Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Primitive Doesn’t Come Cheap: A Few Thoughts on Avatar

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

In a fractious world, it is always nice to see a consensus emerge…even if it only concerns a blockbuster film. James Cameron’s much discussed Avatar has received pretty uniform reviews: great special effects (floating mountains!) and solid action sequences (a giant burning tree falls!) are balanced by a hopelessly derivative plot (Pocahontas in outer space) and a risible utopian ideology (primitive society=good/technological society=bad). The fact that most film critics (hardly a theologically orthodox bunch) seem to have been unimpressed with the movie’s shallow philosophizing was especially heartening: it was a small victory for common sense in the public square.
I would add only two points to the emerging consensus. Both of them are rich ironies lodged in the very heart of Cameron’s utopian vision. First, Cameron makes his case for the superiority of a natural, non-technological culture by using the highest of high-tech paraphernalia. The planet Pandora (Cameron is no Tolkien when it comes to name creation) is stunning to look at, but it is just an illusion; a digitized paradise that is lost the moment the projector turns off. A longing for Eden is natural enough, but we can’t simply wish ourselves back there, no matter what our CGI budget might be. There is a reason the Bible never provides a map back to the Garden. The way to God’s presence lies forward, not back.
The second point concerns Cameron’s relentless assault on capitalism, and especially on what used to be known in radical circles as “the military-industrial complex”. There is nothing particularly complex about Avatar’s portrayal of business – or at least the dirty business of obtaining Pandora’ s prize, the floating substance unobtanium (sic). Gargantuan tractors chew up most of Pandora’s flora, while military machines napalm the rest. As the remorseless capitalists firebomb the virgin forest, our hearts are meant to burn with vaguely Marxist rage.
The problem with this, though, is that Avatar cost anywhere from 250-500 million dollars to make, and I presume Cameron did not borrow the money from friends or hold an Avatar bakesale to fund the project. No, he is enmeshed in one of the most ruthlessly capitalist industries this side of Pandora, the Hollywood film machine. Consider among many angles on this Fox’ sly strategy to maximize Avatar’s profitability:
“Fox is also reportedly catching a break on the marketing side through deals with companies such as IMAX and Panasonic. And then there's also the chipmunk factor -- specifically Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel,, which opens a week after Avatar for the studio and is considered a ‘relatively safe sequel to a chipper family comedy that cost about $60 million and took in $217 million at the domestic box office when it was released two years ago.’ Thanks for the solid, Alvin!” (Scott Cellura, “How Much did Avatar Cost?”
So if you want an interesting night out at the cinema, you can go ahead and see Avatar (Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel will by most accounts prove a bit disappointing). But if you want any substance, don’t turn to Cameron; you will only find yourself enmeshed in a thicket of self-contradiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment