Thursday, January 21, 2010

A tirade directly following a viewing of AVATAR


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.

5 comments:

Alyssum Pohl said...

This is, by far, the most complete, rational, hit-the-nail-on-the-head, and thoughtful/caring critique of Avatar that I have read. Thank you first of all, for taking the time and care not just to think about these things, but to lay them out, in an organized, well-spoken way, for others to rebound their own thoughts against.
I agree with you. I thought it was a beautiful movie, and profoundly sad. I loved the movie for movie's sake, and as I sobbed when HomeTree was bombed, I felt vindicated that my projected career is to be a warrior for the Earth's sake. But, the movie didn't change how I'm living my life at all, I was already applying for Environmental masters degrees before I sat in that theatre.
I came away from the movie wondering how many people would see the brilliant phosphorescence on Pandora and be oblivious to the fact that similar nighttime sparkles can be seen right here on Earth! There are phosphorescent lichen right here in the caves of Kentucky, and there are phosphorescent plankton up in Maine and Nova Scotia that leave magical trails behind your boat, and drip sparkling off your oars at night.
Myths have been in human lexicon for ages, and though they warn of common distractions, evils, and pitfalls, humans continue to fall prey to them. We, as a species, tragically don't learn much from other people's (or gods' or aliens') struggles. We always have to try and see for ourselves.
In all, I had to take Avatar as a beautifully rendered, personally touching story. Expecting anything to change from a movie is folly. Yet there's still some optimistic secret part of my heart that somewhere out there there may be one or two or ten little kids who are fascinated enough by the movie to do some research, find out about the plankton here on Earth and decide it's worth saving, and work towards that end as adults. You never know.

Alyssum Pohl said...

Correction: "secret part of my heart that HOPES THAT somewhere out there there may be one or two or ten little kids..."

Natalie said...

I enjoyed Avatar BUT found the story and movie so derivative, it was like watching five or six old movies at once in a sort of goulash . . . so I will list them

First, miyazaki's princess mononoke and the much older green mansions with hepburn and hopkins (if you've never seen him play a "good guy" watch it!) -both those films have the girl and the tree and so many more themes that cross over into the plot of Avatar.

Another old film it borrows from is Lost Horizon and its' characters Mallinson reminds me of avatar's parker & Conway of Jake & Grace combined don't even get me started on Gorilla's in the Mist and the parallels there! ... See More

My friend emma agreed with me that it rips off brambilla's dinotopia directly -with the way the avatar banshee birds bond with their riders even the way they look, etc is straight out of brambilla's movie from eight years ago.

Everyone seems to agree that Cameron couldn't resist those heavy handed references to Alien, especially that robot suit fight scene

I am glad to have seen Avatar anyway because the effects are so good and the action keeps moving, but if you haven't seen mononoke, or lost horizon, or green mansions w/hepburn and hopkins, or dinotopia - put 'em on your list -Green Mansions is an even better book than a movie, the early portrayal of the need for conservation echoes in our minds today.

Matt Reynolds said...

Avatar is the supermodel of movies. Absolutely beautiful but vapid and shallow once it opens its mouth.

Anonymous said...

i loved avatar and hope to see it one more time on the big screen.
your critique is very thorough but one thing i would add, not quite in the same voice, is how striking the spiritual aspect was. i hear parts of this but not the spirituality directly - may be that is the "condom", or more the "rape whistle", we are missing as a culture to end this fucking...