When the Mayor of London starts writing about aliens, as Boris Johnson did in yesterday’s Telegraph, you know that something rather extraordinary has happened. (Incidentally, politics aside, Boris’ column is a wonderful guilty pleasure!) But it seems that he and I were provoked to scribble having both seen the biggest grossing movie of the aeon this weekend (what enlightened company Q seems to keep).

Now this is by no means going to be a thorough-going analysis. Loads of people have been doing that. Even the Vatican has weighed in. Here are just a few bullet-pointed thoughts that occurred to me. BUT BEWARE – one or two PLOT-SPOILERS AHEAD!

  • The Beauties of the Beast: There is no doubting the film is a beast – its creation demanded the sort of megalomania only normally associated with Field-Marshals. But since the greatest efforts were applied to Avatar’s visual conception and execution, it is no surpirse that the greatest impression is effected by its look. And wow! It has to be one of the most staggeringly beautiful cinematic experiences ever created. Pandora, the world inhabited by the Na’vi, is a sight for sore eyes, an Edenic paradise. I still find my mind’s eye frequently drifting back to the fluorescent wonders of its nighttime forests (and to a lesser extent to the floating mountains which, being a bit picky, I found less convincing). No wonder people find the drab beiges and greys of the real world less beguiling. Though I’m not sure I could ever come to love the appearance of the Na’vi – or is that me simply expressing grotesque alienist prejudices?
  • Full Fantasy Immersion: neither is there doubting the immersive effect of the action (we saw it in 3D, but i grew less aware of that as the movie progressed). It is bombastic, overwhelming and emotive: in other words everything you pay for in an escapist blockbuster. The whole point is to escape – in this case light-years away – so no wonder people have struggled to come back to earth. But it explains why I thoroughly enjoyed it – as did my 11-year old son Joshua.

But all of this also explains my tolerance at the time with the film’s:

  • ultra-shallow characterisation – each is a mere cipher:
    • crippled ex-marine gets legs (!) so goes native on ethically dubious undercover mission (Sully);
    • military commander sees no shades of grey (Col Quaritch);
    • determined female scientist (Augustine) battles those male bastions of military might and of corporate greed (personified by Selfridge (no doubt a descendant of the department store family)), to protect the precious objects of her study (Sigourney in Gorillas in the Mist, anyone);
    • feisty female helicopter pilot suddenly disobeys orders and nobly sacrifices self for new cause (Chacone) etc etc),
  • derivative plot
  • ham-fisted moralising.

In fact, it’s rather ironic, is it not, how often 3D films have such 1D characters and plot. I can’t help but feel a degree of frustration that the decade+ amount of work invested in the incredible visuals and technology wasn’t ALSO applied to the traditional virtues of story, dialogue and character. Technology can never dispense with them. Cinema is merely a newly mediated advance on the Homeric bard telling stories of ancient heroes and wars. Which brings me to the next point

  • Ancient Derivations: It’s always intrigued me how often science fiction reaches back to ancient history for templates – the Star Wars saga has always had resonances for classicists who studied the volatile power transfer from the senate of the Roman Republic to the imperial throne of the Augustan ‘Golden’ Age. And Avatar does something similar, despite the façade of extreme technological advance. It is that old archetype of more technologically advanced and aggressive power seeks to overcome the weaker but infinitely more noble savage society. Thethings said by thecorporation miners about the Na’vi echo what has been said by imperialists down the ages – for instance, the Romans said some pretty rum things about the ancient Britons’ habits and fashion sense and about the virtues of the civilisation they were bringing (aka imposing). And then when it was our turn in the empire queue, the British had some pretty excruciating things to say about Africans and Asians. Etc etc. Now – to be clear, the virtues of the greatest science fiction is that it helps us to see present fact more clearly. But there are ways of doing this well, and not so well…
  • Clod-Hopping Morality: but the biggest waves made by Avatar are surely political and religious. You have to be deliberately trying to ignore the point to miss them. Resonances with the invasion of Iraq are blatant (hey, look! – they invade to get hold of a precious raw material, and the offensive is even called ‘shock and awe’!!). And in the movie humans with their raw materialism (both philosophical and economic) and destructive, forest-raping and life-crushing technology (boys with their toys) are BAD (got that?); Na’vi with their Gaia-goddess tree-hugging spirituality (it’s raw pantheism and animism, in case you’re interested) and peace-loving (huh? sorry that should be peace-defending) bows & arrows are GOOD (got that too?). In fact, knowing that a war was coming (I’d checked it out to see whether this 12A film would be OK for an 11 year old boy – apart from a few scary monsters near the start, it basically is), I guessed almost immediately after meeting all the different protagonists, that the uber-baddy (Quaritch) would never be protected by his awesome techie toys but would end up at the uncomfortable end of a spear. Ha! That’ll learn him! That’s what comes of those who meddle with forces they could never understand!

Now, I don’t mind if movies have worldviews and messages that differ from mine. That’s expected and sometimes, even the point – and part of the function of good and great art is to help me experience someone else’s shoes for a time, to be immersed in another’s world. That’s why, for example, I love Homer (the poet not the Simpson – tho I enjoy him too) – I’m fascinated by the polytheism of ancient Greece not threatened by it. It’s why I love historical novels, why I’m enthralled by the Turkey of Orhan Pamuk’s books, the Baltimore of The Wire and the philosophical intelligence of Andrew Niccol’s science fiction films. Of course, it is brilliant if a Christian worldview can be convincingly and honestly articulated artistically (all too rare, sadly). But that’s not why I’m passionate about the arts.

So for all my enjoyment of Avatar — and yes, I would like to see it again (in 3D, preferably at an Imax!) because seeing it is its greatest asset — Avatar doesn’t really succeed. It is an incredibly sophisticated sledgehammer to crack the ecological nut (which is, of course, not to say that we shouldn’t find ways to get the human race to be good stewards of the planet). And sadly it will have absurd cultural effects (no doubt, just as Boris Johnson predicted), not least because we’re apparently in store for 2 sequels (I can’t wait!).

And after all… you know what happened when Pandora’s box got opened…

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This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Mark

    I agree with you that the storyline is pretty unoriginal and predictable, but in terms of the message of the film I think it might be too simplistic to say the Na’vi are portrayed as good and the humans as bad. The way the humans attack the Na’vi is definitely shown as wrong, with the implication that the right way to relate to them would be through humility and respect.

    I didn’t feel the film was saying that everything tha Na’vi did was good and everything the humans did was bad – I thought the message was more to do with how cultures with very different outlooks interact with each other, and in particular how not to relate to a minority culture if you’re a dominant majority group!

    1. markmeynell

      Mark – fair enough … to some extent! And speaking as someone who has long worked cross-culturally myself, you’re spot on about the cultural interaction point. But isn’t Sully’s redemptive arc not only a matter of him discovering that the aggressive exploitation of the mining project is deeply wrong and thus fighting against it, but also becoming a Na’vi in every way? Is there anything human that he brings to the culture that he joins?

      1. Mark

        Yeah… although I don’t think that completely leaving your own culture and becoming part of another culture in every way means that you’re necessarily rejecting your own culture. I would say Jesus left heaven and became human in every way, but not because he felt there was anything wrong with heaven… 🙂 (OK Jesus lived counter-culturally too, but he did so in a way that was completely human and completely 1st Century Jewish)

        I guess my feeling is that the film is saying that if you’re going to go and live among a minority group you should do so in respect and humility, taking on their culture, and also that as an outsider you can be in a unique position to intercede on behalf of, and even take the place of, people who are being persecuted – both things that seem to mirror what Jesus did in coming to earth, and what he calls his church to do.

  2. Findo

    If you do see it at the IMAX, don’t sit in the front row like I did (and Nürnberg allegedly has the biggest IMAX in Europe). It will make you ill.

      1. Findo

        also helps if it’s not in German! 😀

  3. Christian

    … or Austrian.

    The Imperator as Augustus? Interesting! Can you imagine sailors crying out to the imperator, “we live through you!” as they did to Augustus in a harbour (I think Puteoli). And what great works of art did the Imperator encourage? But the time before becoming the … (whatever you want to call Augustus’ position: consul, imperator, pontifex maximus, …) are really comparable, although Augustus killed Senators, not Jedi-knights.

    A New Hope: Luke Skywalker = Parzival (+ a dash of Lord of the Rings)

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