The most striking thing about James Cameron’s Avatar is of course its appearance—a beautiful world, with its awe-inspiring scenery, more beautiful than any place on Earth. (Post-Avatar Depression, anyone?) The land on Pandora is like the most beautiful places that nature has produced, all mixed together—parts of Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa in a supernatural blend. A friend described it as Pocahontas on Steroids, but I think that Fern Gully on Steroids is more appropriate.
James Cameron raises some ambitious themes in the film, and this is why he succeeds at a narrative level as well as an aesthetic one; both aspects are ambitious and, his intentions being clearly on display, Cameron has made a film which we can understand visually and intelligibly. But while this is the case, it is not as though ideology is fed to us on a 3D stick. As with a seminal film like The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), the film’s revolutionary message is clear while simultaneously distorted by the exploitation of humane morality. While at first, the bombing of Pandora and imminent deaths of the Na’vi population seems to have the definite intent of allowing us ‘humane’ viewers to hate Parker (Giovanni Ribisi) and his slick band of corporate oilmen, the following gratuitous display of ‘revolutionary’ killings of the latter group complicates moral matters.
Jean-Luc Godard narrates in his film Notre Musique (2004), ‘Killing a man to defend an idea isn’t defending an idea…it’s killing a man.’ In fact, he offers lots of insightful poeticisms. So when the US Military begins to murder the Na’vi tribe their capital-derived objective is not really substantiated. They are directed to kill. And when the Na’vi people (Avatars included) retaliate, although they can have a little leeway for ‘self defence,’ they seem to have the same joy in killing—one where killing, rather than defence, seems to be the opportunity seized. For one thing, most of the ‘bad’ men who are killed could very well be thinking, also, that they ‘didn’t sign up for this shit,’ but without the sassy tenacity to disobey military orders. The line between black and white becomes very grey for a while, until the General is the only one left and we get to cheer on while corporal avatar kills him.
Strangely enough, Avatar deals with a similar ambition to Titanic (1997), Cameron’s last film and far inferior (debatably) at the box office (although, a decade of rising prices and the cost of 3D glasses give Avatar an unfair advantage). Generally, human greediness, the desire to set records and failing through a series of self-involved bad decisions forms the basis of both films’ backgrounds. And apart from being the biggest thing to hit the screens since the last big thing, the films’ other, more unfortunate, similarity was the theme music. The music supervisor on Avatar obviously just rearranged the score from Titanic, added some world-music-type vocals, and left it sounding annoying and, a little insultingly, like My Heart Will Go On. Giving the Na’vi people, referred to as the ‘natives,’ ‘indigenous,’ and ‘aborigines,’ a sonic signifier which undisputedly suggests they are the exotic Other is unfair when the other counterpoint is defined as capitalist man versus nature. A sort of re-colonisation of no one in particular, so James Cameron can legally get away with it. The film gets a bit caught in the complex relations between trying to support the cause for the Earth and using a few too many dangerous clichés.
Avatar is definitely a great film, awe-inspiring and definitely worthy of its medium in a way that those B-movies in the 1950s were not (House of Wax (Andre de Toth, 1953) anyone? Very cool, but extremely gimmicky). But despite the beliefs of Toy Story director and guru of extraordinarily successful films, John Lasseter, I cannot see 3D films becoming commonplace. When it comes down to it the 3D effect is just a gimmick, and although it has been toned down in Avatar from its previous contrivances, it will remain a gimmick for many films to come. I see this for two reasons: a) it just cannot transfer to home viewing in the same way as the cinema spectacular; and, b) cost effectiveness from the point of view of the audience. It is getting very expensive to go to the cinema—whereas in 1998 it cost me $8, by 2008 it was costing me up to twice that. To see a 3D film at Imax cost $20, at student prices. Most families—and it will be families wanting to go see Toy Story 1 and 2—will not have the income to sustain a tradition of cinemagoing at such a cost. And unless I start getting paid to write this stuff soon, neither will I.