Monday, December 21, 2009

A Review of "Avatar" for After You've Seen It

Ok I just saw Avatar. Second row. We got seats B-4 and B-5, which seemed like a little flake of the synchronicity dandruff that descends from God's scalp now and then. It suggested that we'd be different after the film from the persons we were B-4 we saw it, and that the film itself would show before and after pictures of the world. Then I remembered there's only one seat in the house with that number. Rein in the dreamyness.

Well, it was breathtakingly beautiful. The film uses a formulaic core [good aliens + bad USMC = crisis, solved by good human] as a stable platform on which to build an amazingly innovative film. The core gets the film past the barriers that would have prevented it from ever getting made, since that core is utterly tried and true at the box office, from Close Encounters to E.T. and so on. Sure enough, $242 million in the first weekend. Richly deserved.

So here is this new movie, which just happens to be shot in IMAX-friendly format with the best 3-D glasses element ever, and a new technique of film-making, in which the body mechanics animation includes the information scanned from the actors' facial expressions, transferring it all to their virtually enhanced onscreen counterparts. This technique is symbolically parallel to the technique inside the story, whereby a human can use a machine to transfer his or her mind into a different, alien body and back again. The parallel brings the world of the movie a little closer to the world of the audience, even though a mind transplant machine is as far beyond our current capability as this new form of film-making was beyond Charlie Chaplin.

As the hero is acclimated to the culture he is trying to penetrate, he experiences an identity crisis which he resolves by "going native" and switching his allegiance to the aliens. He then leads them to a costly but decisive victory over the human intruders. The identity crisis helps to pry the viewing public out of the death grip of its consumerist ego. When this movie dismisses the entire human race with the words "They killed their mother," it hits home.

The philosophy and tactics of non-violence don't gain a moment's hearing in this movie. The alien natives are a composite of Native American traits (real and legendary), including a proud warlike courage and contempt for death, without which there could have been no hope at all. Presumably a non-violent solution to our problems here on Earth is still possible, if only the boycotts and so on were of sufficient size and scope and duration, but there's little sign of that. Copenhagen has just failed.

Insofar as our desperate situation is like that of the assaulted indigenous people on planet Pandora, only violence will do, but insofar as it's different, a massive shift of thought and practice of the kind pictured at places like The Post-Carbon Institute might still be possible without armed conflict over it. Planet Pandora has a biosphere in which every organism is linked electrochemically with every other, so that the whole thing forms a unified conscious intelligence capable of deploying various organisms against the intruders. Our planet may (or may not) be fighting us with viruses, but it cannot seem to go all Hitchcock on our asses and launch the birds against us or it would have by now.

Toward the middle of "Avatar" when the Home Tree fell, we saw the protagonist walking on the forest floor as a rain of ash settled on and around him in an arresting visual parallel to the WTC. When the natives merge with their steeds or with another organism, the linkup is in the tail--but when the failing human body has to be transferred into a healthy alien one, the linkup is at the base of the head, evoking "The Matrix," where that cranial site was the hookup for McWorld. The payoff on invoking that movie, I think, is to reinforce the motif of the false self, whose (capitalist) false consciousness leads to disaster.

As Heidegger explained so well in "The Question Concerning Technology" (the only essay of that Nazi pig I can stand to read anymore), the heart of the matter is the way industrial civilization perceives ("enframes") nature as a limitless source of free wealth of lifeless "resources" to be exploited without constraint. In "The Matrix" (an innovative but verbally flatulent film) human beings are factory farmed for "bioenergy"; though it's never entirely clear just who has set up the dystopian system in that movie, the Matrix is clearly a figure for our own civilization. In "Avatar," the bad guys are the corporate-military crowd, up to our old human tricks, while the good guys are the natives, their planet, and the few human turncoats decent enough to side with the victims.

Sometimes the Marines wear giant metal robot battlesuits, similar to what the human defenders of "Zion" wore in "The Matrix," but there's also a parallel to the forklift-like suit that Sigourney Weaver (the Good Anthropologist of "Avatar") wore in "Aliens." In that movie human beings are meat, but we are bushmeat, not cattle. The enemy is not tech gone wrong ("Terminator", "Nine", "2001") but wild nature in the form of Ridley Scott's hungry, insect-like alien monsters. Since they want to eat us just as the wolves used to, we are roused to defend ourselves with the same insurgent yet humble courage with which King Arthur killed all the wolves in Britain and Hercules drove the lions out of Greece. Nature was vastly bigger than us, we were the endangered underdog, and we fought like hell to survive. Gilgamesh and Enkidu killed Humbaba the Forest God so that civilization could continue in spite of Nature's power to snuff it out. Films like "Alien" are satisfying because they relieve guilt about destroying nature (since they restore Nature to its lost ferocity) while allowing us to return to the state of insurgent heroic self-assertion that we dearly miss from the old days when good Beowulf killed bad Grendel. In "Jurassic Park," the opponent is both human hubristic tech gone wrong, and Nature's retaliatory self-assertion, since by bringing back the dinosaurs we have re-armed Nature against ourselves.

Most boys lose the Oedipal struggle to possess the mother, and must mourn for that loss in pain. A few are truly unlucky; such a boy wins the Oedipal struggle and commits incest with his mother, only to find his sanity has been destroyed. Like such an Oedipus, civilization cannot sort out the good feelings of its incestuous and matricidal triumph over Nature from the bad feelings of the resulting loss, guilt, and the mounting fear of real planetary catastrophic system failure and collapse.

Kafka wrote, "there is plenty of hope, but not for us." In "Avatar," the planet of nature that can still be saved is called "Pandora" and the Earth is already ruined.


  1. Very elegant analysis, and I agree the technical achievements of this film are overwhelming. But I think the one-dimensional characters, simplistic storyline, and hammer-over-the-head themes lower this to the level of airheaded entertainment.

    I can't help noticing that this was essentially the same movie as Disney's "Pocohantas," only the natives are blue instead of red, and there wasn't a tune you could hum when leaving the theater. Couldn't Cameron at least dump James Horner, who has been phoning it in since Titanic?

  2. Your review is great. I agree that the overarching plot is formulaic, and that it doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter because the innovation and the more meaningful aspects of the story fall outside of the overarching plot.

    I felt a similar dismay in the solution having to be a violent one. Not quite right. But it does fit the formula.

    The self-referentiality presented in the juxtaposition of the immersive movie experience with the human entering into the alien body is clear, and clever. Echos of this are also present in the concept of "seeing" in the alien language. (And the touchy tail stuff, as you point out.) But I think this line of analysis leads to the fatal flaw of this most excellent movie. The fact is, the american audience will be totally immersed in the avatar experience, they will "get it", they will "feel one with the forest", and this will make them feel good about themselves. Then they will take off their 3D glasses, talk good hopeful and nature-loving words to each other, and then go back to living their incredibly nature-destructive lives. Because unlike the hero of this movie, the audience never really "sees" the trees. This is partially due to the vast gap between the movie tech and the avatar tech, as you point out. But more importantly it is due to the lack of the american human psyche to really "see" anything. By which I mean, the modern american is almost completely incapable of empathy with the forest, or for that matter, anything beyond our fellow americans, our pets, and out houseplants. Why is this? For an american to actually "see the forest" would be the equivalent of getting unplugged from the matrix. Major trauma almost always leading to death.

  3. I stuck a lengthy political/psychological/theological review of Avatar on my blog here: - I'd be interested to hear what you think.



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