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Movie Review: Avatar

James Cameron has been making Avatar for 15 years, longer than the US has spent in Iraq. Thats proved enough time to construct a movie cosmology with a clash of cultures at its core. But isnt Pandora a fools paradise? Avatar, James Camerons latest moviemaking extravaganza, is a romantic hymn to an anti-corporate, anti-colonial insurgency on a green planet, Pandora, thats about to be strip-mined for greed and profit.

Its set in a time when the same corporations have finished off all the mountaintops in West Virginia. The story is a showdown between the denizens of Pandora – called the Navi, they have their own language and religion and odd animal species – aided by enlightened visitors from Earth, and the usual alliance of US companies and soldiers – what we like to call the military-industrial complex.  Here it is the Resources Development Administration, or RDA.

James Cameron on the set of Avatar

James Cameron on the set of Avatar

Guess who wins? Yes, its a Hollywood movie and the good guys win; in case you havent figured that one out. The Navi and their friends, fighting with sticks-and-stones and the occasional machine gun and flying beast, turn back  the corporations, folks like General Electric, who “bring good things to life.”

Avatar is a motivational movie. Yet the well-meaning earnest eco-epic is a behemoth in itself, dazzling in its textures (see image below) but heavy with the weight of ambition and techno-pretension. Watching it, I couldnt help thinking of the economist Joseph Stiglitzs characterization of the US misadventure in Iraq, the $3 trillion war.   Not satisfied with being the king of the world, Cameron seems to have wanted to be the monarch of cinematic outer space. Hes already spent a mega-budget trying to get himself crowned. Just wait for the Academy campaign.

Avatars Pandora

Avatar's Pandora

And this planet, Pandora, is nothing if not Planet Hollywood – minus the obese customers. In thickly vegetated Pandora, everyone is not only naked, but thinner than thin, and tall, as if it had been populated by women beach volleyball players and their progeny.

Of course, theres trouble in paradise. An American expedition to extract the valuable anti-gravitational mineral, unobtainium, has some scientists in tow – sort of like the missionaries that trailed along various conquest troops on earth. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is a committed researcher; Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a fighter in a wheelchair (“theres no such thing as an ex-marine”);  Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is this films Nazi, the firebrand commander who never met a place that he couldnt bomb back into the Stone Age.

Sam Worthington as Jake in Avatar

Sam Worthington as 'Jake' in Avatar

There are so many allusions to everything here that you feel as if youre watching an anthology: Vietnam, Apocalypse Now, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mel Gibson. And to American cartoons. Does anyone remember the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, in which the moose and flying squirrel fought Russian agents for control of a mine that belonged to Bullwinkles uncle from which they extracted something called upsidaisium. Whats the difference between that wonderfully clever Cold War satire and Avatar?  A sense of humor. Cameron has been on this project for 15 years, more years than the US has been in Iraq. Its long enough to build a movie cosmology with a clash of cultures at its core.

Zoe Saldana in Avatar

Zoe Saldana as 'Neytiri' in Avatar

Avatar, literally a manifestation of a Hindu deity (ex. Buddha as a manifestation of the god Vishnu), is here a variation on the human form. The Americans have developed a machine that creates second Navi selves for humans, enabling them to breathe in the toxic Pandora atmosphere. Jakes avatar can walk, and finds himself in thick jungle, about to be torn about by wild dogs and drolling snarling beasts that could only have been created by a Hollywood studio. Hes saved by Neytiri  (Zoe Saldana) – did I mention that Walt Disneys Pocahantas  was an influence? – and a friendship turns to romance, and turns then to an alliance against the usurpers of Navi territory.

Eventually we have an insurgency of nature against technology, complete with Jake and company riding winged dinosaurs into combat against fortress-sized helicopters and huge AMP suits that turn RDA soldiers into metal goliaths. Note that Goliath is the word here. Cameron is drawing on the Bible, too.


Neytiri in Avatar

Note also that Jake and company have gone to the other side to fight a corporate mercenary force from earth. Its the militarized private sector, please. Think Blackwater. If it were Americans turning against their own military to support a local insurgency, Cameron would have a problematic case of treason to defend. Its particularly hard to defend when the US is fighting two real insurgencies in the energy-rich Middle East, where Eden once was.

Avatars tale of a planet saved by sheer determination and guerrilla warfare brings another film to mind: Inglorious Basterds. In Tarantinos film, were celebrating an approach to fighting the Nazis that were told should have happened, although it didnt. In Avatar, the fable on steroids, were given a sci-fi triumph over the attempted rape of another planets environment.

The pulpy unreal wish fulfillment of Inglorious Basterds, set against the defining events of the 20th century, made you wonder, “if hes throwing away the historical facts, why doesnt he just do this on Mars?”

Thats what James Cameron has done, except he calls it Pandora. Pandora is a Fools Paradise. So is cinema, especially when its done this way.

Or could I be wrong? Is this just Little Big Horn, the prologue before the apocalypse? For that, youll have to wait for Avatar II.

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