Thanks to a generous friend I saw Avatar last night. I have now concluded that James Cameron has, and perhaps always will be, the liberal's Michael Bay.
Over the years critics have remarked upon Michael Bay's propensity to discard story logic in favor of explosive spectacle. IO9 wrote a gut-busting satirical review of Transformers Revenge of the Fallen in which it was flatly declared that Michael Bay was an arthouse film director whose goal was to create a film that so bludgeoned the senses it overwhelmed higher reason with the ennui of the cosmos we live in. James Cameron has demonstrated in his work ranging from Piranha 2 up through Avatar that he has a similar, yet tighter and more disciplined command of the cinematic art.
All of that is to say that I don't go to a James Cameron film to expect narrative logic, morally nuanced characters, logically anticipated and resolved plotholes, or compelling philosophy ... I go to a James Cameron film to have my eyes and ears bludgeoned by grandiose gestures. James Cameron is what you might get if you translated Tolkien into film without room for nuance (and notice I'm not saying Tolkien was necessarily subtle, since he bothered to write the profoundly aggravating Tom Bombadil into his books).
Having seen Avatar and Transformers Revenge of the Fallen inside of a year James Cameron has opened my eyes and I find myself seeing James Cameron and Michael Bay as two sides of the same coin. Cameron is the more accomplished film-maker and ... dare I say it ... artist. Yet at the end of the day both display the same lack of capacity for nuance or subtlety in their rampant moralizing and penchant for epic spectacle as though it constituted moral philosophy (funny, Tolkien can come off that way to me sometimes, but I digress).
Now that I have seen Avatar I am even more persuaded that Cameron's presentation of pantheism is what you get when a Westerner embraces the idea of pantheism rather than the lived-out consequences of applied pantheism. Miyazaki's films give us a more blunt and yet also more playful depiction of how a pantheist approaches global problems (i.e. ranging a whole swath of thoughts and emotions from Nausicaa, Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Ponyo to say nothing of the manga form of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind). The nature that you want to be in touch with may just as soon kill you as commune with you. Miyazaki gets that. Cameron gives us the dumbed down hippie version
That said, Cameron's spectacle is generally spectacular enough that so long as he's subordinating his inveterate preachiness to sheer spectacle he can turn out some decent popcorn movies. I'd give Avatar a 3.5 of 5. I don't feel like spoiling things this time and with Avatar being a James Cameron film, really, what on earth could there possibly be to spoil? I suppose the idea of changing one's views about another race is more plausibly explored here than it was in, say, Terminator 2.
I'm reminded of an interesting comment from a New Yorker author about how E. T. was the kind of deeply conservative film only a liberal could make. Cameron might well be the same sort of story-teller in some ways. His faithfulness to his tale is so archly conservative it might help explain for me why he seems like a doppleganger of Michael Bay. Where Michael Bay reflexively sees military personnel and officers as good Cameron sees them as evil. Where Michael Bay sees humanity as capable and obligated to save itself from alien destruction Cameron prefers to write off humanity as a race except for the three or five who pass muster with the ways of the Na'vi. Where Michael Bay sees peaceniks as fools who don't get the magnitude of what is going on around them and people have to fight and destroy the enemy ... James Cameron sees peaceniks as people avoiding the truth of having to fight and destroy the enemy who will destroy them.
The common ground both Bay and Cameron have is on the necessity of destroying the true other, as opposed to the accepted other. Avatar and Transformers Revenge of the Fallen are, if you will, the same story being told by both a conservative and a liberal. This may be why the ethics in the stories seem a bit hollow because it's still a magic white boy who saves the day in the end either way. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy Avatar. Far from it, it's a feast for the eyes and ears I'm just saying that while it is a feast for the eyes and ears it is probably best to describe it as a feast of eating at Red Robin while Michael Bay's fare is more like eating from the drive-thru at Dick's over on Queen Anne Avenue. Both are places that serve burgers and fries and certainly Red Robin has the more reputable, classy atmosphere and the higher end qualities on food but you're still eating a burger.
By all means enjoy that great burger! Just remember that while not all burgers are equal and Avatar is surely a better burger than Transformers Revenge of the Fallen we're still talking about two burgers. A man does not live by burgers alone even when the burger sells itself as having all the food groups and being of the highest quality and better than all the other burgers out there. Conversely, a cheap burger made of low quality meat with greasy fries is sometimes what you want. There is also a time for grape nuts and frozen fruit with low-fat milk, too. I hope that we can lay to rest the illusion that Cameron and Bay are qualitatively different sorts of film-makers or that Cameron somehow has a greater level of philosophical acument. At the end of the day both directors bank all their money on blowing crap up and letting the special kids make it through the end.
I can appreciate the reason why some folks are growing tired of the genre dubbed with some resentment as the "magic whitey" genre. I wonder if White Comanche might be an example of that genre or not ... and I honestly don't know if I'm going to see the film to find out. I'd be more likely to jump at a viewing of Dead Snow (an unsubtle reminder to some friends that I'd love to see a film about Nazi zombies tramping through the snow). In terms of sheer fun Avatar doesn't hold a candle to either last year's Star Trek film or Up, and yet it's still slightly better than average for the kind of flick it is. In fact in terms of thought-provoking material Avatar isn't going to best Coraline. I have an even greater desire now to see the film made by one of Cameron's ex-wives, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. This last year was a year in which I meant to see any number of films but didn't get around to seeing them. I enjoyed Avatar for what it was but I am not sure I'll go see it again and I certainly wouldn't buy it for my personal movie collection.