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Avatar, the technically amazing, richly conceived and executed movie, will not be to everyone’s taste.  It is tasty enough, however, to have broken all box office records, streaking to be the fastest movie to gross over $500 million, in only 32 days. Second place goes to The Dark Knight, which took 45 days, followed by Cameron’s Titanic taking 98 days.  The “you-gotta-see it” factor is enormous.  Even those who avoid big American films –including yours truly– are persuaded, and pay the 3-D marked up ticket price.

The visual richness and imaginative detail of Pandora, the moon/planet,  the setting of the entire film, is simply astounding.  The floating-in-space scenes as the humans approach their destination, unforgettable.  The merging of human/actors with humanoid/graphics is seamless, especially when both seem to be appearing in the same sequences – an actor in an attack helicopter alongside an enormous computer graphics gun ship, complete with a mad man in command and troops with guns on the loading dock.

It’s not clear if the biology of the fantasy creatures came from a common point of departure, informed by a fantasy  chemistry and physics of the world being designed.  What is it that would have brought forth six legged creatures, the size of horses and rhinos? What is that would have created gill-like breathing organs, and two sets of eyes?  What allows a force-vortex on the planet, in which mountains float, electronic instruments don’t work, but flying dragon-birds [Ikran and Toruk] can maneuver at alarming speeds and wrenching roll-overs, all the while the riders holding on? Never mind. On the whole, it is enormously entertaining.  The realism of the cliff diving and sure footed racing along enormous tree limbs over caverns of green jungle, all in 3-D, is enough to induce nearly full vertigo for those so tuned.

[Update: Carol Kaesuk Yoon, science writer for the NY Times is wowed by the biology of Avatar, though she doesn’t answer my question if there is an underlying organic fantasy out of which the marvelous creatures come.

Update II: Yoon, in an e-mail to me, doesn’t plan to write anymore about Avatar but she turned me on to this article about Jodie Holt, Botanist, who worked on the plant conceptions for the film. Interesting. ]

The story and Cameron’s intention in telling it are another matter, though I suspect for many it won’t matter at all. The thumbnail of the plot is that an enormous warrior army, corporate financed, has descended on Pandora, fleeing the world almost destroyed by humans, in search for an element, (“unobtanium” in a too cute coinage) that will enrich them, save them?, all. The invaded people of Pandora are an invented culture of Na’vi humanoids, sometimes looking African, sometimes Amer-Indian despite their wonderful tails, large eyes and marvelous twitchy ears.  In a set-up Cameron intends to stand-in for too much of recent human history, the ancestral home of the Na’vi is smack on top of the main source of the coveted element. The earthlings are going to take it, by persuasion if possible, by overpowering shock and awe if necessary, and as the arch fiend, Colonel Miles Quaritch [Stephen Lang] dearly hopes, soon and with maximum force.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the human center of the drama is a paraplegic ex Marine who is brought to Pandora to replace his dead brother as an avatar guide. Avatars, being living representations of Na’vi controlled by humans who act as their brain and emotions while sealed in capsules. Jake’s task, in his avatar, is to infiltrate the Na’vi people and bring back the intelligence which will enable the corporate mining plan to succeed.  He falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana)  who rescues him from dismemberment by swarming viperwolves, and interprets certain signs to save him from the justified fear and anger of her father, the chief, her mother, the high shaman and her brother, the lead “brave.” All sorts of possibilities present themselves – most of which won’t be a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to decades of westerns, cross-cultural romances, good guys among the bad, bad guys among the good, and the newly rising themes of sheltering earth and predatory man.

If anything is new in the standard film myth  it is Cameron’s raising to a literal, if imagined, level the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, and much of the celebration of it by the western world’s techno-spiritual-new ageism. The People, the Na’vi, understand their world as One and connected.  Riders bond with their mounts, whether winged or legged, with a literal interweaving of hair follicles. The mother-tree is connected to all the other trees in the forest. The People, by active, conjoined meditation connect to the Holy tree and under the right circumstances bring the severely wounded back to life, or transfer life-forces between bodies. The visual representation of these ideas is lovely, with pale luminescent strands and fronds, pulsing with life and peacefulness.  The mounts, although “broken” in a contest of wills, as with so many wild-west stories, are then “bonded,” with their riders and team as one. The flash of the dragon-bird wings is one of the most memorable signatures of the movie.

As a motive for telling the story, I am less appreciative. And motive it is. Cameron himself said, on receiving the Gold Globe award January, 2010

“Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to earth. And if you have to go 41/2 light years to another, made-up planet to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here, well, you know what, that’s the wonder of cinema right there,”

I would wish Cameron well in his intentions.  The world is out of balance, Koyaanisqati as the Navajo word has it.  Though not a literalist, a connected world makes sense to me; living within the world instead of against it seems as fundamental a truth as there is.  Anthropomorphizing the connections, however, into wriggling other-aware dendrites seems wrongheaded to me, though I appreciate it as a story-telling, myth creating device.

The problem is that what seems most connected, in Cameron’s telling and in the world he wishes to be celebrating, is the violence — vast, omnipresent, destructive and connected generation to generation, across species,  and unstoppable.  Though he wishes to show us a primordial and “natural” world, and the stupidity of its destruction, he himself is really, really really fascinated with destruction. [See: Terminator; Rambo: First Blood;  etc. ) A perverse but reasonable reading might be that if the connectedness of violence were to end, the world itself would collapse, its motivating force gone.

The imagination and technical expertise put into massive gunships, fast attack helicopters, armaments of every kind, from flame throwers to explosives-filled pallets, and especially the human-carrying transformers — absolute works of depraved genius — is incredible; beyond belief.  As fabulous as the jungle is, the creatures, the floating mountains, they are obscured by the weapons of destruction imagined for us.  The final battle is a festival of mayhem like few ever seen on the film, loud enough to warrant earplugs, explosive enough to delight the blow-up gene of every boy.  Flames turn the jungle and our irises red, bodies fly through the air. Treason against the bad and loyalty to the good provide emotional satisfaction as weapons are turned on former friends. A final robot-man against man-avatar battle provides the appropriate climax to the thunderous “do-it-now” orgy of weapons and and battle lust.

Interestingly, looking away from the weapons of man-created destruction and back to the primeval jungle itself with all of its creatures, all but a few are fearsome with fang and claw –six legged viperwolves, rampaging rhino like monsters with head plate anvils destroying trees with a swing of the head.  The exotically, butterfly colored dinosaur-bird, Toruk, is a killing machine itself.  The noble savage of the film, although one with their world, are no flower bedecked dancers in the woods, themselves.  They recognize courage in Jake’s avatar, they give high value to it in their leaders, and as the climactic battle shows, they are skilled fighters themselves — something they did not get, we must assume, by sitting at their fathers’ knees and being told about days  of old.

Though the story teller’s conceit is that the natural world, after a prayer by turncoat Jake Sully to the Na’vi goddess-tree, turns against the despoilers, it is an in-kind turning, maybe “natural” but death dealing just the same.  You won’t be surprised to read that Cameron began development in tandem with Avatar another film he now hopes will follow.  The title?  Battle Angel.

As graphical story telling we have an amazing piece of work.  Computer graphics, and performance capture have made major leaps forward.  The technology of movies, and therefore movies themselves are being catapulted into a new era.  As sociology, anthropology and history we have pretty thin gruel.  Most, I assume, will not care.  That’s not what they came for.  In fact, many are turning the film and its imaginings into an alternative universe of their own, beginning with full onslaught toy marketing and winding its way into participatory computer games and online communities.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find that erotic Na’vi dolls are soon to be available.

I’m of a contrary mind, though. Movies, even those set in 2154, are about today.  They reflect the state of knowledge, hope and desire in the writer, or in this case the director and the team creating the movie.   I’m sorry to see, despite the serious work done to invent a language, to characterize a species, to invent a world and to confront the serious questions of greed, conquest and murder that  the human adventure, even to someone who wishes the good, has been returned to the same old, same old, quest for fame and glory, orgasmic pyrotechnics and utter dependence on, even adoration of,  the implacable will of the last man standing.

It would be unfair to ask James Cameron to conceive of new ways of being as richly as he has the new technical superstructure of wow film making.  It is less unfair to ask him and ourselves to recognize that in the fancy new bottles the same old wine is being served.  He could sit down and watch Terrence Malick’s 1998, old fashioned, Thin Red Line to see what war in paradise without all the imaginary apparatus looks like.  It’s not nearly as exciting and though there are good guys and bad guys the only cheering we feel like is when the killing stops.

[Update III: Front page of the NY Times on Wednesday Dave Itzkoff writes of the many takes on what Avatar is all about — including Chinese who see the Na’vi as a parable of those whose dwellings have been razed by governments.  The conservative religious don’t like it either, for the infringement on their belief systems by nature-connected pagans….   I stand by my criticism; that his ostensible message of care for the earth is swamped by his love of what his technology does best –blow things up.]