Monday, December 21, 2009

Cameron's Avatar delivers a powerful anti-imperialist message in a 3D wonderland

I haven't done all that many movie reviews on my blog as I feel that very few films deserve to be reviewed. However, every once and a while a new film comes out that coaxes me to write, and I can thank James Cameron and his new film Avatar for inspiring me to put fingers to keyboard again.

The hype was right: Avatar is a mind-blower — a kaleidoscope of stunning visuals wrought on an epic scale in a dream-like alien world. And, when seen in 3D and on a large screen the sensation is almost overwhelming. You, like the main character, become an avatar from your theater seat. You become part in this gorgeous world as you touch the plants, run on the vines and fly on the backs of a dragons. When you leave the theater your legs shake and you are left slightly stunned from the experience. A truly fantastic feat of filmmaking.

But, Cameron's opus is not only exceptional eye candy, it is a powerful story as well — a juxtaposition of worlds and ideas reflecting present day political realities and universal truths.

The story is set in the far future on a planet called Pandora and, as the name implies, it is of a two-fold nature: one of many amazing gifts, and one of evil plague. Here, we are starting on good solid myth-making grounds that would make Joseph Campbell proud.

On Pandora's gift side we see the natives: 10-feet tall, blue, catlike hominoids called the Na'vi who live in harmony with their environment. They use their long braids which, uncannily, look like the ayahuasca vines of south America to read the energy currents of the animals and plants around them. (Coincidentally, the juice of the ayahuasca vine is the main ingredient of a hallucinaigentic cocktail that South American shamans use to "talk to plants".) It seems to me that Cameron must be aware of this plant and its role in helping people see the connectivity of all life as this is a theme that runs throughout the movie. One wonders if Cameron is also giving a nod to our technological world by showing the braid's connecting tip as vaguely looking like animated fiber optic threads.

On Pandora's plague side is, not so surprisingly, the Promethean Man in form of the greedy corporation and the mercenaries that fight for them. He is foolish, vain and arrogantly proud; a stealer of God's fire and other people's resources. He is as disconnected from the world as the Na'vi are connected to theirs, which is why the the Na'vi, fittingly, calls him a child.

So, as one can surmise, the petulant Man-child, who has used up everything good on his own planet, now wants something that he doesn't own, something appropriately called 'unobtainium', the most valuable mineral in the universe, but, unfortunately, this mineral just happens to be under the Na'vi's home —a giant tree of life. Not surprisingly the Na'vi aren't willing to abandon their ancestral home voluntarily even when 'Sky Man' (as humans are called) attempt to win over their hearts and minds with his humanitarian projects. As a consequence Man-child resorts to what John Perkins would consider the phase 2 methodology for getting what you want — the "shock and awe" option.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that Cameron is making allegories to our present day War of Terror and to how empires throughout history have behaved when they desire other people's resources. Though this isn't exactly an original cinematic narrative, we can thank him for spelling out the obvious anyway as there are just too many Hollywood films that are more than willing to glorify militarism and mindless sop as entertainment.

However, Cameron's latest film is not mindless sop nor does it "come across as kitsch, somewhat pious, and altogether a corporate production rather than one with any human personality" as one brain-dead reviewer writes in the UK Independent. Plastic garden elfs and Chia pets are kitsch, popes and preachers are pious (or pretend to be), and a film that has the main character saying that there is nothing that material man could give the Na'vi that would make them happy, is not exactly spinning the corporate line. Also, the characters in this film are well-developed: we have the brash, wise, and tough-talking scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver); the plucky helicopter pilot (Michelle Rodriquez) with a big heart and conscience to match; the soulful alien Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) who sees the potential in a flawed soul (Scully); and the battle-hardened and heartless Colonel Miles Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang). Personalities that may be larger than life but are certainly human.

And, like all good stories, one must have the archetypal hero — someone born with outstanding ability, courage and bravery — a seeker of truth who must battle with evil or make a quest for the sacred in order to help society. Here's where the broken Marine Jack Sully (played by Sam Worthington) comes in. Sully, who lost his twin brother in an accident and his legs in combat, is asked by the mining company to take over his brother's avatar, a half human, half Na'vi body so that he can sway the Na'vi to leave, or a least gather intelligence to use against them. In this body Sully gets back full mobility and also gets integrated into the Na'vi's world.

And, what a magically beautiful world it is: one filled with beautiful glowing jelly-fish like plants; giant, undulating mushrooms, and creatures bizarre and beautiful like the Na'vi.

So, it's pretty much a no-brainer to figure out that Sully, when having to pick between this new, beautifully divine world and his old soul-deadening materialistic one, will go native, and when he and a small cadre of scientists and a our Marine helicopter pilot go rogue to fight the corporation, we cheer them on, for not only are they champions of the Na'vi and their beautiful world but our own as well.

Ultimately, Avatar is a meaningful and powerful story delivered in a huge, albeit expensive, way (reportedly, this film cost somewhere around $300 million). Cameron has been criticized for making incredibly expensive films, but when you think of the $2 billion being spent every week for the U.S.'s equivalent of what we are doing to the fictional people on Pandora, Americans should be happy that they are buying something worthy of their time and money.

Like the Greek myth from which it is named, Avatar's Pandora ends with the message that 'hope' is still attainable — that all we have to do is get past our ignorance and fears and open the box to see that we are all connected to one another and to the planet. And, if we don't respect this world and consciousness we will be hopelessly flawed creatures in mind, body and soul.

Here Cameron delivers a truly powerful message.