A couple of nights back I found myself on my own and not at home with an empty evening stretching out before me. One of the handy apps on my iPhone informed me that Avatar was playing in 3D at a theatre not 5 minutes walk away with the next session starting in 30 minutes. So I toddled around the block, bought a ticket, a set of 3D glasses, a large latte and found my allocated seat. I'd wanted to see this movie for a while, and hadn't because I strongly suspected that Clemency wouldn't enjoy it, but now, with all the ducks in a row, I leaned back into the semi-sofa comfort and expectantly put on the specs. The 3D system uses some sort of polarising arrangement and works beautifully. Little leaves and seeds and things drifted out of the screen and looked like they were going to land in my lap. Canyons opened terrifyingly in front of me. Spacecraft loomed menacingly or darted about nimbly according to script requirements. Wow! Amazing! And the CG effects! Even more Wow! Doubly Amazing! Big blue people and ingeniously devised monsters and dayglo plants and islands floating in the air all appeared and did their thing and looked unbelievably believable. It was fantastic! Except perhaps for the bits that I actually go to the movies for.
Characters for example. This is the area which was the first disappointment. None of the characters seemed to be much more than a shallow stereotype, and consequently I couldn't identify with any of them or sympathise with them or feel anything for them, so I never managed to engage with the film except as a spectacle. And the plot. I sat for the first half an hour trying to think of what other movie it was that this one reminded me of. Then I got it: Some nasty commercial types arrive in their impressive vehicles from some civilised place to a pristine land where a bunch of noble savages live peaceably and commune with nature and the earth goddess and talk to the animals. A spy is sent out to get the lowdown on the natives so they can be more easily persuaded to part with their assets. The spy falls in love with the lovely indigenous lady, learns to admire the wisdom of their ways and switches sides. Of course! Avatar is Pocohantas with better graphics but with fewer songs.
But there was something that was more disappointing than that. Essentially this is a film about exploitation, and ecology and all that. It treats the issue by pitching the goodies (enlightened spiritual, aware, at one with nature blue folk) against the baddies (materialistic, grasping, amoral, lets get the unobtainium by any methods we can think of corporate folk). The exploiters were them: THEM! Those guys with the big machines and the close cropped hair. But of course there was a bit of a paradox built Marshall McLuhan like into the very medium. Here was I, sitting in a very high tech theatre, with a pair of 3D glasses perched on my nose, holding a cup of coffee probably made from beans that grew on a plantation that had only recently been a bit of rain forest, with the brilliant Dolby stereo sound and the projector and the lights taking up goodness knows how many kilowatts, watching a film that condemned hi tech exploitation and urged a return to a simple and natural life.
And here is my disappontment. In the end Avatar is just another goodies v baddies shoot 'em up which reduces the complex issues of global inequity and the destruction of the planet to simplistic stereotypes. The problem we have is not them, it is us: our addiction to things and the production of things and the consumption and disposal of things. If we weren't so addicted the corporates would have no one to sell to and the exploitation would end. Avatar lets the big nasty companies carry all the blame and then solves the issue by having the good enlightened guys prove to be even better at fighting and destroying the people who oppose them than the bad guys ever were.
I came home from this film about the blessedness of nature with a pair of plastic glasses which will no doubt sit around the house for a few months before they go into the landfill, where they will sit again, unchanged and probably perfectly useable for about another ten thousand years. A friend had asked me to watch out for the reverse iconography in the film. I didn't really see any of that, although I'm willing to be persuaded that it's there. But I won't be rushing back for a second look. Avatar isn't a bad film. It's probably quite a good film, but it's not a great film. My opinion of it was coloured by my own perception that it doesn't offer any solutions, and in fact is itself part of the problem. Perhaps I shouldn't have expected more from it than what it was: a way of wowing me with technology into shelling out for a seat and a pair of glasses. And it did a pretty good job of that.