I don’t think movies can change the world. Movies can’t change anything. And it’s the painful aching created by James Cameron’s Avatar that makes this such an acute thing to grapple with.
Avatar. The most expensive movie ever made. Well, so far. In fact, that’s one of many ways that Avatar stands as both outside observer and part of the problem.
But watching Avatar made me need a drink. I expected to be impressed by the SFX, and sure, it’s arresting visually, and lives up to its invoice, I guess. It is astonishing candy for the eyes, especially in Real-D 3D, which makes it gooey and gritty and feathery. But the thing I walked out thinking is this: Avatar is sad. Really fucking sad.
It’s a flawed blockbuster, too, but that’s a different kind of sad, not the kind I’m talking about. I think Cameron — who never made any good impression on me with Titanic — hit a homer with this one, and the problem is he hit it right into our nuts.
There’s some pretty familiar themes in the movie — some pedestrian, easily-digestible themes: the power of true love; the rag-tag band of vigilantes, outgunned x1000, but armed with the most powerful weapons of all: truth and goodness; etc.
I don’t care about these themes: They are deeply-rutted clichés that Americans seem to need at the movies. Cameron, I think, saw that these themes were needed to get butts in seats.
What is undeniable to me in Avatar is just how fucking sad it all is, not in some ethereal dream world, but right here in the 21st Century US of A. And that’s the ultra-bummer of a way that Cameron gets it right with Avatar: a world where capitalist corporate interests have warped common sense, compassion, civility, and most every other positive human quality with some unassailable rationalization that revolves around enormous, undeniable profit-potential — wielding a well-equipped private army, in case of dissenters. Hell, you want a compelling story? That one is the most compelling — and tragic — ones that we’ve got. For centuries now.
We’re drunk with it, as a society, and Avatar does a great job of portraying all the little rationalizations that allow the typical upright ape to be okay with it, to participate, and to safely arrive at some popular straw-man argument that it’s either us or them.
That Avatar portrays this so effectively is arresting, moving and — as I keep saying — fucking sad. I wish that seeing Avatar would make me drop what I’m doing and work in some more substantial way for the good of:
- The Planet
- Its disaffected billions, who are basically fucked so that we can go to the mall and worry about swine flu.
- Some other segment of humanity that is getting fucked the fuck over by our collective tacit agreement that big business and a profit-based ideology are at all okay and beneficial.
They’re not — and I probably won’t. Don’t ask me what we’re supposed to do instead; I have no idea. But things are not going well in this world and it’s easy to feel powerless against juggernauts of multi-national business — or juggernauts of stadium-sized machinery, as portrayed in Avatar, but which likely actually exist within the fleets of huge companies like DuPont or Dow or Halliburton or I-don’t-even-know.
Even with its manufactured happy ending, Avatar couldn’t help but point out that we are so fucked. Which isn’t new news: Today happens to be the anniversary of the death of George Orwell, who got it at least 60 years ago, and immortalized it in 1984.
Avatar reminded me: There is evil in the hearts of men, or — failing that — at the very least a unique ability to distance ourselves strategically from the suffering of others, and especially any role that we may be playing in perpetuating said suffering.
This may come across as spectacularly sophomoric and preachy. I don’t care. James Cameron can see it. You don’t make the most expensive movie ever with this core implicit theme and not be able to see it.
I do see this as the message of the movie, and if Cameron realized that he could only “sell it” with a triumphant happy ending, well, so be it. As I said, more butts in seats in this case is good. Currently, Avatar has been seen by droves of people, far more than I would have expected for a fantasy/sci-fi pic with feline-looking CGI people. Why is that? Is it possible that people might actually be inspired in some profoundly uncomfortable way to stop accepting the kind of evil that is done in the name of profit and comfort and ease and convenience?
Probably not. It’s just a movie. I don’t expect people to walk out and do any different than I did, which is to express a momentary outrage, share it in some social media outlet, feel genuine sympathy that fades back into “the daily grind,” and just get on with this colossal mess that the vast majority of us are either helping to make or neglecting to work on cleaning up.
Avatar is just a movie, after all. A stupid, beautiful movie that does a shockingly brilliant job of pointing out how stupidly we’re behaving as a society. There has got to be a better way for us to behave as a society and a species, and every single person knows it. What has to happen for we as a society to do that?
Finally, if I need to clarify: Go see Avatar. Forget the happy ending, forget the Hollywood trappings. And watch James Cameron show us how we as a people have just got to change before we completely screw ourselves.