I think the last flick I’ve seen more than three times in theaters was Star Wars in 1977 when I was a sprite 11 years old. Yesterday, I saw James Cameron’s “Avatar” for the third time eagerly sharing each viewing with family and friends. Avatar’s latest box office has it ranked as the second highest grossing film of all time behind Titanic, another film directed by Cameron.
The 3D and CGI technological leaps Avatar entertains scatters a little pixie dust over one’s eyes summoning the sparkling magic of the movies we experienced as film-going adolescents. Words like “immersive” and “consuming” have been used to describe the digital deluge of artistry washing over the audience when literally bounding about the alien landscape of Pandora; a life-lush moon orbiting a gas giant planet in the Alpha Centuri tri-star complex. It is a “must-see” in big screen 3D.
There have been passionate criticisms of Cameron’s latest epic, but to me, these negative responses have not been a function of the film’s narrative per se, as much as subjective expectations projected upon one of the most expensive and anticipated movies in years. Avatar is like the “President” of feature films, and being situated at the top of Hollywood’s heap, has a difficult time pleasing everybody. But in many ways Avatar is living up to its role becoming bigger and grander than just about any other Hollywood film. Not only is it spearheading a revolution in consumer electronics and television with 3D flat screens and channels springing up (Sony, ESPN, DirecTV, etc), but it also represents one of the most penetrating and multi-faceted social commentaries to be delivered through a mainstream vehicle in years — without a doubt James Cameron’s most progressive offering.
With Hollywood stick-figure simplicity and in no uncertain terms, Avatar’s plot revolves around a set of political propositions:
* the transcendent value of life’s interdependency
* a holistic view of environmental sustainability
* anti-corporate exploitation
The story follows a paraplegic ex-Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who has been offered a gig with a multi-stellar corporation bent upon mining a rare mineral on the moon Pandora. However, in order to gain access to the biggest lode of “unobtanium”, the corporation needs to displace an indigenous population of hundreds of ten-feet tall lithe and quasi-feline blue humanoids; known as the “Na-vi”. Sully is an Avatar Driver who remotely controls a genetically grown ten foot tall Na’vi body with his nervous system. Jake’s Avatar is able to breathe Pandora’s exotic atmosphere and interact with the endemic flora and fauna; eventually, enabling him to “relate” more effectively with the Na’vi natives as one of their own.
Interdependence of all living beings and environmental stewardship
We learn that the Na’vi practice a religion of connected harmony with their Mother, the life essence of Pandora, or perhaps all life, called “Eywa”. It is explained both scientifically and through religious narrative that there is a network of energy connecting all life, and that this energy cannot be possessed; it is only borrowed and returns to Eywa after the natural cycle of life and death. Like Native Americans, when the Na’vi hunt, a “clean kill” has the Na’vi hunter praying to the soul of the dying animal expressing gratitude for the sustenance provided to The People. Unnecessary death, destruction and environmental degradation are all considered an abomination to that which is sacred; harmony with nature and the preservation of the balance of life are principle tenets practiced by the Na’vi.
Jake Sully is taught the native ways, a la Kevin Costner in “Dances with Wolves”. He is torn between two cultures: his mercenary Marine brethren doing the bidding of a profiteering conglomerate — and his new family and way of life with the Na’vi. The human invaders are chasing down profits and resources for a healthy quarterly business report back home at the expense of utterly desecrating the embodiment of Na’vi life, their towering living lair in the form of an acres tall “Home-tree” and, in the process, killing many members of the Na’vi clan. Sully chooses to defend the Na’vi “good guys” versus the militaristic corporate “bad guys”.
This first layer of story in Avatar recalls many scenes from our colonial history of conquering Empires and overrun indigenous peoples, indeed, we are still beset by the depredations of resource and human exploitation whether oil politics in the Middle East or sweatshop servitude in Asian factories supplying $3 t-shirts to the West. As I have expressed in the past, there are moral and spiritual inconsistencies with having our dollars dictate to the manner in which we treat other human beings, beyond that which we would tolerate for ourselves. As professed in a classic 60’s Star Trek episode, the values set forth in America’s founding documents must apply to all — or they mean nothing. Of course it would be unwise and currently impossible to extend the reach of Constitutional protections to all humanity, but purposefully participating and benefiting from the subjugation and exploitation of other peoples is anathema to any conception of moral consistency.
Oil wars and destruction of Earth’s environment
This film is clear about where our current problems, if unaddressed, will thrust humanity in the near future. Our hero protagonist, Jake Sully, was wounded and paralyzed from the waist down while serving with a Marine Recon Battalion in Venezuela; and our villain, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), also with Marine Recon, was wounded years earlier in Nigeria (read: oil wars). After destroying all the green on planet Earth and killing their “Mother”, the humans are out and about the universe threatening other ecosystems. The implied takeaway, let’s not destroy our environment and export a corporate driven cancer of consumption into the universal community.
Without revealing too much of the plot’s twists and turns and ups and downs, some observations that sets Avatar aside for special reflection deserve mentioning.
Newscorp as ecological evangelist?
There is a deep irony in the fact that Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp and Twentieth Century Fox have heavily promoted Avatar and its anti-corporate exploitation message, being that many times Newscorp and FOX News often cast political subjects in a very self-serving and corporatist light. Everyone is familiar with the “spin-zone” that is FOX News, but not so aware that FOX’s parent corp proliferates varying degrees of political spin throughout every time zone on planet Earth.
I am all too familiar with the breadth of Newscorp’s global holdings — satellites, newspapers, networks, publishers, studios — and the ramifications of all those venues consolidated and helmed by one political viewpoint are profound. The proof is in how Newscorp has lead the way in transforming news and objective journalism into a sensationalized circus of commentator clowns. The red noses are cute (Beck) but not when the circus tent collapses (ecosystem). While working for 20th in a past life, I helped produce a special project for Mr. Murdoch detailing the myriad tendrils and tentacles wrapped around virtually every media market around the planet, back then, we affectionately referred to him as “Darth”. It is awesome to behold the collection of corporations that make up Newscorp, one of a handful of consolidated media behemoths.
Kudos have to go to Cameron for demanding the creative independence to frame his opus in exactly the way he wanted, and although Newscorp profits will have been lifted by Avatar, the meaning and message is clearly at odds with Newscorp religion. Good news is, making positive messaging profitable combined with real action on the ground will help us surmount the environmental and economic challenges facing humanity today. Surprisingly, Newscorp is doing its part with Avatar.
Avatar’s technology as a gateway to understanding compassion
Another deeper symbolic layer in Avatar is the manner in which Jake Sully’s evolution takes place, his character arc. As an Avatar Driver, Sully’s mind and nervous system is projected into another body, physicalizing the notion of empathy, literally embodying the concept of “getting out of yourself”. This aspect of showing empathy through a technological device that handholds the audience into what it really means to look through the eyes of another has great educational value for young minds. Sully “sees” the injustice looking through the eyes of the oppressed, and makes the choice to fight it. Kids and teenagers today are enraptured with real avatars through online chat rooms, websites like Second Life and first-person video games; they are all too familiar with the abstraction that takes place in projecting the first person perspective into second and third person. What Cameron’s film does so subtly for his audience is connect the experience of ego projection into a morally and socially responsible message and all the while makes it entertaining. It’s fun to do the right thing, a mythology worth promoting.
Avatar joins the ranks of a handful of feature films over the years that have shaped public opinion and culture. Influential works like Gabriel Over the White House (1933), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Apocalypse Now (1979) or The China Syndrome (1979) have all had significant social impact. This is filmmaking at its finest, unfortunately a rare breed in an entertainment sphere that has largely been shown to degrade values more readily than build them up. Avatar reports for duty on the other side of this trend, and fosters a responsible and timely worldview in a roller coaster of a fun ride.
Don’t miss this milestone in movie making, I highly recommend it. Six stars.