The Liberal Ironist is “late” in responding to a blockbuster movie that came out last winter, but he didn’t have a blog last winter and big-budget movies that manipulate our frustration with the present, like bad ideas in general, never go away.
Avatar is a very pretty movie which manipulates Romantic naivete. The bad guys certainly seem real; the (few human) good guys leave their kind behind to live in an entrancing fantasy realm. It’s neither as tiresome as its detractors claim nor as ground-breaking or insightful as its expositors claim.
Avatar is every bit as derivative as its detractors claim: That James Cameron held this story for 15 years until the technology was available to put his vision on-screen is easy to believe, because this kind of Postmodernism generally receded as the film culture changed in this decade. We’ve seen the white soldier forsake Anglo-American Capitalism and embrace a closed society (Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai), or at least consider it (Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now, Witness), we’ve been told that humans build societies “in violation of the balance” in nature in anime (Princess Mononoke), and now we’ve been given the bold premise (if not consistently-energetic depiction) of a human society rationalizing its marginalization of alien refugees (District 9). Those are all much better movies. The only real advance that Avatar represents is the novel material embodiment to a variety of Romantic cliches. This, of course, required several technological breakthroughs; there’s a message there to set against this movie’s various sermons.
It’s fun, sure, but it’s a check-your-brains-at-the-door movie masquerading as an epic at best. Its philosophy, rather than being deep, is very general and even hypocritically grants expression to life-destroying hatred for the mundane. Such broad-brush (and hypocritical) contempt for technology and even humanity is potentially harmful. The wilderness of Pandora does not exist, and writer-director James Cameron continues to make his home among us, now even richer. The Liberal Ironist agrees he worked hard for his money, but also thinks he is more of a painter than a moralist.
This is a somewhat-forgiving portrayal of what Cameron has done in this movie. The plausibility of the idyllic alien moon-world of Pandora appealed so strongly to some of the more-receptive filmgoers that they reported feeling depressed after leaving the movie, finding life here on silly old Earth inauthentic. or crass. or colorless. or something. This is called–I’m not ironizing here–“Avatar Syndrome,” a condition which has been characterized as everything from a dangerous emotional imbalance to a completely-hyped post-movie comedown to evidence of immaturity in fans.
Avatar sows horrible confusion. There is a big difference between having respect for tribal culture–which exists in a precarious environment and whose members hang on with humility and courage–and romanticizing this culture in a contrived way that can only possibly represent the potential of our own Web-based civilization. The Liberal Ironist doesn’t object to a sympathetic depiction of tribal culture, but to the sympathetic depiction of nature and the sense of “connectedness” in which it is couched. For tribal societies to self-represent as existing “in balance”–whether among themselves, or with nature, or between life and death–is logical, humble and brave. This is because tribal societies live a precarious existence, whether in the jungle, in the desert or in the Arctic. Their vulnerability leads to a strong emphasis on providing enough space and goods to accommodate others, and to live in harmony with the land. If they don’t do that, then on the available means they won’t survive in that environment. While such a perspective is useful in a contemporary society to illustrate some aspects of environmental conservation or the value of hospice care for the dying, it isn’t really relevant to the rest of our lives except as a conceit that we are “part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.” This is more of a brand than a state of mind.
The Na’vi, the aliens who live on the distant moon-world Pandora, can form mental bonds with each other, to their departed ancestors and even to the trees through a sort of USB interface that emerges from their hair. This idea appeals to people because the mobility and compartmentalization of their lives, and perhaps long-term uncertainty about where they are going to live, all contribute to a feeling of isolation from others. But such a vehicle for deep communion didn’t and probably couldn’t emerge from a process of evolution; it is best-represented in all of human experience by Facebook, online multiplayer gaming through XBox live, GMail and yes, blogging sites like WordPress. This is the nascence of the sort of togetherness with others which Avatar fans find so compelling. If these developments don’t seem as beautiful and harmonious as the fictitious natural neural net on Pandora, more than anything this is an argument against letting James Cameron imagine a better world for you.
The Liberal Ironist recommends you put down the 3-D glasses, pick up a book, and develop a better eye for the color and dimensions already out there in the World. That wasn’t a joke either. You can commune with me through this blog, because you’re sitting indoors at a computer right now.