James Cameron and Avatar - Popcorn and dissent

James Cameron and Avatar - Popcorn and dissent

Fourteen years in the making, James Cameron’s Avatar is finally released this week. Will it be any good? Who cares, asks Paul Dale, it’s all just a media hoodwink

There’s nothing like the drawn out hype for a new James Cameron film (event, happening) to fuel a natural sense of anarcho-primitivism. ‘This film integrates my life’s achievements,’ the Titanic director said in a recent interview. ‘It’s the most complicated stuff anyone’s ever done.’ ‘This film’ is Avatar, the science fiction fantasy Cameron has been working on for over a decade at an alleged cost of over $300 million. The basic plot revolves around a wheelchair bound ex-marine who is selected to take part in the avatar program which will allow him to walk using the bodies of psychically controlled alien hybrids. These ‘avatars’ are used to explore and invade the extra-terrestrial satellite Pandora to search for valuable minerals. Blah blah, yeah whatever. We all know what Avatar is really about, it’s about the crazy Canadian’s penchant for playing God with new technology.

Frustrated by the clunkiness and limitations of existing 3D cameras Cameron has spent much of the last ten years trying to cajole the engineers at Sony’s high definition division in Tokyo to develop a portable 3D camera. Cameron then went scuba diving and knobbing about on fighter planes to put the prototype through its paces. Eventually Cameron announced that he did have every intention of making Avatar and it would be in digital 3D and that it would herald the next big revolution in cinema. The trouble for Cameron was that cinema chains were not adopting the expensive new 3D projection technology fast enough, so he let others test the new kit. The first was Robert Roderiguez who shot Spy Kids 3D using the new camera, the film took a cool $200 million at the US box office despite being projected on antiquated 3D projectors (viewed using the old fashioned red and blue glasses). The success of Roderiguez’s film and Cameron’s subsequent anguished urges to delegates at the Showest convention in Las Vegas that the world was ‘entering a new age of cinema’ helped goad an exhibitor sea change.

All of which is mildly interesting and will no doubt emerge in more mythological terms in Cameron’s authorised biography, but what is actually going on here? Well like Marshall McLuhan, for Cameron the medium is the message. He is, in essence, helping enable cinemas to show and make money from a format that is currently exemplified by pumped up versions of horror and fantasy films. But to what end? Surely this connects to Frankfurt School Marxist sociologists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s belief that mass culture creates false needs? That consumption of popular culture makes people docile and content, no matter how terrible their economic circumstances. Even back in 1947 Adorno and Horkheimer identified the fact that it appeared that moviegoers were less enthralled with the content of blockbusters of the era, than by the air-conditioned comfort of the theatres – an observation reflected in an old cinema business adage that one found a good place to sell popcorn and built a theatre around it.

Avatar is on general release from Thu 17 Dec.

Director appears on Jimmy Kimmel Live to talk about Avatar.


  • 3 stars
  • 2009
  • US
  • 2h 46min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: James Cameron
  • Written by: James Cameron
  • Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Joel David Moore, Giovanni Ribisi

Set in 2154, Cameron's much-hyped Avatar focuses on a paraplegic marine named Jake Sully (Worthington), who arrives on the distant moon of Pandora with a mission to help displace its indigenous population. But, after winning their trust, Jake finds his allegiances gradually shifting. High on technical flair but short on…