Idle Thoughts After a MovieBy Frederik Sisa @ 10:00 PM January 18, 2010
Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally succeeded in squeezing into my schedule a little 2 hour and 40 minute long film (excluding previews) you may or may not have heard about called Avatar. And surprise, surprise, it turns out to be an anti-colonial tirade. This isn’t especially notable, as Avatar isn’t the first or only film to draw blood from politics. Yet I can’t help but wonder what the point of it all is. Is a movie just a movie?
Science fiction films in particular, given their speculative nature, are perfectly suited to taking a peek into our possible futures. Some, like Star Trek, veer towards optimistic progress. Others, like Babylon 5, strive to hold a mirror to the way things are now – a key subplot of the series was the slide into dictatorship of Earth’s government, complete with the SS-like Nightwatch, in the context of interstellar war. A few that come to mind:
The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy: The rise of the evil galactic Empire, a fascist military state spanning hundreds of star systems, begins with the rot of the Republic. A devious Senator, in reality an evil Sith Lord, manufactures a trade war that spirals out of control into a galaxy wide rebellion against the Republic. To counter the threat, a massive army is assembled, civil liberties are gradually suspended, the Senate president is given emergency war powers…The quest for security leads to fascism. For all that George Lucas delivered an awkward story of corruption, the political parable hits the mark.
Equilibrium: A mash-up of various dystopian novels and movies, this underrated film from writer/director Kurt Wimmer posits a future in which humans take drugs to blunt extreme emotions and, consequently, achieve a world without war or crime. To prevent the resurgence of these emotions, the ruling council uses deadly Grammaton Clerics to find and destroy art and anything capable of evoking sensual responses. Naturally, the future is a police state in which conformity is strictly enforced.
Escape from LA: a future in which the world is bursting at the seams and the US is a theocratic state. Personal freedoms are severely limited, the police and military have broad powers, and ideological non-conformists, along with your garden-variety criminals, are exiled to the island penal colony of Los Angeles.
There are hundreds more examples, of course. And here comes Avatar, pitting greedy exploitative humans against a population of aboriginal aliens. The audience’s outrage was visceral – the lady next to me, who was a bit too involved in the movie, was cheering on the good guys with hoots and claps.
But, again, I ask what does it all amount to? True, many of these films illustrate well Orwell’s observations on totalitarianism. An external enemy will provide just the kind of focus needed to keep a population united – giving leaders the means to control that population. Draw your own analogy to real life. Many of these films also illustrate the dangers of unchecked corporatism, where money and profits trump all other considerations. Surveillance societies? Oh yes, we have plenty of those in fiction, and in reality.
Yet for all that we identify with heroes trying to bring down the system and restore human freedom, for all that we chafe against the fictional villainy of a Senator Palpatine or a Big Brother, we balk in real life. Full-body scanners? Government data mining? Endless military engagements around the world? Detentions without trials? Military occupations of foreign countries? The lack of distinction between government interests and corporate interests? In some countries, outraged people take to the streets and protest. Here, we go shopping.
Perhaps it is that we overestimate the importance of movies. Perhaps it is that everything has become fodder for entertainment that once the thrill has passed, nothing remains but a numbness we are desperate to fill with yet another pleasurable sensation. After watching Hotel Rwanda a few years ago, I remember sitting in my seat as if I’d been repeatedly hit by a sledgehammer. Gob smacked, if you will. The rest of the audience felt the same. But, bourgeois pigs that we all are, the resolve to do something turned to mush. My own failing, of course. And everyone else’s.
So here we have movies like Avatar. Message movies – although calling Cameron’s epic a message movie is a bit of an exaggeration. Movies that prick and prod our moral sensibilities. If they can’t motivate us, I wonder, what will? What will shake us out of our apathy?
Frédérik invites you to visit his blog, www.inkandashes.net.