Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
You must see with eyes unclouded by hate. See the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two.
— Hayao Miyazaki
If you’ve read my critique of Avatar so far, you would have caught on by now that I find it a solid film that benefited from its imaginative world-building, breathtaking visuals, spirited performances, and James Horner’s pitch-perfect music. I came to acknowledge that it suffered from generally unoriginal storytelling and some weak characterizations, but they were not so bad that they would’ve harmed the movie. The movie generally worked more on a technical than a storytelling level. But even then, the world-building complimented the story, while the performances complimented the characters, and it was all enough for me to overlook its more apparent flaws.
However, despite all that, I still couldn’t find it in myself to declare myself a fan of this film. I only saw it about four or five times, not including when it was still in theaters back in 2009, and every time, I saw it almost with reservations. Why? Because there was one element from the whole film that put me at odds with it regardless of what it offered.
And believe it or not, it’s the villains.
I’m talking specifically about the commander of the RDA mission, Colonel Miles Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang, and Parker Selfridge, played by Giovanni Ribisi. These two oversaw the development of RDA’s mission on Pandora, the investigations on the Omaticaya tribe’s homeland, and the operations to mine the entire field full of unobtainium, arguably the wealthiest and most sought-after mineral anywhere. At first, they both expressed moments of modesty, subdued as they were, concerning their pursuits for more research or their coworkers. Selfridge had to remind Grace, Sully, and the others about the unobtanium they had to extract from Pandora, not to mention occasionally clue them in on Quaritch’s plans. With Quaritch, he was shown as a tough, macho man who appeared to have had countless battles before on Earth, apparent from the stories of his Nigerian expeditions and the scars on his head. He showed determination to remain resilient against who he thought were unreasonable, savage aliens who always sought out the blood of their invaders, including humans. Sometimes, he showed some moments of tenderness, like his promises to Jake Sully to get him his legs back once they obtained the unobtanium. I honestly wasn’t sure how he would’ve responded if it was Tom Sully partaking in the mission instead of Jake. Maybe Tom would’ve reacted to Pandora and its natives differently than Jake did in this situation. Who knows?
However, once Jake, Grace, and the others felt most comfortable among the Na’vis, they suddenly decided to cue the bulldozers and war-copters and relentlessly plow their way through the land to reach the unobtanium. They used the bulldozers to plow down and destroy the Tree of Voices, and they ultimately commanded an entire army fleet to shoot missile after missile at the Hometree, causing it to splinter from the bottom and topple over, killing a good portion of the Na’vis in the process.
When I saw this in action and reacted to them and the villains’ motives as I did, I was in 100% disbelief. I suspected that the bad guys would have been the bad guys judging from their perspective on the mission and its progress through Jake Sully and his pals. But once the Tree of Voices and Hometree went down, at that moment, I looked at these characters like they became dead to me, like they were lower than scum. None of their actions helped, either. For the remainder of the movie, Selfridge was suddenly painted as a sleazy executive who cared very little about the research compiled on the Pandoran wildlife, for he was more concerned about the unobtainium than he was about the well-being of the Na’vis or even of his coworkers. And Quaritch was a more baffling case. At first, he felt like an intimidating army general with a rough background and concern for his troopers. Next, after he caught on to Sully trying to protect the Na’vis, he suddenly talked as tough as he looked with no motives, no concern for the Na’vis or his fellow troops, just a sure, cold display of vengeance and a hopelessly incurable case of unobtanium fever.
Sometimes, his psychical prowess would’ve even put you in slight disbelief.
At one point, after apprehending Trudy and her friends, he tried to shoot down her and an RDA copter that she hijacked for about 30 seconds straight before finally putting a mask on. Granted, humans wouldn’t have lived for longer than four minutes in the Pandoran atmosphere without a mask, but sheesh! The way he lunged forth, how’s this guy so physically capable of withstanding so much when in the right mood? It’s like Quaritch isn’t even human!
And I’m not going to lie; Avatar was the first movie I’ve ever seen in my life whose portrayals of villainy left me utterly hotheaded. More often than not, it left me reacting, and yes, even throwing outbursts sometimes, like Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas whenever Quaritch or Selfridge committed their atrocities. And when I heard Quaritch’s smug, thoughtless victory cry,
Good work, boys. First round’s on me tonight.
…over the scene of an entire tribe mourning the loss of some of their families, friends, and home…
Well, let’s say that my response was more along the lines of:
…and the mechanized horses you rode in on!
But seriously, their actions between the first and second halves felt so far removed that somehow, it made the movie’s tactics to have us empathize with the good guys and the Na’vis look manipulative. It’s like the film introduced these villains with some underhanded qualities to them, as well as some moments of evident modesty. And then, it decided to wipe out all the amounts of decency they had at the beginning of the movie and go, “now, allow us to demonstrate why these characters are bad news, and here’s why you should care, too!” Even Quaritch went from expressing concern for his fellow men, like with Jake concerning his legs, to suddenly making me feel like he could easily have seen any of his troops as expendable.
Seriously? Don’t the decent moments from the villains mean something? By presenting the villains to us this way, it’s almost like they’re instead numb-minded, walking, talking war machines whose other purposes in the movie also happen to be target practice in the eyes of its viewers!
I’ve seen movies and shows with villains who remained the same before and after exhibiting their true purposes to the heroes. As in, I wouldn’t have told the difference by the time this occurred. But in the case of Quaritch and Selfridge, I can tell the difference immediately. And I don’t mean in the same way as some of the villains who hid their true purposes and pretended to be good guys before revealing themselves for who they really were. The villains’ motivations were apparent from the get-go, and yet, the characters felt different and less tolerable once their motivations took over completely.
When evaluated from beginning to end, Quaritch’s general characterization didn’t help, either. He started as having had some rough backgrounds before signing on to be the leader of an expedition to a new world, but then, he turned out to have been after the source of what he believed would’ve granted him immeasurable wealth. I’ve seen this kind of character before as Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas and as Commander Rourke in Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
And honestly, I can’t recall very much to report about Selfridge’s characterization, either. He just oversaw the aspects of the unobtanium, saw to it that the mission to extract it went over as smoothly as it can, and just generally expressed negligence in the face of unprecedented new angles to be reported of the Na’vis and Pandora.
Besides, what also sickened me was what their pursuits for the unobtainium took away from other people. For example, earlier in the movie, Neytiri showed Jake the Tree of Voices, which might have been around for many centuries, and how it was full of the voices of their ancestors. That scene felt pretty and made me think about how possible it would’ve been to communicate with the ancestors who’ve passed on, no matter who used or visited the Tree of Voices. But the following morning - poof! The bulldozers emerged, and in a couple of minutes, the Tree of Voices, one of the most awe-inspiring elements of nature and beauty, was gone. So now, the ancestors remained unheard, no one could speak with their ancestors again, and we had the misfortune to witness something so beautiful ripped apart so brutally. And worse still, even more Na’vi were killed in the explosions at the Hometree, which I’ll wager might also have been around for centuries. The idea that something so massive, huge, and utterly magnificent was destroyed over something so insignificantly material by comparison almost gave me a heart attack.
On top of that, as some of the Na’vis’ most sacred locations were torn apart, discord started to erupt between Jake, Grace, and the fellow Omaticaya tribe when they started catching on to why they were there in the first place. The tribe shunned them in response, even though the villains were to blame for all this mess. Come to think of it, I would understand the heroes’ settlement among the Omaticaya tribe and their hesitation to tell them the real reason they were there in the first place. But would it have hurt for them to tell the Omaticayas as early and softly as possible what’s going on? And when Quaritch ordered the fire, some Na’vis, adults and children alike, and many of whom Grace and Jake grew close with, were slaughtered in a snap, including Neytiri’s father, and the Omaticayas were left in despair over the horrifying destruction that went down. In the case of Jake, Grace, Norm, and Trudy, they were also left powerless and filled with betrayal by the RDA.
Some moviegoers preferred to wallow in the despair that ensued from this destruction. Others cried foul because they felt like it unintentionally glorified quote ‘anti-Americanism’. I mean, I saw some people liken the fall of the Hometree to the fall of the Twin Towers.
But me? Ever since I saw Avatar in theaters 13 years ago, the most prominent thing swarming in my head about it was how much I wanted to see Jake and his comrades teach Quaritch and all of RDA the ways of contributing to the environment
AS PLANT FOOD! LIKE IN LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS!!
I’m sorry. I know that sounds nasty, but that is honestly how I felt about the movie’s villains for as long as they’ve been around.
And that’s what scares me the most about the villains’ ongoing and violent moves in pursuit of the unobtanium. As I watched all the miserable chaos unfold in their wake, I began feeling like I became overfilled with a thirst for the blood of the inhumane on behalf of the oppressed. And it’s a thirst that I know is more trouble when taken to unhealthy extremes than people let on.
Quaritch’s and Selfridge’s responses and methods of action in this half of the movie felt so twisted and inhuman that I gradually started to look at them and all their fellow RDA troops and wonder not who they were but what they were. The way the last half of the movie set it up, it’s almost like, between the humans back on planet Earth, the Na’vi sympathizers, and the RDA troops, the RDA troops felt like planetary exiles by comparison, as if even the will to live was the last thing they deserved.
The acting Stephen Lang provided for Quaritch, as did Giovanni Ribisi for Selfridge, their acting methods reflected their characteristics as effectively as the rest of the cast in the movie. Although, I think they performed their roles too well. Once the Tree of Voices went down, their performances matched the sudden change in their personalities too thoroughly and not in a commendable way. Whenever Quaritch lunged into action on his terms, he looked and acted like he had no thoughtful bone in his body and left me wanting to see him physically dealt with sooner than later. When Selfridge was notified about the complex biological systems running throughout Pandora, he scoffed it off as just another joke. That, coupled with his handling of the situations and Quaritch’s reckless actions, got to a point where I wondered what the hell they were doing in this movie.
Once their true colors were set in motion and all their more decent facets melted away, they left me utterly infuriated and wanting to see Jake and his friends rise again and psychically repay them all over. The same thing with the RDA crew, too, since they were in on this.
Granted, the movie showed us how not all of the RDA personnel was on board with Quaritch shooting down the Hometree to have better access to the unobtanium. And I usually love it when such aspects of the movie’s more unorthodox elements are explored. Even Selfridge seemed to have some subtle moments of hesitation when thinking hard about Quaritch’s actions against Jake Sully and all the Na’vi. But the movie expressed an insistence for our emotional dedication to the good guys and instinctive hatred against the bad guys, no matter what. And to me, when such complex angles to the bad guys are plain to see, it made this feel more like a creative misstep.
And if that’s not enough, this movie introduced all these people from RDA like they were regular people before deciding to throw in whatever devious methods from their end they can express. It’s like the filmmakers hoped that we would’ve left the movie with more significant environmental concern by demonstrating the follies of their actions this way and also felt more tempted to retaliate against those who wronged others in real life the same way the heroes would’ve.
Frankly, this filmmaking technique also scares me.
Sister Helen Prejean debated over the necessity of capital punishment in Dead Man Walking when she addressed her two visits with some of the most notorious criminals ever put behind bars. And after that, she still argued that criminals deserve some chance at redemption before they die.
In Avatar, however, in its determination to make an example of how the environment was being mishandled, the film suddenly painted the RDA like it was little more than an encroaching mechanical plague that’s out to kill, and that’s it. In so doing, it left us feeling that the humans responsible for the harmful actions deserved no chance of redemption and should be punished as such. And because of the rich world-building and the emotional connections of the main characters, I was in a position where I was sucked in and expressing the same outrage and bloodthirsty desires. Emotional attachment is one thing, but pulling this many strings on you in the hopes of strengthening your cinematic involvement or environmental considerations is another thing. Somehow, I feel it’s just a cheap ploy to enforce emotional engagement out of you by throwing in the opposite of what we need to feel like we’re being engaged with something enticing and meaningful.
Why does this frighten me so much? Allow me to tell you a bit about my background. As I grew up, I believed that whenever a problem arose, either in real life or fiction, I immediately dive in and dig for potential solutions to the problem. Whichever one felt more immediate, thorough, and foolproof, I’d settle on that one in a heartbeat and act off it.
I also understand that it is important to treat it with as many rational foundations as it is to treat it with emotional devotions. That is not to say I disapprove of emotional devotions, though. Sometimes, in film, emotional engagement over rational analysis is a sign of great filmmaking because it would leave you in a state of buying into whatever the movie presented to you. But I feel like this would work best if it remained natural about it.
With Avatar, after the Tree of Voices went down, I feel like what I’m witnessing was stirring the inner animal inside of me. And frankly, I disapprove of this kind of treatment by fiction. Even in fiction, I believe there needs to be some logical footing among the dilemmas in front of me. So, when something happens that’s supposed to get us in a particular mode that defies logical problem-solving, that’s where I tend to feel manipulated.
See, this is funny because I had seen some movies and TV shows that took the same emotional maneuvers as Avatar did when things started going completely south for the good guys, courtesy of the bad guys they fought. However, in their cases, in their attempts to leave me hating the culprits for their actions, they always bailed out of grounding their narrative progressions within realistic conditions. Instead, they left a bad taste in my mouth because they made a mistake in not having otherwise fictional characters, primarily the good guys, respond the way the viewers watching them would generally have done in real life. With Avatar, however, the good guys did what I reckon anyone watching them would’ve done if they dealt with what they did in real life: ditch RDA the first chance they get and declare war against them, ammo and all.
And another thing, I always heard people say that when a villain gets under your skin and festers long after watching a movie or show, that character was well-written or well-performed. But answer me this: how do you know how well written or performed the villain is if your emotional turbulence takes over and clouds your judgment? And equally as important is this: how do you know that all the vitriol and death threats you’d express against the villains and their actions in the heat of the moment would not spill into how you would respond to similar manmade calamities in real life?
No joke. When I saw that show with my father several years ago, I was awestruck by the first-rate visual effects, numerous storytelling threads that each showed merit, fantastic characters, and a compelling world in the form of Westeros. But once I saw some of the good characters slaughtered like pigs and some of the more beautiful elements of this world snuffed out, especially by such insufferable characters as Joffrey Baratheon, Walder Frey, and Ramsay Bolton, I felt like the show went too far with these drastic changes in circumstance and made me wish I hadn’t seen it.
Whenever I look at something so magnificent, also in real life or fiction, I usually take in all that it is and that it has for everything good that it stands for. However, when it’s likely that something or someone insignificant will come along to tarnish it and deprive it of what makes it so special, suddenly, it makes it hard for me to appreciate what is beautiful. I struggled with this realization about things in real life, and I think it all came to fruition after watching the Tree of Voices and Hometree being destroyed in this movie. Even throughout the many times I rewatched Avatar, I always looked at the beautiful moments and places with sickening unease knowing what would’ve happened to them later in the movie.
Part of the reason why this movie left me with such an urge to vanquish all the wrongdoers of this world, misguided as I believe it is, is to ensure that nothing more that is already beautiful in this world would be ruined because of them.
Of course, one good thing to have come out of me witnessing all this was for me to catch on to the likenesses their actions may have with the real-life hackings of the rainforests on Earth, especially in the Amazon. Here are all these forests that may house some unique and potentially unidentified species of plants and animals that can’t be found anywhere else. And amazingly, some of those plants would even provide much-needed medicine that can cure diseases that we humans once thought were incurable. But then, after that, some farmers and lumberjacks lunged into these forests, cutting down trees and plowing away fields where some of the unique species lived, and for what?
I know that farming for crops and providing housing materials are essential, but think about it. How important are they compared to preserving species of plants and animals that we may never see elsewhere? That can still be analyzed or used for something arguably more beneficial if they’re still around? This is where human manageability can get too out of hand unless we carefully examine how much we’re making what we need in each given year, at least. Yet, even I realize that environmental concerns can be as massive as they are complicated. I wish there were more effective ways to make such arrangements feel more balanced without leaning more toward one side and jeopardizing the other.
To get back to the movie, though, there’s another potential problem with it that I believe many other people caught, too, that I need to discuss. In its attempts to make us care more about environmental welfare through the beauties and destructions of Pandora, it may have unintentionally painted humanity in a negative light. As Jake briefly mentioned while talking with Ewya at the Tree of Souls, he told her that humanity killed their mother back on planet Earth, just like they could’ve with Eywa by destroying the Tree of Souls. Even the RDA wanted the unobtanium not only because it was worth so much money but because it would have paid for countless things, ranging from the entire mission to Grace’s scientific studies and, as Quaritch promised, the operations to refunction Sully’s legs. Instead, once the environmental hazards, courtesy of their involvement with the Na’vis, kicked in, the film suddenly decided to show humanity as being immeasurably and irreversibly corrupted and always hungry for anything they can get their hands on. Even their destruction of the Hometree, as I pointed out, made them look like terrorists from the other side of the spectrum.
At this point, Avatar may have triggered an accidental case of cinematic misanthropy through its position in environmental awareness.
As the movie continued, despite introducing the humans as just the people and the Na’vi natives as just another alien race, the perspectives soon flipped. By the end of the movie, we viewed the Na’vi natives as the people and the humans as just another alien race; even Jake said so.
One problem I have with this portrayal is that it showed only one side of the story. In Avatar’s case, regarding humanity, it decided to show only its destructive side. To its credit, it did shed some light on the humans who did care, like Jake, Grace, Trudy, Norm, and Max. But come on, there’s got to be far more humans, especially back on planet Earth, who felt some concern for the well-being of other environments, whether on Earth or anywhere else in the universe, like Pandora.
Yes, humans have done some nasty things before. Look at the religious wars being fought throughout history. Look at the slave trade throughout the 17th through the 19th centuries. Look at the terrorist attacks being committed throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. But also, let’s look at all the good things humanity has done: Abraham Lincoln abolishing slavery with the 13th amendment, America landing the first man on the moon, even the Wright brothers inventing the airplane. And look at all the countless charity organizations established for humanity’s welfare and, in some cases, especially the environment.
At this rate, I think the movie’s depiction of humanity in this issue felt a little sloppy. It could’ve highlighted some more engaging arguments about the wants and needs of humanity back on Earth compared to the needs and wants of the Na’vi on Pandora. In fact, that notion alone sparks some engaging ideas that could’ve been explored to intriguing effect but instead were thrown to the side to aim for a more emotional yet, in my opinion, overblown conviction about the follies of humanity’s encroachment on otherwise wholesome, beauteous environments.
As I continue to dwell on this, besides environmental welfare, one other thing I should give Avatar credit for is for opening my eyes to another important aspect of humanity: the indigenous peoples and their customs.
You know who I’m talking about; the indigenous folk who lived where we live long before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas or before the British settlers landed on Plymouth Rock. Heck, even before these same settlers moved out West! Countless tribes lived in their lands and developed their language, traditions, and customs, all of which we’d generally find fascinating and would allow us to gaze at the world’s wonders as only they’d have seen them. But in our pursuits under the promises of the American Dream and freedom, we were relentless in our plans for the lands they inhabited and sparked plenty of genocides and racial wars, also throughout history. Much like with environmental awareness, this leads me to argue for both issues what I genuinely believe is the answer: compromise, not war. If that can ever be managed between the two conflicting sides, who knows how much more we can accomplish without sacrificing something or someone so special?
As shown in Avatar, however, its demonstrations of humanity’s destruction of the environment and native customs, plus the villainy behind it, though understandable, felt a little too insistent and in-your-face for my taste.
Do you want a movie relished for its visual imagery and equally engaging commitment to its story and characters, all of which concern environmental awareness? If so, then one particular movie I would recommend besides Avatar is Princess Mononoke. This film, by heralded animator Hayao Miyazaki, did more than show wars being fought over the environment. For one thing, it demonstrated how both sides of the warfront had both right and wrong intentions for waging war on the other side. Nonetheless, war is hell, and the environment would’ve been just as victimized as the warmongers would’ve been. To me, this feels a little more nuanced and all-encompassing than what Avatar achieved.
Getting back to Avatar, though, Avatar is nevertheless a fascinating movie to immerse yourself into when given the proper preparations for what you’d be experiencing. The characters had varying levels of compelling aspects to make them memorable, and the story could’ve been ironed out more and provided more creative methods of delivering an environmental experience. And the middle portion felt too aggressive to help the movie; it left it to struggle under the strain. Still, the film is rightly declared as a classic thanks to its performances, glorious musical score by James Horner, a wildly imaginative, detailed world in the form of Pandora, the scenery, and the visual effects, which all feel ahead of their time.
One other thing I should note is that, as of this writing, James Cameron is writing a whopping four sequels to this movie, starting with The Way of Water, which will come out later this December. This continuation of Avatar, I must admit, is very interesting. I admire the likelihood of the franchise pushing forth in its exploration of Pandora and showing all the untouched natural beauties it offers. And judging from what’s being shown right now, the second chapter is guaranteed to start with Pandora’s seas and lakes. So, who knows what might await our heroes then?
However, there’s one little detail about the sequels that intrigued me, albeit in a fearful way. Among the returning cast, besides Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver (albeit in a different role), Zoe Saldana, CCH Pounder, and others, they would also reunite Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi in the same roles, despite Selfridge being (likely) exiled from Pandora and Quaritch being finally made into a pincushion by two of Neytiri’s poisoned arrows. I have no idea what role he or Selfridge would’ve had to play in the sequels after what went down for them in the first film. I don’t even know how Quaritch would’ve continued living after being subject to something so unsurvivable. My biggest hope is that the sequels would take the opportunity to flesh out characters like Selfridge or even Quaritch until they aroused intrigue in them as characters, and not only hatred onto them for their actions. The more complex, interesting, and even consistent the villains become, the better.
In fact, while my mind is still on this subject, being that The Way of Water is a sequel to a movie released 13 years ago, perhaps it would also take the overdue opportunity to flesh out the returning or surviving characters. For example, is there more to Jake Sully, Neytiri, Mo’at, Norm, or the others we never saw in the first film that would round them out more? As long as it helps the movie narratively, then bring it on!
And, I have a sneaky suspicion that Pandora may house more than just magnificent wildlife and even peaceful Na’vi tribes, like the Omaticaya tribe. Could there also be hostile Na’vi tribes, the kind on whom the humans would’ve been right to wage war? There are many possibilities to explore with these characters, Pandora, and maybe even Earth if the franchise decides to go there sometime. And as far as I can tell, this all shows more intrigue than even the first film carried. So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the further installments that James Cameron has lined up for Avatar will benefit the first film and the entire franchise the way they deserve to.
From what I heard about the Avatar sequels from time to time, in the 13 years that passed, James Cameron worked on the scripts of the four sequels almost nonstop. Just like how he waited so long for the technology to be just right for Avatar, he saw to it that the same was to be done with its sequels, too. If anything, that tells me that James Cameron knows what he’s doing with all those follow-ups. I revere this kind of persistence and dedication from James Cameron as a filmmaker, so until then, I will remain cautiously optimistic about Avatar’s future.
Avatar, do I see you eye to eye? Not always. Do I see you regardless? Yes, I do.