Ironies of Avatar

20 December 2009 at 3:41 pm 20 comments

| Peter Klein |

I took the kids to see Avatar this weekend. From a technical standpoint, Jim Cameron’s film is remarkable, a breakthrough, as good as advertised. The alien world Pandora is stunningly realistic, detailed, convincing. The computer-generated characters look and move like real actors. The battle scenes are phenomenal.

But the storyline didn’t grab me. It’s a twist on that familiar Hollywood trope: evil, materialist, capitalist, militarist humans versus nature-loving, low-carbon-footprint, New Agey savages so noble they would have made Rousseau blush. The computer-generated landscapes are dazzlingly three-dimensional, but the characters, both human and alien, are cartoonish and one-dimensional (especially the Head Evil Capitalist, played here by Giovanni Ribisi, essentially reprising Paul Riser’s role from Cameron’s Aliens). The Pandorans are in their own way as clichéd as Peter Jackson’s much-derided Skull Islanders. I appreciate the film’s antiwar, anti-imperialist message, but really, the Earth First! propaganda is way, way over the top. And consider these ironies:

1. Avatar was written and directed by bazillionaire businessman Jim Cameron, is produced and distributed by giant corporation 20th-Century Fox, and will likely gross hundreds of million dollars. Naturally the film’s villain is — you guessed it — a giant corporation! Because, you know, businesspeople  and money and corporations are evil and stuff.

2. The film was made possible by Cameron’s highly innovative, beyond-the-state-of-the-art, years-in-the-making technological innovations. Yet one of the film’s main themes is the evils of technology and capital accumulation and the beauty of live-for-today, pre-industrial society. The Pandorans literally worship their planet and don’t just hug their animals and tress, they physically bond with them through some mystical (and anatomically curious) process. The poor humans, one of the characters explains, have destroyed their own “Mother.” Blech.

Update: Peter Suderman beat me to it, calling Avatar

one of the stupidest major movies in recently memory, blithely peddling a message that its entire production process actually undermines. That Avatar’s melodramatic attacks on corporate interests and its defense of simple, natural living come packaged as one of the most expensive, and probably the most technically advanced, corporate films in history would seem to indicate that only quality bigger than the movie’s stupidity is its head-in-the-clouds hypocrisy. Cameron’s made a movie that he intends to be epic and awesome, but the only thing that’s awesome here is his total lack of self-awareness.

Stephan Kinsella sees a libertarian defense of property rights, and so do I, but for me that message was buried beneath the eco-propaganda. Had the earthlings homesteaded some piece of unoccupied Pandoran land, put it to productive use, and then the natives decided they needed the land or that its economic value belonged to “Mother Pandora,” is there any doubt what side Cameron would be on?

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Classical Liberalism, Ephemera, People. Tags: .

The Onion on Industrialization The Age of Constructivism

20 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gabrielrossman  |  20 December 2009 at 5:47 pm

    this kind of thing is exactly the reason i have no patience for vulgar marxist hegemony theories. as stuart hall asks:

    Are the “distortions” [of ideology] simply falsehoods? Are they deliberately sponsored falsifications? If so, by whom? Does ideology really function like conscious class propaganda? And if ideology is the product or function of “the structure” rather than of a group of conspirators, how does an economic structure generate a guaranteed set of ideological effects? The terms are, clearly, unhelpful as they stand. They make both the masses and capitalists look like judgemental dopes.

  • 2. brayden  |  20 December 2009 at 7:09 pm

    The computer-generated landscapes are dazzlingly three-dimensional, but the characters, both human and alien, are cartoonish and one-dimensional.

    This is true of pretty much any James Cameron movie, except perhaps The Abyss. I respect him as a technician, but he should hire someone else to write his scripts.

  • 3. David Hoopes  |  20 December 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Nice thought Peter. I’ve always wondered how the the Hollywood types (and musicians) figure that the zillions they’ve made is somehow of higher integrity than the zillions someone made hauling trash or making coat hangers.

    Oh well.

    When i make a few zillion maybe I’ll become an armchair socialist too.

  • 4. Timothy Terrell  |  20 December 2009 at 11:30 pm

    I don’t think I’d say this was a pro-socialist movie. Sure, the animism and Rousseauian (sp?) “noble savage” fiction was annoying, but think about it: the rights of these people were being trounced upon by others who used brute force. That’s not free markets. I’m also reminded, visually and intellectually, of Walter Block’s “Pure Snow Trees” analogy in his response to Demsetz in the RAE years ago.

  • 5. David Gerard  |  20 December 2009 at 11:45 pm

    I haven’t seen the movie, but the effects look pretty spectacular in the McDonalds commercials featuring it.

  • 6. steve  |  21 December 2009 at 6:41 am

    Proof that capitalism gives people what consumers want not necessarily what capitalists want.

  • 7. steve  |  21 December 2009 at 6:44 am

    I think the anit-capilast feelings are largely just a natural reaction to the most immediate authority the average person deals with on a daily basis. ie. their boss at a large corporation.

    If we were serfs, the people would probably attribute nearly every injustice to the local count or baron and love the king.

  • 8. steve  |  21 December 2009 at 8:11 am

    Of course, I am not so sure whether things are actually going that well, but at least a show of descalation may do wonders.

  • 9. Warren Miller  |  21 December 2009 at 1:18 pm

    We have a different kind of make-believe today, folks. Microshaft CFO Craig Liddell is jumping on the GM Titanic as CFO. I guess that qualifies as another shake-up in the White House staff, huh?

    And guess who Liddell’s successor @ MS is? None other than Peter Klein. Check it out: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704304504574610010455604176.html?mod=djemalertNEWS.

  • 10. Peter Klein  |  21 December 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Warren, I hate it when I only find out about these things through the media!

    Alex Tabarrok captured something else I meant to say: “Personally, I like my aliens to be a little bit more well, alien.”

    But screenwriter Mike Dougherty has the best line: “Avatar is even more fun if you pretend it’s Alien 5 and Ripley lived and became Dr. Augustine and somewhere on that planet is an egg.”

  • 11. Stephan Kinsella  |  21 December 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Peter, you’re an evil, cynical hater, and I hate you, you capitalist tool.

    Love, Stephan

  • 12. Peter Klein  |  21 December 2009 at 5:16 pm

    Even worse, I’m a denier!

  • 13. GabbyD  |  21 December 2009 at 8:24 pm

    isnt the firm a warning against untrammeled resource extraction/depletion, and is not a criticism of capitalism in general.

    sure, we all agree that strip mining exists/existed in developing countries. right?

  • 14. srp  |  21 December 2009 at 10:18 pm

    Blow up the effing tree! (I haven’t seen Avatar but I have a bad habit of rooting for the cavalry in Dances with Wolves and the imperialists in The Last Samurai.) In the Last Samurai, the “heroes” were supporting feudal oppression and the “villains” were fomenting an industrial revolution that would vastly increase the well-being of the Japanese people.

    It’s often the case that the villain gets the best lines in a movie. I’ve seen plenty of evil drug lords point out correctly that if the hero takes them down, someone just as bad or worse will step in. Even the bad guy in the Incredibles, a movie I loved, amongst all his evil doings was planning on giving super powers to ordinary people. Who had more persuasive cultural impact–Gordon Gekko or the Martin Sheen character in Wall Street?

  • 15. Avatar « The Sociological Imagination  |  22 December 2009 at 3:11 pm

    [...] Peter Klein says it’s the same age old Hollywood theme of “evil, materialist, capitalist, militarist humans versus nature-loving, low-carbon-footprint, New Agey savages so noble they would have made Rousseau blush.” [...]

  • [...] are divided on Avatar (which I haven’t seen yet); check out Peter Suderman, Stephan Kinsella, Peter Klein, David Kramer, and Lester [...]

  • 17. murray  |  11 January 2010 at 5:24 pm

    People are funny eh

    If you went and saw a vampire movie you’d not be inclined to be critical of the director or producer for his/her implied views on murder and blood sucking – you’d recognize it for what it is – fiction

    Yet Avatar has piqued the ire of a lot of “economically minded” folk. I’ve seen many criticisms of the movie by people who seem to think there’s some sort of moral imperative there.

    Is it possible that those who react to the “message” of the movie are confusing it with a documentary?

    The lady doth protest too much, methinks…

    It’s “just” a movie. It’s a brilliant movie too because it leverages on a lot of fundamental human nature and recent human culture. So what that it might seem to imply that nature is good and corporate greed is bad, that natives are good and consumerism is bad – so what? Will it have any effect on the way of things?

    Cameron is a genius – he’s an example of who in the past might have been a Mozart or a Shakespeare – someone who gives the masses what they want paid for by whoever has the money to pay.

    To purposefully fail to see the movie is in my opinion just foolishness akin to deciding you’d never want to listen to a Mozart opera – but worse, to see the movie and not thoroughly enjoy it for what it is here and now because your moral compass gets confused by the “messages” that resonate with your own personality disorder is a sign that you maybe need some serious therapy.

    murray

  • 18. Fernando Chiocca  |  12 January 2010 at 10:24 pm

    I think that both, you and Kinsella are right.

    Avatar is libertarian, but only for those familiar with libertarian principles. The others (and it sure includes Cameron) are not going to grasp this message and are going to be catch by the intense anti-capitalist eco propagand underlying the history.

    Had the earthlings homesteaded some piece of unoccupied Pandoran land, put it to productive use, and then the natives decided they needed the land or that its economic value belonged to “Mother Pandora,” is there any doubt what side Cameron would be on?

    We would have to distinguish between earthlings and Na’Vis. The Na’vis actually have some connection with “unused” land. Their planet and nature are different from ours.

  • 19. jck  |  13 January 2010 at 8:02 am

    Yes, they would sell what consumers want. Even the rope that will be used to hang them. Supposedly, Lenin

  • 20. sienko  |  11 February 2010 at 7:46 pm

    This ironies in Avatar and in Wall-E are so large it’s remarkable that few people have remarked on this.

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