Last night, I saw the fifteen minutes of IMAX 3D teaser footage from James Cameron’s Avatar (the full film due out in December), and I fear Cameron has a $237 million bomb on his hands.
Not that it was bad, really, but it’s aiming so high, the hype’s already so big, and the end result is really just another one of those “guys-in-loincloths fight to save the rain forest and ride dangerous beasts” movies that you expect to be rated G and see for sale from some not-quite-Disney company at the checkout counter, except it’s ostensibly on another planet (and has some Cameron-style space marines thrown in). But it feels less like an alien world and more like whatever mythical rain forest the aforementioned not-Disney movies took place in.
And despite all the advanced computer animation, the fact that the humanoids look like nine-foot blue cartoon jungle men — and the animals look pretty much like triceratops and pterodactyls — leaves one still feeling as unsurprised and unengaged as if watching a videogame. I was reminded of the depressing detachment I felt while watching the Gungans fight the Trade Federation droids in Phantom Menace ten years ago, and no comparison to Phantom Menace can be a good sign (except in constructions such as “That South Park episode with the talking otters worked far better as a sci-fi epic than Phantom Menace did!”).
I took far greater pleasure Sunday in District 9 — and even in watching the short film it sprang from. I hope it inspires more intelligent sci-fi films. I’ve heard some conservatives were annoyed by District 9 because it so openly wants us to analogize the plight of the aliens to that of poor black South Africans — but I think this movie might be a coalition-splitter in a good way. Libertarians and paleos will enjoy seeing the film criticize the way that well-meaning custodians of a subject populace inevitably become inept, authoritarian managers with little understanding of the locals, even when the locals are themselves less than noble. And the action felt far more convincing than most sci-fi. I for one look forward to the sequels.
(Mainstream conservatives probably ought to hail District 9 as subtly pro-life anyway. The scene in which alien babies are burned before hatching was probably the most disturbing filmic depiction of abortion since, well, The Suckling — and written with far greater subtlety than that ludicrous pro-choice propaganda film The Ciderhouse Rules.)
Regrettably, I was busy Thursday night and had to pass up an invitation to see the MST3K guys mock Plan 9 from Outer Space live, which would have meant I could say that all in one week I saw District 9, Plan 9, and scenes from a film that’s probably going to lose a lot more money than Plan 9 did.
Still, if treated as a mere animation-assisted amusement park ride for kids, Avatar could end up delighting people in much the same way Jurassic Park (which I also found a bit boring at the time) did. In both cases, kids may even come away with the opposite message from the one intended by the environmentalist writers: Kids may see Avatar and dream of intervening in alien ecosystems and cultures, just as you know they came away from Jurassic Park’s anti-biotech, anti-science monologues in 1993 thinking, “Aw, man, we can make realistic dinosaurs with computers! Awesome!” And so, as in the days of hypocritical Victorian readers of lurid gothic novels, culture continues its dialectical, drunkenly lurching march.