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Archive for September, 2010

Avatar: Becoming true to one’s self

Posted by Ron George on September 6, 2010

Jake Sully arrives on Pandora

Determined: Ex-Marine Jake Sully arrives on Pandora

Avatar is back, and I’m glad. This time, though, I want to see in in 3-D.

OK. The critics are right. The plot is paper thin, predictable and too typical of James Cameron, who wrote and directed it. Who cares? The plot may be thin, but the story is potent. Avatar is a half-a-billion-dollar transformation myth, the story of a paraplegic Marine whose unlikely path from has-been to hero is riveting for no other reason than that these are some of the finest computer-generated graphics ever seen. They say it’s way too long at 2 hours, 40 minutes, but you know what? I didn’t look at my watch once the first time through. Didn’t even think about it, and I don’t believe it was just because of the pretty pictures. Then there’s the charge that it is racist or at least elitist, the story of a white guy who masters a “primitive” native culture in a matter a months to become its savior and the fulfillment of its most cherished myth. More about that later. 

Jake Sully learns Na'vi ways

Becoming: Jake Sully hunts as a Na’vi within and through his avatar

We see all the usual Cameronesque themes – bad guys as corporate executives and murderous militarists, overwhelming odds against the good guys, but most of all, the idea that revenge is sweet. There’s a far-fetched but beautiful metaphysic that pays heavy-handed tribute to indigenous peoples’ connection with nature. Oh, yeah. There’s also a love story, also far-fetched and a bit heavy-handed, too sentimental by half – and it all ends happily ever after. Even James Cameron can’t buck that Hollywood convention. How much more truthful it would have been to eschew all that righteous revenge and tell the story as it really is – extermination of the beautiful, exotic indigenes by the obscene might of an industrialized military. (What makes the outcome different in “Avatar” is that Gaia gets royally pissed.)

There’s a 9/11 scene, a bit of a mixed metaphor as the natives’ home tree is brought low by corporate terrorism. There are echoes of Cameron’s previous oeuvre, perhaps most striking (to me at least) is Sigourney Weaver’s death in a pose recalling her coming to life as a cloned hybrid in “Alien Resurrection.” 

Col. Quaritch dies

Sweet revenge: Col. Quaritch dies of Na’vi arrows despite his armor

All of which, surprisingly enough, raises a lump in one’s throat at the end. Cameron, indeed, has us by the throat as he blends all of the above into something resembling transformation. (Critics’ comparison of this theme with Dances With Wolves is not at all far-fetched.) The wheelchair-ridden Marine is transformed into the risen lord of the tribes’ victory in battle against alien invaders (us) and overwhelming odds. The industrialists are sent packing, and our hero is united with his beloved. Does this make Avatar racist and/or elitist? Nah. Cameron portrays the Na’vi of Pandora as being intelligent in ways human beings can’t imagine or, perhaps, have forgotten. An underlying theme of Avatar is the irony of our believing that we are superior by force of arms and our ability to exploit natural resources. The Na’vi are blown away by their first horrific encounter with Col. Miles Quaritch’s choppers and rockets, but once they attack on their own terms, they defeat the humans outright; moreover, the natural environment with which they have a deep, abiding connection comes to their rescue. It was this connection that ex-Marine Jake Sully had to learn in order to become a Na’vi man. All the peripherals stem from that; and he did become one with them and led them not as human outsider but as one transformed by his experience of their ways of life. Critics may spin it however they will, but this film – compare it with Dances With Wolves – is about a changed white man not, an superior imposter, who is liberated by a superior worldview. 

Jake Sully dies

Death: Attended by the Na’vi, Jake Sully gives up his broken body

One can’t help but wonder whether any of this takes serious root in our cultural psyche. Conflating the ancient myth of the risen hero who willingly dies so that all might live – an ancient, almost universal agricultural myth – with a contemporary tale of murderous revenge just might be an expression what ails us as a society of supposedly religious people. We just can’t seem to keep the story straight. Revenge feels so damn good, after all, but it is seldom the way of love that moves one to self-sacrifice rather than combat. (Remember crotchety, old Clint Eastwood in Grand Torino? He gives himself up to death by a gun-toting gang, falling in the form of a cross! Not a little heavy-handed, but let’s just say Mr. Eastwood wanted to make his point very clear.)

It’s easy to make too much of a movie, and I don’t want to make too much of this one. (Oh, hell, I confess – I’ve seen it more often than I can recall.) I do want to say, though, that it seems to reflect our confusion about our values; indeed, it may be a perfect reflection of our confusion in its celebration of both revenge and redemptive love. Cameron’s films are not just about overcoming unremitting evil but vanquishing it ferociously with no more mercy than it might have conquered good. The good guys always seem to come from behind because their fundamental assumption is, to paraphrase the slimy corporate minion Carter Burke in Aliens, there’s nothing we can’t handle. Turns out there is, and it’s so superior that only pure heroism – and total victory – will suffice. To paraphrase Churchill, if we don’t fight, we won’t survive. 

Jake Sulley awakens

Transformation: Jake Sulley awakens within his avatar, now his permanet body

Striding alongside merciless revenge, though, is self-sacrificing, redemptive love. In Aliens, it was Helen Ripley’s refusal to leave Newt behind; in Terminator 2, it’s the mighty android’s leap into a cauldron of molten metal to save the world from itself; in Titanic, it’s Jack’s rescue of Rose. (The real stars of Titanic, though, were the ship and the sea. Did evil win in this one? Depends on whether you believe the Titanic was an expression of humanity’s arrogance and hubris at believing it could make an “unsinkable ship.”)

I’d like to be able to say that Avatar is thought provoking, but it’s not. Cameron gets our attention by smacking us in the face and rubbing our noses in his viewpoint. He wants us to feel it not think about it, at least not much. I’m not offended by either his method or viewpoint. I enjoy his films in spite of myself, and I’m disposed to believe he’s right about militarism, rampant entrepreneurialism, cultural imperialism and humanity’s penchant for aggrandizement and denial. I’m sure some are offended by Cameron’s method and his viewpoint, but I doubt anyone can doubt this film’s sheer entertainment value, even if it does fail as persuasion that, while revenge may be sweet, nothing saves the day more than self-sacrifice.

Avatar made me wonder whether Cameron’s essential point was no more than Polonius’ advice to his son: “This above all: to thine own self be true; and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” A lot of grief in Cameron’s filmography might have been avoided had this maxim been in play; but then, we would not have all that striking entertainment.

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