Avatar: A Revealing Cultural Mirror

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If you haven't seen Avatar, the 3D special effects extravaganza of the season, treat yourself to some fun. Never before have live actors and computer animation been so deftly interwoven. Try to catch it at an Imax theater; the cinematography will blow your socks off. James Cameron flings you into the heart of the action, the rumbling subwoofers mounted under each seat literally kicking your butt.

Pushing the envelope of both digital technology and media finance, this spectacle of conspicuous creation cost over $400M to make and market - the most expensive movie in history. Arriving on the eve of the mass market launch of 3D TV, soon to be the Next Big Thing in consumer electronics, the movie is both an innovation orgy and a testament to the transformative power of risk capital.

And what story is all this money and technology deployed to tell? A vicious attack on money and technology, of course. Talk about pegging the irony meter.

I didn't see him in the credits but Al Gore, earth's first carbonless billionaire, must have been a script consultant. The arch villains are stick figure caricatures of greedy, baby-killing corporate capitalists. Unrepentant conquerors of nature, these amoral Halliburton proxies think nothing of shipping an army of mercenaries across interstellar space to plunder and pillage for profits. Do you think Cameron might still be suffering from a touch of Bush derangement syndrome?

The heroes are pre-technological tribal environmentalists. They don't just hug trees, they worship them. Living loin-cloth lives in harmony with nature, they are content to follow the mystical ways of their shaman, whose beautiful daughter of course falls in love with a crippled marine seeking redemption. Money and technology mean as little to the natives as written language, leaving aside what Ralph Nader might have to say about their dangerous pterodactyl piloting. Try as they might the ugly Americans can't find anything to offer these noble savages in exchange for the valuable mineral deposits they're sitting on, not even universal health care. Despite technical marvels half a century ahead of ours, mining technology has somehow degenerated back to the open pit horrors of the past. The wise and selfless scientists who have fallen in love with the natives are powerless to stop the inevitable conflict. Cut loose the dogs of war - cue tanks, bulldozers, and bombs!

What does it say about Hollywood moguls when these cultural bellwethers find it so easy to not only posit a future in which capitalists have destroyed every green thing on earth but then feel compelled to spend a fortune running off to rape alien planets?

And what does it say about contemporary audiences when they find it so easy to accept the premise that a greedy corporation whose shareholders care "only about next quarter's profits" would mount an interstellar mining expedition whose return on investment can take no less than the dozen years required to make the round trip? I guess Cameron expects moviegoers check their brains at the door when they pick up their 3D glasses.

With the director's ample talents totally consumed serving up special effects, not a scintilla of originality was left for any other aspect of the movie. Why take chances with a fresh plot or original characters when you can cook up a cliché stew of Pocahontas, Star Wars, and Tarzan? When the predictable stampede of alien elephants called forth by the Great Spirit crushes the heavily armed bad guys in the climactic battle scene, what else can you do but laugh?

Or maybe cry. For a culture that has lost its way. Having been raised by a generation that saved the world from evil and been part of a generation whose innovations in agriculture, technology and trade lifted billions from poverty, it's tough to swallow the dramatic ideal toward which Hollywood expects us to aspire. I don't know about you but running naked through the woods with a neural USB port sticking out of my pony tail so I can link my nervous system into the great collective consciousness, chanting and swaying in tribal ecstasy as I mindlessly listen to and obey the voice of the Dear Leader, is not my idea of nirvana.

Those who believe that there is another way to repair the unintended consequences of development need to speak up while there is still time. The path to redemption demands not less technology but more. Going back to live as hunter-gatherers in a state of nature would require the death of billions. It takes an awful lot of self-loathing to wish that on the world.

The closing scene of the defeated American prisoners being lead away by triumphant aliens may reflect the primal yearnings of those who believe that humans are pollution, technology is evil, businessmen are immoral, the American way is bankrupt, and profits are theft. As for me, I'm off to rent a copy of Patton.

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and a Boston-based venture capitalist. You can find all of his columns, TV, and radio interviews here.  If you would like to have his weekly columns delivered to you by e-mail, click here or follow him on Twitter @BillFrezza.

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