AVATAR IS a visually stunning marvel of film technology, as many reviewers will tell you, but what really stands out in James Cameron’s newest film is its unabashed critique of corporate greed and its inspiring tale of solidarity and resistance against occupation.
Set on a distant planet called Pandora, Avatar re-enacts the genocide of indigenous populations by colonial capitalism, and links this history to the rapacious resource wars of our own times. The film is not a moralistic wringing of hands that relies on “white-guilt fantasies” as some commentators have claimed; rather, it is an uncompromising defense of the principle of self-determination and the right to resist exploitation and plunder.
Listing some of Cameron’s blockbuster films–The Abyss, Aliens, the Terminator films and The Titanic–is enough to remind us that we are dealing with a master of visual effects technology. Fans of his earlier work won’t be disappointed with Avatar‘s special effects–the 3-D version in particular is a breathtaking experience. As the New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis writes:
Avatar, written and directed by James Cameron, starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang.
This isn’t the 3-D of the 1950s or even contemporary films, those flicks that try to give you a virtual poke in the eye with flying spears. Rather, Mr. Cameron uses 3-D to amplify the immersive experience of spectacle cinema…After a few minutes the novelty of people and objects hovering above the row in front of you wears off, and you tend not to notice the 3-D, which speaks to the subtlety of its use…
Similarly, we find ourselves dazzled by the brilliantly rendered planet of Pandora, replete with bioluminescent flora and fauna, ethereal floating mountains and touch-me-nots that look like giant seashells. All of this, no doubt, represents advances in special effects not seen since the Wachowski brothers invented “Bullet Time” for The Matrix, and Peter Jackson brought Gollum to life in The Lord of the Rings. Only the most jaded and cynical of moviegoers would deny Cameron’s accomplishments in this area.
HOWEVER, FOR all the gushing praise that Cameron has received from critics for the film’s technological accomplishments, reviewers have been less enthusiastic about Avatar‘s political message. Some of them seem to be so dazzled by the spectacle that they don’t even notice its ideological significance.
In the New York Times, Ross Douthat dismisses it as a “long apologia for pantheism–a faith that equates God with Nature.” Similarly, while Dargis’ review acknowledges the film’s “anti-corporate message,” she seems unmoved by its uncompromising anti-imperialist message.
On the other hand, left-wing critics have panned the film’s politics for its director’s “banal and conformist outlook” (David Walsh’s review at wsws.org) and as “a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people” (Annalee Newitz’s much-circulated post for the sci-fi Web site io9.com).
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