Edgar Allen Poe made very little money from his short stories and poems. It is said for “The Raven” he earned just $5. Poe rather made his living as a literary journalist reviewing works of the day. In response to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Poe included a strong argument against the use of allegory. An allegory uses stereotypical characters and events to act as symbols to deliver the message of the narrative. Poe loathed allegory. It was heavy handed and artificial. “Its vital injury, however, is rendered to the most vitally important point in fiction — that of earnestness or verisimilitude.” Verisimilitude, the likeness of something such as a fiction to reality, is vitally important to filmmaking.
When we sit down to watch a film, especially a science fiction film like James Cameron’s Avatar, we must suspend disbelief. We know people cannot do the things we see on screen, we know such technology does not exist, we know humans have not met such aliens. Yet, we set those thoughts aside and dive into the world of the film. This is the magic of the cinema. This is why we laugh, cry, cringe and cheer when watching a film. However, if I, the viewer, am shocked back to reality and catch myself… watching the film. It all seems fake. Suddenly the acting seems weaker, the special effects are slight, the plot is obvious. Everything suffers.
This is what Avatar suffers from. It is a visually stunning film, but the heavy-handed nature of the allegory destroys the full impact this film could have had. Allegory by its very nature feels familiar, even recycled. Allegory supplies us with a lesson we already know, but the narrative and theme merely reinforce. Avatar tells us a narrative and theme we already know. It has been done before.
To be sure Avatar is a visual tour de force. The special effects are undeniably stunning. The shortcoming is in the use of allegory at all. All of the films in the graphic above were savaged for their heavy handed message delivery(yes, even Dances With Wolves). There are a number of lessons that Avatar seeks to teach. Yet they are nothing new. Their message harkens back to Aesop’s fables(Greece 5th century BCE).
Jake Sully wants his legs and spine repaired so he can walk again. Colonel Quaritch offers Jake a way. Learn from the Na’vi, become one, gauge their strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately betray them.
Jake Sully gives up his personal power, his choice, his liberty even, to accomplish the removal of the Na’vi from their “Hometree.” In the end had he followed this line of action, he would have had no power over the situation and the Na’vi would have been wiped out or relocated.
In the “real world” as Jake calls it, he is a crippled war veteran. In the dream that is his avatar, he is a strong warrior. He’s not smart and calls himself “just a grunt” and “not officer material,” yet Jake sees that he can oppose evil despite his physical and mental weaknesses.
Jake tries in a final desperate attempt to save lives to get the Na’vi to abandon Hometree and relocate. The Na’vi are aghast at the suggestion. This is their home. What right do the “Sky people” have to tell them to move?
When the final attack begins on the Na’vi, Colonel Quaritch is supremely confident. After all he has already easily destroyed the Na’vi’s beloved Hometree. He has every technological advantage over the “savages,” as he calls them. Yet despite all that… he is destroyed.
Jake finally tells the Na’vi his true mission. They are horrified and refuse to listen to him. His love, his mate, Neytiri is shattered. How could he do such a thing? When the attack does come and Hometree is destroyed, Jake knows he made the attack possible. The weight of responsibility for the many deaths crashed down on him. (Additionally he is arrested by Colonel Quaritch.)
Frustrated with attempts at negotiations and “education,” the corporate honcho, Parker Selfridge, orders the attack on Hometree. He is driven by the profit incentive. Parker has all the technological advantages and sees the Na’vi as simple savages who don’t realize the wealth buried just beneath their feet. His readiness to use military force points to his pride and feelings of strength.
Both Parker Selfridge and Colonel Quaritch seek to enforce their will on those they see as weaker. Parker shuts down the scientific expedition of Dr. Grace Augustine and orders the attack on the Na’vi to demonstrate to each that he has the power. Colonel Quaritch imposes his will on Jake Sully at multiple points throughout the narrative in an effort to get Jake to accomplish his will: the destruction of the Na’vi. The Colonel knows it is inevitable, and he is using Jake to prepare.
Jake begins as a wounded Marine–he says no one is ever an “Ex-Marine,” but he comes to sympathize with the Na’vi and eventually becomes a member of the tribe. For a time he has a foot in both worlds. However, at the end of the second act(after the destruction of Hometree), Jake is welcome in neither world.
From the very first time we meet Colonel Quaritch we know he in no ordinary Marine. He has been changed by Pandora. The planet has left a mark on him not merely visible as a scar on his face, but something deeper… a scar on his soul. This harsh world has taught him to be so hard and so cold that he is essentially an attack dog at the beck and call of the mining administrator Parker Selfridge. As events spin out of Jake Sully’s control he comes to realize his complicity in the destruction of Hometree and the deaths of many Na’vi.
Late in the film, just prior to the final assault on the Na’vi stronghold, Dr. Augustine tries in vain to explain to Parker Selfridge that the value of Pandora is not the rock they wish to dig out of the ground, Unobtanium, but the fantastic biology of the planet. The neurochemical connections between the Na’vi and the plant and animal life is astounding.
And most likely these fables attributed to a slave named Aesop were old stories. Allegory and fables are fantastic ways of telling a brief educational tale. However, they don’t often make for fantastic long form narrative filmmaking. The brevity of Aesop’s fables is what lends them power. Verisimilitude is not a concern. Each character is understood at the outset not to be like reality, but rather a symbol. To stretch such a narrative mode from the brief form in which is accomplishes the author’s goal of delivering the lesson in a brief but mildly entertaining fashion… into a nearly four hour cinematic narrative is folly.