Friday, April 2, 2010

Avatar: awful but useful

There are some films I eagerly want to watch; there are many I'm completely indifferent to; and there are a few I determinedly avoid.  Avatar was one of the latter.  I'm grumpy about 'blockbusters' and I can't stand tired old cliched plots.  My children will one day tell their therapists about all the cultural references they missed because I wouldn't take them to hit movies. 

So it was very odd to find myself watching it in Omnimax 3D, surrounded by law students.  Reader, I took my entire Comparative Property Rights seminar to see it. 

Here's my review: special effects = impressive; movie = even worse than I feared, and that's saying something.  But . . . as a property rights teaching tool?  Pretty darn good. 

Some of the property issues are obvious: who has rights in the 'unobtanium' (even the name makes me cringe)?

But others are less obvious, more interesting and good teaching tools.  [SPOILER ALERT!]  For example:

  • who owns the avatars?  The company that developed them?  The people 'inhabiting' them?  Or are they human-enough that they are unownable?  Interestingly, my students generally agreed that they were the intellectual property of their creators.  But the implications of that left them uneasy: owners of property, after all, generally have the right to destroy it.  And yet everyone rooted against the company when it attempted to do just that.  And if the avatars are property, can they own property?  The main character seems to.
  • Do the Na'avi have individual property rights, or do they own all property in common?  Do the earthlings view them as 'noble savages' who are too pure for private property?  Does director James Cameron?  In that context, consider the cultural misunderstandings about that very issue that have historically undermined indigenous property rights systems: as Kenneth H. Bobroff explains, the continued misperception that Native American tribes owned all resources in common has had disastrous results for generations of Native Americans. 
  • What if the Na'avi lived in the United States -- could the government have simply taken their land, compensated them, and been done with it?
  • Has James Cameron misappropriated others' creative inventions?  After all, believe me, if you've seen Pocahantas or Dances With Wolves, you've seen Avatar, too at a startling level of detail.
  • Last property question:  Do you get to keep the 3D glasses? 

Did you see Avatar?  Did you think of the property rights issues?  Do your children find you annoying, too?   

Mark Edwards

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