Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Avatar": review

Some naughty person uploaded the entire movie "Avatar" onto a site that is one click away from YouTube, so for the first time since the movie came out in 2009, I sat down to watch it. As a work of hard science fiction, "Avatar" fails miserably, but the movie works much better if you think of it in metaphorical and allegorical terms. It recalls Rousseau's condescending (but still-cherished) notion of the noble savage, and it offers the viewer a heavy-handed message about the evils of modernity—destructive technology, acquisitive capitalism, the rape of the land. The blue-skinned native people of "Avatar," the Na'vi, evoke every pre-industrial society from Native Americans to sub-Saharan Africans. The story trajectory for protag and narrator Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, unable to hide his Aussie accent) is predictable; Sully goes native and the movie, which plays like a Kevin Costner revisionist Western, truly does earn its unofficial parodic title, "Dances with Smurfs." It's also worth noting the irony that the anti-technological, environmentalist thrust of "Avatar" is delivered through the miracle of special-effects technology. Taken either as hard science fiction or as a message movie, "Avatar" is a jumbled mess.

But, oh, what a gorgeous film. The creatures populating Pandora, the moon on which the action takes place, aren't particularly imaginative in conception, but they're beautifully rendered analogues of dragons, dinosaurs, buffalo, dogs, and horses (no cats, though, unless the thanator qualifies as a sort of black tiger). Director James Cameron treads dangerously close to the fantasy genre; Pandora is a magical, mystical world in which the biological bleeds seamlessly into the metaphysical. Different forms of life have evolved on that lush moon—yielding plenty of hexapods, fangs, and bioluminescence—and most have developed a way to "plug into" each other, reinforcing a resonant web of interspecies empathy. Pandora stands as a metaphor for our own world; through his visual tricks, Cameron makes planetary interconnectedness more visible to us.

And it's not just the life forms that are gorgeous and inspiring: the terrain is awesome as well. You have to put aside any understanding of physics to buy into what you're seeing, but those floating mountains, chock full of the precious "unobtainium" ore and resplendent with diaphanous waterfalls, are a sumptuous feast for the eyes, easily worthy of Peter Jackson's vision of Middle Earth (NB: Jackson's Weta Workshop did the special effects for "Avatar"; there's a reason why everything looks so familiar).

"Avatar" tells the story of Jake Sully, a disabled Marine whose scientist twin brother has been killed. Jake, despite being a grunt who lacks his brother's science background, takes his brother's place in the "avatar program," a sort of diplomacy-through-bioengineering project in which human minds are projected into genetically engineered Na'vi bodies—the "avatars" of the movie's title. Humans in possession of Na'vi bodies can breathe Pandora's air (poisonous to humans) and, it is hoped, learn the Na'vi culture and language in order to persuade the Na'vi to help the humans mine the superconducting unobtainium that Earth needs to reconstitute its wasted self. Jake is a perfect genetic match for his brother, and thus a perfect match for his brother's avatar. He has teachers and helpers: Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) heads the avatar program; Dr. Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) is an anthropologist; Dr. Max Patel (Dileep Rao) is a fellow researcher.

The scientists have a tense relationship with the military contingent; the soldiers look upon the Na'vi as primitives, savages, unenlightened monkeys. Hardass Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is head of security, and he promises the paralyzed Sully that, if Sully can act as a spy who reports on the Na'vi, he can have his legs back. Sully, who is also working for the scientists to gain the natives' trust, slips into a coffin-like chamber that allows him to connect with his Na'vi self. While acting as a Na'vi, learning the people's language, culture, and survival skills, Jake becomes seduced by life on Pandora, and he inevitably goes native.

From here on, you can pretty much predict the plot: with the help of his Na'vi teacher and love interest Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Jake proves himself as a warrior and eventually leads the Na'vi in an attack against the human settlement. I'll let you imagine how it turns out, if you're one of the five people on the planet who haven't seen "Avatar" by now.

For me, suspension of disbelief entailed bracketing everything I know about actual science. I could have spent all day poking holes in this aspect of the story: how could Pandora evolve humanoids who live in recognizably human societies? How could parallel evolution also produce the equivalents of dogs, horses, rhinos, and pterosaurs? How does the human/avatar uplink actually function? How can unobtainium produce enough energy to hold up mountains while not exerting equal pressure against the ground? I also had to ignore the movie's message, a standard Hollywood trope that's been with us since at least the 1970s, when Hollywood was questioning America's role in Vietnam. Further, I had to try hard to ignore the many instances in which Cameron cribbed elements from his own cinematic oeuvre, especially "Aliens": the super-competent female pilot (Michelle Rodriguez), the creature-versus-mecha combat, the overuse of the color blue, the evil corporate machinations, and so on.* After stripping all those factors away, what was left was this question: was it a good story?

The answer: yes. Yes, it was.

"Avatar" works—not as a message movie, not as hard sci-fi, but as a heroic adventure that gives a bit of a twist to Joseph Campbell's monomyth paradigm: for Campbell, the hero is the one who brings a boon back to his people; Jake Sully, however, starts the story as an alien, and only gradually comes to think of the Na'vi as "his people."

So you might be wondering: if Sully falls in love with Neytiri, and all these adventures befall his Na'vi body while his human body is in the tanning booth, what happens at the end? Jake is still human, after all; for him to live with Neytiri forever, Jake will have to sever his ties with humanity and somehow transfer his consciousness fully into his Na'vi avatar. Well... to this end, the movie offers up its own version of the fal-tor-pan (spirit-transference) ritual at the end of "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock." To reinhabit his body, Spock had to pass through the medium of T'Lar; "Avatar" has no T'Lar, but it does have the Tree of Souls.

The movie had some of the same themes as can be found in other works of science fiction, especially the notion of a web-like, planet-spanning consciousness. Isaac Asimov's Gaia comes to mind: in the Foundation universe, Gaia is a world on which every particle of matter, biotic or abiotic, participates in a massive collective sentience. Gaian humans enjoy a certain level of individuality, but they are nevertheless "plugged in" to the rest of their world. Robert Silverberg's strange novel The Face of the Waters also comes to mind: human beings who live on the planet Hydros are in constant danger of extinction as the entire planet uses its global hive mind to reject or eject the humans, attacking much as an immune system might do. By the end of the novel, the protagonist, Lawler, has learned that the only way to survive the planet's attempts to kill him is to merge with that superconsciousness, much the way Jake Sully does at the end of "Avatar."

So "Avatar" works as a simple adventure story, the tale of an unlikely hero. Despite its liberal agenda, it follows the politically incorrect template of the white man who comes to help the poor natives and, in the process, becomes the natives' greatest champion. "Avatar" is predictable for long stretches; it's impossible to take seriously as an anti-technological, pro-environmentalist statement, and is just as hard to swallow as a serious work of science fiction, but the beauty of its visuals, the headlong rush of its narrative, and the appeal of some of its corny, lovey-dovey concepts are all impossible to deny. I wouldn't mind visiting Pandora, if it were real, and communing with its ancient plant life.

Or better yet, its lanky, coltish women.

*James Cameron, for all his left-liberalism, has an affinity for the work of Robert Heinlein. Both "Aliens" and "Avatar" contain sly Heinlein references. In "Aliens," the term "bug hunt" in the context of human-soldiers-versus-insectoid-aliens evokes Starship Troopers; in "Avatar," the use of the slang term "bounce" does the same.


Elisson said...

My take on Avatar:

Kevin Kim said...

Veddy nice. Ar'mi/Na'vi, eh?

Surprises Aplenty said...

I watched this film with some students and they had to repeat each movie line as we heard it.

Because of this, my favorite part is where the tribe's chief, the love interest's father is killed. Uh, I guess that sounds horrible but the language the natives are given means that after all the destruction, the blue woman appears to be crying out, "My cellphone! My cell~~phone." I made my students repeat that line many times.