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February 11th, 2010


We finally saw it.  We declared ourselves a day-after-the-snow day (since we carried on with life as usual yesterday, including guests for dinner, and some medium-heavy cooking), and walked down to 68th Street to the Super-Duper IMAX 3D theatre with the Biggest Screen Evar and comfy seats so we wouldn't be the only people in the known universe our friendship circle who hadn't seen it.

I gotta say, I went in with a big load of prejudice.  I'd heard the script was stupid, I'd heard the story was offensively colonialist, all Savages being Noble, all Capitalists Pigs, and The Chosen One a white guy in blue guy's clothing.  I'd also heard how beautiful it was so often that I was feeling crabby about even that, as if extreme beauty in a movie makes anything forgivable (just as extreme beauty in a person does, come to think of it).  Right before the movie started, I gave myself a stern lecture on fairness and disinterest and all those good things I like to think rational adults should try and bring to new experiences.

For the first, oh, hour and a half, I did pretty well--once I got over a slight 3-D induced sea-sickness.  The characters were purest Kabuki, but the scientists acted like real scientists, had a sense of collegiality, seemed genuinely interested in Pandora and its ecosystem.  Jake was believable--annoying, impulsive, and charming, very like the child Neytiri calls him, but teachable as a child is, and open to wonder.  Of which there was plenty.  James Cameron indeed created a supremely inventive and beautiful world, full of remarkable flora and fauna and some truly cool special effects.  I would have been a lot happier if the Na'avi had been a little less unwordly, a little less driven by pure emotion, a little more civilized, but James Cameron was in honorable company with that one, even if (in my opinion) we should have outgrown Jean Jacques Rousseau's philosophy of the Noble Savage by now, let alone by whatever century this movie is set in.  But hey, in the far distant future, everyone shops at The Gap and speaks English, so I guess we're to understand that when humanity finds something comfortable, they stick to it like a burr.

Then Jake and Neytiri fall into each other's arms, the bulldozers show up, and everything falls apart.

Well, it would have to, wouldn't it?  Every movie needs conflict, or what's the point?  Plus, there's an Evil Corporation and an even more Evil Warrior, and the rhetoric of Hollywood decrees that they are naturally going to destroy everything that is good and beautiful for the sake of Big Bucks without even trying to negotiate with the indigenous people because they've never read any history and the people who are giving them orders haven't learned anything from the past, which teaches us (if it teaches us nothing else) that this kind of thinking never works in the long run, and is a huge sink for money and manpower even in the short run.

And the Good Guys can't let them do that, can they?  Of course they can't.  Even I know that.

So the Good Guys run rapidly through all the possible Romantic Scenarios of military history, from the Swamp Fox to Spartacus to the Charge of the Light Brigade and Lawrence of Arabia, getting (predictably) spattered all over the countryside by the Bad Guys' superior firepower until the White Guy rides in on a bad-ass orange dragon and raises not only the tribes of the world, but the world itself, to turn on the Bad Guys and crush them like bugs.

Narratively speaking, fair enough.  This scenario, or one very like it, has fueled countless movies in the past, and will undoubtedly fuel countless more.  It's a story that works.  It's a story that sells.  It's a story that makes a lot more money than the movie I wish Avatar had been, which would have been a lot more about Grace (who seems a good egg, and somebody who really wants to see and understand this brave new world around her) and her scientists and how a Not So Evil Corporation managed to make its stockholders happy by learning to coexist with the Na'vi instead of trying to wipe them out.  Which would, of course, have been a movie about how humans can be motivated by things other than lust, greed, rage, and pride, a movie about rational solutions to complex problems instead of purely emotional responses to violent stimuli.  A real science fiction movie, in fact, that would make sense at a rational as well as a visceral level, and would make people think instead of just getting their heart rates elevated.

Nah.  Never happen.

It just makes me sad, that's all.  All that beauty and visual richness and imagination and money, to be lavished on what?  A glorification of violence (and don't tell me it's an anti-war movie or I'll scream) and anti-intellectualism and the kind of simplistic black & white moral thinking that has allowed Sarah Palin to get as far as she's gotten.  I could go on about the flat emotional unbelievability of the attempt to heal Grace, with the whole tribe (remarkably numerous still, and in very good physical condition, considering what they've been through in the last 24 hours.  Just saying) chanting themselves into a frenzy to save a woman who had so thoroughly lost their trust that they made her disband her English school and wouldn't let her come to the Hometree any more.  But almost every movie I've seen recently is riddled with similar discontinuities, and worse.  I blame the committee culture of movie making, and the privileging of visual over verbal logic.  No, it's the sheer moral blindness of Avatar that gets me, the way it exploits not only indigenous peoples, but spiritual people, people who genuinely believe in the sanctity of the world however they express it.  Yes, it's beautiful.  But it's also imaginatively thin and impoverished.  And that's not what I go to science fiction to experience.


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