When you’re not a professional film reviewer, when you don’t live in New York, when the only advance screenings you attend involve a doctor doing something untoward—when these things are true, trying to write about a new film can seem almost useless: The pros get all the good meat, and you’re left to dig around for scraps.
That’s why I usually write about films that have left the theaters, sometimes years or decades prior to my writing. It’s easier—and often much more fun—to try to make an old film important or interesting again, through a deeper kind of analysis, than it is to try to express the importance of a new film when each reviewer you read has beat you to every punch you can think to throw.
With James Cameron’s Avatar, though, which has just opened nationwide, two things are different.
First, on reading the reviews (Ebert, Denby, Stevens)—and especially on seeing the film—one gets the sense that this event simply matters too much for any writer to let it pass by.
Second, though the credentialed reviewers really do have a lot covered, the film fits so perfectly with a cultural development I’ve already written about that I cannot help myself.
In particular, we’ve all come to accept Cloverfield (2008) as a kind of slap-happy, thrill-ride retelling of the 9/11 story. In a piece on Knowing (2009), I identify that film as addressing 9/11 in a more serious and also a more distanced way, and asking spectators to do the same.
Put simply, Avatar is the last film in the series, the one that (finally!) takes up 9/11 without taking on 9/11.
Avatar‘s sprawling narrative and physical spaces center around a towering tree occupied by the Na’vi people you know so well from the trailer. When the human military destroys the tree two-thirds of the way through the film, it’s impossible not to think of 9/11.
Overtaken by flame, the tree plows to the ground, its disintegrating wooden frame rendered meticulously by the filmmakers. The collapse scatters the Na’vi through their woodsy, alien equivalent to the streets of lower Manhattan, as smoke fills the forest. Finally, when the white dust has settled, our protagonist trods through the forest in a daze, in a sequence closely resembling not only 9/11 but scenes from both Knowing and Cloverfield.
Any message in the film, though, anything you can say the film is “about,” reads as wholly environmentalist. Unlike the other two films in the trio, it really seems unrelated to 9/11 in every way except the visual. It’s on this basis that I want to claim that Avatar marks the end of our culture’s assimilation of the imagery that, it’s fair to say, has haunted us most over these last eight years.
In other words, I want to call Avatar the first “Post-9/11” film because it seems to me to be the first (popular) film to appropriate the imagery of 9/11 for “selfish” reasons—to support a storyline and a visual vocabulary unrelated to the original (recorded) event. In this sense, it’s the film I’ve been waiting for since Cloverfield—and maybe the film we’ve all been waiting for since 9/11.