Sunday, January 3, 2010

Could Avatar be the beginning of the end for the Bush Doctrine?

The world looks back - a key image from Avatar.

Whenever you think pop cinema is finally dead, it suddenly shows signs of life. One such green shoot is Avatar, James Cameron's first "film" (note the quotes - it's all digital) since his blockbuster-to-end-all-blockbusters, Titanic, a dozen years ago. Like most Americans with a few dollars in their pockets, I caught the movie over the holidays - in 3-D, no less. And I'm here to tell you, in case you've been living under a rock, that yes, Avatar is the first pop phenomenon to deliver on its promises since The Lord of the Rings, and if it doesn't actually surpass the grosses of Titanic, it will certainly reach second place in the global box office sweepstakes.

And if you're holding back from seeing it, change your mind. Yes, the dialogue is weak in spots, the cinematic elements are familiar from other Cameron films, and the plot is cribbed from Dances with Wolves, not to mention Conrad and Melville - although the basic concepts of the movie's predecessors have been updated for our networked age. But the sense of immersion in an imagined world is far greater in this picture than in anything that has come before (even if, perhaps, the digital characters aren't quite as convincing as Gollum was in LOTR), and the storyline is an old one because it's a compelling one. I promise you, for the central hour in which the hero of Avatar learns the ways of the bright-blue Na'vi, and gets acquainted with their exotic world, you will be utterly absorbed in Cameron's vision in a way that's simply primal. Indeed, the pop-cultural concept of "jungle" has probably never gotten the thrilling workout the re-crowned king of the pop world gives it here.

What's most surprising about Avatar, however, is not its technical achievement, but its political edge; this isn't so much Dancing with Wolves as Dancing with Iraq. Indeed, Cameron stealthily seduces the mass audience into complete identification with "the indigenous," as it were, and utterly objectifies the greedy, technological "sky people" (that would be us, the United States of America) trying to rape their world. The director's maneuvers are so smooth, in fact, that the crowd I saw the picture with only awoke to its real-world dimensions late in the game; when one gonzo jarhead growled that he was planning a little "shock and awe" to "fight terror with terror," someone in my row murmured "Ouch!," and there were audible gasps across the theatre.

That moment to me was almost as exciting as the scene with the giant pterodactyl-thingy. It's very heartening to feel pop culture begin to shake off the Cheney-esque chains of The Dark Knight and its ilk. Begone, Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino, and welcome, James Cameron and Peter Jackson! American pop culture (particularly science fiction) has a tradition of openly questioning our prejudices and failures - and boy, have we been failing of late. Luckily, movies like Wall-E and District 9 have begun popping up to show us the error of our ways. What's startling about the Avatar phenomenon is that audiences seem to be perceiving its political argument accurately (how could they miss it), and accepting its critique, albeit with some disgruntlement. Surprisingly, a few supposedly-liberal voices have been most upset by it - the Globe's Ty Burr, for instance, fumed that "Squint at Avatar the wrong way and it starts to look like a training film for jihad - not, I’m guessing, what Cameron had in mind." (The Globe wrung its hands again over the movie's global politics here.)

So we're faced with yet another threat to our way of life - a global blockbuster with a global perspective! Up with this we cannot put.

But is Avatar really a valentine to John Walker Lindh, as the Globe would have it? Or is it simply a wake-up call to the U.S. audience, a demand that we see ourselves as others see us? ("I see you" is one of the movie's central tropes.) However dumb the script of Avatar may sometimes be, and however romanticized its vision of "the indigenous," surely it isn't nearly as dumb and romanticized as our ongoing self-deceptions have been since 9/11. And perhaps (I hope) in that unconscious "Ouch!," I heard what could prove to be the beginning of the end of the Bush Doctrine.

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