Avatar, not Ed, will make the case on climate


Times Online, January 6, 2010

Alice Thomson

Checklist: thermal tights, gloves, hat, boots, shovel, ice pick. Ring the plumber to remind him that the boiler hasn’t been working for the past three days, spend an hour scraping ice off the car with your fingers before discovering that the school is closed, turn round, inch your way back and slip on the steps before taking a binbag up the nearest hill. This is Britain 2010: freezing in the coldest winter for 30 years.

Global warming, don’t even try it, they’re ice-skating in Delhi and sledging in Seoul. That kind of sums up the argument doesn’t it? One of the heaviest snowfalls of the winter was landing on Britain as Ed Miliband stood up to defend the Copenhagen summit in Parliament and explain why it was the political event of the Noughties.

Yet the £130 million spent on this environmental junket for 115 world leaders appears to have come to nothing. They just expended an extra 41,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, more greenhouse gas than produced by Malawi, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone over the same period.

No one seems to care. Who gave their wife a wind turbine for Christmas? How many people bothered to sort the paper crackers from the cranberry sauce? Perhaps it’s not just the Chinese who aren’t trying any more.

When the political parties began their election campaigns this week Gordon Brown somehow failed to mention his compost; David Cameron didn’t pose for that poster with homegrown marrows in his vegetable garden. Green is no longer minty cool, it’s sludge-brown boring. According to a Populus poll in The Times in November, less than half of Britons believe it is an established scientific fact that global warming is largely man-made. They refuse to feel guilty any more. Going green is just another luxury that we have learnt to do without in the recession Yet the planet may be saved — not by human beings but by 10ft Picassoesque aliens in turquoise Speedo bodysuits with tails. These creatures, who inhabit the distant moon Pandora, live in branches and worship Mother Earth. They drink water that is pooled in giant leaves, chant around trees that whisper of their ancestors and use pterodactyls for transport (although they do still eat meat, apologetically). They are the stars of Avatar, the film that has become the fourth-biggest blockbuster of all time in less than three weeks.

The Na’vi may be armed only with bows and arrows, they may live 150 years in the future, but their message to humans is clear. You have no vegetation left on 22nd-century Earth. You have messed up your planet and wasted your resources, now don’t come and destroy ours.

When humans are sent to exploit their mineral wealth (called Unobtainium, of course) with a campaign of shock and awe bombings, they fall in love with the Na’vis low-emission lives and the hero chooses to become an alien and reject selfish humanity.

The script could have been written by Al Gore. This is An Inconvenient Truth for children, but instead of a middle-aged former Vice-President lecturing you about destroying the planet, it’s extraterrestrials who are better dressed than ET with their covetable jewellery.

How come you know so much about it, you’re thinking. It sounds ludicrous. Having seen the film twice in three days with my nine-year-old, I admit that I don’t need to see it again, but he and his friends do — and not just for the £237 million 3-D effects, the battles, the Bambi-like scenery of Pandora or the popcorn. My son believes in these creatures’ message and has started lecturing me on my environmental commitment. Why do we need to cut down a tree for Christmas? Does he really need all that packaging round his new iTouch (he does, however, still need the iTouch).

The film is brilliant PR — smug and simplistic but effective and energising. James Cameron, who won an Oscar for sinking the Titanic, now wants to save the world and may just succeed in converting the next generation. Avatar has made $1 billion from ticket sales around the world in the shortest time yet and could overtake Titanic, which took $1.8 billion.

No wonder the American Right hates it, with one commentator calling it “a deep expression of anti-Americanism”. They understand that any nation that loves this movie will not want to continue pumping oil out of the Alaskan National Park.

The director sounds a bit ridiculous when he says: “We’re going to find out the hard way if we don’t wise up and start seeking a life that’s in balance with the natural cycles of life on Earth,” Disney put it more succinctly in The Lion King with “The Circle of Life,” but Cameron is clearly a believer who is not in it just for the box-office receipts. He spent 15 years perfecting the film.

It may not be every 40-year-old’s first choice, but anyone with children — which includes most politicians — is likely to see it. President Obama chose Avatar for his family’s new year outing. The Shadow Cabinet has fallen for it: “A story about blue people who save the world created by a man called Cameron — of course we’re seen it,” said one, who went with his son. The Miliband brothers are said to be fans.

The political elite is beginning to get the message — audiences do care about the planet, they just don’t want to be lectured about it by hypocritical politicians. They want help to do their bit, not hectoring.

Avatar isn’t Star Wars, Apocalypse Now or even The Lord of the Rings: it’s not a classic. But few films manage to change perceptions. The Sound of Music rehabilitated the Austrians,Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ridiculed racism, Philadelphiamaybe changed our views about Aids, Kramer vs Kramer tackled divorce. Dr Strangelove made the best case for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Avatar — rather than Ed Miliband talking about Copenhagen — could do the same for global warming. If you can get through the snow to see it.

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