I prophesy that in 10 years’ time the UK census will show more adherents of Eywa than there are of Jedi
Dear oh dear – as if there weren’t enough reasons for feeling low. Here we are in the middle of January with the Labour Party still in power, taxes about to go through the roof, the weather still miserable – and across the world people have apparently discovered a new and bizarre reason for being down in the dumps. It’s this film called Avatar, which I went to see at the weekend and which I would say delivers virtually everything a film-goer could possibly desire.
Just as the 3D, sci-fi epic teeters on the brink of becoming the biggest-grossing film of all time, some people are complaining of a terrible side-effect. It’s making them depressed, they say. It’s turning them as blue as the funny, helmet-nosed aliens that have enchanted us all.
Boris says: “The trouble begins when the credits roll and the lights go on. They take off their 3D specs and they look at themselves and their pallid lives, and it hits them in a terrible black wave that they will never get to the idyllic planet Pandora and its 1,000ft trees and beautiful illuminated spaghetti leaves. They will never have the acute physical sensation that they are really riding on the back of a giant orange pterodactyl or amorously entwined with a lissom, blue, 12ft alien, complete with prehensile tail. They walk out of the cinema and they see the vomit-splashed pavements and the hamburger wrappers and all the detritus of the consumer society, and they think, get me back to James Cameron’s world of the floating green mountains and the cuddlesome, hammerhead rhinos!
The film has only been out for about a month, and already there are internet discussion groups on how to cope with post-Avatar gloom, and as the British election campaign gets underway, one can imagine that the hunger for escape will intensify. Across the world, it seems, audiences are looking at the pristine planet of the blue-nosed tribe and something is touching them deep in the human core. They hear the tribal chanting, they see the semi-naked Na’vi, and they yearn for the simplicity and goodness of a lost Eden.
What is the lesson of Avatar? they ask themselves when they are back on the dank and be-merded streets of Earth. It is all about the folly of mankind, the greed that impels us to try to gratify our wants with a system of capitalist exploitation. They think of the Na’vi – the happy, chanting tribes of woad-daubing natives, and how their misfortune was to locate their sacred glade atop a colossal deposit of a mineral called unobtanium. They remember how the brutal American mercenaries decided to clear them out “with shock and awe”, and how their missiles slammed into the sacred tree and brought it crashing down with much loss of blue-skinned life. And then they think of Iraq, and the way the brutal and mercenary Americans blundered in to a place they didn’t understand, with similar consequences.
The Na’vi had unobtanium; the Iraqis had oil – and the tragedy of both peoples was that they found themselves standing between the Americans and their lust to consume. In their agony, and in their frustration with the world as it really is, some of the post-Avatar gloom merchants are starting to come up with some radical solutions. There is already a group of Na’vi sympathisers in Florida who are proposing quite seriously to set up a Pandora-style community, complete with Eywa. You haven’t heard of Eywa? You will. It is the blue-nose religion, a version of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis that postulates a kind of electro-spiritual link between every organism, so that we are hooked up to the trees and the trees are hooked up to each other in a huge dendrological internet.
I prophesy that in 10 years’ time the UK census will show more adherents of Eywa than there are of Jedi, and that is saying something. With James Cameron poised to do at least two sequels to Avatar, and with the frenzy likely to grow, it is time, surely, to put the whole thing into perspective.
I want to reassure all those who yearn for the life of Pandora: before they start sharpening their arrows and girding their loin-cloths and preparing their vats of blue paint, they should remember that there is nothing remotely new about the plot or politics of Avatar. Never mind Iraq: this is the founding and programmatic story of America – of the man with a gun coming up against the noble and athletic savage armed with stone-age weapons. This is not just the story of Pocahontas or Dances With Wolves.
Avatar is rooted in just about every film Hollywood made about cowboys and Indians. And that is why all those who think this is an anti-American film are also laughably mistaken. Why is Avatar being cheered by audiences of rednecks in Kentucky? Because it is the all-American movie – and not just because the white, American hero is given a messiah role among the blue-noses.
It is a feature of powerful military empires that they like to romanticise their victims and luxuriate guiltily in the pathos of their suffering. Think of the Roman crowds pleading for the lives of captured barbarians in the amphitheatre. Think of the statue of The Dying Gaul. The eco-conscience of Avatar is an example of how a dominant consumerist society is able to exhibit its better nature, to parade its guilt, to feel good about feeling bad.
And I can’t believe that many of these gloomy post-Avatar Westerners, when they really think about it, would want to up sticks to Pandora and take part in Na’vi society, with its obstinate illiteracy, undemocratic adherence to a monarchy based on male primogeniture and complete absence of restaurants. The final irony, of course, is that this entrancing vision of prelapsarian innocence is the product of the most ruthless and sophisticated money-machine the world has ever seen. With a budget of $237 million and with takings already at £1 billion, this exquisite capitalist guilt trip represents one of the great triumphs of capitalism.”
This columns features in the DT