Cultural Supplement: Film Review: “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker”

These movie reviews introduce the Cultural Supplement to the issues of “Notes & Commentaries”. The link can be found here:

Two ‘political’ movies have drawn much attention lately, both for their supposed progressive political content as well as for their spectacular effects. In particular the first movie, “Avatar”, has drawn the eye, as it is the first blockbuster production using the latest 3D film technology and has been designed to maximally exploit this technology for its effects. The director, the Canadian James Cameron, had before had much financial success with “Titanic”, which became the best selling movie in terms of box office results of all time. Now he has done it again with “Avatar”, surpassing even his own record. The movie has been nominated besides for a significant number of Academy Awards, the American film prizes considered by the general public to be the most prestigious or at least important within the medium – although only one is reserved for the entire range of all films not originally in English, limiting its real meaning. This is all the more remarkable because many people have interpreted the message of “Avatar” to be an anti-imperialist and anticorporate one.

What then is there to “Avatar”? It must be said, upon viewing, that the effects are indeed spectacular. It is easily understood why this would be, if one considers the plot, or what passes for one. To quote one useful summary found on the Internet Movie Database:

“When his brother is killed in a robbery, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge’s intentions of driving off the native humanoid “Na’vi” in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch, while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na’vi people with the use of an “avatar” identity. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri, the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand – and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora.”

The movie, based on this shoddy and traditional premise, basically follows two tracks. On the one hand, it seeks to overwhelm the viewer by immersing him entirely in the beautiful science-fiction world it has set up. The 3D technology is used to maximum effect to depict the many falling, running, gliding and flying scenes, both on the (appropriately cyberpunk) military-corporate base itself and on the lush and fantastic green world of Pandora, which more than anything resembles a Vernean ‘Lost World’. Moreover, the tribal people itself, the Na’vi, and their ecological surroundings have been worked out in quite surprising detail for a mainstream Hollywood film production. A linguist was hired to develop a realistic Na’vi language and the plants and animals of the fantastic world have been designed with an eye to evolutionary biology. Since the handicapped Marine protagonist, Jake Sully, only interacts with the Na’vi world through assuming control over a genetic Na’vi dummy rather than using his own body, issues such as lack of oxygen and immune system reactions are dispensed with. It would be easy to understate the spectacular effects achieved by immersing the cinema viewer in this world, which has cost the astounding sum of $400 million to make.

The other track, however, is where this movie’s great visual buildup completely collapses. The plot itself is an abomination, and no amount of faux progressive posturing can change this. Every single character is a complete cardboard figure; all dialogue proceeds according to Hollywood cliché and plot-functional stereotype; not a single person has normal, human or recognizable reactions to any circumstance. The overall structure of the plot is so completely a paint-by-numbers generic ‘tough hero finds rest in virtuous native world’, that it not only makes the impression of having been written on a napkin during an evening in the local pub, but that it is positively offensive to any real analysis of the interaction between tribal and traditionalist peoples and capitalist expansion. The very mineral that is being sought after by the utterly generic evil corporation is called “unobtainium”, as if to make a mockery of any attempt on the part of the viewer to actually be involved with the story at all.

Its anti-imperialist message is done so poorly that it actually manages to achieve the opposite effect of that intended. Not only is it completely ridiculous to leave an anti-technological message in a movie which uses the latest techniques and costs more through high tech production than many a real-life corporation can afford on R&D, but the Na’vi themselves are such stock Noble Savages that one cannot help but feel sympathy for the equally two-dimensional Marine colonel who simply wants to blow these sugary sweet elflings out of the way. What’s more, when one thinks about it, the Na’vi themselves aren’t and cannot be quite as noble as they are portrayed. To go anywhere within their forest environment, it is necessary to learn to ride animals and to leap long distances from one spot to another, and to be initiated as an adult (a hunter specifically, but we see no other classes), it is necessary to pass a number of gruelling physical and mental tests pitting one against the embodied forces of Nature. Needless to say, this is something that would not be possible for any person actually handicapped like Jake Sully is back in his own world. One is left to assume that while in the Na’vi world, a fierce and cruel eugenics system must weed out at least the physically frail and damaged, in the human world, someone like Jake Sully still gets a chance at a purpose in life even though his legs have been amputated. Clearly, score one for the humans! Another unintended effect is that of the high religiosity of the Na’vi. They are full of worship for the divine spirit that pervades all of nature, in a fairly sympathetic though enormously simplistic and whitewashed animist manner. It is suggested within the movie that because of ‘special biochemical connections’ between the organisms of the planet, their religious views are actually correct – something so preposterous that one again can’t help but feel sympathy for the generic Corporation Manager when he bursts out laughing in response. Be that as it may, they do everything according to their religious beliefs, actively reject any attempts to provide scientific education, and equally refuse to coexist with the human presence. Within the tribe, all is arranged by the fiat of a male chieftain and a high priestess, positions that seem to be hereditary. In other words, taking their culture and their politics, such as they are, into account, the Na’vi appear as a group intended to be seen as the Noble Savage, but in reality appear as an idealized mixture between the Spartans and the Taliban.

In the end, the evil corporation is defeated, though at the cost of many lives among the tribal peoples. When all seems lost, Nature herself intervenes and sends (biochemically?) groups of birds and animals against the mercenaries hired by the company. Somehow, this manages to defeat them, despite their technological superiority (which is apparently not just an evil thing to have, but also totally ineffective). Despite this uplifting result, it is extraordinarily difficult to take this movie seriously as an anticapitalist or anti-imperialist production. Aside from the mentioned issues, there is no understanding whatever of what a real interaction between two such forces would be like. A more realistic and nuanced approach, for example, would have the corporation buy up a number of Na’vi with its greater wealth and arms, as well as having some Na’vi support the foreigners to rid themselves of their backwards theocratic rule. These ‘new Na’vi’ would then be installed as legitimate rulers by the company and its mercenaries, so that they can make treaty with them. Most likely, the Na’vi would be forcibly moved off the mineral-rich land to some worthless land elsewhere, where they would fall into civil war and destitution. Most Na’vi will eventually end up moving to the human world or working at the company’s Pandora stations. But such historically sensible analysis is completely alien to James Cameron’s vision, because it requires any intellectual effort whatsoever and it would set people to seriously think about the real capitalist dynamic in history, rather than providing a brief flash of ‘feel good’ sentiment about the virtuous natives which is then promptly forgotten as everyone leaves the cinema to jump in their cars or buy some extra popcorn. As it is, “Avatar” is a great lesson in how not to do ‘progressive’ movie-making.

The Hurt Locker
The other major ‘political’ movie of the moment is “The Hurt Locker”, a movie depicting the trials and tribulations of a US Army bomb disassembly squad in occupied Iraq. Here the plot is, if possible, even simpler: the squad gets a new team leader, a veteran of the Afghan wars with a case of post-traumatic stress disorder and a tendency to not follow any rules or procedure, causing just as much stress with his two squad mates. They have to manage to survive the last two months or so in Iraq with this antisocial adventurer, while we see from his perspective how he desperately tries in some way to relate to other people and maintain some degree of human relationships, although all attempts are eventually frustrated. When he befriends an Iraqi boy selling DVDs to foreign soldiers, the boy is murdered as a collaborator; when he attempts to look after a squad member who has difficulty coping with the stress, he later ends up accidentally injuring him. The movie ends unresolved, with the still traumatic squad leader deciding to re-volunteer for Iraq, not finding any peace of mind elsewhere.

So far, this is decent enough material. It subverts the old Hollywood concept of the “unorthodox rule-breaker who Gets Things Done” to some degree. It shows some scenes between the soldiers of the squad which do not neurotically avoid the necessarily homo-erotic, or at least homosocial, undertones, and what’s more, it’s made by a female director, which is a great rarity among larger Hollywood productions. Nonetheless the movie is severely flawed. Its problem is that it attempts both to be realistic and to have an engaging plot, but it cannot do both at once. If it wanted to be realistic, the squad leader (named Will James) would have been either disciplined or dead within a week for going over the line as often as he does, and there would be no story. To maintain the storyline and the tension between the characters, itself well-executed, the director Kathryn Bigelow has been forced to severely curtail the ‘realistic’ aspect, letting James get away with vastly more than he ever would and even having him praised by idiot superiors for it. Moreover, it requires also this squad to operate remarkably on its own, often in highly dangerous situations, with just three men and not receiving any land or air support. This is unlikely to say the least, and would make them easy targets in reality. Bigelow may be said to have realistically portrayed Iraq as such, with its groups of unintelligibly staring men, its sudden explosions, its endless heat and dust and its remarkable ugliness – all this when seen from the Western eye, of course. The scriptwriter, Mark Boal, has also done well in taking a slow pace with the action, not filling up the silence too much with dialogue, and keeping what dialogue there is serious and to the point. (I do not see much reason to share in the odd tendency of movie reviewers to credit every single aspect of a movie to its director, as if there are no scriptwriters.)

It remains of course a movie seen from Western eyes, and it is studiously noncommittal as to the correctness of the occupation as such. At most one could get the impression of its supposed futility, although whether that is correct is another matter. But that is acceptable enough if it manages to portray realism from the perspective of the soldiers with a compelling character portrait, as succeeded to some degree in the much-lauded television series “Generation Kill”. As it is, the movie however fails entirely to ‘stand on two legs’, and rather hops back and forth between realism and dramatic tension. It does not make the movie a bad movie, but it prevents it from becoming a good one.


“It remains of course a movie seen from Western eyes, and it is studiously noncommittal as to the correctness of the occupation as such.”

I don’t understand why this is a problem. The film takes place through the eyes of Western soldiers for a Western audience. And the groups of unintelligible staring men are not objectified. The audience simply experiences the internalization of the fear of being observed by a faceless enemy who wants to kill you.

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