The 82nd Annual Academy Awards are bearing down upon us like a massive, unrolling red carpet, slicing a fresh wound through the tepid green flesh of flyover country. Water coolers everywhere are bubbling with gossip and predictions — will Star Trek outmaneuver Transformers 2for the coveted Best Sound Mixing prize? Is Inglorious Basterds really eligible for Best Documentary? Are Wallace and Gromit real? The bulk of the intrigue is locked up in the battle for Best Picture, being fought in Iraq and on Pandora, respectively, with James Cameron's $600 million dollar technical marvel Avatar pitted against The Hurt Locker, a frank and devastating ride-along with a Baghdad bomb squad, from director (and Cameron ex-wife) Kathryn Bigelow.
It might surprise anyone who's ever been clubbed by one, but Oscar has a few soft spots, and the biggest one is for grandeur. Darkly brilliant critics' classics like 'Goodfellas,' Pulp Fiction, and L.A. Confidential were all trounced by gooey epics: Dances With Wolves, Forrest Gump, and of course, Titanic, which cemented Cameron's place as "King of the World," and earned him the leverage to make his long-gestating dream project a computer-generated reality. But beneath all the flawlessly rendered blue flesh, is it any good?
As I discard my greasy glasses in the bin and wait for my eyes to refocus in the cold light of day, I present 15 questions that I would've asked someone, anyone, if I had been a character in Avatar. Spoilers ahead and a note to hardcore fans: I saw this movie once and it was too much of a time commitment. If these questions are answered in a novelization, German interview or supplemental wiki let me know in the comments below so I can apologize to you and your pet snake directly.
#1. What year is it? Pandora is six years away, and they seem pretty comfortable getting there and back, with offhand mentions of schools being built, so they've probably been there for a while, right? A quick Google search reveals that the film takes place in 2149, which means we develop interplanetary travel, brain-swapping technology and fully-functional mechanical robosuits sometime in the next 150 years. Never mind the fact that we've been using the internal combustion engine for over 200 years. The other good news is that a lot of the natives speak pretty alright English, so America is clearly still top dog (high five).
#2. Do human beings still age and die? The Avatar scenario brushes off some big questions with a few torn-from-the-headlines buzzwords (the main character can't get his spine repaired on veteran's benefits "in this economy"), but they can apparently afford to keep him alive in stasis for six years and daily transport his brain into a "very expensive" new alien body, which raises one of the movie's biggest premise-puncturing questions: did they really start cloning new Na'vi avatars before they tried making new human bodies for humans? Say, war heroes who were crippled in the service of their country? Furthermore, with that technology available, do any humans still age and die in the far-flung Avatar future, or do they just burn through new bodies like oil changes?
#3. What does Unobtainium do? Besides serve as a stand-in for oil and make Giovanni Ribisi spout exposition. I guess maybe it floats in the air, but we already have a thing that does that. It's called helium.
#4. Who's in charge around here? On the human side of things, the main character's loyalty is divided between in-uniform military personnel and a team of scientists, both of which seem to be funded by the same nameless corporation that can't even be bothered to keep around a pen with its logo on it, much less explain what it does with all the unobtainium it scrapes off the inside of baby Na'vi skulls (or whatever). There's a reference to the army guys being mercenaries, but the main character, Jake Sullivan, explains his presence there as part of a lifetime commitment to the Marines. For now, let's just assume Giovanni Ribisi is the Junior Vice President of space, because the first time you see him he's practicing golf! At work!
#5. Are these subtitles really written in Papyrus? Okay, to be fair, I would not have known about this as a character in Avatar, but apparently the Na'vi language is currently being employed all around us on Mediterranean restaurant menus.
#6. Why is the 'Avatar' program useful? Rarely in the history of white people (also just known as "history") do they ever bother to seamlessly integrate with a culture they're studying, as much as kind of stomp in, steal a few sacred planters, trade smallpox blankets for perpetual exploitation rights, sterilize the children and skedaddle. Since the Na'vi immediately recognize the Avatars as outsiders, what's the point of the charade? They mention being stronger and more resilient, but having an Avatar body didn't stop a trained, armed soldier from nearly getting eaten by every animal (although it did eventually get him space-laid).
#7. Why do the Na'vi so readily accept Jake into their culture? This is a real head-scratcher. Calling back to her Gorillas in the Mist days, Sigourney Weaver plays a compassionate scientist in a svelte, cerulean kitty-kat body who has implicitly studied the Na'vi for years without ever being escorted into the anthropologist VIP room. Contrarily, Jake introduces himself, unapologetically, as a warrior, one of the same armed alien thugs that have been razing their forests, stripping their land and presumably plugging them in the back for target practice after a few space-beers. The Na'vi chief responds by more or less giving him the key to the city on the spot and forcing his precious and only daughter to escort him on dangerous missions where he is thoroughly educated in all of their most crucial secrets.
#8. Is it a good idea to just leave your Avatar body wherever you happen to fall asleep? It takes the movie a surprisingly long time to address the tension of what happens when Jake abandons his extremely expensive, so one-of-a-kind that he was recruited to replace his twin brother, Avatar body. The movie gleefully sucks him back into human town periodically to make video diaries, appear conflicted, and point at holograms, during montages where his other self is god knows where, probably having Na'vi genitals drawn on its forehead. The entire planet is trying to kill you, dude. You could at least stuff yourself in a locker or something.
#9. Does a self-described "dumb grunt" really learn an alien language in a couple of months? Actually, it might be just weeks (it's not really clear). One of the movie's biggest problems is the tell-not-show convenience of Jake's transformation, conducted mostly through training montages, voiceover and off-screen action, culminating in the spectacularly baffling event that raises our next question—
#10. Didn't anyone ever try jumping on the back of that big dragon before? Jake's eventual leadership in the tribe is determined by his ability to ride on a big, legendary, untameable dragon that he shows up and wows everybody with. His crazy plan for riding the unrideable dragon? Jumping on its back. This bold calculation is described in his narration as the "one insane move" his entire life has been building up to, and oddly enough not referred to as "the first and only thing any idiot would try." Worshipping a guy for figuring out how to ride something by jumping on its back is like worshipping your friend for getting out and trying the door when it wasn't clear whether or not White Castle was still open.
#11. Why do all the Na'vi on the planet get on board with Jake's plan? It took Jake months to secure his improbable tenure as boy prince of the blue folk. With the clock ticking and the bad guys airborne, do the Na'vi really travel all over the planet in a couple of hours, amassing the other tribes (many of whom apparently are on foot or horseback) and convincing them to risk their lives under the leadership of one of the very enemy who approaches? How about for a "plan" that consists of one civilization-risking counter-attack pitting their bows and arrows against missile-launching helicopters? (Spoiler: they do that thing I just said).
#12. If Sigourney Weaver is rapidly dying of a gunshot wound, do we really have time to strip her of her clothes and wrap her in artfully placed nipple-concealing vines? The answer to this is 'no' it turns out, since she kicks the bucket and gets absorbed into the Internet tree, facilitating our next question —
#13. If the planet instructs all its animals to expel the intruders, couldn't it have done that to begin with? In a literal deus ex machina, the Avatar version of Jake gives the central goddess/tree/computer a pep-talk leading it to call upon all of its animals to collectively attack at once (since invading humans have never found a way to kill native species before). Arguably it could've done this on day one, but maybe it needed to absorb Sigourney Weaver's ambitious, American brain first so that it would assimilate the idea to be something other than a doormat for Whitey.
#14. Do the human scientists left behind eventually run out of oxygen and die? It's pretty convenient that the handful of sympathetic characters didn't have homes or families back on Earth, an implicitly dying planet where they expel the humans back to choke and die on their own hubris. As happy endings go, it's a little confusing. Either way, enjoy life in a gas mask, hippie.
#15. How do the Na'vi know how to permanently transfer a mind? These heavily exoticised Native American analogs are so dripping with white-guilt attributed nature powers that I'm surprised they don't just defeat their human occupiers with magic tears that turn the bad guys to stone. But in a culture that hasn't mastered pants technology yet, how do they have a ceremony prepared to usher Jake's mind into his Na'vi body for keeps? Apparently by sitting on the ground, interlocking their arms and gyrating, which is, admittedly, their solution to everything.
Bonus question #16. Did any of you guys see 'District 9?' Wasn't it awesome? Answer: Yes. Yes it was.