Avatar: Beautiful and Insidious

Hundreds of millions of people will watch Avatar. They will walk out with an overwhelming neuronal experience, some of it very bad…and I suspect James Cameron is unaware of what he has done. This is not about the film’s B-movie plot; I railed about that here.

Once the eye candy is consumed—and it is uniquely delicious—a residual trace will be left in the wiring of those multimillions who sat down to be entertained, but were unconsciously lulled into the comfort of Cameron’s non-reality. I am not referring to his alien worlds. It is the triumph of the little man over the futuristic military-industrial juggernaut that poisons.

While Cameron is over-stimulating audiences with the endorphin rush of brilliant CGI imagery, he unselfconsciously shows bows and arrows triumphing over modern weaponry. We cheer the underdog, not realizing that this impossibility, while thrilling in Avatar’s fiction, dulls, demeans, and diminishes our real-world concerns about power-and-greed’s relentless quest to take all that is available now without regard  for future consequences.

What if Avatar ended with the arrows bouncing harmlessly off the military armor (as they did in the film’s first encounter between the humans and the Na’vi)? What if the military thoroughly destroyed the native Pandorans? It would be honest. It would be a repeat of reality (e.g., U.S. Calvary vs. Native Americans, Australian settlers vs. Tasmanian aborigines, and innumerable other one-sided contests). Audiences would hate it, but they would walk out reinforced in their concerns about their children and grandchildren.

But Cameron, in his quest to remain “king of the world,” has made certain that viewers will feel good, not concerned.  When they exit after the planet Pandora is saved from destruction, the warm feeling will stay with them like extra pounds, adding flab to their unwillingness and inability to take charge of their real lives and the real world.

In the middle of the societal and intellectual curve, where most citizens reside, the corporations offer the addictive soma of an Avatar. Who can resist?

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6 Comments on “Avatar: Beautiful and Insidious

  1. Of course you’re right about the silliness of the arrows’ triumph over the overwhelming technological superiority of the looters. I’m less convinced of your assertion that we need honest cinematic scenarios to assure our vigilance against this actually happening. I just found the whole idea ludicrous and anti-intellectual. The bad guys were cartoonishly evil.

  2. I’m really not sure what you’re trying to say here. That the victory by the natives was unrealistic? Not exactly – they would have lost even with superior numbers if not for the intervention by a living planet on their behalf. This is an entirely new world created for this movie – talking about what’s “realistic” in the context of the film’s plot strikes me as more than a little ironic.
    I’ve been politically and environmentally active for years, so my reactions might not match those of a ‘typical’ viewer. But my less-concerned friends seemed to be almost universally inspired to think about the issues presented after seeing the movie. True, I wish I could smack Cameron around a bit for going solo on the dialogue and basically rehashing “Fern Gully”, but I doubt this movie would be more effective – or be seen by half the people who have seen it already! – if the natives got massacred instead. Besides, how could you make sequels then? 🙂

    1. In the film, the colonialist/imperialist (pick your pejorative) mining corporation has a goal: extract value from the planet. They have tried to be reasonable with the Pandorans. They have offered what they perceive as an equitable trade (education, modernization, resettlement) in exchange for the extracted value. But the natives have a different and unyielding value system. It includes a living planet. This bizarre concept is incommensurate with the miners’ bookkeeping. When the Pandorans refuse the “fair” deal, what next?

      In history and literature what follows is almost always a unilateral decision to effect a land grab and crush the natives through war, treaty abrogation, illegal settlement, economic sanctions, disease, cultural dominance, or the like.

      In our modern world, this meme is solidly established (Hollywood no longer produces bowdlerized cowboys and Indians movies), and institutional opinion swayers know that the other side—audiences, consumers, voters, etc.—will not be convinced, mollified, or stupefied if the meme is ignored. So they choose a head-on, yet masked, approach: show the Crunchy-Granolans beating the evil miners, something which could not happen in real life. In this way, the irritating meme is replaced by a warmer, smoother one that offers a comforting, happy ending…and the real-life opposition is blunted.

      In short, Nathan, even if your “less-concerned friends [will] be almost universally inspired to think about the issues presented after seeing the movie,” I suspect that they will experience comfort that the good guys can and do win, not indignation that the greedy bastards are and will continue to rape the planet.

      While watching Avatar, they will, I judge, register the problem, but after sitting in a darkened theater being seduced by Cameron’s victory for the the little people (actually blue 10-footers), will they rise up to solve the real problem here on Earth?

  3. I think I understand your point, but not because you’ve made it well or here.

    Your point is that the movie makes people think that “bows and arrows” can win against the machine, when they can’t. You think this lulls people to sleep in the face of a real danger — that of imperial, corporate, fascistic greed and power. You think that if the Na’vi were slaughtered it would have politicized the audience better against the machine.

    I’m not so sure.

    I think you should go into more detail in both your blogs against AVATAR. If you give us more detail, we can prepare ourselves better for disagreeing with you.

  4. I don’t disagree with Steve’s premise, because that was obviously his take home message. Here are my thoughts on the movie in the context of his notes.

    My first take home message from the movie was that the natives could not be victorious over the oppressors without the assistance of rebels and outsiders who learned about, and then cared about native resources and way of life. Please note that I think like a 14-year old.

    It was clear that the Navi would be destroyed, and that only a defiance and small rebellion within the technological side gave them any chance of hope. It wasn’t bows and arrows that won, it was rebellion and supernatural magic.

    I didn’t walk away with a feel good “don’t worry, it all works out.” If anything, it was made clear that the Navi were going to get wiped out, period. That was clear in the first tree scene. Instead, I left feeling like, “dang, if something isn’t right, don’t just go along, make a difference”. I must admit I developed a little man crush on the lead role, so that maybe had something to do with it :). I don’t think the message of trying to do the right thing is a bad message.

    I asked my 11 and 13 year olds what they thought, and they said “it was pretty good.” Is it a slippery path to put too much into the messages of action movies or CG films? Star Wars? The small rebel forces beat a weapon that could destroy a planet. Bugs Life? If that bird hadn’t shown up, Flick was a goner. Up? I really don’t think it is safe to run around on falling blimps.

    My other take home message was that drinking a 24-oz drink at a 3 hour movie was not a good idea.

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