Friday, January 8, 2010

Avatar -- entitlement and exploitation

Director: James Cameron, 2009.

It's been 12 years since Cameron last directed a movie. That one was Titanic, the box-office hit that has grossed over $1.8B and raked in 11 Oscars. But it was worth the wait. Avatar is stunningly breath-taking, particularly in 3-D. Cameron apparently conceived of the story even before Titanic, back in 1995, but needed to wait over a decade for the technology to catch up to his dream.

Avatar is a mixture of live action and animation. Though we've seen this in other films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, here the animated world is amazingly believable. We forget that the world of Pandora and its gorgeous creatures are not real.

Costing about $240M to make (just a little over the budget for Titanic), Avatar has already returned over 4 times that amount. It is clear that Cameron spent much of this on creating the effects; the story itself is cheap and derivative. It has been done before. It is Dances with Wolves crossed with The Mission . . . perhaps Aliens (which Cameron himself directed). Yet that is to miss the point, namely the actual cinematic experience. This is a blast to watch, seeing imagined alien insects flying around your head or fabulous flowers open and close with a touch. And it even carries a worthwhile message subsumed under the threads of escape, entitlement, and environmental care.

As the film opens ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Terminator Salvation) wakes up on the space liner that transported him and other mercenaries across the galaxy. As soon as they have landed, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) tells these new recruits, "You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen." A glance beyond the walls of their compound makes this clear. And the outside world is both beautiful and dangerous in its natural, virgin state. Quaritch and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the outpost leader are determined to change this.

Sully, a wheel-chair-bound paraplegic, is taking the place of his dead twin brother. Since the company has spent millions on growing his brother's avatar, this will go to waste unless Sully, who shares his DNA takes his place. And he does, so he can earn the money for a spinal surgery to regain his own legs. The avatars are crafted from a genetic splicing of DNA from human and Na'vi, the large blue indigenous population, creating a being that can be mind-controlled by the human during a carefully controlled state of unconsciousness.

The set-up is cliche-ridden. Head Scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, star of the Alien movies) has nothing but disdain for this uneducated grunt. She is at loggerheads with Selfridge, whose purpose is simply to rape the land mining the unobtainium that is found only there. He reminds her, "This is why we're here, because this little rock sells for twenty million a kilo." For him, there is nothing more, nothing less. Her research and cultural anthropology studies are secondary and of no interest to him. Industrial expansion trumps scientific exploration.

When Sully first connects with his avatar and feels his feet again, we can sense his feeling of loss. He cavorts and runs, digging his toes into the alien soil in a way he can no longer do as a human. We begin to understand his motivation for this mission: he wants to walk again.

His first mission out of the compound as an avatar goes wrong and he finds himself alone in alien territory. He is like a child at the mercy of unknown creatures. Not expected to survive the night, he is befriended by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Uhura in the new Star Trek) who was ready to leave him until a sign from Ewya, the divine goddess of Pandora, makes it clear he is "chosen."

As the film progresses, his time spent with the Na'vi people, learning their culture seems a god-given opportunity to discover their weaknesses. When Quaritch promises him his legs back after his tour of duty ends if he'll serve as his spy, Sully jumps at the chance. This is escape from his paraplegic prison. He will do anything to escape. What will we do to escape from our confinement? Can we picture ourselves compromising our convictions if the incentive is strong enough? Is there any desire deep enough that we would do literally anything to achieve it? That is a dangerous thing, more dangerous than Pandora's threats.

Of course Avatar is a social commentary as much as a sci fi flick. Cameron has commented on his creation: "It's a way of connecting a thread through history. I take that thread further back to the 16th and 17th centuries and to how the Europeans pretty took over South and Central America and displaced and marginalized the indigenous peoples there." The attitude of the humans in the movie are the problem. He goes on, "There's a sense of entitlement -- we're here, we're big, we've got the guns, we've got the technology, we've got the brains, we therefore are entitled to every damn thing on this planet."

Entitlement has been at the root of all the imperial conquests from the start of time. The Romans, the Spaniards, the English, even the Yankees felt they could take anything they wanted from the ignorant natives because they could kill with their weapons. The truth is we are not entitled to this. The natives may be weaker in certain ways but they have rights. When we ignore them we are dehumanizing them and ourselves in the process. The New Testament message of Jesus is to love our neighbor (Matt. 19:19). Love requires us to relinquish our rights. Jesus came to the marginalized and lived with them in the margins, as homeless as they (Lk. 9:58). He did not exercise his rightful position, he did not claim his entitlement as King and Creator (Jn. 1:3; 18:36). No, he modeled the way of humility and sacrifice (Phil. 2:5-8), not rape and pillage.

Too often we think that our newest technology means we are superior to those without it. Cameron clearly contrasts the cultures of the humans and the Na'vi. The portion of the planet inhabited by the invading humans is painted in blacks, grays and drab olive greens. Colorless but cash-centric, they are mercenaries driven by the mechanization of the huge machines they drive. The Na'vi, on the other hand, live in a world filled with wondrous color. No technology, they are in touch with and attuned to nature. They ride flying creatures or horse-like animals, connecting their minds together.

Cameron goes over the top with his pantheistic view of Ewya, Pandora's equivalent to Mother Earth. Seeing the interconnection of nature is one thing. That is biblical. We were given the mandate to care for the earth from the beginning (Gen. 1:28-30). But we are not all part of god in the sense of Pandora's Ewya, uploading our memories into the great spirit databank tree. Created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), humans are nevertheless distinct from God.

The environmental message runs throughout. The human exploitation of Pandora leaves their world strip mined and barren. The cost of man's thirst for Pandora's rock is the Na'vi's loss. Selfridge does not care. After all, he does not actually live there. He will go where the money is. But the Na'vi will be displaced, their planet ravaged. Is this what we have done to our world?

When all seems lost, and extermination or extinction appears likely, Jake must choose which side he will fight on. The final battle, pitting creation against machines, is thrilling but predictable. The mano-a-mano duel between Sully's avatar and Quaritch is a throw-back to the climax of Alien. Suspenseful? No. Spectacular? Certainly. A fun ecological ride all-round.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. Here's an interesting comment on Avatar, posted by Jeffrey Overstreet on the Filmwell blog: