19 December 2009

Thoughts on Avatar (dir. James Cameron, 2009)

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
– John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc'd at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind ....
– Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

One of the basic functions of Art is to challenge us to see our world and ourselves in new ways, to perceive and look at Life differently.

To see in new ways, to perceive differently: this, we might say, is the raison d'être of science fiction, a genre/mode/tradition that relies upon the estranging and unfamiliar as a means by which to comment upon now, upon today.

Of all modern art forms, film most powerfully and concretely has the ability to change how we see our world and ourselves, to put before us the estranging and unfamiliar, thereby introducing us to new worlds whether they be of the past or the present or the future, another country or culture, other lives outside of or unknown to us.

Avatar does all of this, as a work of Art, of science fiction, of film -- on an epic, sublime, and breathtaking scale.

It seeks nothing less than to remind us of the stunning, heartbreaking beauty of Earth, a beauty that we must value as more than a mere commodity. It aims unabashedly to alter how we see Earth by giving us Pandora, a world so magnificently surprising and colourful and alive that it asks us to be swept away by and utterly immersed in the beauty of its newness . . . asks us to care for it and protect it from ourselves.

Seeing forms the centre of Avatar: in its story and characters; in the very 3D technology Cameron developed simply to make the film that matched his vision and needs.

As injured former Marine Jake Sully arrives on Pandora and gets introduced to the scientists who will help him learn to use and control his Na'vi avatar, such that he can make contact and establish a (diplomatic) relationship with Pandora's indigenous people, he must also begin learning the Na'vi language. In Na'vi, to say "I see you," one of the scientists informs Jake, means something more like, "I see into you" -- thus, a statement of acknowledgement, acceptance, understanding, sympathy, even love and affection.

This alien way of seeing (into) another person is mirrored in Cameron's use of 3D for Avatar. The 3D serves, I think, a specific, crucial function in the film: supporting and embodying Avatar's central theme and metaphor. As we are taken to an alien world, we must -- like Jake Sully -- struggle to see, perceive, and look at it on its own terms. Initially, the 3D takes some getting used to, such as near the film's beginning when Jake is released from his cryogenic bed and floats to his locker: the long shaft in the spaceship where Jake is located with other awakening crew members is almost too much visual information to process, yet fascinating to watch at the same time. As Jake (and so the audience) gradually experiences more and more of Pandora, the 3D becomes almost natural, almost inherent to the way in which one looks at and inhabits this world. Specifically, the 3D becomes intimately intertwined with the very wonder that is Pandora.

For instance, when Jake and Neytiri (his Na'vi contact, sponsor, teacher, love interest) first meet, she grudgingly decides to bring him to her people. At one point, they stop on a large tree branch that serves as a path, a bridge. While they are talking, we see something that looks like a cross between a miniature floating jellyfish and a fuzzy dandelion seed captured by a breeze. Neytiri informs Jake that it is a seed of Eywu, the Na'vi's name for their Mother Nature, which is also in fact a physical tree, their holy of holies. This seed of Eywu flits around Jake and comes to land on him; soon he is covered by several of these white, glowing seeds. All the while, the scene is in 3D, which generates the magic of the event for the audience and so reflects the surprise of the experience for Jake.

Moments such as this one consistently remind us of Pandora's newness, even as we also become accustomed to experiencing that newness through a 3D perspective. In effect, through that 3D perspective we "see into" Pandora and the Na'vi, caring deeply for both. Thus, the "truth" of Avatar is found in its "beauty."

With regard to the story, then, many are commenting on its unoriginality, its mere conventionality. Cameron got this part of the film wrong, some say. The story is just Dances With Wolves in space, some say. It is just Pocahantas with blue aliens, others say. It is trite, still others say.

These sorts of comments reveal, I think, a kind of jadedness in viewers and critics. The plot is certainly not original: the outsider arrives in The New World, intent upon exploiting it for his personal (economic, political, cultural) gain; he meets and develops a relationship with the local, indigenous people; as he learns their ways and falls in love with the King's daughter, he changes his perspective and instead wants to defend them from his own people/nation/corporation. Cameron, clearly, does not aim for an original plot in Avatar. Rather, he aims for a story that rests on the foundation of mythological/archetypal themes and characters and situations. In other words, he goes for the universal and the timeless.

The originality of Avatar, then, resides in how Cameron tells the story, not necessarily what he tells in the story. "True Wit," as Alexander Pope observes in An Essay on Criticism, "is Nature to Advantage drest": originality is a familiar story made fresh again by the way an artist dresses it in new clothing, in the fashion of the day. That freshness in Avatar comes from the tropes of science fiction and how Cameron translates them into the medium of film and with the 3D technology.

Avatar paints its heroes and villains with broad brush strokes, true. Yet I believe that is the point: good and evil are unambiguous; we are asked to root wholeheartedly for Jake and the Na'vi, and we are asked to resist and detest the greed and hubris of the humans who desire Pandora solely for its economic value. In doing so, we are asked as well to rejoice in the joy of hope . . . perhaps a fading possibility for many today.

Moreover, through the tropes and conventions of science fiction in particular, Avatar challenges its audience to reflect upon the assumptions we may carry regarding the alien, the other. (This notion is certainly key to the Pocahontas story, to Dances With Wolves, and so forth.) Near the film's end, when Jake narrates that the "aliens" (i.e., humans) left Pandora for good, his transformation and altered perspective are complete: humanity is now the other; Pandora and the Na'vi are now the norm. The potential consequence, the film hopes, is that we are transformed, too. When we not only sympathize and identify with the Other, but see as the Other, we can enact true change in ourselves and in our world.*

For these reasons, Cameron gets the story right. He utilizes the plot structure and archetypes that most boldly and distinctly communicate his meanings. We need not ask much more of him, I think.

I admire and feel humbled by the force of will and determination, by the dedication and belief and vision, of James Cameron. Bringing this film to fruition represents a phenomenal achievement. Avatar's beauty left me in speechless awe too many times to count (Neytiri and then Jake flying Pandora's skies on ikran; Jake being accepted as one of The People, the camera pulling up to an overhead shot looking down upon the Na'vi all joined in a circle and connected to Jake by laying a hand on each others' shoulders; plants and creatures that light up when touched; the floating mountains). I reveled in the characters and the story, only too willing to let myself be swept away by the action, the romance, the humour, and the catharsis of the good guys winning -- really winning -- in the end.

Avatar is a film that can be seen only in the theatre to experience the full impact of all that it attempts to do. It is science fiction as pure "sense of wonder." It is Art as Truth, Beauty, and Wit.

Here are links to some reviews of and discussions about Avatar (to be updated as I find more sources):
Metacritic.com Avatar page
Roger Ebert's review
Roger Ebert's blog entry
The Globe & Mail's review
The Globe & Mail's interview with Cameron
The Toronto Star's review
Big Hollywood's review (for a negative reaction)
SF Signal discussion
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
Bookspot Central review

*NOTE: A fair amount of discussion about Avatar focusses on the film's politics, which are environmentalist/ecological and anti-Bush Era free-market capitalism/pre-emptive war. Cameron himself admits to such an agenda with Avatar. I just want to clarify a couple of misconceptions that inform some of the negative responses to the film on this count.

First, the military in the film are not nationally/internationally sanctioned troops: they are mercenaries (many of them ex-Marines) hired by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) to provide security for his mining operations on Pandora. Even Jake Sully is no longer a Marine, but has come to Pandora because it is a job and a chance to do something, as the VA will not cover the operation that would fix his spinal injury and give him his legs back. If the film is "anti-war" or "anti-America" in any way (and the mercenaries are obviously presented as Americans), it does so as a critique of the colonialist, corporate, free-market capitalism that, for example, produces the private security forces at work in Iraq today. In this respect, yes, the Americans are the bad guys, and have been for centuries (I recommend perusing Ronald Wright's What is America? on this topic).

Second, Avatar's environmentalist/ecological message is very much front and centre, yet Cameron is not, I suspect, arguing for a "green politics" that would have government(s) too invasively "regulate" our lives. Sometimes, the only way to get a message across is to use a Big Stick. Is the Earth in peril (primarily because of colonialist, corporate, free-market capitalism's greed)? Yes. Should we be reminded of Earth's precious, inspiring beauty and of how all of Nature is profoundly interconnected? Yes. Does the film leave the choice of what we do about Earth's current condition in the hands of the individual? Yes.

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