Sunday, January 03, 2010

The (Not So) Obligatory Avatar Post



I went to see Avatar at the same theater I saw The Day the Earth Stood Still. It's at the gateway of the New Jersey Skylands, in a once-enormous mall that has metastisized to an almost parodic size. It's also one of the few multiplexes in the area with an IMAX theatre and I needed to see Avatar in 3D on the largest screen possible. I had wanted to see it on Christmas Day, but I was over-ruled by my sons who wanted to see Sherlock Holmes. It was a fortuitous decision, because after all of the excitement of Christmas, Avatar would have been overwhelming. Seeing Avatar was itself like a holiday. It was also a voyage into another world, like nothing I've ever seen on screen in my life.

The omens were not good- it was bitterly cold on Saturday, and the lines for the film were huge and people were not happy. Tickets needed to ordered in advance and shows were selling out very quickly. Our seats weren't great and my daughter's neck ached from having to look up at the screen. But I've never been to a film where the audience was so spellbound.

First of all, let's face facts- the actual story here is derivative in the extreme - Cameron essentially admitted the film was Dances with Wolves in Space (I'd add in films like Little Big Man and The Last Samurai, among others). Its politics are typical Hollywood hypocrisy, the old noble savage/back to nature trope, brought you courtesy of the most elaborate and sophisticated technology ever used in the cinema.

Neoconservatives are having a 24/7 shitfit over its anti-war, anti-corporate, anti-globalist message and Theoconservatives are wetting their pants over its Gaia theory-on-steroids theology. But Cameron is a master storyteller, meaning he knows how to manipulate human emotion, and that means weaving fantasies that are essentially untenable, but speak to human frustrations and wish-fulfillment.

The irony of it all is that Pandora is the most completely wired environment yet seen onscreen (outside of a Borg cube, that is). The Na'vi have a kind of built-in USB hub that allows them to interface with their world. It raised all sorts of interesting intelligent design/directed panspermia-gone-meta kind of questions for me, and reminded me of AAT themed Star Trek episodes like 'Justice' and 'The Apple' (note that the new Uhura motion-captured the Na'vi love interest).

I wondered if Cameron literally saw Pandora's patron deity Eywa as an enormous biocomputer, since that's exactly how it behaved. The over-riding message seems to be that back to nature is fine, just as long as we can keep the Internet. The real appeal of the story here is that back-to-the-womb longing that undergirds our back-to-nature fantasies. That's the keen sense of the 'loss of innocence' we all feel.

THE UN-ALIENS

James Cameron first got my attention with Aliens ( I didn't see the first Terminator until the missus and I got our first VCR in '86). That movie blew my mind in a way I hadn't experienced since the first Star Wars. But its message is the exact opposite of Avatar's and I'm wondering how much of that is intentional.

The Colonial Marines are the heroes in that film, here they've evolved into thuggish, kill-crazy Blackwater-type corporate cossacks. Sigourney Weaver was the ass-kicking xenophobe, here she's the bleeding heart xenophile. The weasely Paul Reiser corporate drone character from Aliens is largely intact in Giovanni Ribisi's character, but is given a slight hint of a conscience, only appropriate since he's signing off on unimaginable destruction.

In Aliens, human colonists were depicted as victims, even though they had invaded and occupied the aliens' home. Here the humans are the aggressors, destroying the neolithic Na'vis home and culture simply to pull minerals with anti-gravity properties out of the ground. Cameron has made no secret the film is a critique of the endless Oil Wars (which Obama is now getting ready to expand into Yemen) and drops in buzzwords like 'shock and awe', so even the densest viewer will get the message.

That's all fine and good, but for me this film wasn't about geopolitics or religious squabbling, it was about escaping cold, dreary New Jersey and taking the most immersive journey I've ever experienced in a theater. This movie is narcotic- nearly orgasmic- in its power to bring you into another reality. I'm sure every single executive and producer in Hollywood had a grim vacation, since Cameron (whom they already resent and envy) just raised the bar in a way that will make movies even more costly - and risky.

Some reviewers have pointed out that despite its anti-war, back-to nature message, the Na'vi still rely on the white jarhead to be chosen by Eywa to save the day. Some liberals read a racialist message into this (funny how the media types get all symbolical when it suits their own agenda), but being an old school sci-fi geek I recognized the influence of John Carter of Mars when I saw it. Remember that Carter traveled to Mars via astral projection, a mystic predecessor to the (admittedly shaky) science of the avatars themselves.

Don't be fooled, this is a William Gibson story with Greenpeace pretensions (those built-in interfaces are the giveaway). This is about entering a virtual reality, which is exactly what the viewers are doing themselves.

But the thing that struck me most of all though was that pesky human-maladaption thing I keep going on about. We treat this planet exactly the same way we treat Pandora- and this is supposed to be our home, allegedly. Why? Because we don't really feel we belong here (all of our religious institutions tell us we don't, though they forgot exactly why ages ago) and we're keenly aware that if we don't impose our will on the Biosphere it will destroy us, the way it has always done.

In one sense, the kind of industrialism (well, a more benign variety, at least) Cameron decries in Avatar is the only thing protecting us from the kinds of famines and plagues and natural disasters that continue to slaughter people in underdeveloped cultures. Don't be fooled by this geologically-insignificant little respite we're enjoying- this planet hates us just as much as Pandora.

Maybe the Na'vi will turn out to be a post-industrial society, who created Eywa as a self-sustaining biological mainframe, which allowed them to finally harmonize with the world they were left stranded on by some race of previous "Sky People" (which some of you might remember is a rough translation of 'Annunaki').

That would really get the Theocons' blood boiling, Jim.

UPDATE: Here's an interesting article on the Evangelical crusade against Avatar.

SECRET SUN READING LIST