Ayn Rand said, "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men." And nowhere is this more true than in the field of entertainment. Once upon a time you could only properly experience a movie by going to the cinema; now, civilization has provided us with wide-screen TV and DVD players so that we can enjoy films in the privacy of our own homes instead of watching them in a room full of idiots all chatting, sending text messages and shovelling buckets of popcorn into their stupid faces.
But since I don't have a 3D telly I headed off to the Vue cinema in Plymouth to see James Cameron's Avatar the other day, and to be honest the experience wasn't too bad. True, the strangely shaped seat has done something 'orrible to my cervical vertebrae, and it was sometimes hard to tell whether the peripheral rustling noises were made by beasties lurking in the alien undergrowth or just fat people in the row behind going for another fix of Butterkist, but by and large the film was good enough to distract me from these minor irritations. I like sci-fi movies, but they seem to have been stuck in a visual rut for the past couple of decades, all trying to look like Blade Runner and Alien(s)*. For the next twenty years, I suspect, sci-fi movies will all try to look like Avatar.
Now the smart thing to say about Avatar is that the effects are brilliant, but the story is weak. Actually I thought the story was perfectly serviceable. So what if it's just Dances With Wolves with blue giants instead of native Americans? It does the trick, and if there was was anything new in it it might divert our attention from the flora and fauna of Pandora, the lush extra-solar moon on which it all takes place. And that would be a pity, because the Pandoran f&f is wonderfully conceived and visualised. There are feathery, bioluminescent seeds like airborne jellyfish, giant ferns, glow-in-the-dark foliage and hammer-headed rhino-dino thingies. There are some pack-hunting predators which look like six-legged wolfhounds made from wet asphalt**, and some winsome hunter-gatherers who seem to have evolved along pretty much human lines, except that they are taller, blue, and have no nipples (a useful adaptation which allows them to run around topless without compromising their 12A certificate). And they all live together in a nicely-thought-out ecosystem amid a landscape which seems to be a cross between the Amazon rainforest and the sleeve of a Yes album.
Where Avatar does seem weak to me is in the simplistic way that it rehashes the myth of the Noble Savage. Ever since the Age of Reason dawned, western society has been haunted by a lingering suspicion that the world we are making for ourselves is Not Natural, and is therefore Bad. Wouldn't we better off if we had stayed as simple farmers or hunter-gatherers, living lives in tune with nature in an unspoiled landscape? Well, a moment's reflection should tell us that no, we bleedin' well wouldn't; the lives of 'indigenous peoples' may look picturesque to us, but they tend to be brief, uncomfortable and rather short on things like dentistry, medicine and personal freedom. This is one reason why so many of the people on this planet who actually live such lives tend to chuck them in when they think they have a chance of acquiring penicillin and MP3 players***. But happily for us, our wicked industrial civilization has finally produced a technology which can transport to us for a few hours to another world, whose natives are just as keen on the idea of the simple life as we are, and ride flying dragon-y things which can take down our helicopter gunships.
It would be silly to blame James Cameron for weaving his film out of our daydreams of Eden - after all, he does it so well. But Avatar would be a better film if the protagonist's choice were harder. Will he join those lovely touchy-feely forest people in their giant tree? Or will he stick with his own side, who live in a computerized firebase beside an oil refinery? Ooh, decisions, decisions... which might seem genuinely difficult ones if only we were given some hint that the Pandorans lost half their children to preventable diseases, for instance, or that their gender-equality isn't all it might be, or that it isn't really a good thing to have to live your whole life in public, ruled by the laws of your tribe.
*In some ways, with its gung-ho space marines and non-stop action, Avatar feels like a sequel to Aliens... and a much better one than the lousy Alien 3.
**Ah, Asphalt Wolfhound; now they were a good band...
***They may find that the penicillin and MP3 players are not forthcoming and that they've traded their life in a forest for life in a slum, but that's another story.