So I went to see Avatar, a satire on mankind’s acquisitiveness and obsession with technological progress. I wanted to catch it at the IMAX, but the Christmas traffic was too heavy. (If you’re hearing a funny noise in the background, it’s just the alarm on my irony meter.)
It still looked pretty impressive in the local multiplex. Nobody combines exploding CGI mayhem with weepy sentimentality like James Cameron, and Avatar delivers both in even larger bucketloads than Titanic. Challenging? Only in the sense that you’re required to overproduce adrenaline every time the virtual camera swoops through another vertiginous hail of laser-guided missiles, while simultaneously tutting disapproval, which is a tricky form of doublethink. But as entertainment, it works.
Although there’s an obvious and refreshingly un-American message, steering clear of real-world politics allows the film to moralise without theorising. Or maybe to theorise without moralising, I couldn’t quite decide. There’s no doubt that the human expeditionary force invading the remote moon Pandora is up to no good, so we don’t have to question the ethics of the indigenous population choosing to fight fire with fire. Well, not actual fire, which they don’t appear to have discovered (and we’ll come back to that), but spears and such.
Indeed, we can feel relieved that the Na’vi aren’t depicted as Social Science Model innocents, free from constructs like property, war and sex. That would have been dull. Nonetheless, it’s a bit of a let-down when our hero – a tough-talking marine who goes native after falling for a three-metre-tall blue bombshell bearing an uncanny resemblance to Uhura – wins their trust, embraces their trippy eco-friendly values, and still can’t come up with a more progressive suggestion than all-out armed response. That’s fine with the aliens, who seem no less belligerent than their oppressors.
What separates them is technology. The humans have it, on a scale that would make a defence procurement committee blanch. The Na’vi don’t. The pink, brown and yellow guys bring fleets of armoured helicopters; the blue guys rely on flying lizards, which they control by entwining tendrils and muttering incantations – mumbo-jumbo jets, if you will.
Those tendrils turn out to connect the whole planet in a way that’s played for emotive mystic resonance yet, Cameron insists, is totally on the level. As Sigourney Weaver’s white-coated scientist tells us, it’s not just some pagan shit (I may be paraphrasing here.) Sigourney is the kind of person whose word on what kind of shit things are one would normally be inclined to take, but I was provoked more than once to wonder if she might be mistaken.
If the link between the Na’vi and their environment is real, why do they have to activate it by waving their hands and chanting? This kind of performative flim-flam evolves in the awkward absence of concrete results. When you genuinely know how to bring rain, you don’t have to make up a dance about it; actually doing it will be enough to impress everyone.
Trying to stitch together the butch realism and mawkish fantasy eventually defeats even Cameron. While every rivet on every gunship is convincingly crafted, the Pandoran side of the story feels as if the script was full of holes, like the placeholders they used to leave in Trek for someone else to write the stuff about dilithium crystals, marked ‘more pagan shit’.
We’re supposed to be deeply impressed by the Na’vi, but why? Not only do they eschew iPhones and heavy artillery, they apparently lack any kind of artefact beyond spears and 12a-rated bikinis. We see lots of jungle, but no Lascaux, no Venus of Willendorf. Their sacred place isn’t a henge, it’s a tree. Elegant as they may look, they show less evidence of imagination than our protagonist, the grunt who’s told by Weaver’s character: ‘Let your mind go blank. That shouldn’t be too hard for you.’
It’s great that the blue people can ftp their flora, but our own planet sadly comes without biological broadband. We should probably have asked before we booked. As it is, if we want to bend the world to our will – and that’s what the Na’vi are doing too, however nicely they dress it up – we have to figure out how it works and design machines to interfere with it. This is not a misguided abandonment of nature. Intelligence, creativity and technology are inescapably intertwined, and pursuing these – not ruthlessly, but relentlessly – is, in reality, our manifest destiny.
Adam Banks is actually a 2ft 6in elf in a tank orbiting Venus. Probably.