'Avatar' Part 1: How We Deal with Iraq War II, with Seth Colter Walls

by Seth Colter Walls

Avatar Baddie

Fun reviews are fun. You know how much fun? Sometimes we start writing them before we see the movie. The other afternoon, I started thinking about an Avatar piece headlined “Avatar Is the Greatest Movie of All Time For People Who Love Wearing Glasses.” Right? I had a whole set piece ready about how, during hour 17 of the movie, I got distracted and started wondering if friction from the Costello-grade thickness of the 3D specs was causing a zit on the patch of skin between my skull and left ear. I thought this was fine to conceive ahead of time, because Avatar is obviously just a mass entertainment, and don’t get it twisted: let’s all have some fun, no?

But then something happened on the way to a poorly written piece of linkbait. I saw the actual movie. (Actually, while sitting next to Mary HK Choi, who will be delivering the authoritative opinion in a few hours.) You know how all of California drops into the ocean in 2012, and no one in the audience feels a thing? Well, in Avatar, some serious destruction happens at one point, and it registers. If you are like me, and thus not particularly attached to the notion of James Cameron as an, um, avatar of feeling, this will surprise you.

How does the movie make this happen? As you may suspect, it is not through dialogue. Perhaps the clunkiest text is a speech from the Sigourney Weaver pro-ecology, pro-natives biologist character about the energy that connects all of nature and the like. Ineffective as exposition and inert as drama, it also turns out to be unnecessary, since the visual approach Cameron uses to introduce us to his cockamamie ecosystem works on the level of, say, a Nature special, during which you stare at the mating rituals of exotic insects and think “yeah, sister: this universe or what!” No backstory necessary.

The problem is that next, Cameron-high off the smack of doing something as ill-advised as trying to make a digital world feel this organic-decides to gin up a creaky wartime morality play. When the English-speaking army starts training its military-industrial-complex hardware on the indigenous native tribe, characters actually say things like, “it’s some kind of shock and awe campaign.” (Er, no, I didn’t take verbatim notes while wearing 3D glasses.) Then someone replies with a reference to “Daisy Cutter” bombs as though we were still maybe hoping to take out Osama bin Laden from the air during the battle of Tora Bora. Unfollow x 1000, James Cameron. Let’s just say the complexities of foreign occupation and military force structure are rendered quite a bit more one-dimensionally than the arcs of your wind-strewn flora.

So, get ready: There is going to be A Conservative Response to this movie, and it is going to be in the key of If Hollywood Hates America So Much, I Guess Let’s Not Pass A Bill On Climate Change. (See, the military types in the movie deride our heroes as “tree-huggers,” and then the audience is supposed to cheer against the military dudes.) If this movie actually had a less politically fatuous point to make, perhaps this discussion would be worth having-but as it is, it’s mostly just a chance for Jonah Goldberg to score some easy points.

Since the Oscar pool for best picture nominations has been doubled to accommodate ten pictures this year, plenty of award statuette speculation has centered on the question of whether crowd-pleasers like Avatar will swoop in to beat up on the quasi-indie, critical-darling fare. But the more interesting question is why it’s been left up to a movie like Avatar to deal with Iraq War II concepts instead of another likely Best Picture nominee. You know: The Hurt Locker, the movie that actually takes place in Iraq circa 2004.

If Hurt Locker winds up winning a lot of prizes this year, it will be because it is, in its bomb-defusing sequences, every bit as kinetically compelling as Avatar. But those awards will also be due, in part, to the film’s unique ability to coat itself in the gloss of gravitas that “Location: Baghdad” title captions afford, without actually doing anything as potentially grimy as engaging with the signs and symbols that are distinct about that military effort, outside of the latest advances in our enemies’ booby-trapping.

Whereas Cameron lifts the argot of “shock and awe” and puts it in a narrative where it manifestly don’t belong, Kathryn Bigelow’s film pointedly avoided deploying any phrases as relevant to its time and place as, oh, pick one: “counter-insurgency,” “war on terror,” or “secure and hold.” This isn’t oversight, of course. It’s an intentional move to distance the film’s main character from our geopolitical baggage. We see an alienated, task-focused man the way he sees himself: divorced from the context or purpose of the fighting going on around him.

And fair enough, as far as that one film is concerned. But several of our most notable “Iraq” films thus far seem to want to have nothing to do with “Iraq, the country we are fighting in.” Brothers, like In the Valley of Elah before it, is mostly concerned with what happens to our boys after they come home. (Yes, I am not including documentaries such as Taxi to the Dark Side, which is an Afghan-Bagram Air Base joint, because 1) they are documentaries and 2) hardly anyone sees them. Ditto David Simon’s HBO miniseries Generation Kill.) It’s probably the case that as long as our in-country Iraq films choose to reflect our reluctance to confront the war-as-fought, the more likely it is that we’ll have this weirdo battle subtext popping up in our putatively bubblegum shoot-’em-ups. Hollywood can blow up the best picture category to include 20 movies if it wants. Eventually someone’s going to have to make a good movie about Iraq warfighting-even if it isn’t fun for anyone to watch.

Seth Colter Walls is a culture reporter at Newsweek. Previously, he wrote about U.S. and Middle East politics for a variety of outlets.