Don't just watch Avatar, see it
There's a delicious irony in the fact that James Cameron has made a greenie movie that is the world's most expensive.
That he is urging us to put the brakes on our rapacious appetite for consumption with a film that has prompted many cinema owners to upgrade their biggest screens to 3D. That he has made an anti-military film that celebrates his love of warrior machines. That he reportedly directed his anti-authoritarian missive with all the cuddliness of Josef Stalin the morning after a three-bottles-of-vodka bender.
But don’t let any of that blind you to the virtues of Avatar, because they are immense.
Much of the chatter right now is about the "game-changing" special effects, and that's fair enough. There's a real sense that this will be the film that finally makes 3D cinema, which has been around since the 1950s, a mainstream form of storytelling rather than a mere freak show.
If that happens it will be because Avatar makes so little show of its 3D capabilities. Yes, everything looks like you could touch it, but there are no gratuitous hands looming out of the screen, no rollercoaster rides to show just how in-your-face the format can be, no flinging of dirt or spurting of blood or shooting of weapons into the middle of our gaze. The gaudily 3D moments are few, and generally at the margins of the screen: a flick of dirt as the hero Jake Sully's avatar runs for the first time through a field of corn; the passing of a spear tip off the side of the screen; the wafting of a fern frond at the bottom of the picture. Avatar's great leap forward is in shifting the technology of 3D from centrescreen to background. It's a movement from flashiness to modesty, from immaturity to maturity, from showboating to storytelling.
But what of that storytelling? There have been some complaints that while the movie is 3D, the story is 2D. (Actually, the movie is 2D as well; not every one of the 500 or so screens on which it will be shown in Australia has 3D capacity. It will probably look terrific in standard projection as well, but if you have the opportunity to see it in 3D, take it. And if, like me, you wear spectacles, don't worry. It works just fine.)
What has riled some reviewers is what they see as a "simplistic" plotline in which miners and military from Earth are pitted against the nature-loving natives of Pandora, a planet rich in a mineral called unobtainium (they hate that name, too). Avatar is, they say, nothing more than a tale of developers versus hippies, disruptive progress versus harmonic stability.
It's a reductive reading, but there's some truth in it. Indeed, you could argue that Avatar is just a hi-tech retelling of the 1992 animation Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. (Though Robin Williams, Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis provided the voices, the film was in fact made in Australia.)
In Ferngully, an idyllic rainforest blissfully populated by undersized fairies and their animal friends is invaded by human loggers and their smoke-belching machines. There is a battle. The fairies win.
In Avatar, an idyllic rainforest blissfully populated by oversized humanoids and their animal friends is invaded by human soldiers and their missile-belching war machines. There is a battle. Nuff said.
(Internet wags have already riffed on this theme in this mash-up and in this variation on the Hitler rant from Downfall.)
But I'd argue that while Avatar is that, it's also an immensely rich example of mythmining that draws from other films, anthropology and history to make a convincing argument against colonialism and environmental vandalism.
The early scenes in which crippled marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is introduced to the military base on Pandora instantly transport us to the green zone of Baghdad. "Within these walls, you're safe," Sully is told. "But out there, you're dead meat." (Or words to that effect.)
It's brilliant. You're immediately on the side of the grunts, the embattled few in hostile territory. And their mission? To get to the precious mineral that lies beneath the Na'Vi's feet — by diplomatic means or by force.
Again, it's the story of America and its allies invading Iraq to open up its oil supplies (oh, sorry, I meant to say "to topple an evil dictator who had weapons of mass destruction"; silly me). But it's also the story of the Belgians and French and Germans and Brits in 19th century Africa, subjugating the locals and mining gold and nickel and diamonds where they used to farm. Or the story of the logging companies forcing tribes off their lands in the rainforests of Indonesia or Brazil. Or the story of Australian mining companies moving Aborigines from their homelands because they see only uranium deposits where the natives claim deep spiritual connections.
Of course, it's easy to dismiss such notions as hippy-dippy or hopelessly idealistic. In fact, it's crucial to the colonialist mindset to do so. If you believe the natives have equal or greater rights to their own land, albeit on a different basis, you hit an ethical blockade that's hard to get around.
This is the stuff that's really at the heart of Avatar. The Na'Vi are a kind of ur-indigenous people; by turns they seem African, native American, aboriginal Australian. They are grounded in a way the technocratic invaders can never be. The Na'Vi understand their planet, they respect life even when they take it for their own survival, they are deeply and literally connected.
The humans, by contrast, have so lost touch with their over-exploited planet that they have had to leave it to find a way to survive.
Is that two-dimensional? Hardly.
Eventually, we'll exhaust our excitement with the way Avatar looks, just as we did with Toy Story all those years ago. And when that happens, we might do well to focus a little more on what it shows.