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By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 12 JANUARY 2010 — I felt increasingly uncomfortable as I watched James Cameron’s vastly expensive, exhaustively-gestated film Avatar. It wasn’t to do with the astronomical budget and light-years-long production, nor the result of my recently sprained back (although the length of the film, on top of a full 45 minutes of previews and adverts, didn’t help that either).

It wasn’t the general sense of being sucked involuntarily into a thrilling adventure with some impressive special effects, which works well on a superficial level and had my 10-year-old son and his friends instantly clamouring for a fresh viewing. 

It wasn’t even primarily the consequence of the enormous and excessive marketing and merchandising hype, making it impossible for anyone who walks around town, watches television or reads a newspaper to be unaware of those strange white blotched, be-tailed and blue-skinned giant humanoid Navi with distorted faces who dominate the film.

Zoe Saldan as Neytiri in Avatar
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

My main concern, as the epic dragged on ineluctably towards its ever more predictable conclusion, was the underlying message. The good aspect, I suppose, was the righteous, politically correct theme: that evil, unethical, capitalist man in the ruthless pursuit of natural resources is destroying both his own environment and the traditional peoples who live in harmony with it. A bit of anti-imperial, pro-nature propaganda is no bad thing.

But it’s a convenient cop-out to transfer the story to an exotic far-flung planet in the distant future, with much of the action played out by Avatar surrogates. It cowardly avoids any too-direct and sensitive parallels with our own present and all-too-Earth-bound, human-driven dilemma. Such a film closer to home might involve a few more shades of grey rather than stark monotone Navi blue. Despite the 3D vision, the characters and plot in Avatar rarely rise above 1D.

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in Avatar
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The distance from our own reality also allows an easier transition to implausibly corny extremes, as we are initiated into a Gaia-like religion that manifests itself through glowing white aerial tree-roots. Its anthropomorphic name, incidentally, is the goddess Eywa — intriguingly close to the Arabic word for "yes."

Equally stretching the credibility limits of the known universe are the Navi themselves, whose telepathic-like communication with the wild animals they tame requires the temporary entanglement of the mass of mini-roots on the ends of their pony-tails to equivalents on the poor animals they tame.

Stephen Lang as Col. Quaritch with Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in Avatar
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

But the really depressing aspect of the whole saga is still more fundamental. The Navi may be tall, strong, nimble, eco-savvy and intelligent (for the sake of our human "heroes," some even conveniently speak English). But the plot inevitably requires an American Earthling (or rather his virtual avatar) to come to the rescue, taking charge of his new-found exotic friends in order to save them.

And, still worse, their only defence, inevitably, is violence. Used in the hands of the righteous, it seems, the laws of Hollywood are indeed universal: aggression delivers. Subtlety, cunning, humour, negotiation, trickery, or even a gentle application of force are apparently not in the toolbox of this latest creation that requires the usual deployment of serious firepower, most of it apparently hardly updated since Vietnam let alone Iraq.

Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch in Avatar 
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Despite the inter-galactic travel, in that sense Avatar dovetails closely with our modern era, when pimply CIA and U.S. Army hirelings operate joystick-controlled drones that kill real people in Pakistan, while their own inconveniences are limited to the level of air conditioning or the extent of available popcorn.

Nevertheless, there are some upsides, and more positive messages, too. After all, our hero Jake Sully is a marine who breaks free of his military bonds and conventions to switch sides and support the just.

Furthermore, he is played as a paraplegic — albeit within limits (Sam Worthington, the actor is able bodied, and he really comes into his own as his able-bodied avatar).

Sigourney Weaver does a great job in surpassing her Alien moment, as a tough but righteous scientist who defiantly smokes cigarettes (an act that is presumably now all but illegal on screen, except perhaps in a parallel, avatar-dominated solar system?). 

A scene from James Cameron's sci-fi thriller Avatar
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

A modest, but rather unsubtle, Cameron clin d’oeil to Apocalypse Now has Stephen Lang as the evil human colonel playing a touch of the Valkyries as he goes for the Navi kill. 

If other characters also fail to move even into 2D, there are nonetheless some impressive 3D effects. You swoop with the protagonists off cliffs and bound across vertiginous forest tree-top branches. Personally, I found some of the 3D adverts that preceded the film itself were more striking.

There again, by popular child pressure, we are off to see it again shortly.

Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial Times and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of and last wrote Why Can't You Get a Decent Coffee in New York?

Headline photo: A scene from James Cameron sci-fi epic Avatar
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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