A Blue-Cheeked, Left-Leaning Hollywood Spectacular


James Cameron’s 3D science fiction extravaganza Avatar opened yesterday. You know, the one with the weird blue creatures staring out at you from posters everywhere.

These, you should know, are the movie’s good guys and gals — Cameron’s blue-toned reimagination of Rousseau’s noble savages — and they inhabit the forests of a distant planet called Pandora. The bad guys are the colonising humans out to mine a substance needed for energy production called "unobtanium".

To win the natives’ co-operation, a soldier named Jake Sully (Australia’s Sam Worthington) is sent into the jungle as a mock-native via some impressive technological jiggery-pokery.

In the tradition of liberal westerns, Scully soon falls in love with a gorgeous indigene (Zoe Saldana) and goes native: Dances With Elves. This is followed by an air invasion of the forests by humans, who use shock and awe as well as the greatest weapons of the future in sequences which evoke both Mel Gibson’s Mayan native saga and Francis Coppola’s Vietnam epic: Apocalypto Now.

Critical reaction in the English-speaking world has so far been remarkably unanimous: the film’s visual effects are truly astonishing and the script B-grade. Reviewers are only in disagreement over the relative importance of these two factors.

But two further issues arise from this film. The first is its unabashedly left-wing, anti-US imperialism politics, which are especially striking given the film is funded by the owner of the rabidly hard-right Fox News network, Rupert Murdoch.

The second is the question over whether the film will prove a "game changer", an entertainment event that forever alters the aesthetics and economics of Hollywood — and even global filmmaking.

Let’s look at the politics first: the film offers a crude and highly critical allegory of US campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. Even the slowest of viewers will struggle to miss these. At one point there’s even a reference to "daisy cutters" — the US mega-bombs that hit the news earlier this decade when the Americans were working out how to get at Osama Bin Laden in his Tora Bora mountain hideout. Echoes of Europe’s post-Columbus colonial rape of the Americas are also to be found but they’re slightly more subtle — which isn’t saying much.

While it’s early days yet, it’s very surprising to note that locally, the media’s ever-dependable right-wing attack dogs — including Andrew Bolt, Gerard Henderson and Miranda Devine — haven’t yet filled any column-space with attacks on what they will undoubtedly see as Cameron’s evil leftist propaganda.

In the US there will almost certainly be a mighty hoo-hah over the film’s allegorical equation of the US with bullying and murdering quasi-Nazis. It will be revealing to see how comfortable Fox News attack-hounds will operate when they are unleashed on Avatar as they will be effectively assaulting their owner’s business interests. Ditto locally with The Australian‘s Janet Albrechtsen and the Daily Telegraph‘s Piers Akerman, neither of whom are likely to embrace the film.

All this will quickly blow over, however. It’s the films’ technical — and indeed aesthetic — breakthrough in the area of visual effects that marks its likely long-term significance. Those blue-faced creatures may look slightly cheesy and unreal when pictured on the page or in YouTube clips, but on the screen that perception quickly disappears.

Thanks to Cameron’s use of new motion-capture technology, similar to that used by Peter Jackson to create Gollum in the Lord of The Rings trilogy, these two-metre-high aliens display a remarkably subtle and authentic sense of physical movement and emotional expression.

Add to that the remarkable visual detailing with which the movie’s fantasy environment has been achieved, not to mention the sheer amount of imagination that’s been poured into the achievement of virtually every shot. And we haven’t even got to the 3D effects yet, which add to the immediacy of the viewing experience, not in any revolutionary way, but more convincingly than ever before.

Now it’s possible to overestimate the film’s possible effect on the rest of Hollywood filmmaking. After all, Camerons’s last film, Titanic, was too expensive to inspire much in the way of imitation, despite its huge profits. But in the long term Avatar is likely to increase the division between what we see on the small screen — that is, drama with human interaction — and the big screen. In Avatar, Cameron is redefining what we might call the Cinema of Spectacle.

Independent filmmaking and domestic film industries around the globe are grappling with a proliferation of viewing platforms: pay TV, downloads, mobile phones and iPods and so on. Avatar has strengthened my view that Hollywood blockbuster cinema is gradually developing into a new form: a kind of Super-Cinema.

In this new form, video game technology is as much an influence as traditional cinematic storytelling, which is why Avatar‘s two-dimensional characterisations and trite dialogue probably matter less than some critics seem to think.

Just as Hollywood cinema in the 1950s fought back against the popularity of TV with the use of widescreen, Avatar and other digital effects-heavy films are defending cinema by by turning a visit to the movies into the equivalent of a movie theme park ride.

None of this is new, of course. Shock-and-awe spectacle goes back to the silent cinema — think DW Griffiths’s Intolerance and the Italian sword and sandal epic, Quo Vadis — and continued with the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. Spectacle — the premium big night out, hire-a-babysitter movie experience — is again in the ascendant.

The corollary is that the small screen is now — more than ever — the medium for human-scale drama. It too, however, has been influenced by movie-style spectacle, as the most recent series of Dr Who shows. The implications for the audio-visual industry — including Australia’s — are enormous.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.