It seemed like the weirdest conjunction in the world. In the very week that the Hollywood Foreign Press gave the Golden Globe to James Cameron’s Avatar, the Chinese government has decided to stop screening the film on the advice of the censors, who say that it may cause unrest.
China has very few 3-D cinemas and the government-run China Film Group has decreed that cinemas across China are no longer permitted to show the 2-D version of Avatar, which is to be replaced by a film about the life of Confucius, no less. Indeed the Wuxi Big World blog says that there would be no screenings in either dimension from January 23.
It has been suggested that the Na’vi people, the blue-hued indigenes who look like refined Smurfs, and who are harried and persecuted on their planet Pandora by a futuristic but very recognisable American military, can too easily be seen as an allegory of the Chinese punters who are being driven out of their homes by money-hungry property developers in the glorious People’s Republic. It’s also not hard to see that the supposed reason could be a screen for such minorities as Uighurs and the Tibetans or indeed for the Falun Gong and the democratic dissidents.
It seems an especially grim irony given the immense economic power of China (which has effectively bankrolled the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has suffered as a consequence of the American-generated world financial crisis) that the high citadel of supposed communism should be censoring a film by the supreme spectacularist of the Terminator films and Titanic, who has made a dashing epic adventure that juxtaposes the nature mysticism of a native people with the capitalist greed for a supremely potent mineral.
Then again, the Chinese imperium seems to be to mine as much of the earth’s minerals as its own marketeering impulses can exploit. And the fact that Avatar has been interpreted by Right, in the West (with excessive tendentiousness) as a green allegory would hardly endear it to the wreckers of Copenhagen.
But it does seem like a bizarre reaction to what is, after all, a supreme consumerist adventure epic aimed, as such things must be, to capture the hearts and minds of kids from 9-14. Which in turn raises the question of what the Golden Globe judges –– generally thought to be a more just and discriminating bunch than the Academy –– thought they were doing.
Well, Avatar, which I finally saw through the lens of these controversies (but also in 3-D) is better, more enchanting and more moving, than all this might suggest.
It is essentially a cowboys and indians film writ sci-fi, which, in the manner of such late John Ford masterpieces as The Searchers and Cheyenne Autumn, presents the cavalry, or at least the worse half of the US military, as the villains.
Avatar is not a masterpiece. It has one of those idiot post-Matrix plots in which people go into incubators of some kind to come out elsewhere as their avatars with tails and blue skins, and at least at one level the nine-year-old target of the script (which makes JK Rowling look like Dickens and Tolkien like Shakespeare) leads the magical mystery mineral to be called — wait for it — “unobtainium”. Nor did I expect much of my least-favourite younger Australian actor Sam Worthington. (In fact he starts out as a dumb “grunt” but is immeasurably improved by going extra-terrestrial native.)
And so too does Avatar when it starts to be dominated by the Na’vi. In fact Cameron’s new spectacular is such a riveting adventure story, with its prehistoric flying horses and its mega beasts, with their family resemblance to every mutation of the dinosaur period, that it will bring out the nine-year-old in millions of people.
Despite the odd longeur, it’s a marvellous piece of movie making to watch and it’s in its picture-book Rousseauian way the plight of the Na’vi (who, of course, the good Americans, led by Sam and the ever-admirable Sigourney Weaver, come to support) is done with tremendous poignancy and panache. And when the monsters of this Lost World turn on the bad guys (and they are Very Ugly Americans) of the Military Industrial Complex, the spirit of Crazy Horse is mighty in the land and the whole thing takes on a breathless, break-neck gallantry that is genuinely thrilling.
It’s the old, old story of the noble underdog and Cameron’s skills as a master of cinematic narrative put the film beyond criticism. It doesn’t matter that, as with Arnie, in days gone by, Cameron’s love affair with Worthington comes from his fascination with inexpressive actors.
It’s spellbinding stuff and, if it plays on the contradictions of capitalism, is also full of the spirit of the Thermopylae and Agincourt.
The fact that tyrannical Chinese want a ban Avatar shows what glass they know themselves to walk on. For all their emulating of the marketeering spirit of the West at its worst, they are terrified of the fundamental myth of Western liberalism, which is the idealisation of the economy they emulate, the myth that freedom is worth dying for.
If it’s true what the sage China watchers say, that the veneration of the nation state has replaced the old communist ideology with all the totalitarian absolutism intact, then Avatar is indeed a threat. It pulsates with the spirit of Tiananmen. The message of Avatar is that when the nation state defiles the principles of liberty from which it derives its vindication, then it is the self-evident duty of all true citizens to rebel.
In that sense, at least, the Golden Globes had a point. The spirit of Avatar and the heroism of the defence of the Na’vi is, in its pop epic way, the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, and to hell with any tyranny that seeks to suppress it.