I went to see Avatar because of a subtle and enthusiastic review by Roz Kaveney; a pity that she must have watched it in another universe. The film I saw had no plot, no characters, no conflict, and no depth of field. The last complaint is literal as well as metaphorical. The 3D effect is in some ways even more two-dimensional than normal films, since there is only one plane where anything is in focus. Everything that protrudes into the theatre or recedes from it is blurry and insubstantial if you look at it directly.
The explosions are very pretty. The robots and the dinosaurs are great. The noble savages swish their tails with admirable elegance. There is one CGI effect, half jellyfish and half bacteriophage, that’s absolutely lovely.
The other good bits: there is one human character, the corporate villain. He is a lovely cameo of a man who has made his peace with the devil. There are two recognisable and enjoyable caricatures: the evil security chief and the good scientist. There is a momentary glimpse of a mother-in-law from hell. No one else acts even half as naturally as the CGI robots. The storyline is just gruyere, made up of nothing but cheese and holes.
Since there are many explosions, and lots of people baring their teeth and going “raaargh”, it may seem absurd to say that this is a film without conflict. But there is no difficulty that cannot be overcome by magic and desire. There is nothing the hero need – or can – do but exercise his willpower ever more heroically while mounted on ever more flamboyantly coloured and elaborately winged representations of his great throbbing id.
In most SF and fantasy, dragons are really just winged ponies: a cuddly and romantic way for adolescent girls to come to terms with the unbiddable power of sexuality. In Avatar they are motorbikes with wings and scales. This is the world as it appears to a confident, eight year old boy.
And because there is no real conflict, there’s no plot either; no suspense. You know that no one young and sympathetic will ever die; no one old and wise will ever be foolish; that a pterodactyl will always beat a helicopter in a fair fight.
No white man in Avatar ever needs to overcome fear, or doubt, or confusion. (Savages may be briefly confused till they come to their senses and follow the white man or their shaman). Even treachery is an act of impulse, never regretted. Soldiers change sides as if they were moving from McDonalds to Burger King.
But what about the blue men, you will say. What about these noble, long-tailed savages who live in harmony with their mother the planet and teach us compassion for all living things? They even say “Thank you” when they kill their dinner, though not, I notice, when they kill the alien whites. Perhaps that’s because they are not going to eat them, although they are in every other respect boiled down to the dregs of noble savagery. Their arguments move immediately from disagreement into spitting knife fight, yet can be quelled at a word from the divinely inspired priestess. They never grow old, or ugly, ill, or hungry. They can work magic, but are not bitter if it fails. They are, in fact, Sam and Samantha Saddleback, imagined as tall, thin, blue-skinned, and with the most elegant tails. Physically they are obviously (and beautifully) based on black faces before recolouring. But their dreams are those of white suburban America.
Of course the film has a necessary element of realism. The villains all work for a ruthless corporation, and the hero is corrupted by the promise of health care. But these are quite as shallow as the rest of it: the greed of earth is taken for granted as deeply wicked: we want more than we should have.
When the humans are expelled at the end of the film to their overcrowded and poisoned planet, it’s taken for granted than Pandora should belong in its entirety to its 20 or 30,000 natives. I know it is a huge part of the attraction of fantasy as a genre, as Brian Aldiss points out, that money plays no part in it. But there is something grotesque in a film purportedly about ecology in which money, need, and economics play no part.
I don’t know that Avatar is worse than most blockbuster films. Quite possibly they are all this thin. But Avatar comes freighted with claims of seriousness and that’s the one thing these films can’t be. They replace wonder with spectacle. They replace conflict with violence. They replace dialogue with grunts, exclamations, and occasional bellyflops into management cliché: “I realised I would have to take this to another level”.
Some films show dreams convincingly. If you want a moving and in the best sense childish fantasy about deep ecology and the destructive powers on industrialisation, there is already one in Princess Mononoke. But that is an animated cartoon, whose characters are more real and sometimes more frightening, than anything in CGI; it’s only two dimensional, but has much greater depth than anything in 3D; and it is quite explicitly aimed at eight-year-olds and thus has interesting complexity.
But Avatar replaces dreams with wish-fulfilment. It has shocks, but programmatically excludes surprises. From time to time, when the explosions were particularly soothing, I would take off my 3D glasses and look around the audience. The place was crammed. Their black plastic glasses all faced the front. Their hand moved mechanically to the ice-creams, the popcorn, and the nachos on their laps (£6.80 with a big tub of sugary drink for free). They thought they were seeing a lesson about ecology and the perils of greed.