Avatar: visually stunning, morally vapid

Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Sigourney Weaver
2009 | 161 minutes

I still remember lining up as a teenager on the opening day of Star Wars and I remain a sucker for space battles and aliens with hearts of gold and limbs of, well, some form of metal alloy unknown to mere earthlings. So when I went to see Avatar I was again a young man, ready to sink under the warm sheets and join the dream. Not my fault that the dream became a sleepless nightmare.

Because this movie is on so many levels a wreck and a ruin. Set in 2154, it concerns a paraplegic marine (presumably Obama's healthcare bill was not a success) given the technology to control, be, the laboratory-grown body of one of the creatures inhabiting the planet Pandora. Where, as it happens, there are plenty of valuable minerals in the ground that greedy humans want to possess.

So it's war, because we're told very early that wars are always fought because we want what the enemy has. Not sure how this explains Hitler but let's move on. Along comes Colonel Miles Quaritch, a manic soldier with a southern accent who beats us with clichés as he rants about killing "hostiles", "shock and awe" and "fighting terror with terror" (Stephen Lang). He also groans that the planet is the nastiest place in the galaxy for a soldier. Actually compared to Vietnam, Iraq or Normandy it looks like fairy-land.

But a pantheistic fairy-land with lots of confused native culture thrown in for good measure. We're all connected, the trees and animals are part of the great mother, only kill for food and then be sorry for it and blink rapidly and incredulously when a white, or in this case black (many of the bad Yanks are African-American) man asks a perfectly sensible question about civilisation. Never, of course, mention native cannibalism, slavery, prolonged and graphic torture and genocide of other tribes. That just didn't happen in Hollywood history.

Quadriplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) becomes an "avatar" -- his consciousness animates a hybrid human-Pandoran body -- so that he can interact with the forest-dwelling humanoids. But once on the planet he falls in love with Pandorans and one particular cutie (Zoë Saldaña) and realizes that as the only human in the world who really appreciates beauty and gentleness he has to side with the Indians/Iraqis/Afghans/Pandorans and lead the war against the "sky people." Which is in itself jarringly racist in that it takes a white man to show the dumb natives how to fight back and win. While they're running away and making funny noises he's gritting his perfect teeth and charging a space-ship. One which, even 140 years in the future, doesn't appear to possess re-enforced windows and fires bullets used in the Korean War.

Oh, and the way our hero brilliantly manages to show the silly aboriginals that they should fight as one is by asking them to fight as one. "Gryyg, fmfmfmz, bmbmd -tt?" Translation: "Hey bud, why didn't we think of that?"

Infantile ironies abound. Cameron spent almost US$300 million on the latest technology explaining to us that the latest technology is wrong and evil. Actors take God and Christ's name in vain throughout the movie but demand absolute respect for tree-worship and the religion of blue things with tails who speak to their food. Remember, Cameron was behind the fatuous 2007 television documentary about archaeologists finding the tomb of Jesus, proving there was no resurrection and Christianity was a hoax. He's also the awful director whose class-war Titanic had working people dancing the night away with no concern for ethnic and religious division while the filthy rich stabbed each other in the back and snarled.

Indeed the businessman who wants Pandora destroyed so that he can mine for valuable minerals is also a sneering cad because he eats nonchalantly in virtually every scene in which he appears. Nasty capitalists always eat nonchalantly when speaking -- it shows that they just don't care. The humans who like the aliens, on the other hand, smile all the time. Making them the only humans who smile in the entire movie.

Most depressing of all is that so many critics loved this movie. Is this, we wonder, how we will go out? Not with bangs or whimpers but with trash and hash in a pretty wrapping? Because pretty it is, as we all sit there with ludicrous 3D glasses on and look at the floating mountains, enormous trees and highly coloured flowers. Problem is, this is what books and the imagination are for. Our minds can conjure up so much more than Cameron, special effects and didactic messages from Hollywood, the most dysfunctional community in the world. Read C.S. Lewis's science-fiction trilogy, read Tolkien, just read.

It's not the adoration of hand-me down paganism, crass environmentalist politics or the self-loathing North Americans that so grinds, it's the sheer stupidity of the whole thing. Not charm or innocence or child-like splendour but clumsy and indulgent mediocrity that is supposed to change the way we make and watch movies. The horror is, it may well be true.

Michael Coren is a TV host and columnist in Canada. www.michaelcoren.com 


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