A Review: Sp!ked Avatar review

February 17th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

I recently saw James Camerons’ Avatar. I thought it was quite good. Excellent special effects and CGI, as we’ve come to expect nowadays, an interesting story, based of the age old line of good vs evil with the underdog winning the day. And, of course, the 3D effects which are sooo much better than the old generation of 3D which was always a bit dodgy and, frankly, used in films that weren’t particularly good in 2D stuffed with moments that were in the film purely to show of the 3D. Avatars 3D is a lot subtler and is more about giving depth to the scene rather than having something lunge at you from the cinema screen.

After the film I expressed my view in a rather shorter version of the above via Twitter and Dnotice replied asking if I had read the Sp!ked review of the film. I must confess I hadn’t.

I have now, though.

Steve Bemner reckons Cameron has taken…

misanthropic perspective to a whole new level of anti-humanism. Its main character, and hero, is so alienated from humanity that he literally disowns his own species. This move requires Cameron to indulge in and reproduce some of the most backward and anti-human development prejudices of our age

I’m not going to give you a bit of background to the story of Avatar, as you either know it already or you can read James’ Sp!iked piece for it. But here is why James’ thinks that James Cameron is a self-hating human. I reckon Steve is reading far too much in to this film and needs to relax a little.

In order for the audience to be persuaded that it is legitimate for one human to join another species and begin to kill fellow humans, Cameron indulges in several fictional conceits that draw upon modern misanthropy. First, the miners and their mercenaries embark upon genocide with no thought whatsoever, despite the fact that humanity has considered genocidal behaviour to be a bad thing for some time now. This allows Avatar to imply that man has not changed since the explorations and conquests of the Middle Ages. There is even a fairly explicit suggestion that the humans are acting in the same way that the settlers of America did and that the Na’vi, whose main weapons are bows and arrows, are equivalent to Native Americans. Here, humanity is depicted as having learnt nothing from the past and as being inherently savage towards that which it does not instantly understand.

Right. First off, if you lump every body on this planet together you could claim that humanity might consider genocide to be bad behaviour, but there are little pockets here and there around the world today, and in recent history that think that genocide is the best thing to get what they want. There is also, still, companies about that think nothing of exploitation of the local resources [.pdf] and people.

Humans, or more specifically the majority of those with any sort of power, do behave in a way that is not dissimilar to settlers and conquistadors. ‘We’ want something from a people that is less powerful than us, ‘we’ try to persuade them to our way of thinking and the people ‘we’ want something from doesn’t or can’t give it to us we go in with the guns. Case in point, Iraq. If the coalition had a chance of getting their butts kicked, the military option would never have been on the cards. In Avatar, if the Na’vi had bigger guns than the humans instead of bows and arrows, the humans would negotiated a hell of a lot harder and longer.

The film focuses on one company. One company that behaves badly in a certain way. That doesn’t imply that the whole of the human race are like that. There are probably all sorts of people with all sorts of characteristics employed with the company, but the film only focuses on a certain group of them.

Second, the Na’vi are depicted as living in an essentially harmonious tribal society. Their society is depicted as a primitive kind of utopia in which all the individuals within it know their role and social conflict does not exist. A central idea of the film is that they also live in literal harmony with the planet, a harmony that the humans, of course, destroy. In its depiction of the life of the aliens we see a kind of green fantasy of how human life should be: primitive technology, a hierarchy in which everyone knows their place, a community at the mercy of the environment. This is also a kind of Western primitivism that advances racially demeaning stereotypes of happy natives living in harmony with the environment, when, in reality, tribal society is much more brutal, and much less harmonious and fulfilling, than those who celebrate it are willing to admit.

The Na’vi society may be depicted as essentially harmonious, but how different is it to other primitive societies, here on Earth? There are tribes in the Amazon that live in harmony with the environment. They take what they need, they do not hunt animals just for the hell of it. Hunting takes energy and time when all you have is spears and arrows. Why waste that effort killing stuff that you’re not going to use? The primitive tribes ‘listen’ to the jungle, they know how it works, when to leave plants alone, where to find certain foods. How is that different to the Na’vi?

The Na’vi also showed that they’re are not all peace and harmony, too. When the Jake and the girl Na’vi (I’ve forgotten the Na’vi names. Sorry) admit that they have mated, the chap that she was going to be partnered with shows jealousy and a fight ensues between him and Jake. This shows that the Na’vi feel the same emotions as everybody else. How many of the other Na’vi are happy with their place in society? We don’t know. Just like every other society the Na’vi are forget their differences and become unified against the threat. What we see is a snapshot of a certain time period. Who knows what happened before the time period of the film, but there are clues there that the Na’vi society operates just like any other.

Cameron’s third conceit is that the planet Pandora has a consciousness. This is necessary in order to show why such a primitive society survives when, in reality, it would likely perish given the potential hostility of the environment depicted in the film. This idea reflects the green notion of Gaia: that is, the belief that all beings are connected into one consciousness and that harm to one being harms the organic whole. The film makes this idea even more explicit with the aliens being able to physically link their minds with the animals and plants of the planet. The humans, meanwhile, are depicted as blundering into, and threatening, this ecological paradise like some kind of inter-planetary plague.

Why is Pandoras’ conciousness necessary for the Na’vi to survive? Why would they perish if they couldn’t ‘plug-in’? Why is Pandora any more hostile than say, the Australian Outback? The Australian Aborigines have been living in the middle of a desert with, on the surface of it, nothing there. With a sun beating down so strong that it can cook eggs. The Aborigines’ can’t just plug themselves into the landscape yet they have been living in that place for millennia by ‘listening’ to their surroundings. The Aboriginal society went down hill rapidly when Europeans appeared on the scene bringing with them tobacco, alcohol, disease and animals that upset the local ecology not to mention what the Europeans did in terms of denying the Aboriginals rights and access to their land and the civil society that was growing up around them. “The humans, meanwhile, are depicted as blundering into, and threatening, this ecological paradise like some kind of inter-planetary plague.” That sounds about right to me.

In fact, this is no specific critique – instead it portrays all humanity as destructive.

No it doesn’t. It shows that a company and people can be destructive. It shows that with no checks and balances capitalism will do what it can to take what it wants. After all, did anyone in the film say ‘Hey, you can’t do that. I’m going to report you to the authorities’? No, because presumably there are none out in space.

This bleak portrait does serve a purpose: only by making humanity uniformly destructive, and the Na’vi holy, can Cameron justify the final conclusion of the film, in which the hero abandons humanity altogether to join the Na’vi.

The final conclusion, for me anyway, wasn’t that the hero turned his back on humanity. Jake became a Na’vi to be fully and completely with the one he loved. He didn’t have the use of his legs and to stay with the Na’vi and his love, he would’ve had to have worn the facemask and been, basically and burden to them. There was a spare Na’vi body and a way of getting his conciousness into, then why not. Avatar finishes on a positive tone for love, not a negative blast at humanity.

By the end of the film, this reviewer felt like rising to his feet and cheering the final human attack on the Na’vi.

Oh, I see, Steve wants’ to see the destruction of the Na’vi because they’re so bloody nice and make us all look like horrid bullies.

Indeed, much of the audience seemed ambivalent – we were clearly dazzled by the spectacular 3D effects and the beautiful rendering of the alien planet, but the unrelentingly bleak portrayal of humanity left everyone more than a little despondent as we left the cinema to celebrate the New Year.

Despondent after two and a half hours of unrelentingly being shown humans are shits? I could believe that if it was a film based on a true story or a documentary, but not such an obvious work of fiction. I never got that feeling from with the audience I watched it with.

Steve Bremner seems to think that just because a film focuses on certain events and certain people that the director is trying to say that everything is like that. That is wrong. The film was two and a half hours long, which some people think it is already to long (it was too long after half an hour in the crappy cinema seats we were sat in). How long would Avatar have been if James Cameron had to show the cuddly, caring side of humans and the “much more brutal, and much less harmonious and fulfilling” side of Na’vi life?

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