Monday, December 21, 2009
Avatar: A Critical Assessment
As you may have noticed, I did not include a rating for Avatar. This is not because I have no opinion about the film, or that it has no aesthetic value. The reason that I did not rate the film is that I could not in good conscious give a single star to the most offensive movie of the decade.
Going into Avatar, I knew almost nothing about the plot. I had heard that it was an anti-war allegory about the invasion of Iraq. While this didn't bother me (in no small part since I did not support the invasion of Iraq), I expected a heavy handed political message. Unsurprisingly, we find out early in the movie that a corporation, which most certainly represents the American military industrial complex, has invaded a foreign planet in order to obtain unobtainium, a precious metal. At this point I half expected a flashing disclaimer on the screen reminding us that "It's a metaphor." So that was it, I thought. An allegory about the Iraq war. Nothing remarkable. However, it soon became obvious that the allegory was not simply about the Iraq War.
The colonized Na'vi are clearly patterned after indigenous North Americans. Had this been a movie about some of the atrocities that occurred during the colonization of North America, I could have sympathised. What makes Avatar truly insidious is it's ahistorical nature. Rather than portraying a specific instance in a Western society had wronged an indigenous population, the film created an embodiment of every Western stereotype imaginable. The futuristic corporation was a staffed by soldiers that represented the American military industrial complex, who were engaging in colonialism to exploit resources with the zeal of SS operatives. There is not one human character that elicits the least bit of sympathy without entirely rejecting Western civilization. By creating a melange of all these stereotypes, the film erased the notion of Western moral progress. Unlike Dances With Wolves, which focuses on a particular historical event, Avatar creates the impression that colonialism is endemic to Western culture. It paints Western cultures as universally rapacious, insensitive, and dependant on soul destroying technology.
The irony, of course, is that the movie was released by 20th Century Fox, and consumed between $300-500 million dollars, spent mostly on the most lavish display of technological prowess in the history of Western cinema. Using this technology, the film glorifies pseudoscience and a rejection of materialism. Many critics who dislike the message of the film were willing to overlook this since they see Avatar as an important advance in motion picture technology. In this respect, the critics are correct. But surely these same critics should be alarmed that a film that contains a full scale rejection of Western civilization could be so universally praised. Perhaps what insulates Avatar from criticism is that it is not offensive to any specific group. Many critics were offended by the Passion, since it was considered offensive to Jewish people. Of course, it is easy for critics to stand up for marginalized groups. It seems that they are willing to put up with all manners of intolerance, but only when equally applied. Only universal Western self-loathing will do.
*This was orignially posted on my film blog, which can be found here.