James Cameron s latest epic “Avatar is the work of a visionary … but if you are an avid moviegoer who has followed his work in the past three decades, you probably already know that.
In the 1980s, Cameron created a myopic future fashioned in the fanaticism of a technology that for too long went unchecked. “The Terminator spawned three sequels (and counting), a TV series, and the inspiration which eventually led to the “Matrix films.
But Cameron s directive has never been merely about creating incredible works of art; his forays into the purest forms of science-fiction have been designed to reveal the limitations of our humanity, which is at once betrayed and crushed by the juggernaut machinations of corporate greed.
“The Terminator is the product of humans relinquishing control of their reality to machines that become aware that it is man who is the virus threatening the future. It is our love for technology that supersedes all ethical considerations, for ourselves and the ecosystem.
In the 1990s, Cameron took on the challenge of superstructures, a nearly apocalyptic vision of man s efforts to dominate nature.
“Titanic – the liner was launched into history as the new wonder of the world in 1912 – was disguised as a love story but was really about man s incapacity to contain ego, avarice and vanity.
Man sought to control the high seas, to be master and commander of the elements in a millennia-old aspiration to become God.
In the Book of Genesis (and later, Jubilees), man sought to glorify his presence on Earth and constructed the Tower of Babel as the crowning gesture that it was he, and not God, who controlled the planet s destiny. According to the Old Testament, a fierce wind knocked the tower down; in the battle between man and deity (nature itself, perhaps?), the latter won.
It is not a coincidence that “Avatar, Cameron s most perfect masterpiece, was released on the last month of the last year of the first decade of the 21st Century.
“Avatar is not a film that can be understood in one viewing, and although I am very much opposed to further feeding the capitalistic leech that Hollywood has become, I do encourage that this film be viewed more than once.
A multi-layered film, it is at once philosophical and theological, scientific and futuristic (the setting is a distant planet in the year 2154), pragmatic and ethical.
It seamlessly converses between all layers; the script and dialogue accomplish many discussions at once, forcing the viewer to question his or her reality again and again.
Students of global geopolitics will identify with key themes of the last 10 years; environmental activists will hail it as their rallying call; animists will be surprised to find a common ground to stand on with monotheists.
The plot: Pandora’s Box?
Some 150 years into the future, a consortium of scientists, military personnel and business advisers have established a vanguard outpost on the planet of Pandora hoping to strip-mine for unobtanium, an alloy with extensive energy and manufacturing potential.
The allegory for the relationship between our world s ecosystem and industry is hard to miss. When corporate representative and outpost leader Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is warned by science team leader Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) that deforestation of Pandora would undermine the planet s botanical balance, he replies, they re only trees! .
In the opening sequences, massive areas of Pandora s lush green rainforest have already been strip-mined. The images bear an uncanny similarity to footage of the Amazon rainforest where extractive industries have been plowing through the world s largest ecosystem for everything from gold and energy deposits to logging rights.
In the first half of the film, there are inescapable historical parallels. The Earth consortium is seeking mineral wealth on a planet inhabited by pre-Industrial Age natives – called Na’vi – much in the same way Europeans violated the Americas, Africa and most of Asia for gold, spices, tea and control of trade routes since the 15th century. The natives respond with bows and arrows to the humans’ massive air and mechanized infantry power.
Lead character Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former marine now wheelchair bound, has been chosen by the consortium to replace his murdered brother who was a member of the scientific team on Pandora. He is to man a genetically manufactured Na’vi-human hybrid, called an Avatar, which is controlled through remote neuro-genetic connections in a lab. The Avatars, which very closely resemble the Na’vi, are used as part of a win hearts and minds campaign to assuage the fears of the local populace that they are under occupation. Sound familiar?
Sully spends time with the Na’vi, learning their language and customs, how to hunt with a bow and arrow, how to commune with the bio-diversity of the planet. But he soon finds his loyalties torn between his new family and the military contingent sent from Earth which appears intent on wiping out the Na’vi to make way for mining operations.
Avatar borrows heavily from western classics like A Man Called Horse, Little Big Man and Dances with Wolves – white man captured/rescued/raised by natives soon finds himself at odds with his birth culture – to highlight the crimes of ethnic cleansing for cash profit.
Embracing trapped emotions
Avatar is an explosion of sight and sound; the RealD 3D technology Cameron uses immerses the viewer into the interweaving colors as they are splashed onto (and out of the) the screen revealing the rich texture of a world untainted by industrial development.
The sounds of the rainforest – full of sentient life forms – pull the viewer in, allowing us to experience what the characters hear and feel. Cameron, who wrote the story in the early 1990s, had initially wanted to start production immediately after “Titanic, but like George Lucas before him felt restrained by an inadequate technology.
It was only after computer animation and the effective use of CGI in such films as the “Star Wars prequels and Peter Jackson s “Lord of the Rings that Cameron was convinced the time was ripe to bring his film to the screen.
Coming in at nearly $300 million in production costs, Avatar was released in traditional 2D, RealD 3D and IMAX 3D – the latter bringing to full force the rich flora of the rainforest. From one scene to another, we see waterfalls, lakes, and fauna and even suspended mountains which defy gravity; Cameron urges us to embrace our trapped emotions and sensations and dispense our higher notions of pure intellectuality.
The viewer is pulled into the plot – I became alive in the story, my heart racing through the lush green habitats. The blue-skinned Na’vi appear real and eventually the viewer is made to realize that it is the humans which are the alien species (Terminator’s virus?).
Cameron succeeds in using technology, much as he did in “Terminator and “Titanic , to make a living lithograph – a historical account rather than a work of fantasy. The viewer is no longer merely an observer but a participant in the spell-binding experience; you must eventually choose sides.
Not surprisingly, the film has created much controversy. In key sections of the script, Cameron injects phrases borrowed from the Bush administration and the war on terror.
We hear of a pre-emptive shock and awe (Iraq War, 2003) campaign to scare the Na’vi into surrendering control of their planet. In a rousing speech to exterminate the Na’vi, military commander Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) belittles the Na’vi’s deity and their out-dated notions of faith in the supernatural.
When it appears that bows and arrows will be useless against daisy cutters and attack helicopters, pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez) says the Na’vi will face martyrdom. Such phrases will not be lost on the people in Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan – countries that are under occupation, and it is likely that many will read into Cameron s “Avatar a sharp-tongued criticism of Bush administration
foreign policies. This has been so evident that some columnists have criticized Avatar as anti-militarist propaganda which paints America, capitalism, and imperialism in an evil light.
In many theaters around the world, the film s finale earned ravenous applause.
But whatever audience – and critical – reception Avatar receives, the story and film remain true to the purest form of science fiction. Cameron, long a sci-fi buff himself, proves that he has been apprenticed in the works of Asimov, Heinlein or Bradbury; the tradition of using imaginative worlds to address human concerns is also homage to “Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry who uses the final frontier to tackle race, Cold War, and gender equality issues.
In 1977, Lucas defied the critics and Hollywood; “Star Wars went on to redefine how motion pictures are made. A few years from now, film historians will look back to 2009 as the year “Avatar lead the industry forward. Harry Potters, Twilights, Saws, and comic book adaptations take note; resistance to Hollywood is not futile.
Cameron said he would work on two sequels if Avatar was a commercial success. In the first three weeks of its release, Avatar made more than $800 million worldwide.