Rant Number 380 12 January 2010
Avatar – a many-splendored, luscious word. Its very sound thrills the priest. So portentous. Because it means the incarnation, the manifestation of a deity. As when the Hindu god Vishnu descends to earth in a series of successive, vertiginous forms. As a divine child, a man-lion, a giant reclining on the ocean, a conqueror of serpents, a rain cloud, a cosmic destroyer.... A divine repertory of tremendous transformations. Director James Cameron’ acclaimed film, Avatar, cribs the concept and seeks to emulate its dizzying effects. The 3-D phantasmagoria flying out of the screen at you looks fantastic, sure, but – alas, originality, fantasy, imagination is exactly what the movie devastatingly lacks. Ultimately, this botched-up Avatar is at once a manifestation of inordinate visual diarrhoea and severe mental constipation.
First, the earthlings. It is AD 2154, we are on Pandora, near star Alpha Centauri (hence the speed of light barrier to space travel has been overcome) and technology can accomplish mind transfers. A wondrous world. Yet at the same time Hollywood seems intellectually incapable of picturing a future humanity which is not a microcosm, a replica of cinematic America’s tired clichés’ – cast implacably multiracial, strict gender equality, moronic military, amoral scientists and greedy corporations. Maybe it will be like that but why not make an effort? Be a more creative? Perhaps in 144 years the human race will be like a global Brazil, a big, happy, miscegenated lot and racial distinctions will be meaningless. And maybe matriarchy will rule society. Top generals will be all females. And corporations will be either non-existent or benevolent bodies, like the Quakers. Improbable? Perhaps, but showing something like that would be at least a tad less boring than the ad nauseam reiteration of the customary PC formulas.
Second, the natives. The Pandorians are a graceful race of cobalt-blue, 3-metre tall, lissom aboriginals, the Na’vi. They are wise, strong, peace-loving and live in harmony with nature. (Though they do fall short of the moral perfection of vegetarianism.) In stark contrast to the wicked, scheming, murderous earthlings. Pandora, as the name suggests - pan-doron: all the gifts – is really a kind of Paradise. Jean Jacques Rousseau must be smiling down (or up) from where he is now. Natural humanoid is as implausibly pure as civilised man is out-and-out rotten in Avatar. Good job Pandorians don’t indulge in human sacrifices, like the Aztecs. Or engage in cannibalism or head hunting, like the Borneo Dayaks and certain Amazonian tribes. Or horribly torture prisoners, like the Hurons and Iroquois. Naturally. To have portrayed them so would have spoilt the moral Manichaeism of the silly script.
Of course, science fiction often tends to mirror the obsessions of the Zeitgeist. Cold war movies of the 50’s generally showed aliens as hideous, hostile monsters, the unsubtle projections of the lurking Communist, Russian and Chinese threats. (Clifford D. Simak’s classic novel, City, postulates a future Earth dominated by intelligent dogs and ants, while most human beings have committed collective species-suicide on Jupiter.) A later, sunnier Hollywood, plus the genius of Steven Spielberg produced the optimistic E.T and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Now Cameron’s movie predictably panders to the environmentalist, neo-pagan fads and fashions of the beginning of the third millennium. Plus ca change...
Third, religion. Pandorians seem shamanistic. Superstitious, you might hazard, but that would be ethnocentric. Actually, they worship Eywa, a green Great Mother which manifests herself in the shape of airy, gentle floating medusae. When evil Colonel Quaritch’s big bad juggernauts blast Aywa’s sacred tree – that’s the pits, folks! But it got the priest thinking. About a man called Boniface. Saint Boniface, to be precise. A goodly Englishman from Crediton, in Devon. (I worshiped at Crediton Church once. Wonderful rose-coloured stone building. Uplifting place.) Zealous for the True God and his unique, saving avatar, Jesus Christ, Boniface set about converting the barbarous German tribes to Christianity. So in 723 he challenged the pagans near Geismar. ‘Christ is greater than Wotan’, he preached. And so Boniface took an axe and boldly chopped down Wotan’s sacred oak, using the timber to build a church. He is rightly revered as the Apostle of Germany but I guess the man of God would horrify the tail-wagging, tree-hugging people of Pandora. Ah, dear Boniface, where are you today when your degenerate Anglo-Saxons so much need you?
It grieves me to say so but I have to disagree with one of my favourite Israelis. The worthy jazz artist & controversialist Gilad Atzmon. Avatar for him is ‘the biggest anti War film of all time’. It stands against ‘colonialism and imperialism’. Really? Dear Gilad, how can a sharp guy like you buy that? Have you seen All Quiet on the Western Front? Or Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory? Those were profoundly humanistic denunciations of the evils of war. Gilad, Avatar may masquerade as a serious movie but it is a joke, a laughable, reactionary utopia. At best pabulum for the tree-huggers, shallow entertainment for remedial, mind-challenged folks or solace for sad lefties left behind by the collapse of communism. And your analogy between the plight of the wild Pandorians and Muslims oppressed by Western military intervention is curious, truly bizarre. I never knew that Muslims were keen on tree-worship.
No, Gilad, Avatar isn’t a progressive film at all, but a regressive dream into some infantile stages of human development. A solid English intellectual like Dr Johnson would have seen through its ‘back to nature’ nonsense. When Boswell expatiated on the wild life of an Englishman taken by the Red Skins (‘happy in nature with plenty of food and a native woman by his side’), the great Doctor scorned him: “Don’t believe that, dear sir. It is stupid. It is brutal. It is inhuman. If a bull could think he too might say: ‘I am here with plenty of grass and with this cow by my side. Who’s happier than me?’ Dear Sir, human life is more than that.” Precisely. Three cheers for Dr Johnson!
Finally, an aside. Pandorians physically are a hippogriff-riding, quasi-master race, endowed with an extraordinary agility and suppleness which would make old Tarzan look like a cripple. But I am puzzled. And, as a clergyman, also a bit embarrassed, but I have to say this. When Jake, the man technologically engineered into the body of a Na’vi, eventually gets down to make love to pretty Neytiri, the affair looks like, I am sorry to say, rather a damp squib. Surely a vigorous, super-human lot like the Na’vi could do better than that? Huh! Maybe Jake should have swallowed some tablets prior to doing it. An inexplicable lapse of the director’s Dionysian imagination, alas.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli