Twoview: “Avatar” and “Food Inc.”

So in the last week we saw two movies, “Avatar” and “Food Inc.“. I decided to do capsule reviews of them together because they turn out to have a philosophy in common.

“Avatar” is, of course, the story of an attempt by alien invaders (AKA humans) to force a native species (the Na’vi) out of their home (a tree at least the size of several city blocks) in order to obtain the valuable mineral underneath. One would think that the name of the material (“Unobtanium”) would tell the humans they’re in for a rough time, but, being humans, they are nothing if not persistent. By now everyone knows that this film looks AMAZING. The 3D effects are like nothing I’ve ever seen before; they make previous 3D outings, including the recent “Up”, look primitive. The plot is nothing surprising, but the visuals are so riveting that you probably won’t notice if it gets a bit predictable. I have seen a lot of commentary comparing the storyline to modern-day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I found it much more evocative of the history of the westward expansion of the United States, and what happened to the people who were already living here.

My wife stayed awake for the entire three hours, and afterwards, pronounced “Avatar” to be “not a cartoon”. Coming from her, that is high praise indeed. (I still think “District 9” is a better movie, but no one I saw “Avatar” with seems to agree with me.)

“Food Inc.” is a documentary about factory farming in the U.S. and its implications for the food supply. It told me very little I didn’t already know, from the deplorable conditions of large chicken-raising operations to the “purification” of ground meat using ammonia to the subsidies which make bad food cheaper than good food to the patenting of bio-engineered genes by companies. Still, seeing all this knit together into a single yarn makes for a profoundly disturbing experience. “Food Inc.” is a documentary with an agenda, and is very successful at getting its point across; after watching it, I find myself wishing we lived in the Shenandoah Valley, so we could patronize the farmers at PolyFace and to stock up on Stonyfield Farm yogurt (which, in fact, we already do). The massive corporations that serve as the film’s off-screen antagonists didn’t help their case by declining to be interviewed, instead setting up a counterpointing web site to tell their side. Setting up a web site is easy; answering direct questions is hard. A willingness to talk on-screen made Wal-Mart come out looking better than Monsanto, Tyson, Perdue, and others.

Renting this movie was my wife’s suggestion and, again, she stayed awake for the entire thing.

Both of these films deal with the encroaching of industrialization on the natural world, as well as with questions of sustainability and the place of technology. They do it in completely different ways, but the conclusions that can be drawn from them are similar. One is a dazzling piece of technological virtuosity as entertainment, the other a documentary in the style of “Darwin’s Nightmare” (with much glossier production values — although “Darwin’s Nightmare” remains the most riveting documentary I’ve ever seen), but they have quite a bit in common — two sides of the same coin (or beef medallion if you will). “Food Inc.” is mostly preaching to the converted, while, judging by box office numbers, “Avatar” is preaching to everybody. Which will have more impact in the long run? I’m pretty sure “Avatar” is going to change the way movies are produced; I don’t know if “Food Inc.” will have a similar effect on the way food is. One can hope.

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7 Comments

  1. my bean showed me something disturbing on tv about a review of the avatar movie… there was an announcement afterwards, calling for a protest, since all the characters were hetrosexual??? have you heard about this? and with all due respect, can the writer not write what he wants, select what orientation he chooses???

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  2. I have not yet seen Avatar, I tried a couple times over the Holidays. It was sold out in 3D each time. Jacob (the nephew I raised) said it was great but the story line was Pocahontas with aleins.

    As for Food Inc, I won’t watch it. I saw Fast Food Nation and would not eat any meat for over 6 months. It disturbed me, as I am sure Food Inc would. Like you I know whats going on. I am appaled by it, but I can’t look at it. I try hard to make ethical choices when buying food.

    I grew up with a almost vegan mother, and I chose to be vegetarian for about 7 years of my adult life. Once the kids showed up it was easier to cook balanced meals with meat.

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  3. Haven’t seen “Food, Inc,” but learned a lot about Polyface farm and the philosophy of its owner by reading _The Omnivore’s Dilemma_. What I like about the latter was that it wasn’t anti FOOD, or even anti any kind of food. Nor was it anti-business: indeed, the organic food industry is BIG business, and not necessarily any better for the planet than any other sector of the food industry. What we need, which Polyface models so beautifully, is a SUSTAINABLE food industry, which means we need to figure out how to get people fed in a way that doesn’t destroy the planet but also remains profitable. (Because who will run the food industry if they can’t also earn enough money doing it to feed their own families?)

    I share your views of Avatar (gorgeous, if a little predictable.) And you do make me want to see “District 9”!!!

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  4. Oh good post! I’ve been wanting to see both of these movies. Avatar in 3D sounds amazing. I went to see District 9 with my husband and his friend who works in the secret service. And they both didn’t really like it while I did. Hmm. I’ll have to see what I think in comparision when I watch Avatar. Oh. I’ve never seen Darwin’s Nightmare but I am now intrigued.

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  5. The showings for Avatar seem to be 2D in English near here, but I definitely want to see this one in a movie theatre. I’ll try for 3D this weekend.

    I’ll keep my eyes out for the other two you’ve mentioned .. but not both out at once. hee hee!

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