Friday, January 01, 2010

Seeing AVATAR — *** Major Spoilers! ***

This article is about AVATAR, the movie. Don't read on if you haven't seen it and are one of those people who really, really don't want to know anything about it before you do!

But if you're still with me...

Here's the plot summary copied from

When his brother is killed in battle, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge's intentions of driving off the native humanoid "Na'vi" in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch, while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na'vi people with the use of an "avatar" identity. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri, the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand—and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora.

Avatar is the re-telling of familiar stories, such as might be found in e.g. Pocahontas (the 1995 Disney movie and its sequel) or Dances With Wolves. I also detected themes explored in Australia, none of which should come as a surprise.

Having said that, the movie is neither of those; though it demonstrated that certain story subjects are indeed 'timeless'. Add to the mix a goodly dose of Bush/Cheney bashing, some heart-felt Gaia-esque mysticism, and the whole thing becomes 'topical', though it has a time-transcended air about it.

The technology used to create the movie is mind-blowing. I imagine a major mainframe farm chewing up more power than a small city, churning away on the frame-by-frame rendering—double, because of the 3-d requirements—for weeks on end; contributing majorly to greenhouse gas creation. But who cares? The results are stunning, almost seamless; and that includes the 3-d, which, to the immense credit of the creators, becomes virtually invisible early in the story, with the latter absorbing almost all of your attention. Well, at least it did it for me, though I can imagine—actually I know this for sure, judging from the comments of some of the people with me—that a lot of folks, and not just geeks, will be distracted from the tale by the technology involved in presenting it.

"Best special effects ever," is a typical kind of comment—which, of course misses the mark. Nowadays it's getting to the stage where people expect ever-better verisimilitude in the special effects department. Avatar was right up there, setting a definite new standard that others will have to spend a lot of money on trying live up to it.

The movie had enough potential and 'message' material to satisfy just about everybody who wants to push a current politically correct agenda—and piss off those who aren't into 'green', or the apologists, no matter how slickly they put their case, for economics trumping the rights of people to their established of life. It's easy to see endless indictments of US military might, the military and soldiers in general, greed and multinational corporation driven exploitation with political support, and so on blahblahblah. I heard that kind of stuff from some of those I went to see it with. About par for the course and fatuous to boot.

Avatar stands out, however, by transcending the specifics of such current-issue politics-mongering. I'm not sure it was meant to proselytize, or not, or what the director's intentions might have been. I don't know if he was aware of the irony implied in the character of the indigenous people, who may have had a close connection to 'nature' and their planet—said planet being covered by what may well have been a true, sentient, organism, rather than the rather contrived 'Gaia' concept; more like Solaris—but who were no peaceniks themselves; like was the case with a lot of those colonialized, for reasons that ultimately boil down to 'profit', in Earth history—and not just, and this needs to be noted, by 'Western' powers.

'Being close to nature' or whatever need not imply peacefulness and never has—just like 'being civilized' or being possessed of a 'culture' does not have as a logical consequence that the society concerned and its members have reached some more evolved state on the scale of social evolution. Is Cameron aware of this, or was he pushing some hyperborean social message? Who knows, and in this instance who cares? The movie's genius lay in transcending the instances and making what lies behind them visible. Again, whether this was intentional, or fortuitous and due to the director's ability, is a matter of conjecture. People will argue for both sides of the case.

I don't subscribe to the 'Gaia' theory, though Earth's geological, atmospheric and biological systems do have some potent self-regulatory properties. These are, however, completely non-sentient—at least I haven't seen any evidence whatsoever for them being anything but 'phycial'. But I think that it is possible for worlds such as Avatar's 'Pandora' to exist somewhere in the universe. Planetary organisms, even entities such as planetary 'brains', possibly sentient ones, are not impossible by any means. As such I didn't consider Avatar pure fantasy. Indeed, Pandora reminded me a lot of the planet 'Cadwal', from the eponymous Jack Vance Trilogy (starting with Araminta Station), which was even more strongly and radically conservationist than Avatar.

The true 'fantasy' element of Avatar, if you will, lies in the fact that, in the end, the good guys win. Here Cameron's narrative, though otherwise close—including in the sounds and cadences of the natives' language—to a retelling of stories from European-Amerindian colonialist encounters, deviates drastically. The good guys can win. Greed can be defeated. People can succeed in having their way of life as they want it; and they can beat the crap out of technologically advanced invaders. It's what we all would like to be true, though on Earth and throughout human history it has invariably turned out to be false. The right of people to have a right to their home and way of life—something that, on a smaller scale, has been depicted in that classic piece of Australiana, The Castle—should be respected as much as possible. Not because it's in some absolute way 'right' that things should be so, but because in our gut all of us feel that this is the way things should be.

I say 'all', and maybe I'm being too inclusive. Maybe far too inclusive. Because when it comes to the crunch, people tend to be far less tolerant than one might expect if they really followed their gut feelings. Indeed, their sentiments in such cases tend to be oriented toward said freedom from interference applying to them, while 'others'...well, that's different, right? Like, don't we have a duty to liberate the oppressed and socially unenlightened barbarians of the world? Abolish the oppression of women in Afghanistan, and such like...

Yeah, easy this is not, and rife with hypocrisy it is as well.

Still, in Avatar, there is a victory for those fighting vastly superior technology, which is in the service of those ruled by naked greed. And we all (?) cheer and feel good about it, and leave the cinema uplifted, because this gives us hope. And the people go home to their lives, ruled by the ever-encroaching and tightening web of the nanny-state they live in. Don't they see the bitter irony? Don't they see that, were they to fight for their right to live their lives without the nauseating, suffocating interference of 'the State', they would be soundly slammed with the iron fists of the police states that have become the de-facto condition of even the so-called 'liberal' societies of the Western democracies?

I loved Avatar from what politically is best described as a 'Libertarian' point of view.

Libertarians are committed to the belief that individuals, and not states or groups of any other kind, are both ontologically and normatively primary; that individuals have rights against certain kinds of forcible interference on the part of others; that liberty, understood as non-interference, is the only thing that can be legitimately demanded of others as a matter of legal or political right; that robust property rights and the economic liberty that follows from their consistent recognition are of central importance in respecting individual liberty; that social order is not at odds with but develops out of individual liberty; that the only proper use of coercion is defensive or to rectify an error; that governments are bound by essentially the same moral principles as individuals; and that most existing and historical governments have acted improperly insofar as they have utilized coercion for plunder, aggression, redistribution, and other purposes beyond the protection of individual liberty. [link]

Though these principles are unrealizable in any 'real' society—for the same reasons that anything that demands universal consideration of the rights of others is unrealizable: human imperfection—they are worthwhile working towards in approximation. Avatar's world, despite it's imperfections, is oddly close to perfection despite of it—and maybe, paradoxically, because of it; because only in an imperfect world can the concept of 'justice' exist as a contrast to the 'injustice', social and contingent (e.g. good people die, while assholes are allowed to live on), that appears to be a ubiquitous feature of our experience.

Great flick with too many levels of possible meaning to fully encompass it. All of which is the hallmark of a damn good story.

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