Zoe Saldana plays the warrior Neytiri in "Avatar" (from NYTimes)
I went to see Avatar 3D IMAX today (NYTimes review here). It is the best visual smorgasbord I've seen in film in a while, with an astonishing level of attention to detail, especially in the nature scenes. The film takes 3D visual effects to a new level. I loved the flora and fauna, and thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the film. However, ultimately the film left me disappointed.
The story contrasts a dystopian military-industrial society with a utopian primitive-natural society. The military-industrial society consists of entirely bad guys, people out to exploit purely for profit. Meanwhile all of the natives are constitutionally good - there are no liars, cheats, thieves, cowards, drunks, slobs or lazy aliens. Straddling these two, a tiny group of heroes must decide where to take a stand.
The two societies collide and then bounce apart. In the end (spoiler alert) the men with their machines exit, and the heroes join the "noble savages" to return to their graceful state in harmony with nature.
This is a massive rewriting of colonial histories, one that pretends we can close pandora's box and return the gift of fire. Bring back the Dodo, let the natives win, Cameron suggests. Nice idea. Of course, we know the men with machines will be back with bigger guns and better bribes. And at least some of the natives will discover they have more leverage if they switch from warriors to miners and traders. Isolationism is only a temporary solution.
We expect nostalgia and fantasy from Cameron, whose previous films include Titanic and Aliens. Cameron's films rely on binary oppositions, on WW2 narratives of good and evil. But today these binary oppositions seem faded and naive. We crave stories that embrace the both-and world of globalization and post-colonialism. We want characters who deal with the gray slushy middle ground of issues like integration, assimilation, control, and liberation. Avatar's making is a case in point - the film's astonishing 3D visuals are only possible because of technologies born out of the military-industrial complex the film aims to critique. We live in the circular, the meta and the post. Our stories must live there too.