Avatar: Cinematic History, ‘Matrix for Hippies’

Avatar just set a new standard for blockbuster movies. Before, 3D was a fun frill. Some movies happened to be filmed in 3D. An animated film might throw a ball in your face. But Avatar is a 3D movie, fundamentally. From the numerous flight scenes to the battles to the crowd shots, 3D is built into the way the movie is made. Immersive” is a term I’ve heard, and it holds.

Moreover, the computer imagery is integrated with the live-action filming in a nearly seamless way. There might have been a couple brief scenes where I noticed the line between the “real” world and computer graphics. And this film creates a new race of humanoids in addition to putting people into all sorts of cool gadgets. Gone is the clunky, awkward, somewhat spooky imagery of movies like Polar Express. Robert Zemeckis looks like he belongs to the previous millennium. Avatar creates a beautiful, stunning world.

If you’re going to see Avatar, then, there’s no use waiting for the DVD. See it in all its glory, in 3D, preferably on an IMAX screen. Unlike most films, it’s actually worth the extra money.

Avatar also brings good news to theaters. With the expansion of large, high-definition televisions and blu-ray movie releases, the big screen needs something extra to keep up. Avatar offers that. (Will movie-disc releases start selling in 3D, and will families start collecting 3D glasses for all?)

Only days ago I swore I would never watch Avatar, after reading a summary of its story. But I started getting mostly-positive feedback from people I trust. Once I decided to see it, I saw it twice in a day.

The great irony of the movie, as others have noted, is that its cinematic technique, which epitomizes the union of humanity and technology, carries an anti-technology theme in its story.

What follows below reveals significant elements of the movie’s plot.

The basic story is that a human corporation sends a mission to Pandora to mine the substance unobtanium (or “unobtainiam”). (Corporate bad guy: there’s a new one for Hollywood.) The corporation funds a scientific venture to send human-controlled avatars — alien bodies linked to the minds of humans — to make-nice with the locals. When the miners, backed by hired military guns, want to relocate the locals, the scientists rebel and join the aliens to send the miners packing.

The movie actually offers three stories: a voyage of personal adventure and discovery, the struggle of the locals to protect their homes, and the environmentalist theme.

To me, the most compelling part of the movie is the personal adventure of the hero, Jake Sully, who had lost the use of his legs while on a military expedition earthside. His twin brother, a scientist for whom an avatar was created, dies, so the corporation funding the venture hires Sully to fill the role. (The avatars are keyed to the biology of a particular person, which is why the twin can step in.) Sully spends several years in a cryogenic state during travel, then wheels out onto an alien world, where he gets a new life (and new legs) in his avatar.

Sully explores this new world, naturally, with the beautiful daughter of the tribe’s first couple, and the love story is nicely done. (Zoe Saldana scored huge with the role following her stint aboard the Enterprise.)

James Cameron cleverly created a lower-gravity world inhabited by very-resilient aliens, making possible the amazing aerial scenes. It is a world in which the tall, fit aliens ride dragons and bound around treetops in a way that would make Tarzan envious. Apparently unobtanium keeps a range of gigantic islands floating; they look spectacular on screen.

Also a joy is Sully’s budding relationship with the hard-ass leader of the avatar program, Dr. Grace Augustine. The two actors, Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver, create a sparkling relationship that’s great fun to watch. (Indeed, the entire cast is great.) The “adventure” story, then, is beautifully done.

The “home defense” story has aptly been compared to the Kelo case. Mean guys come to destroy your home; you kick their ass. Good, basic story, and it offers Sully a chance to play the hero and win back his girl (not to mention ride the baddest dragon in the skies).

I’ll need to shift into sarcasm mode to explain the environmentalist aspects of the story, which descend to the frankly ridiculous. It often feels like Cameron hired a starry-eyed, catch-phrasing eighth-grader to help him write the script.

Just by coincidence, this highly valuable substance, unobtanium — the uses for which are never mentioned in the film but which apparently is a superconductor — is located only on the only other world in the entire universe known to be inhabited. (Pandora is a moon.) I didn’t count the number of other moons and nearby celestial bodies, but apparently unobtanium is not located on any of those, either, just the single moon of Pandora. According to one script treatment, unobtanium is “unique to Pandora.” How the evil corporation discovered unobtanium and its uses in the first place, then, escapes me.

By another astounding coincidence, on the entire moon of Pandora, home of some fifteen clans, each of which apparently contains a few thousand members at most — so we’re talking about a miniscule total population — the highest concentration of unobtanium on the entire moon is found — you guessed it — right under the treehouse of our favorite clan.

Nevermind the fact that this clashes with the apparently large quantities of unobtanium found in the floating islands. According to the script treatment, the miners are supposed to be after the floating islands, which are sacred to the locals. Apparently Cameron didn’t think it would be dramatic enough to just make off with a floating island; the corporation had to destroy the giant treehouse instead.

So let’s recap. According to the movie:
* Unobtanium is found (in mineable quantities) only on Pandora, a single moon in the entire known universe.
* It is cheaper to send hundreds of people across space in cryogenic storage, complete with gigantic space ships and lots of military equipment, and to finance technology for the complete transference of human minds into test-tube-grown aliens, than it is to synthesize the substance.
* Even though we currently know of no moon in the entire universe that hosts life of any kind, this particular moon does.
* Not only does Pandora host life, but it hosts intelligent humanoids (who happen to look fantastic in jungle-wear).
* Even though there is an entire range of gigantic floating islands of unobtanium, in addition to the surface of a large and sparsely-populated moon, far and away the best place to mine the substance is directly under the village of the local clan.

So, in other words, the premise for the entire movie is completely unbelievable. Perhaps “unobtanium” more aptly describes the otherwise-unobtainable plot elements pulled from Cameron’s behind.

Let us move on to the the Noble Savage motif. Amazingly, the locals have managed to find a gigantic tree just perfect for housing an entire village. Moreover, despite no evidence of agricultural activity, the tribe has managed to settle in just one place. Unlike settled but primitive tribes of our planet, they have not exhausted the local firewood supply or the game animals. It is a veritable Garden of Eden, Pandora.

Another amazing thing about the tribe is that its youth grow up to be great warriors, even though, apparently, they never actually fight anybody (except the evil humans!), for the Pandorans are a peaceful lot. If there has been warfare among the fifteen (or so) tribes, there is no mention of it in the movie.

Another amazing fact: while initiation rites of tribes on our planet have often involved human sacrifice and bloody beatings, on Pandora when you get all grown up you get to climb up into the floating islands and pick out your very own pet dragon to ride. Granted, this process can be a little tricky, but, hey, pet dragon!

As Sully suggests, the evil humans have absolutely nothing, no form of technology whatsoever, that the locals might have any interest in. Anything beyond the simple life of eating wild fruit, hunting wild game with bows and arrows, and (don’t forget!) riding dragons would only detract from the idyllic Pandoran lifestyle. The Pandorans don’t want computers, telecommunications, surgical instruments, metal needles or cooking pots or arrowheads, energy production (for the Pandoran climate is always perfectly temperate), and so on.

It would be an interesting exercise to calculate the total amount of gasoline burned, coal burned, and materials mined in the production and distribution of Avatar. Include all the facilities, all the gear, all the trips, all the maintenance of stars and personnel, all the theaters and their heating, all the car trips taken to watch the movie, and so on. Compare that to the similarly-figured costs of an average American lifespan, and that will tell you about how seriously James Cameron takes his own environmentalist dogma.

The Gaia theme is actually more interesting as science-fiction. On our planet, the notion that the earth itself is a living or conscious entity is fanciful, pseudo-religious environmentalism. Avatar asks, what if the earth really were alive? Pandora is alive, or at least its network of interconnected tree roots form a vast organism that functions something like a brain.

Even more interesting: the local people can “jack in” to this super-tree-computer through specialized fibers coming out of their hair. It’s like the Matrix for hippies (as I’ve heard others note). In a real sense this network offers something like immortality, because part of one’s essence joins with the trees. (Not explained is how the plains clan taps into treenet.)

At one point Sully notes that Evil Humans have “killed their mother [earth],” and “nothing” on earth is green anymore. Of course that prediction is nonsense. Unlike the science-fiction moon of Pandora, on earth there is no conscious super-organism consisting of tree roots. Moreover, the rise of industry and technology is quite consistent with maintaining lots of greenery and a healthy environment. A space-faring civilization would also be able to bring in resources (including energy) from off-planet and set up production facilities elsewhere in the solar system.

Still, the science-fiction idea of a conscious tree network is interesting, and it poses a special dilemma in terms of developing resources. I imagine the biological barriers to the development of such a life form are insurmountable. If it were possible, such a unique biological entity would require new philosophical thinking. Presumably a mining operation could at least operate on parts of the moon without trees, such as the plains and oceans (or the conveniently floating islands).

The upshot is that Avatar offers some really interesting science-fiction mingled with some pretty silly fantasy-fiction. It’s core story is a compelling one, and it is told artfully and with innovative technology. Ultimately, what saves the film is that its method of production rebels against its affectations.

4 thoughts on “Avatar: Cinematic History, ‘Matrix for Hippies’

  1. Richard

    Good review although my personal take on it wasn’t as good. I thought the story and the native characters were incredibly shrill and unlikeable.

    “* It is cheaper to send hundreds of people across space in cryogenic storage, complete with gigantic space ships and lots of military equipment, and to finance technology for the complete transference of human minds into test-tube-grown aliens, than it is to synthesize the substance.”

    Ha, yes. But don’t forget that even after they’ve spent what I could only assume is billions of dollars and years, if not decades, creating/growing the avatar bodies, ultimately they just wind up storming the damn tree anyway!

    I’d also say taking the Gia super-organism network as a plot point worthy of deep consideration is also giving Cameron more credit than he deserves. I think it was simply meant to symbolize the way environmentalism treats everything as interconnected.

    Cameron has said he didn’t intend for Avatar to be an anti Bush-the-oil-stealer tirade. According to him Avatar is a movie about a clash between two cultures. That’s what he says at least, but I can’t help but think the way his ideas manifest ultimately betray him anyways.

  2. PositiveEnergy

    I find this review “reasonable”, but I find the reviewers analysis of the “management” of our planet laughable.
    Which is exactly why I think they had an environmental message in the film. I quote:”the rise of industry and technology is quite consistent with maintaining lots of greenery and a healthy environment. A space-faring civilization would also be able to bring in resources (including energy) from off-planet and set up production facilities elsewhere in the solar system.”
    First off we have a situation where we have devastated over 90% of the forests of this planet. Replanting is a ruse the vast majority of logging is clear cutting. We have mines where a few hundred people are employed, but the ore is treated with toxic chemicals and the pilings are dumped in adjacent valleys and pollute downstream water adversely affecting tens of thousands of people. It costs billions of dollars to launch one shuttle, so much so the Republicans want to shelve it in favor of 1960’s single rocket methodology. There is no inhabitable space body anywhere we know of and certainly our planet with it’s meager supply of fossil fuel is the only place we can get it…just like unobtanuim is only available on Pandora. Just take a moment to figure out how much it would cost to mine chromium on Mars and rocket it back here. You couldn’t afford it. Mankind has lived on this planet for unknown eons…but we know he has been a modern creature just like us for about 10,000 years because of his cities and communities and his language carvings in rock, and scratchings on skins, parchment, papyrus, eventually paper and now electronically. So, we have so poorly managed our precious resources that we hear all the time there is only 5o years of oil left or 300 years of coal, etc. What is mankind supposed to do in 500 years? Let alone 5000 years. The average money grubbing corporate Board doesn’t care. They are after short term riches and simply relate the “Future” to the money they can gain from it. We had to foce the auto companies to put seat belts in cars. They didn’t care that people were dying in crashes. Hello??? The air, land, rivers and ocean ARE polluted and the pro-corporate (pro money) crowd simply denies it and pays characters like Rush Limbaugh to spew BS to dis-enroll voters from believing the world’s scientists. These same pro-corporate propagandists misquote and falsify comments from those same scientists. The judicial branch of government has not been infiltrated by corporate lackeys and overturned 60 years of efforts to prevent corporate money abuse and twisting of our government by completely removing restrictions on corporate campaign spending. So I’d say we have a real problem. This writer lives in la la land and is failing to grasp the reality of our times. It is a sad condition of ignorance that the corporations deliberately work at extending. This movie tried to present a foreign people who rejected corporate greed.

  3. Ari

    “PositiveEnergy” is ignoring the havoc wreaked on local environments of primitive peoples as well as the general ecological improvements of the industrial West.

    I could not afford to fly to New York City even a few decades ago, but now a ticket costs around a day’s wages.

    There are some who see the future of humanity as wallowing in the mud. There are others who see our future as reaching for the stars.

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