(This article contains some spoilers about Avatar. And, since you've already seen it, it doesn't matter.)
A week after everyone else on the planet, I finally managed to take some time off from writing games to see Avatar (original name: Jake Sully Versus the Hippies From Space). I saw it projected on a flat surface, as opposed to in 3-D, because I am very old.
I agree with the conventional wisdom: The movie is super pretty. The plot and writing are a bit dopey, and the characters are cardboard. But, ooh! Shiny! It's fun enough to be worth seeing.
But whenever anything is seen by that many people and worms its way into the culture, it's fun and worthwhile to get all nitpicky and start digging into it ...
1. This io9 article, about how movies like Avatar are big First Worlder White Guy Wish-Fulfillment Fantasies, it perfectly designed to make the Internets explode with rage. The article is also kind of on target.
Look. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that surviving in a jungle wilderness, full of hostile creatures and food you have to hunt down yourself, is tricky. This is true whether you're in the Amazon or on Pandora. And I don't think I or anyone reading this could master the environment and learn everything you need to know AND learn the language AND master a whole new BODY in 30 days. Or 30 years. The life of a tribesman is hard, yo. Saying otherwise is clueless and condescending.
I, personally, would be too busy being eaten by a snake.
You can call me politically correct for saying this if you want. I will comfort myself with the fact that I am completely and obviously right.
But that's not to say that I think Avatar is all right-wing. Exactly the opposite ...
2. The Onion AV Club had an awesome article about how, no matter what you think of the plot or CGI, the movie Avatar pulls its weight by being so awesomely politically subversive.
Make no mistake. Those bloodthirsty marines (well, ex-marine corporate mercenaries, not that any of those exist in real life) and soulless corporate drones we're rooting against are there to represent us. They're out there shooting the natives and doing anything it takes to bring back the Whateverium, and the people back home couldn't give less of a crap. The movie gets us to cheer while they (we) are killed or kicked off in chains. It gets us to see ourselves as the bad guys. It's amazing what you can get away with when you're James Cameron.
I think the most fascinating thing about Avatar is the way it gets us to realize, in our bones, that the Na'vi will never, ever want to be us. They will never buy all that we're selling. I mean, they'd like some schools, and yeah, the medicine is nice, but we will never remake them in our own image. No price is high enough for them to let us have their Plotpointium.
It's a subtle point, and I doubt it will register much with many people. (Ooh! Shiny!) But it did make me think. I love our country, and our culture, and the Constitution and the principles we try to live by, even if we sometimes do our best to ignore them. And yes, it's OK for us to try to sell our ideas to other people. The whole story of human progress is the story of competing ideas.
But pick a country, say, Afghanistan. They have their own cultures and traditions and ideas, millenia old. And a lot of people there would rather die (or kill) than give up their idea set, no matter how tempting elements of ours might be. Avatar provides a nice reminder that some (probably most) people will never want to be us, no matter how much we offer in return. Of course, the movie really stacks the deck by making Pandora this hippie paradise with floating mountains and glowy flowers and crap like that, instead of an endless expanse of desert or rocky, inhospitable crags, but this actually kind of doesn't change anything. Living in a cruddy place doesn't make you any less attached to your fundamental worldview.
Not that the other cultures wouldn't like our goods and services, I'm sure. Medicine would be nice, thanks.
3. So the hot blue CGI boy and the hot blue CGI girl went and did it under the big, magical soul tree. OK, fine. But where were the other couples who went there to make out? Was that a privilege reserved for the chief's daughter? That's a pity, because that scene would have been a thousand times better for me if we were also hearing dozens of blue couples having rough, wild, noisy, awesome jungle sex in the background.
4. Actually, rooting against the marines did creep me out a little bit. I just finished watching the truly awesome Iraq war miniseries Generation Kill. I didn't always like the marines in that, but I sure was rooting for all of them to live.
5. I'm not sure what will happen in the years after the movie ends, but I strongly suspect that the words "orbital bombardment" will be involved.
6. Science fiction wanker note. If you want to see how similar storytelling ground was covered in a superior way over thirty years ago, track down a copy of The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K LeGuin. Damn fine book.
There. More words written about Avatar. Obama saw it, so it must be worth the effort.