Avatar—more than just a spectacle?

Let’s start off by saying I really enjoyed Avatar—so much so that I trekked into Birmingham to see it a second time on the enormous screen at the Imax—as high as a five storey building. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen the same film twice at a cinema, so it clearly did something for me.

The landscape the film creates is extraordinary and stunning and the special effects just awesome. It was well worth the effort of going into Birmingham to see it on a really big screen. But beyond the beautiful computer generated imagery, is it a good film?

Avatar posterIt’s certainly high-earning. Part of that is the hype around the CGI and being in 3D. It also appeals to many tastes. It’s sci-fi, it’s got guns and soldiers, it’s got an environmental message and it’s even got a bit of a love story.

It has been suggested that Avatar is just a rehash of Dances with Wolves. It’s a fair comparison, but not necessarily a criticism. Plenty of great stories are rehashes of older stories; there’s nothing wrong with that. And Dances with Wolves was a great story. But somehow, for me Avatar lacked the emotional power of Dances with Wolves.

I should love it. I should love the portrayal of a people so in touch with their world. I should love the fact that a message about environmental destruction, about the plight of indigenous people facing corporate profit seeking is reaching a mass market. The problem is, I don’t think it is.

Sure, most of my friends were touched or inspired by it. But most of my friends are environmentalists, pagans or pantheists. When I talk to colleagues at work and others that don’t fit that mould, I get the impression that the point has not really come across.

Dances with Wolves is not, I think, a true story. But it is a believable story. It could be true. It is set in a historical context that we recognise and know about. But when you take that story and set it on a planet so far away it takes six years to get there, inhabited by 3 metre tall blue people who ride dragons, you ask the audience to suspend belief. It is no longer a story about real people, it is pure fantasy, and it is viewed as pure fantasy. Add to that the fact that some of the humans are pretty unbelievable. Parker and the Colonel have no redeeming features whatsoever. Surely nobody is really quite that despicable? In a film which is at the forefront of 3D cinematography these two at least are very much 2D characters. So what we have is a film that doesn’t invite us to think that there could be an element of truth in the story. We suspend belief, and treat it as nothing but fantasy. And an important message is missed—the message that this is really happening. Right here, back on earth. Indigenous people are loosing their homes, their lands, their way of life, at the hands of corporate profit mongers. Loggers, oil companies, mining and quarrying corporations. It’s all real. It’s all hardly noticed. And sadly, many who see Avatar don’t seem to take this away with them.

Pandora is a wonderful creation, and a fantastic vehicle for showing off what can be done with computer generated imagery. But setting the story on Pandora has reduced its power. It’s reduced it to just a story. You should go and see Avatar, on the biggest  screen you can find, because it is a stunning spectacle. I’m afraid it’s not going to change the world though. But just in case it does make you want to find out more about the plight of indigenous people a bit closer to home, you could start by checking out Survival International.

Mind you, I still want to ride dragons.

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