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Post-Apocalypse Now: Though flawed as an eco-pic, Avatar deserves Best Picture award

By Joe Romm  

"Post-Apocalypse Now: Though flawed as an eco-pic, Avatar deserves Best Picture award"

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James Cameron: “We need to mobilize like we did during World War II” to fight global warming. The threat to our country and children is “that severe.”

http://i.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/archive/01466/avatar_tank_lo_1466784c.jpg

I’m very interested in your thoughts on Avatar.

Here are mine on the must-see movie — but flawed eco-pic — and the controversies surrounding it:

[Mild spoiler alert, I suppose, but then if you can't figure out how this movie is going to end, well, you have led a very sheltered life.]

1.  I would give it the Best Picture award, simply for its staggering visual achievement.  And if you haven’t seen it in 3-D, well, all I can say is, that’s like have sex wearing a….  Okay, maybe I can’t say that.  Anyway, Avatar is why you go to the movies.  That said, the script wasn’t great nor were the characters especially memorable, so I’d have no problem with “Hurt Locker” (directed by his ex-wife!) winning.  And newly adopted preferential balloting may favor the latter, as many voters might not put Avatar as a second or third choice because they don’t like Cameron or the movie’s perceived message.  The best script and best acted movie, however, IMHO, was Up In The Air.

2.  The movie is an odd post-apocalyptic pro-environment movie.  Environmentalist and producer Harold Linde writing on mnn.com asserts:

Avatar is without a doubt the most epic piece of environmental advocacy ever captured on celluloid, and it only very thinly veils its message which, on the heels of a failed Copenhagen summit, is more timely now than ever “¦ Nature will always win.

The film hits all the important environmental talking-points “” virgin rain forests threatened by wanton exploitation, indigenous peoples who have much to teach the developed world, a planet which functions as a collective, interconnected Gaia-istic organism, and evil corporate interests that are trying to destroy it all.

Sort of.  The fact is “Nature” (whatever that means) doesn’t always win.  Quite the reverse.  Indeed, in the real world clash of cultures, I think the historical score of battles where technologically-advanced invaders are pitted against indigenous people is about 1000 to 0.

Most indigenous people don’t have the equivalent of magic to save them against superior firepower.  So in that sense the movie doesn’t actually offer any plausible, positive vision, any viable take-home message.  What should we do about the corporate interests trying to destroy the planet — plug our hair into a tree?  Well, that isn’t much of an option for some of us!  The fact is that humanity left the path of the blue-skinned Na’vi a long time ago (if we were ever on it at all, a subject of some controversy by itself) and we’re not going back.

I guess this is the best people can do to spin the movie into some sort of a rallying cry:

3. Cameron gets global warming (click here) and sees himself as uber-green (see Grist’s “James Cameron: I’m the greenest director of all time!“).  He has said:

I wanted to do a film that had a deeply embedded environmental message … but do it in the form of a science fiction action adventure.  My feeling was if we have to go four light years away to another planet to appreciate what we have here on earth, that’s okay.

But if it were going to be a genuine movement eco-movie, I think it would have to offer a direct critique of our unsustainable lifestyle, which it does not. It is only post-apocalyptic in the sense that Jake Sully, a Marine/Avatar who “becomes” a Na’vi says

There is no green anymore on our planet, we killed our mother.

How very Oedipal of us.  At the end he narrates:

The humans went back to their dying planet.

That message has its flaws, as I’ve said many times. We should worry about what we’re doing to green things, yes, but it’s the direct impact on billions of human lives that make unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions such a dangerous threat, not the “dying planet,” whatever that mean.

As an eco-movie, I’d rank Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E higher (see “Wall-E is an eco-dystopian gem “” an anti-consumption movie (from Disney!)

Interestingly, the movie is mostly pro-science while still being anti-technology, which is quite different from the message of, say, Cameron’s Terminator movies, in which scientific pursuit leads to humanity’s (near) self-destruction.

I agree with the New Yorker film critic David Denby who noted “the irony that this anti-technology message is delivered by an example of advanced technology that cost nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to produce; or that this anti-imperialist spectacle will invade every available theatre in the world.”  Wall-E had a similar problem:  The movie is a brutal satire on “self-involved consumption,” but but if we are looking at who in the world is responsible for self-involved consumption, for the global homogenization of mass consumerism, for instigating the shop-until-you-drop culture at an early age, surely Disney itself would be on the short list.

Still, any movie that both grosses more money than any other film in history and pisses off the right wing — “it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism” says John Podhoretz, the Weekly Standard‘s film critic  — must be doing something right.

4.  Some have attacked the movie claiming it shows that the natives need a white man to save them:

The Blue’s savior, Jake Sully, like Tarzan … before him, is a White man, a “White messiah” from a technological civilization who leads the natives to victory.

That seems a bit much.  First off, he’s handicapped.  Second off, he ultimately becomes one of them and wins their way.

And that all goes to show that perhaps this isn’t so much a “message” film as it as a derivative film, story-wise.  Indeed, I do think the film lacks the overall greatness of, say, the original Star Wars or Lord of the Rings Trilogy, but it is lushly memorable in a way very few films are, as Denby writes:

The movie’s story may be a little trite, and the big battle at the end between ugly mechanical force and the gorgeous natural world goes on forever, but what a show Cameron puts on! The continuity of dynamized space that he has achieved with 3-D gloriously supports his trippy belief that all living things are one. Zahelu!

What do you think?

‹ Toles on sixty versus six billion

Must see Naomi Oreskes talk on Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscure the Truth about Climate Change. ›

40 Responses to Post-Apocalypse Now: Though flawed as an eco-pic, Avatar deserves Best Picture award

  1. Greg says:

    It’s a horrible movie that makes environmental issues into an oversimplified good vs evil dichotomy, with no substantive discussion of the merits of environmental issues and solution. Pretty, but stupid.

    As for science fiction, both Moon and District 9 are eminently better written, conceived, and filmed. Both also contain serious content related to difficult environmental issues, politics, and the clashes of industrialism versus nature.

  2. prokaryote says:

    I enjoyed both movies mentioned but miss District 9.

  3. Wit's End says:

    I did a little post on Avatar here: http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2010/01/avatar.html – naturally I loved it because it was all about trees!
    For something more substantive, here is Mongabay’s review and information about real-world indigenous people and their battles with exploitative multi-national corporations.

    I just saw Up in The Air and what astonished me about it – and frightened me – were the shots from the sky of endless miles of farmland, in fascinating circles or other geometric configurations. It is so vast that it reminded me of how many people we are, dependent upon a fragile system of food production and distribution.

  4. prokaryote says:

    Speaking of post-apocalypse watch Age of Stupid (2009)
    http://www.ageofstupid.net/

  5. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    Found the movie utterly shallow and predictable, and outside of the avatar idea, completely unoriginal (hm, I bet the avatar hosting a human consciousness isn’t original either). Audiences were bludgeoned with trite eco-metaphors, his religious tones were contradictory, and stereotypes were stretched into ridiculous dimensions.

    Having said that, I really liked the movie. I just went along for the visual ride and tried not to think too hard about any of it till afterwards. I won’t watch it on DVD (what’s the point), but if it is still at the IMAX, I’d see it again.

    When did Cameron become a green director? Wasn’t he the one who just left tons of Titanic sets and garbage on private land in Mexico, and ignored requests to clean it up–according to a news report on tv anyway?

  6. fj2 says:

    1. Greg, “Pretty, but stupid”
    5. prokaryote, “Speaking of post-apocalypse watch Age of Stupid (2009)”

    To each his or her own!

    A lot of people did not understand Kubrick’s “2001 A Space Odyssey” when it first came out and “Avatar” — despite grumblings heard — is like “Star Wars” when it first came out.

    Often think about it regarding current environmental issues and design.

    Legend has it that the writers and cast were in hysterics over the script when they were shooting “Casablanca” as it was so cliché and I’d witnessed the same during parts of the first season shoot of the “The Sopranos”.

    There’s a line between something being simple, elegant, inspiring, resonant, and just too simple, cliché and falling flat and might have to do more with individuals’ background, thinking styles, interests, psychological states, holistic or serialistic (not surrealistic) learning styles; even ability to be hypnotized or suspend disbelief.

  7. Bullwinkle says:

    Best cinematography or special effects, sure. But best picture? Hardly. It’s a Pocahontas remake.

  8. Will says:

    I was enthralled by Avatar, and saw it twice in 3-D. I thought the message against militarism was more powerful than the environmental message, although they go hand in hand. I saw it with my conservative mother and she was very offended by the themes, at one point even defending the evil colonel, well into the movie when we have realized his wickedness. It was funny how this particular film really seemed to upset drill-baby-drill, Bush doctrine imperialist conservatives, and show them how very twisted their worldview is (sorry mom). This was proven by how the film made those individuals very defensive.

  9. GFW says:

    >(hm, I bet the avatar hosting a human consciousness isn’t original either)

    God no. :-)

    1970s
    For some odd reason the similar concept that jumps to my mind is that in the “Kirlian” books (aka the Cluster series) by Piers Anthony (who yes, is/was a bit of a hack but nevertheless came up with a lot of cool concepts – he just tended to flog those concepts until they were dead or past dead.) In that case, the avatars were existing individuals who can host the personalities of “high kirlian” individuals. The ability to beam those personalities long distances and host them in alien bodies makes them effective diplomats (and spies…)

    1957!!!
    http://www.slashfilm.com/2009/10/26/is-james-camerons-avatar-actually-an-uncredited-rewrite-of-a-1957-poul-anderson-story/

    Call Me Joe centers on a paraplegic — Ed Anglesey — who telepathically connects with an artificially created life form in order to explore a harsh planet (in this case, Jupiter). Anglesey, like Avatar’s Jake Sully, revels in the freedom and strength of his artificial created body, battles predators on the surface of Jupiter, and gradually goes native as he spends more time connected to his artificial body.

  10. fj2 says:

    9. Will, “upset drill-baby-drill, Bush doctrine imperialist conservatives,”

    cool!

  11. John Stanley says:

    Seems to me what many “film critics” miss about Avatar is that the Na’avi are archetypes of the human collective unconscious. And the film is a compelling, extended hypnotic metaphor. It uses 3-D technology with extraordinary creativity, compelling the attention of all kinds of folks everywhere to acknowledge the evolutionary psychological truth of our ecological crisis…here, now and all around us on this very planet.

    It seems that many intellectual critics can’t sense, understand or face up to ecological/climate collapse (this week alone we have the Siberian methane outburst and the vanishing Bengal tiger). Of course its much easier to stay in denial and dwell on familiar cultural values like acting and drama, that cover human-human interactions in short-term historical contexts like oil wars and economic depression.

    Avatar has done something far larger in every way: for the first time a movie deals directly with the human-Earth interaction. It’s the first to imaginatively communicate the ecological and evolutionary story of whats happening to us as a species. This is an authentic cultural breakthrough. If it doesnt take the Oscars for best film and director, those prizes have little or no relevance. The global public has already documented this movie’s cultural impact with its collective wallet.

  12. NYTimes blog had a nice comment by:

    coddington.morton
    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/the-message-from-planet-jim/

    ” … “Avatar,” it’s a children’s movie wrapped inside a thin luddite wrapper. Like Ray Kurzweil writes: “the technology of the Avatar world of over 100 years from now is also weaker than nature, so the rhinoceros-like creatures are able to defeat the tanks circa 2100.” That’s the sort of naïve child-like fantasy that makes people feel good that they are “saving the planet” when they say “plastic” instead of “paper” at the supermarket checkout line. “

  13. fj2 says:

    Kind of wonder if ubiquitous gamer culture’s relentless quest for the new revolving around computer and technology virtual realities has influence in the disparity of entertainment perceptions; receptions?

    Personal inclination marvels at civilization’s traditional virtual realities: numeracy, language, story, religion, arts, technology and sciences.

    Did not like Titanic. Was amazed by Alien(s)

    Ditto brothers’ Matrix 1, 2, 3. One was fresh and edgy, though they probably took too long to release versions 2 and 3 and perhaps gamer geeks had years to numb out on this stuff and develop “unreal” expectation levels as the sequels seem to give them everything they were asking for . . .

    Regarding Joe Romm: “what should we do about the corporate interests trying to destroy the planet — plug our hair into a tree?”

    No! But, civilization should really try to learn as much as possible about natural systems to design with them rather than against them because they really don’t care; and, everything, ultimately, is nature.

  14. David B. Benson says:

    Ancora sé scalda.

  15. Stephen Watson says:

    The experience of watching Avatar in IMAX 3D was extraordinary and dazzling, transporting me in wonder to the entire fantasy world. However, the flipside was the most basic and simplistic plot line that a 10 year old could have worked out early in the movie.

    But, I agree with John (#12) is that it is the first mainstream movie I’ve seen that reflects on our appalling treatment of our home planet in, if I can mix metaphors, such a black and white fashion! Sadly, there’s little analysis of the relationship, just’ nasty military wants to evict peaceful people from their homelands’ as story. Mind you maybe that’s all the analysis required; we use our military might to enforce our desire to take we we want from other countries or the planet as a whole so as to aggrandise ourselves and way of life. Maybe the rest is just cultural window dressing to make it seem as though we have an excuse for the atrocities we have committed and continue to commit.

    Imagine what kind of film it could have been with a decent script …

  16. Tim L. says:

    Saw it twice and liked it very much. Kind of a “Star Wars” meets “Dances With Wolves” meets “Smurfs” experience. But I’m waiting for Cameron’s sequel, the bio-pic of Sarah Palin, “Avatard.”

  17. fj2 says:

    17. Tim L., “Avatard!”

    Joke for the millenium!

  18. villabolo says:

    Complain all you may about it’s simplicity, it was designed to communicate at the teenage level and made an impression on them like the old Star Wars series. Those teenagers 20 years from now may look back at Avatar in the same way we look back at Star Wars but their psyches will still be imprinted. That is of most importance because they will then be the adults of tomorrow.

  19. mike roddy says:

    I loved Avatar, and took my 14 year old son to see it twice. He wants to see it again.

    People who are quibbling about the plot and the characters don’t understand the medium: it’s all about the images, and they have to correspond to the unconscious of Cameron, the genius who created them. That’s what connects these days, and is what we desperately need to communicate global warming to the people. Movies with fascinating dialogue and intriguing plot twists are actually niche movies now, consigned to the art and revival houses.

    Cameron could make a better and more effective movie if he tells a similar story about life in the Arctic or extreme northern temperate zones in 100 years. He writes his own material, and won’t read my script, but I told a story about people living in underground fortresses in 2112, along a coastal river valley in southern Alaska. They suffer invasions from desperate Peruvians and the remnants of Texas oilmen. My script (written two years ago) has eerie similarities to Avatar, including the final battle led by a military villain, and the 22nd century assault helicopters the invaders arrived in.

    Someone else could probably write a better script than I did, but that story is based on a very plausible future, not a distant planet fantasy.
    If people see a movie that shows on a deep inner level where the dark side is taking us, and it’s done well, this would be the most important artistic communication in the history of the world.

    What Cameron accomplished in Avatar is the most important mission of the movies: he made a world utterly magical, but still grounded in our most ancient memories and deepest longings. Nobody could have done that better, and that’s why we need him.

    And if you’re reading this, Mr. Cameron, have your assistant email me at mike.greenframe@gmail.com and I’ll send you the script.

  20. Jeffrey Davis says:

    Empty gigantism.

  21. BobbyBob says:

    For a whole other view of how war and climate might mix:

    http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/features/climate-wars/index.html

    I hope this isn’t out of line, or too out of place.

  22. Wit's End says:

    BobbyBob:

    Too out of place??

    Bookmarked!

  23. Wes Rolley says:

    I don’t know about anyone else, but there is a political dimension to this that I am forced to consider. When the two major parties argue about how to continue using coal and whether to expand out natural gas recover via fracking, then it is time for a better solution. ‘

    That is what turned me into a Green. If Greens ever find some to carry their message with the rhetorical skill of Obama, then we will begin to make changes. It is unfortunate that we have not yet found the person to do that, in particular not the past 3 candidates for POTUS.

    Green goal are the right ones, but people keep continue to repeat, I like the idea but I have to keep voting someone else because you Greens can’t win.

    I have not given up, and neither should Romm with his message nor Hansen with his.

  24. David B. Benson says:

    Tim L. (17) — :P

  25. Carter says:

    A+ for special effects. But like a lot of science fiction, it makes its own rules, many of which are not in keeping with biology and physics as we know them. How can natural selection produce trees with which you can communicate? How can masses of land float in the sky, while gravity pulls on things that are on them? It was all a fun fantasy, but inapplicable to our time and planet. So any environmental message applies only to the planet and the physics and chemistry and biology imagined in the film.

    It is too easy for a viewer to separate the environment in the film from the environment here on Earth. So my conclusion is that it is not an effective film as far as any environmental message goes.

  26. Wit's End says:

    Wes, check out the new coffee party and weigh in!
    http://coffeepartyusa.com/content/climate-change

  27. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    villabolo and mike roddy at 19 and 20. Good points. I hadn’t considered the perspective of the impact on teens. Star Wars made an indelible impression on me. I still would have turned to the sciences without that movie, I think, but xenobiology became my big passion after that. Unfortunately we still haven’t found extraterrestrial life so I have to bide my time waiting for that discovery which will be my moment to shine. :)

    Maybe the real value of Avatar won’t be seen till the current generation takes their turn running the world, and it may be the movie that inspires some people to make great changes.

    GFW (10). I was thinking in terms of movies, but you’re quite right in that short stories regarding avatars have been around for a while. Asimov had at least one (consciousness transferred into android/robot bodies). I think I read that Anderson story way back–my recollection of it was that their actual bodies were transformed, and those who went out didn’t come back because their bodies and minds were so superior they couldn’t bear to go back to a sluggish foggy mind and soft body (one military guy does go back through a sense of duty, and says living in his human body is like living as a mental and physical cripple). It was long ago so maybe even a different story altogether.

    And agree re: P. Anthony. Cool clever ideas…and then beaten to death over the course of the many sequels (e.g. Xanth. His later books ripped off Martin Gardner’s math puzzle books for half the subplots, and then had bad puns constitute the rest of the plots. It wasn’t about the plot so much as how to tie in all those puns and Gardner puzzles into one book to justify writing about more naked people–And I don’t want to get started on Firefly*).

    *not referring to Whedon’s tv series so no flaming me please! :)

  28. risa bear says:

    “1000 to 0″?

    Well, there’s Little Big Horn, though it could be argued the locals had acquired better tech than the invaders (Henry rifles versus Spencer carbines). And the Khyber Pass, where the British took a drubbing, and also that one really nasty wipe-out by the Zulus (this was the British version of Big Horn). The Nez Perce won all the fights in their war against Uncle Sam but the last one, and it could be argued that only cold and hunger brought them to the standstill that let the army catch up to them. Vietnam and Afghanistan also come to mind. And, does Cuba count? Hmm.

    BTW, the Colonel’s air tactics were so poor that he pretty much got what was coming to him, all moral considerations aside. But if he had chosen more effective measures, we wouldn’t have the story we wanted to see, would we? ;)

  29. wag says:

    Avatar was an awesome movie. It was not a great movie.

  30. Avatar and 2010 both are responsible for spreading rumor that on 23rd dec 2012 ,earth may face judgment day .Dont be panic ,use your brain.

  31. TomG says:

    We have met the enemy and he is us.
    That is what the movie Avatar says to me.

  32. Dan B says:

    Lots of great posts here!

    Where were you when I stood in line? Where were your leaflets explaining your critiques and cudoes?

    Many movements have organized effectively around popular culture, particularly life influencing events. Avatar is one. Why did the environmental movement stick up their noses against one of the most popular events of the decade?

    Do we want to experience mass cultural suicide because we’re “so much better”?

  33. Wonhyo says:

    I think to call Avatar an “anti-technology” movie is overly simplistic, in the same way that describing a dichotomy of pro- vs. anti-technology climate solutions is overly simplistic.

    As the effects of the climate change already in the pipeline take hold, I question whether further technology development will even be possible. If everyone is struggling to get their share of a shrinking food and water supply, at the same time they are migrating to escape the worst effects of habitat change (dust bowls and deluges), will we even have a viable industrial base for technology advancement?

  34. Sou says:

    It was the first 3D film I’ve seen and the first IMAX film I’ve seen. I enjoyed it very much, particularly the visuals. After the film I commented that it was a bit like opera – fantastic visuals and good music, corny plot, but good fun for all that. And I’d see it again. The imagery has lingered longer than many films I’ve seen – not that I go to films much :D

    The transformer-style toys made me think it was definitely pitched for the younger audience. I expect the eco message might seep into the collective unconscious with the help of this film.

    BTW – I don’t understand anyone who could relate to the ‘bad guys’. Where does that come from? Is it a USA thing?

  35. prokaryote says:

    Thanks Bobby, very good podcast.

  36. jcwinnie says:

    Call it foreshadowing, the lack of acclaim when in 2008 Washington Theater gave us a flawed Jake Sully character: “It won’t be easy, but it is time to ask the American people to be patriotic about something other than war.” John Edwards

  37. Paul Ray says:

    To those who object to the simplicities of plot and characterization, the simple fact is that the movie was not aimed at you. When you have a movie as expensive as this, he’s forced to aim as wide as possible, and that means not the typical reader of this website, but a teenage audience, a science-illiterate audience, and a worldwide audience, the vast majority of whom would not ‘get’ the American, or Western European, educated-audience cultural cues you want. Obviousness satisfies the common people.

    And this is a superb visual experience. Period. That plus subliminal archetypal themes is what will have the most impact over the next decade.

    Instead of carping, think of this as a demonstration project for new movie making technology. Imagine what we could do with this movie technology for showing a desirable, feasible, ecologically sustainable world! We actually need to acknowledge that a fear-based appeal is not going to work for what we see, but that we need a positive attractor. This movie making technology could give us that.

  38. Richard Brenne says:

    I want to send “Avatar” to the moon so it can be seen by any and all future visitors when we make Earth into another Venus. No real point here but just to play with the vistors’ heads (assuming they have heads) and leave them wondering if it was the pale white or blue people who destroyed the moon’s planet. Plus they’ll think everything in Avatar was real and that is one serious interstellar practical joke.

  39. Jade in San Francisco says:

    I’m sorry to say this Joe but film analysis is not your strong suit. You stated that

    “if it were going to be a genuine movement eco-movie, I think it would have to offer a direct critique of our unsustainable lifestyle, which it does not.”

    This is not true. Avatar offers a direct critique of our unsustainable lifestyle several times. In one of Jake Sully’s video logs he says something along the lines of

    “They’re not going to give up their home. They’re not going to make a deal. Pfff for what? A light beer and blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want.” An overt critique on modern consumerism.

    There’s the obvious reference to unsustainable resource wars in calling the rock that they sky people are looking for unobtainium. The unrestrained urge to satisfy our rapacious desire for the unobtainable, at the expense of the environment. In one of the films scene’s Giovanni Ribisi’s character Parker Selfridge, (sounds like selfish) and Sigourney Weaver’s character, Dr. Grace Augustine, have an interesting exchange of words in which Selfridge says

    “This is why we’re here… because this little grey rock sells for 20 million a kilo. They’re village happens to be resting on the richest deposit and they need to relocate.” The fact that a character in a major motion picture said this, was in and of itself a thinly veiled criticism of our unsustainable lifestyle. Joe there is a tool that talented auteur filmmakers use to get across certain points without stating the obvious. It’s called visual subtext. Avatar is littered with modern social critiques that are brilliantly woven into the visual subtext.

    Hell Joe the whole plot line is a criticism of our unsustainable lifestyle. By simply telling the story, James Cameron manages to simultaneously offer a critique, as well as a solution. Joe you might want to watch it again. This time in IMAX 3D!