Originally published on 13/05/22 on Letterboxd

In which Cameron takes the radical step of envisioning a world without the profit incentive. In the decade since I last saw this its fetishisation of indigenous peoples and debatable ableism has only become more glaring, and yet my admiration for this stunning rendition of Halo fanfiction has only grown. The unabashed romanticism characterising Cameron’s oeuvre, last observed in Titanic, persists here, but in forms that are far more alienating- where there once existed a romance beyond the border between the mortal and ethereal realms now lies one squarely defined by its sociopolitical context as the colonizer and the colonized. In envisioning a backdrop for the blooming of this romance, it is only fitting that with firmer material foundations comes a maniacal attention to detail, with every shrub and leaf representing some form of either metaphysical connection or expansion of cultural horizons. In filming these virtual locales, Cameron’s approach is often akin to that of an ethnographic film, albeit one unlike any other; evidence for such an approach is apparent in the peculiarity of the movement of the camera, which seeks not to maintain the illusion of the virtual environment but instead to sift through every element of it. The often excessive crash zooms, which similarly disrupt the illusion of “reality”, achieve a similar effect, especially since they are employed in filming not only kinetics but also political organisation.

This is all the more fitting in consideration of the creation of an in-text ethnographic account of the environment, which, as is the case with much field observation in the anthropological realm, is defined more by perspective than by simply taking notes via the lens of a camera. This bears almost no resemblance to Vertov’s conception of the cine-eye, since its fascination with Pandora’s natives is characteristic of Flaherty’s more straightforwardly empathetic lens. At the same time, however, Vertov’s conception of the documentary in practice acts as an analogue to Cameron’s approach towards the blockbuster. In relying on an underlying narrative firmly rooted in archetypes and the Pocahontas parable, his focus remains on formal experimentation (via CGI as a foundation instead of a supplement) and making sense of drastic environmental change via the construction and dismantling of technology. Yet, his goal is not to document, assigning that role to the protagonist- instead, his goal is to identify symbiosis as a key element of an alternative future. When a symbiotic relationship- that between Na’vi and Na’vi, between Na’vi and animals, between humans and Na’vi- is not within the frame, the camera manoeuvres clumsily through shrubbage and canopy, looming menacingly before falling to either side. It is only when some degree of symbiosis is achieved and power relations are equalised that the action acquires a rhythm.

Cameron is no Jean Rouch, but that doesn’t mean his political intent in crafting this fascinating text is absent- instead of manifesting in the form of narrative or dialogue (where it often comes off as clumsy and hubristic when it suggests advancing in this direction), it manifests in the form of formal technique