Quite a nice shaft you've got there, Jake.
By Colin Covert
The water-cooler take on “Avatar” is that it’s an incredible spectacle with a thin story. Couldn’t disagree more.
"Avatar's" story is simple. It's a $350 million movie that has to sell tickets in Malaysia and Mexico to earn back its price tag. Event movies will always have to tell a big, broad, universal good-vs.evil tale.
But it’s not at all simplistic. If you think the story is just nice blue Na’vi tree huggers vs. nasty human greed heads, you're missing its subtext.
As an eminent authority who took an intro psychology course a long time ago, let me set you straight. “Avatar” is an emotionally resonant Oedipal coming of age story, with Freudian symbols attacked up in mounds.
SPOILER WIMPS BEWARE, plot details are discussed from here on.
Our hero Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine, is reborn via his Avatar, an alien Na’vi fetus floating in a lab decanter. He’s born again through the work of a wise older women, Dr. Grace Augustine.
Jake’s first act in his new body is to break rules and go for an unsupervised run, childish enthusiasm personified, military discipline forgotten. He’s a kid again.
Aptly for a birth story, every female character relates to Jake helpfully, teaching him, protecting him, advising him, telling him when it's time for bed. Each is a nurturing mother figure, encouraging him to grow into manhood.
Grace, the chief scientist, is impatient with Jake at first, but treats him with maternal care as he wins her trust. Recall how tenderly she tucks him in his sleep chamber when he dozes off in his wheelchair.
Chopper pilot Trudy cheerfully accepts Jake, inviting him to be her door gunner, emphasizing Jake's upper body abilities, not his limitations (and giving him a big bang-bang phallic symbol in the process.)
In the jungles of Pandora Neytiri, the Na'vi princess, begins by calling Avatar Jake "ignorant, like a child" and "a baby." As he acquires the hunting skills of Na’vi manhood under her guidance, she offers him respect and physical love, selecting him for her lifelong mate.
Jake’s nemesis, Col. Quaritch, is a close age match for Grace, the symbolic father to her substitute mother. A virile, physically formidable warrior, is all about controlling Jake, and mposing control on Pandora through brute force. In military parlance, the Colonel is “a big swinging dick.” Human Jake is dead from the waist down, a point amphasized by several shots of his whithered legs, and he comes to resent and despise the powerflu older man. Cameron has a clear phallic rivalry a-brewing.
Quaritch is an iconic Bad Dad, He threatens to shoot Grace in the mining camp’s control room, and later physically attacks her, Trudy and Neytiri in separate incidents. Mom and dad fight a lot.
This theme of matricide runs through Cameron's screenplay.
On Pandora, Jake warns the Na'vi that humans can’t be trusted because they poisoned their own home planet: "They killed their mother."
When Quaritch mortally wounds Grace as Trudy flies them out of the camp, he’s symbolically murdering one of Jake’s mother-figures. When he later orders his fighters to shoot down Trudy’s helicopter, he’s killing another.
After Jake passes his Na’vi coming-of-age tests, he'a a warrior younger and taller and stronger than Quaritch. His goal is to defeat and replace the Bad Dad. The climactic fight between the Na'vi and the Earthlings comes down to mano-a-mano combat between Avatar Jake and Quaritch, wearing an armored exo-suit.
Cameron drives home his Freudian points explicitly. Neytiri rides a space leopard to attack the Colonel's exo-suit. The Colonel waves a giant machete and taunts, "Come to Papa!"" Then he gives her mount a couple of good, juicy stabs in the underbelly with his knife, grunting with pleasure.
Avatar Jake counterattacks Quaritch with an even bigger blade and snaps the older man’s machete in half. I think we all know what that means.
The coup de grace is delivered by Neytiri with two javelin-sized arrows in the Quaritch 's chest. Why arrows? Cameron could have given the aliens slingshots, boomerangs, bolos or some new kind of weapon, so why long rigid shafts? It’s graphic phallic payback for the rape of her planet-- and for the only time in the film, Cameron does the old 3D trick of turning the spear directly toward camera so it dangles in the audience's face. Just so we get the point.
Finally, when Neytiri goes into the lab structure where human Jake is gasping for lack of oxygen, she cradles him in a Pieta-like embrace. Her 9-foot frame curves over him as she caresses his face with her oversized hand. It's mother-child imagery combined with the melding of two lovers' exhausted bodies. Jake ihas triumphed: He's the new stud in town.
It's a simple story, I grant you, but far from simplistic.