Saturday, January 9, 2010

Avatar: Dances with Blackwater in Space

Avatar Various
First things first: You are telling me that James Cameron had 12 years to make a movie and the best he could come up with is unobtainium?

Really, twelve years? T-W-E-L-V-E years?!? And that is the best you can come up with? Jimmy, its time to hire yourself one less coder and one more screenwriter, or just some kid of the street, cause really...unobtainium? You're telling me that who ever made their way to Pandora and found this ore of awesomeness decided, "Um...screw naming it after me, this crap was frickin' hard to find!"

Oh wait! Turns out he's been wanting to make the movie for fifteen years.

Once again...James Cameron had FIFTEEN YEARS TO PRODUCE THE MOST EXPENSIVE MOVIE EVER MADE and all he could come up with is unobtainium? Holy hell. Also, um, what exactly are we mining it for again? Oh that's right, we never find out, because twelvefifteen years and nobody came up with a reason as to why we need it, other than its hell of expensive, yo. And probably unobtanium = oil.

Okay, sure, the movie was very pretty. Though it did seem like he saw the Disney Electrical Parade one too many times and decided to make the new planet and all of its inhabitants entirely out of fiberoptic wire. But, I have to give the man credit for paying enough people long enough so that they could finally figure out how to make CGI mouths non creepy.

But, those braided head tails? Totally creepy. They totally would NOT have been creepy without the "if you play with it you'll go blind" comment. But, since Sigourney Weaver made the comment (in all of her character's second-wave feminist awesome glory) they were totally creepy throughout the entire movie. Way to go. Now we all get to look forward to people weaving their wigs together at Comic-Con.

Oh, and what I was afraid of happening is happening. I didn't just see Avatar . I saw Avatar: An IMAX 3D Experience. I shit you not. The experience began with a slough of previews for movies in IMAX 3D. Until Jimmy made giant blue space cats, the only IMAX 3D movies I'd seen were ones having to do with creatures of the deep and the Grand Canyon. The only exceptions of course, were V for Vendetta and Beowolf (what? I was an English Major. It is a requirement to see all big-budget pop culture interpretations of Old English poems), but that is two movies in like the last five years. Now there is something like five IMAX 3D movies coming out in 2010, only one of which has to do with science.

But, the IMAX 3D (am I the only one that must yell that in my head everytime I read it? Say it with me: IMAX 3D!!!) revolution doesn't end there. IMAX, Discovery, and Sony are creating an entirely 3D television channel. Here's a thought for y'all: If everyone comes out of the theater saying "Oh, pretty!" but also slightly cross-eyed because those flimsy lenses have given them a headache, you better focus on improving the delivery method before you go and greenlight Jersey Shore 2 and that Jennifer Anniston rom-com in IMAX 3D(!!!).

But back to the topic at hand.

Not only did James Cameron not come up with a good name for the ore that will be the end of Fern Gully in Space, or a reason why they are mining it, as many, many, many people have pointed out (I like this one best) he didn't really come up with a script either.

But beyond the post-colonial "white dude is hot for princess, realizes his culture is wack, must save her community of bad-ass warriors with a combo of their bad-ass warrior training, giant beasts and some guns" story, the movie has also been identified as a blockbuster commentary on war.

I disagree.

The commentary is not so much in opposition to war or racism or genocide as is against government contracting. It is not the military that we are set up to hate and told to root against, instead it is a private corporation seeking profits (with the help of some ex-Marines to be sure). And that reminds me of another movie: District 9.

Sure, lots of people compared the two because "white dude becomes alien", but that bit of the storyline is not so much similar as it is mirrored. Avatar functions within the framework of imperialism and environmentalism. District 9 functions within the the framework of immigration, segregation and apartheid. In Avatar "we" invade "them." In District 9, "they" get stuck with "us." In Avatar "we" want to become "them." In District 9 "we" must live out our Kafkaesque nightmare incarnate and become "them." In Avatar, "we" help "them" defeat "us" and evict the imperialists because "we" realize "we" were wrong. In District 9, "we" help "them" defeat "us," but only because it will save our own ass. In District 9 our hero uses a giant walking robot exoskeleton to save the day by killing the biggest, most racist asshole. In Avatar our hero defeats the biggest, most racist asshole who is using a giant walking robot exoskeleton, to save the day.

However, in both cases, the assholes in question are not active military or politicians, they are employees of government contractors who act as hired thugs to control a population and gain resources, whether it is better weapons or a better source of energy. In District 9, even the highly-problematic Nigerians are doing the same thing that the company is doing: trying to profit off of the violent power of alien technology.

Which, if we are going to precise, military contracting isn't really something unique to our era of post-colonial white guilt. Columbus and his hand-amputating crew? Not a part of the Spanish Armada. Nope, instead they're the 15th century version of independent contractors. Licensed by the state to go do its dirty work and bring back the spoils.

However, I think District 9 achieves this commentary far better than Avatar does. In Avatar the technology gets in the way of the story (oh, I get it these guys are Blackwater Xe and - ooooooooh! pretty!) where as in District 9, the CGI is integrated into the story seamlessly (minus the ship). Also, every bit of the movie is dirty and messy - and not only because the "other" in Avatar is hot, while in District 9 they are made to look like crustaceans. In District 9 there isn't a single character we actually like and who has pure goals (excepting, perhaps, the child alien). In Avatar the dichotomy of the dumb, exploitative humans, and knowledgeable, pure Other is cut and dry. In District 9, the aliens are portrayed as violent and incompetent, both in our world and in theirs (my husband has a theory as to why they got stuck on the planet with no knowledge of escape: they were the oppressed class in their world, too. Perhaps that is a slave ship hovering above Johannesburg?)

District 9 also better achieves the commentary because it doesn't have the one actress of color with a speaking role of more than two lines playing the tough-as-nails Latina who evidently finds the alien planet much hotter than the rest of her colleagues and therefore must cut her tank top for breathing room. Or Sigourney Weaver's avatar in that weird Stanford crop tank top, for that matter. But then, at least they aren't straddling motorcycles.

But, here is the main difference between the two movies: District 9 does not end happily for our hero. He is transformed completely to the Other and must wait for years living among the community he despised for rescue that may or may not come. Avatar however ends with a victory over the oppressors who are evicted from the planet.

Unfortunately, you cannot have a true and useful commentary on the evils of greed and violence with a fairytale ending. Jake Sully and his new found friends have succeeded in winning one battle, not the war. Sure, they are off the hook for about six years or so, but if "unobtanium" is so damn awesome, there will be new folks that come to take it.

But does this mean I hated the movies? Nah. I mean Avatar is very pretty. And we don't have to watch creepy CGI mouths anymore - hopefully. District 9 certainly made the viewer, who came for a sci-fi shoot 'em up, leave uncomfortably thinking about what they saw. It also is one of the few blockbusters with a giant US marketing campaign that takes place in a culture that is not American. Trust me, a lot of references went over my and lot of US viewers heads. Will that make them think? Once can hope - after all, they pissed off the radical conservatives so they must be doing something right.

Regardless if it is the same story told over and over again, by someone who has inherited the privileges of a history of oppression (all billions of dollars of it), obviously we need to keep telling the story since lots of us haven't learned the lesson. It would be great if those billions of dollars were funneled to directors, writers and actors who have a different story from a different perspective to be told. And, it would be infinitely better if those billions of dollars were spent on things that might actually put an end to and rectify the the violence and oppression they are commenting on...but this is hollywood - ooh, pretty!

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