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Avatar (2009)

I have just seen the new billion-dollar epic by James Cameron. Avatar (2009) has now joined Titanic. They are officially the two biggest grossing films of all time (ignoring inflation). It seems Cameron has a magic touch when it comes to extracting money from paying audiences. A number of adjectives float through the mind, but the most appropriate is probably “magical” (as a reference to its visual qualities and not the additional cost of seeing it in 3D). I remember vividly going to a demonstration of 3D as one of the acts in a musical hall in Newcastle in 1952. In between the comics and singers, we all reverently joined Dr. Strabismus (Whom God Preserve) of Utrecht and balanced these somewhat incongruous cardboard spectacles on our noses. This invited us into a world of novelty, ducking and weaving as various objects were (seen to be) thrown at us from the stage. Rather like travelling down to London for the Festival of Britain, we had a sense that, despite all the bomb devastation surrounding us as a continuing reminder of the War, the future was going to be a miraculous place. Except there was constant disappointment in the offing. Living in a sleepy little town on the North East coast of England, we had a local cinema that showed a steady diet of horror and sci-fi films, some of which were filmed in 3D. But, because the technology to show them was never installed, the best we could do was to guess how much more frightening Vincent Price could be. In fact, I have no recollection of seeing anything in 3D until venturing back into the cinema to see Avatar. It seems the miracle of the future takes its own time about appearing.

I can only marvel at the extent of the progress made in fifty years. The experience of finally seeing depth of field on, and as an extension to, the screen was modestly remarkable. Some of the trompe l’oeil effects were subtle and crept up on you as a watcher involved in the narrative, pausing every now and again to note that the perspective was being enhanced through the fourth wall. If only the narrative itself could have matched the imagination of the visual effects.

Just about every possible cliché and then some have been cobbled together as the plot of this pretentious rubbish. This is every Edenic stereotype ecosystem and culture you could hope to find in a single place with an all-powerful Gaia prepared to be the deus ex machina on demand if too many of the local life forms are losing out to the military muscle of Earth’s forces. So many sources have been mined for ideas from Poul Anderson to Lloyd Biggle to Ursula K. Le Guin with the latter’s The Word for World Is Forest probably the closest match. This planet is a source of Unobtanium — every film has to have a McGuffin and there’s no reason why it should have anything other than an ironic name — and Earth’s rapacious industrial-military complex is not going to let some tree-hugging bunch of indigenous primitives stand in its way of obtaining all they want and need.

So we are suddenly pitched into the worst of the Apocalypse Now style of film where military pragmatism in the means of superior fire power becomes a symptom of insanity and immorality with death nothing more than unfortunate collateral damage in the pursuit of the end. If the plotting had stopped here, we could have relived all the best and worst of the films dealing with the use of force against a technologically inferior enemy. This encompasses everything from the Roman army’s ability to trample over the barbarian hordes through to the current asymmetrical conflict in Afghanistan where drones ignore geographical borders in the pursuit of terrorists on the ground — in this, we can note that those who fly these drones treat them like avatars and, in the spirit of shoot ‘em up video games, eradicate life through their monitor screens. But Cameron was not content with a “war is bad” film. He wanted the moral high ground to be commanded by a human “hero”. This theme always has to be handled with some care as, in this instance, the human is a turncoat. As an Army Ranger, discharged because of injury, he would be expected to side with the military on his return. Except he is seduced by the tree-huggers.

Ah, yes, we have the primitives shown how to fight back by a renegade human. The world of Pandora has to become as violent and ruthless as the human invaders — “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” goes the idiom and, when it comes to throwing away the lives of the locals, our hero is as caring as General Sir Douglas Haig at the Battle of the Somme. All his recruits from hither and thither across the face of the planet come to fight like Red Indians on their steeds and in the spirit of the Dragonriders of Pern. Only our hero prevails because, naturally, he gets to fly the biggest predator — size really does matter when it comes to taking on helicopter gunships. But there is an even less welcome note about the film. Unless my tired old eyes deceive me, there are only Caucasians and Hispanics in the human army. So it takes a white guy to show these primitive blue creatures how to defend themselves. With the destruction of their tree home, they would all have retreated into the forest like whipped dogs, but they are rallied by our hero. For the word “racism”, I offer the tentative definition that it assumes some racial groups may be superior to others. The humans clearly believe they are superior to the indigenous blue folk. They offer them the benefits of education and, when this gift fails to persuade them of humanity’s good intentions, they immediately fall back on the gun. Yet, by the time our white guy has finished, the tall blue folk are holding guns with the same potential killing intent as the whipped white folk as they escort the survivors off the planet. In this case, Uncle Tom is a tall blue alien who is submissive to a white leader and thereby becomes as white as him.

So this is a film that will appeal to all those people who manage to be simultaneously members of the NRA and Green Peace. For the rest of you, switch off your mind. The more you think about the film, the more painful it gets. Despite this, it does remain a quite remarkable piece of cinema. No matter how awful its politics, it is unsurpassed as a set of moving images. It is genuinely worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find with the 3D spectacles balanced on your noses. Hopefully, better writers will exploit the technology in future productions — just think how awful the The Jazz Singer (1927) is but “talkies” became the norm.

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