Avatar and the Misunderstood “Clash”

My wife and I just saw Avatar.  When the movie first came out, we both heard the “All Things Considered” interview with James Cameron and the one with the linguist who wrote the Nav’i language and we both saw some mainstream press.  The reviews have not been surprising: in the tech-happy camp, excitement about the special effects overwhelms, and among self-fashioning sophisticates the characters are too one-dimensional and underdeveloped. In retrospect, it seems strange that it took some convincing for these two art and music enthusiasts to make this our holiday trip to the theater.  In the end, the good stories could be rented, but this one had to be seen in the cinema.

Okay, so the special effects were great.  James Cameron is the reigning king apparent of 3-d cinema technology.  Good for him, and even better for his studio, because that stuff is nearly impossible to pirate.  Hope you can send your great-grandchildren to college, Mr. Cameron.  With due respect, though, I thought there were many more interesting features to this film.

Avatar offers a commentary on the nature of conflict in a context that holds up particularly uncomfortable mirrors to human nature in particular.   Says the admittedly flat “noble savage leader” to Jake Sully, the human protagonist: “We shall see if you can be cured of your insanity,”

In this picture, Sully’s perceived insanity is borne of the peculiar marriage between military structures and corporate goals.  Whereas Joel Bakan and friends insinuated of the corporate collective personality in The Corporation,” Avatar proposes something even crazier: a virtueless corporate machine with serious military artillery.

Far from one-dimensional, Sully can see this insanity plainly, even as he matter-of-factly explains its ethical inconveniences to the bleeding-heart scientists.  “That’s how this works,” he shouts.  “Somebody’s got something and you want it, so you blow the hell out of them and then justify it.”  It’s ambiguous where the corporation in the movie is from beyond being earthlings, and the script never clarifies what country all of the former military personnel served.  I don’t think it’s a stretch, however, to assume that this American movie with American accents comments on American realities both historical and present.

For nearly a decade, the Bush administration justified oil and control-seeking behaviors in the Middle East with phrases like “defending liberty,” “promoting justice,” and “delivering freedom to oppressed people.”  It’s no coincidence that Hollywood continues to call them on it.  At present, the world struggles to understand the paradoxes of a wartime president receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and reflecting on human conflict in his eloquent acceptance speech.  It’s no accident that despite some looming threats to human survival, the theater should offer a forum for critical thought on these issues.

A few years ago, the infamous political scientist Samuel Huntington suggested that the coming conflicts in the world indicated an inevitable clash of civilizations.  Academics and diplomats have rejected this notion outright.  In fact, Florida State University is (was once?) the flagship institution for a multi-lateral cooperation among universities and governments called Alliance of Civilizations.  Still, the ideals of scholars and kings are nowhere near as accessible as the silver screen.  If the characters in this drama have been flattened for the sake of exaggeration, then it serves a purpose: it forces us to recognize the most crass and heartless of human tendencies.

This film has done well and will continue to do well for many reasons.  It offers action for the thrill-seekers, new linguistic puzzles for the self-consciously dorky polyglots who are tired of speaking Klingon, and even some romance (uh, especially if muscular blue alien is your type).  It is visually stunning in 3-D, and would no doubt be even more so in IMAX 3D.  The best reason to see this film, however, is because it makes sci-fi relevant to a broader social discourse on conflict.  When the artistry of a piece in any genre comes together this tightly, when it can make people think after they leave the theater, then it’s a film truly worth seeing.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Avatar and the Misunderstood “Clash”

  1. Jenn

    Man, imagine if your wife knew there was a difference between 3D and Imax 3D. Guess I have lots to learn!

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