Thursday, January 7, 2010
James Cameron's latest film, the many-long-years-in-the-making Avatar, has currently grossed 1.1 billion dollars worldwide, which is more than the entire GDP of Burundi. It cost about as much as the Panama Canal, but its finances are so complex we'll likely never know exactly how much money it took to make, market, and distribute the film. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi: “That's not a movie, that's a space station.”
When discussing a movie that cost so much money to make, it's absurd to deconstruct it for themes and meaning the way you might a work of literature or art. (Though some people have given it the old colege try.) Avatar was created to make money, and by that standard it has succeeded beyond the wildest, wettest dreams of the studio executives. It looks pretty, the story and characters are made of 100 percent recycled materials, and it never asks the audience any hard questions. That's a recipe for box-office success, and if you ignore the disturbingly arousing alien sex scene, you'll probably enjoy it, unless you're Armand White.
Here's a plot recap: Marine goes to exotic alien world to work for Evil Corporation. Marine joins a program that allows humans to pilot alien bodies around. Marine spies on aliens, who turn out to be warm-hearted, nature-loving. Marine—surprise!--falls in love with an alien woman (commence disturbingly arousing sex scene) and discovers Nature Is Good. Marine leads battle against Evil Corporation. This takes a hundred and sixty minutes. If you stripped Avatar of its eyeball-bursting special effects, you'd be left with a longer version of FernGully.
But that's not why Avatar sucks—nothing's wrong with FernGully, after all. The reason Avatar sucks is tied to a phenomenon common to Hollywood films, something I'll call The Karate Movie Paradox
The name comes from a standard scene in a lot of movies about karate or another fighting technique: the Wise Old Man training the hero in the ways of Kicking Ass says, in his wise old way, “But you must never use these things I have taught you for anything other than self-defense. Violence is never the answer, young one.” (Check out The Karate Kid or Ong Bak for direct examples of this.)
That's a fine philosophy for the Wise Old Man to teach his students. The paradox is that the movies that contain this philosophy are violence delivery systems, paper-thin plots built around long action setpieces. Yoda may teach Luke to avoid conflict, but we want to see some fucking lightsaber duels and spaceship collisions.
We can expand this idea to include movies about evil corporations that are bankrolled by corporations, movies that extol the virtue of a native culture while casting non-natives in key roles (I'm looking at you, Braveheart), and so on. The short definition of the Karate Movie Paradox: Hollywood films have themes and messages that are directly contradicted by the reality of the movies themselves.
Avatar is supposed to be all about preserving nature, respecting animals, and honoring the Earth (or whatever planet you happen to be on). But there is pratically no nature at all on the screen—everything is state-of-the-art CGI effects. The characters keep repeating bromides about saving the trees they love from big, bad profiteering technocrats while surrounded by trees that are the products of real-life profiteering technocrats. The nature that is being saved in the movie is fantastic: glowing leaves, six-legged horses, plants that retract suddenly when touched. Some features, like the cliffs that float in the air, are startingly beautiful, if we're allowed to say that about a combination of computer-generated polygons.
The problem is nature on Earth isn't quite so fantastic. Trees don't glow, we don't ride dragons, and the people who want to build strip-mines and pollute aren't cartoonishly evil. Conservation in reality doesn't involve shooting arrows at mechanized infantry. It means driving less or not at all, drilling for less oil, recycling, eating less meat, and maybe going to the movies less. Protecting the nature that we actually live with, as opposed to the one manufactured by computeres, is boring, difficult and important, which are three words that simply aren't in the Hollywood dictionary.
Conservatives have attacked the movie for being “environmentalist propaganda,” but the movie's pro-Green/pro-pagan sympathies are only skin deep. If anything, it sets back environmentalism, portraying Greens as weird hippies who spout bullshit about the sacred communion between all life instead of rational people who say, “Hey guys, let's make sure the seas don't engulf Manhattan in the next 20 years.” Avatar's brand of environmentalism is misty-eyed, soft-hearted, and totally unrelated to the world we live in—in the end, it's as forgettable as Mr. Miyagi's preaching of nonviolence.
Which is good for the picture's bottom line. A genuinely environmentalist movie might force people to examine their lives, and might even make them feel bad about themselves. You don't earn 1.3 billion dollars at the box office by telling people what's wrong with them. With Avatar, everyone leaves the theater and piles into their SUVs thinking that they are good people, that they would be on the side of the peace-loving aliens, not the evil corporate soldiers. Talk about escapism.