Avatar is a bad film.
Not because it lacks any meaningful character development (which it does), not because its plot is laughably flimsy (which it is), and not because it is little more than a big-budget remake of FernGully, but because it is yet another example of b-grade Hollywood moralizing, of not very smart people with typically superficial good intentions offering Americans an insidiously shallow civics lesson along with their 64-oz Cokes and shrink-wrapped boxes of Butterfinger Minis.
American audiences have long preferred to buy their cultural sensitivity on the cheap, and Avatar is no exception here. Cinema regularly lures its viewers into an empty sense of mea culpa by safely buffering any requisite admission of guilt with the distantiation of history, of fairy tales, or of good old fashioned exaggeration. Our collective sins are pointed out for us in a way that doesn’t demand we see those same sins in ourselves. In any theatrical contest between Good and Evil, ticket sales will only ever cover production costs if while being asked to root against our own image we’re allowed to remain reasonably convinced of the implausibility that we ourselves could ever individually be as evil as these representations suggest.
It’s the uncanny valley of morality.
This is why we were all supposed to feel a little bit better about ourselves after watching Crash, because even though the film’s white antagonists didn’t drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag bumper stickers but lived in McMansions and kept hired maids and drank Starbucks and drove BMWs and looked generally indistinguishable from well-to-do liberal types just like us, their racism was so exaggerated and unsympathetic that we could condemn ourselves without any of the uncomfortable consequences of actually condemning ourselves. Then we all patted ourselves on the back and congratulated each other on how far we’ve come by handing this lousy film the Best Picture award. In an age when a political activist is someone who tints his Twitter avatar green, this Oscar was our Emancipation Proclamation.
This is why when watching The Last of the Mohicans we rooted for an indigenous culture that we ourselves had once oppressed as we watched them be subjugated by white colonizers we call our forefathers, since despite our shared lineage with the bad guys we can comfortably cast judgment because theirs were historical sins for which we’ve long since apologized with national monuments and Congressional resolutions, and because the indigenous culture in question has already been so decimated and so quarantined by poverty and desert reservations as to no longer pose any ongoing challenges to our national interest.
And this is why we cheered on a bunch of dwarves and elves and talking trees, because the two white guys oppressing them commanded an army of orcs instead of Blackwater personnel.
In the case of Avatar the bad guys again look just like we do, they wield the mighty hammer of the military-industrial complex just like we do, and they speak the language of colonialism just like we do. Yet in a country where anything short of full-throated support of the military is verboten we’re exonerated for rooting against these former Marines because they’re conquering a make-believe planet populated with make-believe aliens in a make-believe time. We’re allowed to cheer for this oppressed people because the missile strikes come from futuristic gunships and not from Predator drones. And we can safely criticize this fictional military because it takes its cues directly from its heartless capitalist overlords, while ours only takes its heartlessly capitalistic cues through the more familiar proxy of a popularly elected commander in chief.
As with any other case study in the ever-cheapening cinematic pedagogy of morality, it speaks volumes about the contemporary American audience that James Cameron had to spend fifteen years and $300 million inventing a race of people and the necessary technology to tell a story that could have just as easily been told with a handheld camera and a flight to the Ecuadorian rainforest—albeit one that wouldn’t have sold any tickets if it had.
And now millions of Americans get to go home and take comfort in the fact that while our empire may have its flaws and our military may be regularly dispatched to conquer “savages” who made the tragic mistake of establishing their homeland on top of massive deposits of natural resource, well, hey, at least we’ve never blown up a bunch of adorable purple aliens.
Pay no attention to this review. Avatar rocked the casbah! I’m going back.