The issues of power and political difference have always been of great interest for scholars, politicians and mere mortals due to the controversy around the former concepts.
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As a result, the two have spawned countless number of artistic interpretations, Cameron’s Avatar and Scott’s Gladiator being the landmarks of the XXI century take at the problem. Although the movies are based on completely different stories and are driven by seemingly different plots, a number of ideas regarding power and policy of differentiation in both movies rub shoulders.
No matter what one might say about Avatar being the adult version of Disney’s Pocahontas, as well as the fact that the story of greedy invaders and poor civilian residents has been beaten to death, the movie still offers an interesting journey into human mind. James Cameron clearly knows how to get the audience in their seats for a couple of hours, and creates a sophisticated political and cultural conflict.
Scott’s Gladiator, in its turn, provides a much darker and, therefore, more adult view of the problem. Unlike Avatar, Gladiator does not pander to its audience, thus, it taps on more complex issues.
In addition, Gladiator tackles the story that is arguably planted into the realm of reality, the lead character being the representation of those oppressed and rebelling against the dictatorship of Commodus. Although in no possible way can the movie claim to be historically accurate, it still represents real people and the events that, for the most part, actually took place – or, at the very least, could be.
Nevertheless, what both movies are very good at is taking the evil off the political difference and power, though with rather different takes on the problem. In Gladiator, the social stratification is dealt with in a very impressive way.
As it has been stressed above, in Gladiator, the director and screenwriter did not actually have to come up with the political environment for the story to unwrap in – the dictatorship of the Roman autocrats and the miserable life of plebs and especially slaves, which Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridius represented, was already a notorious page in the world history.
However, Scott still did an amazingly good job by projecting the power abuse and policy of differentiation of the XXI century onto the Ancient Roman story. For example, the following line by Commodus points at the flaws of the ochlocracy system, in which the power belongs to few people defined as the crème of society. In Avatar, the issue concerning power abuse is downplayed compared to the Gladiator plot; however, the Colonel Quaritch is miles away from Commodus in terms of the methods exercised to seize power.
Commodus acts as a power-hungry despot by demanding that Crowe’s character should be dragged through mud, enslaved and finally killed for the amusement of the Roman elite. While astonishingly diabolical, these intentions still show that Commodus is a mere mortal with his petty concerns about his status, wealth and other down-to-earth trifle.
Colonel Quaritch, in his turn, clearly aims at playing God by offering Sully the ability to walk and, in fact, live a complete and different life: “A recon gyrene in an Avatar body… that’s a potent mix! Gives me the goosebumps!” (Avatar 0:36:17). It would be wrong to assume that God related symbolism must have been Cameron’s intent, since the focus of the movie is not on Christianity, but on policy of difference; however, the allusions in the movie are far too strong to ignore them.
Moreover, unlike Commodus, who was born into his position and, therefore, considers his means of ruling the Empire the only acceptable methods, Quaritch knows exactly what is wrong with his strategy and openly acknowledges it: “Well, well, well. I’d say diplomacy has failed” (Avatar 0:41:03).
Apart from power, both movies also touch upon the policy of difference, and they do so in a very smart and unique way. Avatar represents the clash of two different races, for the lack of a better word to describe the conflict between people and aliens, whereas Gladiator renders the issue of one social class oppressing another.
However, Cameron downplays the concept of policy of difference greatly – perhaps, in attempts to get a PG-13 rating, while Gladiator does not shy away from displaying the faults of the policy of difference in the intense scenes of battles and vile treatment of slaves, thus, warranting an R-rating in some of the theaters: “They tell me your son squealed like a girl when they nailed him to the cross” (Gladiator 1:11:02).
Avatar spares its audience the necessity to see Na’vis slaughtered in the battles and instead offers the viewers to sneak a peek at the evil masterminds, including Quaritch and the greedy government plotting to get the hold of unobtanium: “This is why we’re here. Unobtanium. Because this little gray rock sells for twenty million a kilo” (Avatar 0:23:55).
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Though the two movies belong to different genres and are set in completely different environment, they tackle the same problem of power abuse and policy of difference efficiently. Smart and sophisticated, the movies give a lot of food for thoughts. Despite having their flaws, they are clearly worth watching.
Avatar. Ex. Prod. James Cameron. Los Angeles, CA: Twentieth Century Fox. 2009. DVD.
Gladiator. Ex. Prod. Ridley Scott. Los Angeles, CA: Universal Pictures. 2000. DVD.