Avatar: the only dream capitalism can sell, is a world without capitalism

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James Cameron's Avatar is turning into something of a sensation. Everything about it is extravagant: filmed in 3D, computer generated images of unprecedented sophistication (the production platform data storage apparently reached one petabyte[1]) - everything about this film is extravagant, including the cost. And like any work of art, Avatar offers us a certain image of the society in which we live.

The film's story is blindingly simple. On the planet Pandora, a powerful Earth corporation has discovered deposits of a rare and precious mineral; it despatches on site machines and workers (who remain invisible throughout) to open a mine. The only problem, is that the planet, covered by a magnificent virgin forest, is already inhabited by a humanoid people, blue-skinned and three metres high, who have no intention of being kicked out without fighting back. The mining company is thus accompanied by an armed force which looks remarkably like the American army, along with bombers and helicopters and "mekkas" straight out of a Japanese manga. Any resemblance to the conquest of America, the rape of Vietnam, or the pillage of the environment being carried out today in the Amazon is of course anything but accidental. In the hope of convincing the natives - the "Na'avi" - to let themselves be moved on without bloodshed, and above all without bad publicity, the company has also sent a research team equipped with technology allowing them to create Na'avi bodies - "avatars" - which are "inhabited" by the minds of human "pilots" who remain in the shelter of their base camp. The avatars can thus move freely on the planet's surface (the atmosphere is poisonous for humans) in order to "win the confidence" of the natives. One of these "pilots", the ex-marine Jake Scully whose human body is stuck in a wheelchair, falls in love with a beauty from the local tribe (a sort of blue Pocahontas) and joins her people to lead the struggle against the invaders.

So much for the story - what about the film as a whole? Visually, you can't complain. Not only is the CGI perfectly convincing (the Na'avi look as "real" as the humans), the designers have really let their imaginations go to create a whole Pandorian exo-biology, with a vast fresco of plants, animals, and even insects, all with a coherence and an attention to detail which recalls some of Miyazaki's best anime films. It's impossible not to be captivated when the Na'avi take off on their great flying reptiles and when we - thanks to the depth of 3D projection - can realise one of humanity's oldest dreams and fly alongside them.

It's just as well that the film is visually impressive, because the plot is a wretched mish-mash of rip-offs from other films. The "noble savages" living in harmony with nature (Green), the decent whites who try to stop the massacre (a frequent theme in the Western genre), the stranger who falls in love and seeks the acceptance of the tribe (Dances with Wolves), the insensitive and brutal military commander (Apocalypse Now, but without the madness and the culture), the female scientist in a macho world (Sigourney Weaver reprises her role in Alien) - nothing's been left out. Even the ending, where the whole ecosystem is set in motion to repel the invader, is filched from Harry Harrison's Deathworld novels. What interest can there possibly be in such a film?

In fact, this film is interesting not for the story - banal - nor for the characters - cardboard cut-outs - but for its themes. Who are they aimed at? What ideology are they plugging?

Before being a work of art, Avatar is above all an enormous financial investment (between $250 and $300 million) which has to make a profit. This, moreover, is impossible merely by relying on the US market: according to an article in The Economist of 28th November, two thirds of the profits from a blockbuster come from outside the United States. To succeed, the film must therefore appeal to emotions which are widespread in the world population, or at least among the youth of the industrialised world. In this sense, the Situationists of the 1960s were right to say that the "society of the spectacle" (ie capitalism) stages our own dreams in order to sell them back to us.

In terms of sales, Avatar has undeniably been a success, having already earned more than $1 billion in ticket sales. It is striking that it has been a huge hit in France and Germany, the two European countries where opposition to the war in Iraq was especially strong. One reason is undoubtedly the unflattering image (to say the least!) that the film offers of the US Marines, and even more the fact that they take a pasting and are forced to leave with their tails between their legs.

That said, James Cameron manages to make it up to his American audience. At the beginning of the film we learn that the soldiers in question "used to be marines, fighters for freedom", but that they have become mercenaries since; the hero is himself an ex-Marine. One can therefore blame their brutal militarism, not on the state and its loyal servants, but on the private armies like those currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the "security firms" which provide logistics and "protection" to big companies like Halliburton, but also, and increasingly, directly to the US army.

As far as the "good guys" are concerned, the Na'avi obviously represent humanity's old dream of a life once more in accord with nature. They hunt, but they kill their prey with respect, they manage to live peacefully in the forest despite its dangers. Cameron doesn't bother with metaphysics - the ties between the Na'avi and the natural world depend on the fact that the planet is itself a living creature (an idea pinched from Stanislas Lem's novel Solaris, recently made into a film by George Clooney) and all the planet's inhabitants are equipped with a sort of bionic USB key that allows them to "plug in" to other animals and plants. The film is a long string of improbabilities. The male Na'avis are blue Apaches and "great warriors", though it's hard to see how since they had nobody to fight before the humans came. The females are the males' equals - they even go hunting - which doesn't stop them being stuck in "feminine" roles (there are no female warriors for example). And so on and so on.

But it works! The film ends with a burst of adrenalin and the audience is delighted to see the natives kick the mining company off the planet (probably the most unlikely part of the whole story!).

It's sheer fantasy of course. Nonetheless it is interesting to compare this fantasy, which has hit the screens in the midst of an economic catastrophe, with those created during the last crash. In the 1930s, a large part of Hollywood's output was devoted to films full of playboys, millionaires, and adventurers - the world of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. That dream no longer works. In Avatar, big business is definitely the bad guy. Today, the dream that pulls in the biggest profits for the capitalist fantasy machine, is the dream of a world from which capitalism has been definitively banished.

Jens, 21/01/2010

[1] 1 petabyte = 1,000 terabytes, 1 terabyte = 1,000 gigabytes


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