exterminated by the machines—and yet we are supposed to believe that this empty freedom is preferable to the Matrix, just because the Matrix “isn’t real.” If you take away the movie’s glamorizing rhetoric, getting “unplugged” is no different from the renunciation of “childish” imagination and fantasy that is expected of all of us upon settling into the solemn monotony of grown-up life. In short, _The Matrix_ is a fantasy movie whose message is that we should stop fantasizing and get real, even if that means giving up all that makes us human in our fanatical struggle to preserve our humanity. _Avatar_, by that token, is The Matrix in reverse: its message is that the very essence of humanity has always resided in our imagination—that part of us that extends beyond reality, creating the unreal illusions that nonetheless constitute reality itself.
James Cameron has made some remarks to the effect that _Avatar_ is meant to suggest new ways of living in harmony with nature and paving the way for a brighter future—all standard Hollywood-liberal platitudes. In all seriousness, though, in what ways could this movie suggest a new ideal for living in the world? Surely not by directly emulating the Na’vi—that would be biologically, not to mention socially, impossible. Nor would it even be a greater respect for nature—most of us, at least in theory, feel that way already, and it has not helped much. In fact, the only people who truly suggest a new way of living are the audience, all those people who felt so acutely the pain of not being able to live in a perfect world. In these difficult times, the only way to live better lives might be simply to allow ourselves to feel the pain that we struggle every day to outrace. In time we might discover that this pain, far from a demon to be exterminated, is actually an essential constitutive moment in happiness itself.
This brings to mind one more convergence of medium and message: _Avatar_’s much-lauded 3-D technology. Classicist Anne Carson, in her book _Eros, the Bittersweet_, analyzes the curious way in which desire, as expressed by Sappho, manifests itself as a paradoxical mixture of pleasure and pain. It yearns to consummate itself by attaining its object, and yet its object remains forever transcendent, because the lack that it longs to fill is desire itself. The only way to live is to accept this lack, and the pain it brings, as an element of desire that will always accompany it, to incorporate into the ideal toward which we strive an acknowledgement of its own impossibility, its own _unreality_. “The difference between what is and what could be is visible,” writes Carson. “The ideal is projected onto the screen of the actual, in a kind of _stereoscopy_.” So there you have it: the “utilitarian” way of life, which insists only on total pleasure and wants to end all suffering, is one-dimensional, which is why it is always unsatisfying. Only through the dual perspective of pleasure and pain, of the joy of fulfillment mixed with the sadness of disappointed expectations, does the depth of reality become visible. In this respect Ty Burr was right: the real world _is_ three-dimensional, but only if we are able to see it that way—and it is only with the help of illusions, like _Avatar_, that our depth-perception is renewed.