Well, finally managed to drag myself off to see James Cameron’s Avatar, which — it’s fair to say — divides people. In the red corner (US political colour configuration), we have Miranda Devine irritated at untoward greeniness, while in the blue corner we have this selection of links over at Hoyden About Town. Other (slightly) sideways takes are available at Hot Air and the Von Mises Institute. I’ll return to the latter in due course.
Now, having seen it, I think parties on all sides of politics need to remember that Tropes Are Not Bad. As tropes go, Avatar is a version of The Last of the Mohicans, a venerable trope, although there is also a great deal of the Hero with a Thousand Faces, of which ‘Last of the Mohicans’ is but a subtrope. Alas, we are probably stuck with variations on that theme for reasons as old as biology.
So, for what it’s worth, here’s my take.
The special effects are amazing. Really. I’ve got enough background in design and graphics to notice things that are this well done. The 3D is attractive without being invasive (only once is there a gun shoved at the viewer in such a way as to say, hellooo, we can do 3D, natch). The film catches incidental things beautifully — the wonder of flight, gravity that actually works (unlike King Kong, which always seemed to ‘stick’ in crucial places — usually when someone/thing was bouncing up and down).
Someone has also gone to some trouble to produce an alien culture that isn’t a variation on a Western theme, insofar as it’s possible to do so. The Na’vi language is a real language (this linguist spotted that it was properly inflected, for example). They are also a shame culture, and strange enough to be a bit disturbing (although the joke about 10 foot tall smurfs is not going to go away any time soon).
The planet’s biology — with one, glaring exception — is a beautiful carboniferous playground full of luminescent strangeness. Alas, however, the six-limbed, four-eyed creatures that provide the body plans for the planet’s mammalian biology are betrayed by humanoids with two eyes and four limbs, when — as Athena Andreadis points out — they should look rather like Hindu Goddesses. Ah well, it seems science fiction these days is piled high with You Fail Biology Forever.
Finally, it’s nice to see a future without FTL travel, as it’s so unlikely ever to happen. Instead, people spend six-odd years snap frozen in a much slower moving ship. The military technology is also believably extrapolated from what we have now.
1. A plot that’s as old as silent movies. I have less of an issue with this; Cameron had to make that massive budget back somehow. If you watch it, be prepared for some creaky stuff, otherwise known as ‘old hat’. This is all expertly criticized from both right and left perspectives in the links above.
2. All pagans are cool. Look, there’s a strong case to be made that monotheism has been a tower of fail for humanity (with the exception of the Jews, who own the monotheism patent and have a genuine right to be pissed off with the mutant versions derived from their intellectual property). That doesn’t mean paganism is all sweetness and light, however. Pagans start wars. Pagans can be vicious. Pagans often have/had social rules that would make your hair stand on end. Cool Mother Goddesses do not make up for this. A civilization recognizably pagan (in ways that make sense when playing the comparative religion game with classical antiquity) still hunts whales. [/classicist off]
3. The 3D gives quite a few people migraines, especially people who already have glasses and have to stick the 3D glasses over the top of their regular glasses. I don’t know whether it’s just this movie or all 3D movies, but it’s worth pointing out.
4. Unobtainium. About 40% of the cinema broke up when this word was uttered. Whether they’d seen The Core or not remains speculative, but, well, yeah…
Take home messages
As long as you remember that Tropes Are Not Bad (see above), then there are some take home messages in this film that don’t fit anywhere on the conventional political spectrum, along with a good bunch that do (see above once again). The best of these came up courtesy a review published by the Von Mises Institute, which I’ve excerpted below. I don’t agree with all of it, but it shows — when someone does wheel out one of the great Joseph Campbell heroic tropes — that the rest of us can project almost anything onto what we see:
And the “corporation” here is basically a mini-state, or an arm of a state–it has an army going around killing and destroying (Lester Hunt makes this point here). In fact, in the review of the leftish Mark Kermode of the BBC, he just calls the bad guys the military; even he is not taken in by the corporate facade. And the libertarian hosts of Free Talk Live (12/19/09 episode) get it right too: the plot is about property rights. In particular, the property rights of the Na’vi, in an established tree-city that they have clearly homesteaded. The Na’vi are not just some uncivilized savages as some curmudgeonly reviewers imply; they live they way they do because of the wondrous bounty of their strange world and some unique features it has–which, again, I can say little of without spoiling, but suffice to say it’s grounded in reality and extrapolative science fiction, not some quasi-mystical nonsense. They even have a sophisticated homesteading technique worked out for ownership of the wild, pterodactyl-like creatures known as Banshee or ikran. In addition, the main Na’vi character, Neytiri, although she is betrothed to another Na’vi, is permitted to change her mind and choose someone else–respect for individual choice and autonomy.
I think it’s good to be reminded that nicking other peoples’ property isn’t very nice, when you come down to it (Robert Nozick’s ‘justice in acquisition’, anyone?). Oh, and the neurally wired plaits are tres cool, especially when one character discovers that playing with it feels nice, and is warned to stop it, or he’ll go blind (all of which makes perfect sense in the later sex scene).