This is an expansion on a comment I made on a post at BoingBoing about the movie Avatar. I figured with some inflation it’d have the potential to be a review.
Yes, there are probably spoilers here.
Avatar is a lush, luscious movie set sometime in a more or less human future. We don’t know when, exactly, but a rough guess would be 100 to 150 years or so from now. It’s never really detailed how or why, but humanity is progressing outward, starward, and Cameron’s crude bludgeon of dialog suggests that we’ve raped and emptied Earth in the process of it.
Enter Pandora, a moon of a gas giant.
Now I have to tell you, right out of the gate, that I loved that idea. Earthlike planets in sole orbit in the Goldilocks Zone about their primaries are very hard to find, as far as we can tell. So the idea that we’d be settling on a moon of a big fat gas bastard à la Jupiter (or Saturn, with Titan awash in an ocean of liquid methane) is prime fodder for the SF-minded, especially in the hard SF world. Particularly in the post–Firefly world.
Besides, it makes for lovely skyscapes — a fact not unnoticed by Cameron. The air over Pandora is always filled with its parent planet, and more often than not, sibling satellites as well, even in daytime. No attention to detail went unmissed visually. Alas, the same cannot be said of the story.
Avatars are essentially body suits worn by humans, genetically bonded to them via engineered cloning with the Pandoran indigenes, AKA the Na’vi. As might be expected, avatars are very expensive to make* — and they’re necessary, since evidently Pandora has less gravity than T-norm, its aborigines are about twice the height of humans, and the atmosphere, we’re told, is poisonous to us. Unbreathable.
The plot, sadly, is basically no more involved than Dances with Wolves, which did it a hell of a lot better, and was probably Kevin Costner’s swan song. (I’ve seen other reviews that compare Avatar to Fern Gully. I can’t comment on that, since I’ve never seen Fern Gully, but as far as I can tell the parallels are close enough that maybe its screenwriters could have grounds for a plagiarism suit.)
We have locals, indigenous peoples, who are allegedly in tune with their environment and who presumably live in some kind of planetwide harmony, a sort of siblinghood of saints. Oh come on. This sort of bullshit idealism is not worth the $400 million or so spent on the production.
And we have the invaders, raping, pillaging. We ugly humans. This is a turnaround from how it used to be in SF, by the way; in films as recent as Independence Day, aliens were invading us, and surprised to learn that humans have a singular loathing for slavery. Our own history, all 160,000 years or so of it, notwithstanding. Or the history of the US alone. We loathe slavery, sure, but only when it’s we who are the slaves. We’re quite happy to enslave others.
What follows is entirely predictable, so this is why I said there are spoilers. If you’ve never read a hero saga of any kind in your life, Avatar will surprise you in its narrative. Otherwise, well, yawn. A very pretty and well-illustrated yawn, but elaborate doesn’t equal quality. I thought Where the Wild Things Are was a far more engaging adaptation. Ho big blue hum.
Avatar has its defenders, though, many of whom seem to object that the reason for the brain-dead simple, linear and utterly transparent plot was that it’s supposed to be a myth. You know, like George Lucas keeps insisting Star Wars is, even though he’d never thought of it at all before speaking with Joseph Campbell. The problem I see with the objection that the movie is supposed to be “mythical” is that it’s set in a presumably realistic universe.
There are no Lazer Swordz and there is no Schwartz binding the galaxy together. (The dim planetary sentience that passes for a “force” is only barely tolerable; while I consider such a thing extremely unlikely, I’ll let it slide, since if you really do have a sentient world-spanning forest, you might have some interesting side-effects. Witness Lem’s Solaris, done in film in the 70’s by the Russian director Tarkovsky, not the dreadful 2002 mishmash starring George Clooney and his ass. A sentient planet is a fascinating idea, done well. With Avatar, it was not done well.)
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have something that tries to have hard SF in it — and fails — and have it be “mythical” as well (and fails because of the infantile nature of the myths it’s pushing).
You have to choose. Cameron didn’t, and that’s why Avatar, pretty as it was to look at, failed in several significant respects. It’s a bit like the cute little bit of thing you pick up at a bar one night, then wake up the next morning to realize that you’re stuck in an endless loop of insipidity.
For starters, absolutely no one, anywhere, in the existence of humanity, has ever been anything like the Na’vi were supposed to be, living in perfect harmony and peace with their world, etc.
Certain doe-eyed cretins say so of American Indians, and they’re wrong. Entire herds of bison were chased over cliffs to feed a few dozen tribespeople. There’s compelling evidence to suggest that the megafauna of the Americas (mammoths) were hunted to extinction by pre-Clovis peoples (humans, ancestors of the “harmonious” Indians.) Settlers’ records and indigenous stories agree that there were constant internecine and intertribal conflicts. Scalping wasn’t invented just as a way to punish white men, after all.
This shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone who is paying attention. Our ancestors must have had the same characteristics that we hold today. They had idealism, and charity, and a rabid, lethal hatred of anyone not of their tribe. There never has been an Edenic idyll.
Yet this oversimplified, foolish vision was foisted onto us by making the Na’vi into (largely) touchy-feely New Agers with oomph. I couldn’t buy it; in fact, it offended me and insulted the intelligence of the audience.
Then there’s the question of biology. Okay, so the Na’vi have tentacles they can use to communicate with other organisms. Fine.
So why are their tentacles contained inside braids? Unlike every other life form on Pandora?**
How did those braids develop? Do they actually have trunks with hair growing over them? If so, how does it get the braided look? Or do they instead have long tentacly things that just happen to co-grow with their hair? If so, why is no other animal on Pandora haired?
And what about the six-limbed horse analogues? Interesting way they breathed. Why do the Na’vi, then, have noses? Why not ventral spiracles like the “horses”?
And why only four limbs, not six, as with most other life on Pandora? How is it they managed to convergently evolve like humans? Is it because of the forests? Is there something about forests that makes upright quadrupeds have a survival advantage? Why not toss off three sentences of dialogue early in the film to answer this single point? (Because we were too busy being told how sweet the Na’vi are and how bad the corporation is, that’s why.)
Either the Na’vi and their “horses” are diverged from a common ancestor, or they can’t communicate with one another, because the biological differences are too great. (The disparity between reptilian and mammalian brains is absolutely enormous. Even parrots and corvids, some of the most intelligent non-mammalian animals living on Earth with us, have radically different brain structures than our own. Neural mapping of one of us with one of them is impossible.) One or the other, not both.
Finally, all right, so the atmosphere on Pandora is unbreathable to humans.
Well, how the hell does Jake light a match?
You cannot start a fire without oxygen. Fire, by definition, requires oxygen. The presence of oxygen suggests the atmosphere being breathable to humans.
These things just don’t work.
I realize I’m getting pretty deep into analysis here, but I have a right to; after all, Cameron set Avatar up to be a film that was to contain believable story elements and technology. He’s obviously a hell of a visual thinker, and a hell of a good emotive director (Titanic still makes me cry); but he’s definitely not a scientist, nor even remotely interested in science.
I think what frustrated me the most was how close he got it, so often, but always barely missed reaching the goal. And that’s why, ultimately, Avatar almost satisfied me, but just doesn’t quite make it.
Worth a rental, but don’t bother seeing it amid the sodden, humid human press in theaters.
* And, while they all have nicely athletic builds and very cute butts, they seem to be disappointing in certain other ways. You’d think a twelve-foot-tall twink would have a proportionally sized dick. You’d be wrong. They’re hung like gorillas, and that is not a compliment.
** This could have been a rich exploration of xenobiology. It was not.
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