Mark Greene reviews Avatar, the 3D movie leading cinema’s fightback against widescreen TV

Few films have been more widely anticipated; very few films have had such lavish budgets and no film is steaming so inexorably towards outstripping James Cameron’s previous film, Titanic, as the biggest moneyspinner of all time. Still, the interest in Avatar is not confined to the usual suspects of earnings and awards. Indeed, this green sci-fi tale of blue aliens fighting for freedom and beauty and the interconnectedness of all things against the invasion of earthlings ravaging their planet has drawn commentary from American neoconservatives, British left-wing activists, the Chinese government, art historians and even a film critic or two.

In the beginning, interest in Avatar focused round its innovative 3D technology. For some, the stunning immersive impact of the technology is the story, precisely because it’s so smoothly used you hardly notice it. Only occasionally does an arrow or a fish zoom towards you on a seemingly inevitable collision course. No, Cameron’s goal was not so much to make you aware of his technical virtuosity but to use it so artfully that you forget the 3D glasses and just enjoy the experience. As he put it: ‘All of the technology should wave its own magic wand and make itself disappear.’ On the whole he has succeeded. This may or may not be the future of film but it is certainly the future of a certain type of film. 3D would hardly enhance a film like It’s Complicated or Up in the Air but it sure can do something splendid for an action film, a storm at sea or a ball in Jane Austen.

We are one step closer to Aldous Huxley’s vision of ‘the Feelies’ in Brave New World – an entertainment experience that increasingly mimics the sensory range of reality. Yesterday we looked on. Today it feels like we are there. Tomorrow, we may well feel the ground beneath our feet and the breeze wisping our hair. The day after tomorrow we may well smell the fragrance of the flowers. For cinema this is good news, because for the next decade at least the 3D experience is one that will be very hard to get close to on a home cinema or a Plasma screen, even one twice the width of Kansas.

Politically and theologically the film lands just the right side of propaganda. Its points may not be original, but when it’s making them to more people than any previous movie of the 21st century, the media and politicians pay rather more attention than they might to a gem from the Coen Brothers. Nature on Cameron’s planet Pandora is an essentially benign maternal power – a mother who can be prayed to and with whom all living things are connected. This pagan worldview is entirely in sync with the gospel according to Disney’s Pocahontas and The Lion King – all creatures are to be respected for the role they fulfil in the ecosystem – the Circle of Life lives on. As does the clear connection between human evil and environmental degradation. Just as Scar’s misrule leads to famine in the Pridelands, so here does human greed lead to devastation on Pandora.

It’s an observation of cause and effect that finds confirmation from Genesis through Deuteronomy to Paul. Indeed, as Romans 8:19-21 makes clear, all creation has been groaning, awaiting the return of the one who will renew it and resurrect all those who call him Lord. Surely, in our own age, the groans have turned to wails of agony.

Avatar’s clear environmental warning has its roots in the New Age not the New Testament. ‘They (we earthlings) killed their mother.’ However, in Avatar, the planet’s Mother rises up in decisive rage against the machines and brings about the expulsion of the miners and the soldiers who protect them from this ‘Eden’. Beyond that, Cameron’s tale has a plethora of resonances with Western civilisation’s murderous destruction of whole nations in pursuit of wealth. It is not just that the Na’vi, elegant elf-eared svelte supermodels with tails, can clearly be understood to represent the native American Indians who were murdered by the European migrations. Rather, they represent a host of other peoples: the 95% of Central and South American indigenous population slaughtered by the Conquistadors, the eight million annihilated by Columbus’ troops on Haiti, the Kurds, the Armenians, and the western Brazilian forest tribe recently all but wiped out by ranchers who are now pursuing the last survivor.

Cameron, however, is not content with looking back or looking south. Indeed, the film fires its long elegant arrows at US involvement in Iraq and the ‘jarhead’ culture of US militarism. It’s no accident that before the final assault on the Na’Vi’s ‘hometree’ – a gargantuan tree that houses the forest tribe and makes a redwood look about as majestic as a runner bean – the Marine commander talks of ‘shock and awe’. No accident that the film’s hero is a paraplegic ‘grunt’. It is he who lives virtually in a Na’Vi-like body as his avatar and it is he who is transformed into a nature-loving, species-betraying eco-warrior, a young American rebel with a cause. Importantly, his conversion is not just triggered by love for the Na’Vi princess who teaches him their ways, nor by his ‘Dances with Wolves’ immersion in their culture but by an appreciation of the deeper forces at play.

All this might begin to give you the impression that Avatar is an original, genuinely creative story. Alas, despite the virtuosity of its 3D technology, the plot and the characters are disappointingly one-dimensional – like the plot and entire cast of Titanic.

Nevertheless, the film is not without its impact. Indeed, it seems that its portrayal of an Edenic paradise has led to a wave of depression among a significant number of Avatar fans. Indeed, The Times reported that ‘internet chat forums on the film’s fan sites have been clogged …by viewers reporting feelings of depression and despondency after seeing the movie.’ One site features a discussion called ‘Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible’. Again The Times reported: ‘A typical post reads, “After I watched Avatar for the first time, I truly felt depressed that I was awake in this world again.” Another reads, “It’s so hard, I can’t force myself to think that it’s just a movie, and to get over it, and that living like the Na’vi will never happen.”’

As Ecclesiastes 3:11 puts it: God ‘has also set eternity in the hearts of people.’ The yearning for beauty, for peace, for a world much better than this one, for a vibrant connection to nature is deep and ineradicable. And the sheer beauty of Cameron’s Avatar has rekindled it in many a heart – though not necessarily in a way that is yet leading those people to actively seek to bring beauty to our planet. Green convictions don’t necessarily lead to green fingers. Indeed, as some of the posts make clear, for depressed ‘Avatards’, as fans are dubbed, the only place to go is back to the cinema. Or to Avatar sites where the faithful gather in climateless, inorganic cyberspace, touching no living thing, holding no living hand, pondering a film-maker’s fantasy, seeking on Cameron’s alien but welcoming planet an escape from the profound alienation they experience on this terrestrial orb. Blessed are those who mourn for our dying world. Woe if mourning only leads to escapism.

In January Avatar picked up its first major award – the Golden Globe for best drama movie. How ironic that this first honour should so firmly contradict its core message – our globe is far from golden – even if it is clear that, as far as movies go, Cameron has the Midas touch.