Posted by: gdevi | December 20, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar (2009)

When you think of Hollywood saving the world from the evil forces, it is instinctive, almost natural for us to picture the Superman, the Batman, the Spiderman, the Hulk, the Iron Man–only a heavily weaponized human form, a human form outfitted with all kinds of mechanical accessories can combat the forces of evil and save the earth and all of us mortals from our imminent painful extinction. Keep this Hollywood trope at the forefront of your mind as you watch James Cameron’s Avatar. Avatar is a marvelous movie, and you will appreciate it a great deal more if you learn to see how Cameron has perhaps changed forever Hollywood’s ubermensch narratives. Although I always liked Cameron’s Alien (the first one–an interesting take on motherhood, that one is) I could not sit through Titanic and I have never seen the Terminator movies, ever. But I really liked Avatar; it tells an allegorical story through a sophisticated narrative that draws on everything from the Greek myths and Indian myths, to Gilgamesh, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the current US war on terror, with each allusion carefully notched along an axis of struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil that stretches back into the past and through the present and into the future. It is a long movie–nearly three hours–but you never feel the duration of time; the narrative is in real time and you really appreciate the time it takes for Jake Sully, the main character, to become an organic intellectual fighting on behalf of the good forces against the forces of evil. That is another dare that Cameron has answered in Avatar; it used to be that in the earnest West vs Non-west movies churned out by the Hollywood mill, you could write off every earnest western character that claimed his or her heart was with the poor Mestizo lying dead in some ditch somewhere; how can you be on our side despite what you profess, we could seriously ask these characters and we would be right and within our rights to do so.  To put it bluntly, can we trust the West to benefit anything or anyone other than Itself? It is a question that the whole world asks. James Cameron says, yes, we can, and I for one, believe him.  In the good fight, it is always the defectors that will tip the critical mass in favor of the forces of the good.  In Avatar, Jake Sully, the ex-marine becomes an organic intellectual seeing through the horror of the company he keeps and that keeps him and defects over to the other side through an organic developmental process; he needs this time, the three hours, real time, screen time, in order to see (and to show us, by extension) exactly, precisely and clearly, without a shadow of doubt, the horror and scope of his existence with the RDA corporation. When he defects over to the Omatikaya people he does it to save himself and them and in correct allegiance with the forces of good in nature.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed ex-Marine in a wheel-chair joins the Research Development Administration (RDA) a corporation ruling earth on an expedition to Pandora, a moon of Polyphemus that orbits Alpha Centauri. It is 2154 and Earth has run out of green, of fuel, of all kinds of resources needed to sustain life; Pandora has a rare mineral called unobtanium that RDA believes will solve earth’s energy and economic crises. Sully is recruited by the RDA to take his dead brother’s place in a scientific experiment involving avatars; RDA scientists have created humanoid creatures with half human DNA and half DNA of the Na’avi tribe of Pandora. Each RDA project participant has a specific avatar that he or she controls; the body is Na’avi but the mind will be that of the human agent inhabiting and controlling the Na’avi body. RDA wants the human mind to inhabit the Na’avi avatar’s body in order to approach, learn and establish ties with the Na’avi people, a mutation of what in anthropology we call native informants. The Na’avi do not like or trust the humans. Thus the need for the avatar informants. It is a paradigmatic concept and one as old as imperialism itself. Avatar, a Sanskrit word is a concept from Hindu mythology, where it literally means a manifest form of an abstract deity descending (avatara is a cognate of avatarana which means to descend, to come down) to earth for a specific karmic purpose; often, it is to correct some dharma gone awry. Avatars are not alter egos, they are not dissociative personalities, they are not doubles; avatars may be properly understood as an ethical form of being in the world. Sully is paralyzed, in a wheel chair, does not shave, does not smell good, whatever–but he inhabits a functional Na’avi body through which he enters the Na’avi tribe where he befriends Neytiri, a Na’avi princess, who takes him under her wings and teaches him all kinds of tribal rituals; naturally, they fall in love, not long after. The graphics, animation and special effects used in this movie are extraordinary; the entire Pandora landscape is vividly lifelike, hyperrealistic, sensual, even erotic. The Na’avi people are an interesting adaptation of the human form; the animators have stretched the human form in interesting ways, added a tail, given yellow, diamond shaped eyes, and long braided hair to both men and women but the net result is oddly not distancing to us human viewers. The plot rolls along with Jake being claimed by both the seemingly innocuous science avatar project and also acting as a much more dangerous agent to Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to identify where the mineral sources lie and to use his successful inroads with the Na’avi people to push them out of their territories a lot faster than they are ready for. It is a familiar conflict when civilizations clash with war as the only predictable outcome. The battle scenes of this movie are absolutely stunning; the intensity of Quaritch’s hatred towards the tribal people packed into heavy artillery and daisy cutters; the burning forests; the swirling black skies; to me, they were like the visual equivalent of reading the Iliad or the Odyssey or the Mahabharata; fantasy and science fiction directors will have to reckon with this movie in the future while filming battle scenes. Shock and awe at its most willfully demonic.

There is a wonderful scene at the beginning of the movie where Jake sees a big army tank roll by and we see arrows stuck onto the wheels of the trucks. Which is the better weapon? Any guesses? It was interesting to me how the non-diegetic contexts keep intruding onto the clash of civilization shown on-screen. The movie theater where we saw this movie–Cinema Center in Williamsport– previewed a mix of recruitment ads for army, navy, marines and the national guard before they started all the trailers for upcoming movies.  I guess they show these ads in small rural communities such as ours from where the military makes its largest recruitments for the wars we are currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. If history has taught us anything about the clash of civilizations it is that, as Neytiri tells Jake in the movie, “the great mother does not take sides; she merely adjusts the balance of power.” This is true. What is this great mother? And is it separate from us? The movie says no; it is the power of the collective. It is up to us to construct this balance of power, because if we don’t, we destroy ourselves, we destroy nature, we destroy life itself. So we see Jake, Trudy, Max, Norm, and the chief scientist Grace (Sigourney Weaver) all predictably defecting over to the Na’avi side and against the RDA and Colonel Quaritch who asks Jake the fundamental question underlying all civilizational wars: How does it feel to betray your race?  From Jake’s final choice–will he stay a paralyzed human or will he become an Avatar?–we have to assume that he feels just fine.

Related story here about syncretic religions when only a god can save us.

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