I enjoyed myself fully last night as I entered the world of ‘Avatar’, James Cameron’s new sci-fi epic that already handily broke a 1 billion-dollar landmark record of some kind. I’d watch the show again tonight if I could. I’d probably watch it every night for a week like my high school buddies did for “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” once upon a time.
You don’t have to care – or understand – the point of the movie to completely enjoy the stunning visual spectacle presented in wide-screen, 3D wonder. In fact, I’d advise constraining yourself specifically to the visual effects and skip putting any real thought to the message of the movie. In essence, just sing along with the song, but don’t think about what the words actually mean.
The story follows an ex-Marine named Jake as he becomes part of a mission to subjugate – or at least translocate – the natives on a strange new planet (a moon actually, but does it matter?). On the n0t-so-subtly-named Pandora, the “aliens” congregate around an enormous tree set in the middle of a seemingly endless forest. They stand about 11 feet tall, with blue skin and luminous yellow eyes and they all seem to carry bow and arrows and daggers. These blue and tall but otherwise disappointingly human-shaped beings generally seem happiest when attending their frequent tribe-wide drum fests – with a terminally simplistic 2/4 beat rhythm that sounds like it might have been pounded out on cool Senegalese drums the Anglo orchestra bought in bulk.
These earthy aliens have a sacred, mystical, spiritual connection to the forest where they live; generally behaving like any nature-loving tribe the Europeans successfully decimated a little over a century ago in North America. In a complete creative hiatus, at one point nature is even called a “mother”. Why not a father, or brother, or just skip the nuclear family reference to nature entirely? The descriptor ‘Mother Earth’ is so unoriginal, it ranks up there with Bless You and Dot Com.
Although 2 hours and something like 40 minutes, you can easily sum up the movie in one phrase: “Dances With Wolves”…but with pterodactyls you can ride.
Basically – Marine makes contact with natives through project financed by aggressive and ethics-challenged Big Business company. Marine plans on helping his financiers destroy said natives. Instead, he inadvertently falls in love with natives in general, and one curvaceous native in particular. He then becomes the enemy of his former bosses, ultimately leading the meek, dumb, dark-skinned simpletons to victory over superior white man.
I haven’t decided if this REALLY tired theme of the White Male swooping down into a primitive race, seeing their genuine good, and then becoming their Great Savior is completely racist. Some are saying it absolutely is. I don’t really think that was the intent. I just think it was lazy writing by a white male who deep-down believes that white men are still the best hope for the world. That they still run it, ultimately. But it is possible that white men really don’t have much to offer the world anymore – that we’ve had our time and made our mark. Maybe it’s time for some non-white, non-men to run the countries, write the laws, own the companies and save fictional worlds. Maybe the white boy has done about all he can.
Big Business takes a major hit in this movie. It gets portrayed as the denizen of all Evil in life. That said, it’s Big Business that has paid for every iota of scientific discovery that has occurred on Pandora. The science taking place on this moon (and taking place on our earth) is an elevated form of existence, no question, but in both worlds it mostly exists because of Big Business, either directly or through taxes. Scientists – and artists – need to accept the fact that to live in that enlightened world of thought and wonder and possibility depends on their benefactor’s mundane ability to sell widgets. Big Business is rarely genuinely evil. True, figuring out when to inject some profit-endangering humanistic principles into a business plan does takes some skill and is occasionally gotten wrong. But for the most part, if business didn’t make the poet, at least it feeds him.
The actual “avatar” is a living being made to look like the aliens, but controlled by the mind of a human. The human links to the avatar neurologically, so it can only be controlled by one specific human. Thus, the human lies in a coffin-like body-pod that connects him/her to their specific avatar. Upon falling into a coma in the pod, the avatar wakes up and the mind of the comatose human controls it.
The doc in me couldn’t help but get hung up on this part of the movie. First, all humans need to sleep. But since the avatar wakes up as soon as the human “sleeps”, and since controlling the avatar is a conscious process, the human never actually does sleep. For some evolutionary reason I can’t fathom, REM sleep is the foundation of all life. This inconvenient fact defies even the mighty pen of James Cameron. By the end of the movie, after staying awake vicariously with the characters, I felt like I’d been on call in the hospital for days on end (felt like I was back in residency again).
Also, the human lays in this coffin thing for hours and hours. At the least, he’s gotta pee himself on a regular basis, to say nothing of the inevitable bowel movement here and there. Plus, the main character’s avatar hooks up with the sexy female alien. Depicted as the first consummating night of an eternal love bond – thus likely a multicoital affair – envisioning the scene (and smell) inside the pod after this particular night left me a bit squeamish.
As mentioned, the power of this movie is in the visuals. It is a “looker” many times over. But the general message is tired, probably slightly racist, and denigrates the U.S. Military (or at least leads the audience to exult in the widespread slaughter of American soldiers/mercenaries). That said, perhaps our culture really should take the main theme of the story to heart. After all, we DID decimate the Native American culture, and based on my experiences on the Crow Reservation in Montana, I’d say we continue to. We’re also strikingly obtuse in our dealings with tribal cultures in the Middle East today. Listening to people from a different culture – rather than melting them with daisycutters and circling drones – has some merit.
But I do wish the movie had added a little post-modernism into the mix and eschewed the evil-good idea altogether. It didn’t have to pit the American Axis of Evil (big business + U.S. Army) against a pristine tribal culture practically perfect in every way. Historic Native American tribes were often duplicitous, aggressive, thieving and hateful (many still are today). They rarely trusted each other from tribe to tribe and may have been just as irresponsible had one tribe attained the raw power that the U.S. Government currently has. The Arab tribes we’re tangling with recently have a litany of faults and cobwebby dark corners too. But they are also a just, priceless, sacred, honorable people. This dichotomy exists in virtually every race in our world. Americans seem to hate this complexity in our fiction – it’s easier to hate one thing and love another and then watch them duke it out.
Thus, the conflict in the movie could have been between two parties filled with faults and frailties but ultimately imbued with genuine honor, honesty and a respect for the rights of others. Standing between them is something they both deeply need and want (trees, mineral ore…whatever). In life, conflicts almost always boil down to two parties who both have blood on their hands, but both are essentially good, honorable…and in the right. e.g., Palestine wants the land, Israel wants the land, both have been evil at times, both have been angelically good at times, and each have some form of legitimate claim to the exact space of real estate. Stick that conundrum in your avatar’s virtual peace pipe and take a deep drag, nature-brother.
Depicting this nuanced world may have weakened the sense of righteous rage as the Army went Operation Flatten Everything. It may have lessened the gloating release when the Ultimate Bad Guy finally met his ignominious end. But it would have made a better movie. It would have made the written story as complex as those fantastic visuals, and created a worthy counterpart to such a sparkling, wondrous vision.