Posts Tagged ‘films’

Avatar reprises ‘ugly American’ theme with high-tech twist

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

avatar.jpgDirector James Cameron’s billion-dollar, award-winning blockbuster, Avatar, bears a striking resemblance to Dances with Wolves in its basic plot. White guy from a military background encounters an indigenous population, falls in love, decides their values and way of life are superior to his, and casts his culture aside.

Of course, there are some refinements to Avatar, mostly the over-the-top technical effects that make this film possible and that are woven into the storyline. The white guy, a crippled former Marine named Jake Sully, uses an avatar, a biomechanical fictional being that is genetically engineered to be half human and half Na’vi, the inhabitants of the planet Pandora. With it he is able to walk again, breath air that is poisonous to human beings, and mingle with the natives to learn their ways.

Avatar is paradoxically plentiful and yet insufficient. The bounty consists of the powerful visual punch that this movie packs. There is so much to see in Pandora that the eyes boggle long before even half of the activity registers in the mind. Watching it non-stop on the big screen is downright exhausting. It’s as though the director does not trust his audience to be able to imagine anything for themselves. In that sense, Avatar unintentionally insults viewers even while offering them the most spectacular blend of animation and live action to come out of Hollywood yet.

As to its lack, the film provides frustratingly superficial glimpses of the natives’ beliefs and spiritual practices, squeezed in between all of the action sequences. Even so, that’s a deal too much for certain critics, who slam it as “anti-human” and “anti-American.” The Vatican doesn’t care for the film’s earth-based faith, and still others bash the portrayal of a white man as yet another savior of an indigenous population.

What do they expect? Cameron, who wrote the script as well as directed, is a white male, so he’s stuck with that viewpoint. No doubt those who find fault would be equally censorious had the director tried to make the film from the native viewpoint.

Critics may gnash their teeth all they want over the movie’s politics, but it is wildly popular precisely because of its advocacy, not despite it. As polls continue to show, more and more Americans have abandoned traditional religions to call themselves independent seekers or simply spiritual. There has also been a huge rise in interest in the goddess, or the feminine divine. On top of that, the public is incensed over unpunished Iraq war profiteering, massive corporate fraud that led to the 2008 economic meltdown yet was rewarded with equally gigantic bailouts, and Wall Street’s baleful influence over Congress and the White House.

Avatar reflects and builds on these trends. The Na’vi tribe’s home is on top of a huge deposit of highly valuable ore that a human corporation wants to mine. Sully’s mission is to persuade the tribe to move peacefully, or his corporate masters will have no qualms about using deadly force to clear the members off their land.

Sully soon realizes and tells his superiors that the natives have no interest in anything the human interlopers could offer them. The Na’vi do not live to amass wealth or power. They love the world that sustains them and try to live in harmony with it and with neighboring tribes.

What a tragedy that the preceding is so threatening to so many Americans. If might-makes-right, profits-uber-alles is now the creed of our culture and country, then we are indeed as lost as Sully is when his avatar inadvertently spends its first night alone outside in Pandora.

This film is also a hit worldwide. In the greedy ore-grubbers, who don’t care who they kill or what they destroy in their profits quest, others clearly recognize the proverbial ugly American. If we also see it and don’t like it, then there’s little point in blaming the mirror, which in this case is a movie called Avatar.

Maybe it’s time to address what causes such a revolting reflection in the first place.

Vampire culture rises from the dead (again)

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Every so often, those scary undead creatures of the night arise from their coffins and suck more cash out of the public, whose appetite for vampires and other paranormal creatures never dies.

We are hot and heavy into another wave of vampire culture, sparked by the immense popularity of the Twilight young adult romance novels and movie. There is the HBO series True Blood, other films or TV shows about witches or those with unusual abilities (Eastwick, X-Men, Heroes), and yet more vampire movies, such as 30 Days of Night.

Vampire camp is nothing new. During the 1970s, the undead novels of author Anne Rice were major bestsellers, and in 1979 two vampire films also made a pop culture splash. One was a comedy, Love at First Bite, and the other a remake of the 1897 vampire novel, Dracula, by Irish author Abraham “Bram” Stoker. Stoker’s novel came to the big screen again in the 1990s remake, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, while that decade also witnessed the long-running TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So what’s behind this current fascination with things that go bump in the night? Part of the explanation, perhaps, is our utter disgust with last year’s Wall Street bailout. We the taxpayers know we are being bled dry by corporations that are “too big to fail” and their enablers and abettors in Washington, D.C. On top of that mess, state and local governments are only too willing to give huge tax cuts to businesses that face zero consequences for not living up to their part of the bargain. So we might as well enjoy some horror while we struggle with lost jobs, endless unemployment, sinking salaries, mounds of bills, and zip bailout from anywhere for ordinary working stiffs.

Beyond that, our mounting anxiety over Dec. 21, 2012, is also a factor in this latest wave of vampire/paranormal chic. The date, which is approximate, represents the end of a 26,000-year cycle on the Mayan calendar. Not that many of us really understand the actual significance of this date or what the Mayans intended when they ended their calendar on it. We’ve just heard about it from somewhere and presuppose that it means disaster. Call it Y2K glitch/millennium jitters, Part 2.

Enter Hollywood stage right; there are always megabucks to be made in exploiting fear. The film 2012, to debut on Friday, Nov. 13, appears from the previews to gob up destruction with all the outsize special effects that Tinseltown can throw on the big screen. Last fall it was another film called Knowing. Same theme: worldwide destruction depicted by high-tech wizardry, just a different big-name star.

The more pertinent question becomes, why do we invariably expect the worst? What’s in our psyche that leads us to assume that some date or deadline always spells disaster? As just one example, almost every human culture has a variation on a global flood myth.

Despite our so-called modern mindset, the religious meme of judgment day is just like those vampires: it never really dies and cannot be killed off readily. While only a minority still professes to believe in an actual Day of Judgment, the concept of doomsday still haunts most of us, even if we do not acknowledge it. That gnawing, deep-seated unease sets us up to fear the worst in the form apocalypses now framed in lay terms, such as human-made global warming destroying the planet. In this secular scenario, an outraged planet instead of vengeful deity assumes the triple role of judge, jury, and executioner.

Even when times are relatively prosperous, our deep-seated apocalyptic terrors still shake us to the core. The Y2K glitch was supposed to cause havoc with worldwide computer time-keeping when the year 2000 rolled around. Half a decade of media hype and millions upon millions of dollars in programming fixes later, Y2K was a bust. And all the related jitters and handwringing took place during the 1990s dot.com boom.

The apocalypse mindset may well be hard-wired into human genes. Perhaps we all walk around harboring distant, cellular-based memories of an era when our lives consisted of minute-by-minute struggles with the elements, large carnivorous animals, and hostile neighboring tribes.

A different slant: We have lived through such mass destruction before, and the possibility haunts our soul memories. These diverse explanations are not mutually exclusive even while appealing to very different views of human existence.

Most likely we will carry on, dreading our demise right up until our sun in the very distant future shrinks to a dwarf star incapable of supporting life on our planet or anywhere else in our solar system. By then our restless, curious selves will have built space arks that have taken us far beyond the confines of this solar system to new suns and new worlds.

We will still bring our fears and limitations with us, however, unless we learn to grow beyond them. Ultimately, Dec. 21, 2012 may have far more impact on inner change and growth than anything else. And that will be something to celebrate, not dread.