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Issue #1445      3 March 2010

Culture & Life

Corporate defeat

By now, there are probably few Guardian readers who have not seen the 3D sci-fi fantasy adventure blockbuster Avatar. It is technically brilliant, setting new benchmarks for computer-generated sci-fi and fantasy effects in movies.

Computers, provided they are being used by people with real artistic vision, have immeasurably enhanced the quality of fantasy films. Fantasy was one of the earliest genres of cinema: Voyage To The Moon by Georges Méliès, a charming little piece of cinema whimsy, appeared in 1902. Willis O’Brien’s painstaking model work with stop-frame animation in the 1933 classic King Kong is justly famous and set a standard for realistic effects that was not surpassed for decades.

In recent years, however, beginning with Star Wars, the use of computers has made images of unreal worlds, fantasy creatures and impossible adventures not only credible but downright commonplace.

Thanks to the naturalism of computer-generated imagery (cgi), audiences for The Lord Of The Rings film trilogy are transported not to New Zealand where the scenes were shot, but to Middle Earth itself. Thanks also to cgi, Edward and Bella in Twilight frolic precariously with awesome credibility at the very top of a huge pine tree.

In Avatar, not only is the story convincingly set on another planet with its own remarkable scenery and wildlife, but many of the characters are three metre-tall blue-skinned natives with tails. In most cinemas, the film is shown in 3D, which adds significantly to its impact. (Not everyone can watch a 3D film without adverse visual reactions, so some venues must be kept for 2D presentation.)

The quality of the computerised special effects is not the only reason to watch Avatar, however. It also has an interesting and topical storyline.

The film is set among a large team of US Marines who, together with a small group of scientists, have been sent to another planet to help a US corporation “persuade” the local natives to move elsewhere on the planet so the company can mine a very profitable mineral that is located right under the natives’ most sacred site.

If the scientists cannot persuade the locals to move, the Marines are there to do the job by force. The natives resist, but are routed by the US forces’ superior firepower. Sickened by what is happening, some of the scientists and a couple of the marines go over to the natives’ side. Resistance begins in earnest.

In the end, despite heavy losses, the natives and their local animal allies win, forcing the US Marines and the corporate “suits” whose interests they serve to leave the planet in scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saigon.

Not long after the film premiered, I saw an episode of the US panel discussion show The View (which runs here on Channel Nine) on which the subject was Avatar. The only member of the all-women panel that I know by name is Whoopi Goldberg, but on this occasion it was one of the other women who caught my attention.

She complained, in shocked terms, that by the end of the film the US Marines were being portrayed as (shudder) “the enemy”. Well, duh!

Her outburst is instructive, however, for it is indicative of the awesome power and influence of US ruling-class propaganda. This propaganda is so effectively researched, prepared and executed – and above all so all-pervasive in the USA – that an incredibly large number of Americans turn a blind eye to (or at least excuse) both the glaring iniquities in US society and the criminality of the USA’s brutally violent and aggressive foreign policy.

It is not for nothing that the Right in the US wraps itself in the flag, shelters behind the Bible and talks so much about “freedom and the rights of the individual”.

There would be few parts of the world where US Marines would be seen as anything but a threat (Israel perhaps?). Everyone except propaganda-befuddled Americans themselves knows that the US military’s role is to coerce foreign governments into doing the bidding of powerful US corporations.

The heads of the big capitalist corporations did not get where they are by being honest and upright. They are – they have to be – scoundrels. And what do scoundrels resort to when all else fails? Yep, patriotism, with a hefty helping of religion.

But patriotism and the church can only work for so long. More and more people in the US are asking why the county’s government and institutions are despised or hated by so many people in other countries.

And people in other countries are also asking why the citizens of the richest country on Earth cannot afford universal health care, while tiny, impoverished Cuba not only enjoys it but exports health services to scores of other countries.

Not to mention those other blots on the Empire’s copybook: extraordinary social inequality, complete lack of job security, widespread poverty and homelessness, an incredible crime rate, especially for violent, gun-related crimes.

Avatar’s implicit criticism of corporate, militarised America is merely a symptom of the growing awareness even in Hollywood that rampant capitalism is not the answer to the world’s problems.   

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