Mining the unobtainable

Avatar is possible the most staggering display of pure plenitude ever committed to the American screen. On what ground does it rest? Underground, a massive deposit of the unobtainable made manifest - the "Unobtanium" to be mined. Flowering above, total wet fecundity, illimitable hybrid biopower, interspecies interpenetration, an absence of agriculture or organized production, and trees that have developed an information network for which Google would happily displace many millions of animist, lithe, bare-assed tribes. (What is the wealth of the metal in the face of all that lush forest and "technologies of nature" to be explored?) Forget any issues about "war on terror," liberal guilt, noble savages, or the like. It's the full subsumption of politics to the prospect of an era of unbound plenty. If this is a cinema of the crisis years, it is so only it that blows away the very category and possibility of scarcity. A wish-fulfillment of profit and the profligate behind every corner, hanging from every luminescent vine. When each pixel digital fiber drips with such lush excess, what else is there to do but frolic and drool?


Zed said...

Must the depiction of unbound plenty necessarily be a 'wish-fulfillment of profit' though? The Navi seemed pretty collectivist, it seemed to me either to offer a picture of a rough kind of utopia (smurf-style communism, if you will, which is nice enough to see in any Hollywood movie - and in this light the film's positive reception is hopeful) or a tellurian indigenous people in organic unity with their land et.c, which is potentially reactionary, except..

Although it was so unsubtle that one could almost look through it as surface, it was a pretty anti-imperialist movie, and didn't allow the marines any humanising or redeeming features. In some ways the whole film is cameron's own reply to Aliens, and in places is a direct inversion of it: for example compare the fight between half-machine Ripely nature-as-abomination with the fight against the half-machine Colonel in Avatar.

Of course the one big problem is that the protagonist can't just be an alien, but has to be a 'goes native' human (and play out like Dances with Wolves), which isn't entirely cancelled out by him surrendering his body at the end. (this isn't offset by the occasional interesting resemblances to a scanner darkly either, though there is something narcotic about the navi society).

ECW said...


"smurf-style communism" indeed.

Couple of thoughts, more will emerge in this piece I' writing for Mute this week about catastrophe cinema.

Indeed, I don't doubt it is superficially - which I don't mean pejoratively - both "anti-imperialist" and enamored with utopian lushness communitarianism or indigenous resistance. And as you rightly point out, we might double back on it with the point the film shoves in our face, that of it being a non-Navi who saves the day.

However, what interests me more, and what I find more bothersome about the film, is how it imagines both the two sides of the battle and the battleground. In the case of the former, Cameron is so insistent on hyperbole, on every stereotype blown out to its maximum, right along with every bit of exploding light plant life and the colonel's pecs, that it thereby undoes any anti-imperialist tendencies by allowing us to say, "sure, we know badness when we see it, we know the whole rhetoric of war on terror when it is made the discursive fabric of our lives, we just want a bit of anthrpologist understanding." And this occurs on a terrain in which there is no scarcity, nothing to fight over other than a slightly larger or smaller piece of absolute plenitude.

The depiction of war itself fits into this. The film may be anti-imperalist, but it sure loves war: it's heroic, it's exciting, it gives an excuse to set weird forest mammals of CGI-fire. For a film against colonization, it's hard to buy the story when it's in such starry eyed love with war as such, a war not of civilizations, but of competing technologies: dreadlock-USB controlled panther-beast vs mechanomorph Colonel. You're dead on about the inversion of Aiens: just imagine someone else tail-linking to the queen and riding her, and we're pretty much there...