Yesterday being one of the shortest days of the year I decided to make it shorter by spending two-and-a-half hours at the Park Theatre, where I took in the noon screening of Avatar. Not sure if it was the popcorn, the 3D effects, the lack of daylight or a combination of the above, but man, was I wrecked after.
Though set in the twenty-second century, Avatar, like most science fiction, is a western. Besides its humanitarianism and dazzling effects, what made the film enjoyable was its relationship to the films that came before it – films such as Star Wars, Alien, Starship Troopers and The Matrix. We talk a lot about Tarantino’s films and their references to past works, but in Tarantino's films the references have more to do with flourishes (how many homages have we seen to Ford’s The Searchers, the indoor shot of a figure moving outdoors?) than plot and story templates, of which there are few.
Without giving too much away, Avatar is the story of a paraplegic U.S. Marine who arrives on one of Jupiter’s moons to take part in a program where his mind is transported into a hybrid clone made of homo sapien and alien DNA. The alien, or indigene in this case, is an eighteen-foot-tall cat-like creature that lives in the forest and seems to do little more than hunt animals and commune with nature. The purpose of the Avatar program has less to do with military operations than science, and this is where the story turns.
Along with the scientific presence, we have a corporate presence and a military presence. The corporate presence is there to extract minerals, while the military presence protects industry from the indigenous population, who, prior to the military's destruction of their home (a massive tree), are never once seen engaging in an act of anti-Earthling violence (the only evidence being the cat scratch on the commander’s right cheek). One day, while joining the scientists on a field trip, our soldier/avatar gets lost, only to be saved by an indigenous woman, the daughter of her people’s spiritual leader. Moments later, she witnesses a blessing conferred upon the soldier/avatar by a cluster of airborne spores from her people’s healing tree. This being Christmas (here, not there), another Christ is born.
Do we need to hear the rest?
More than its genre, Avatar is a morality tale, the latest stage in the evolution of science fiction, from communist allegory (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) to environmentalism (Silent Running) to self-help (Close Encounters, ET) to allegory again – in this instance, U.S. foreign policy (Starship Troopers) and the capitalist mode of production (The Matrix). Does it succeed? Yes. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the ecological survival of our planet. Does it do anything unsightly? Yes. Indigenous peoples are once again depicted as child-like structures incapable of dealing with anything outside their world-view. Earthlings (Americans) are, as usual, depicted as both plunderer and savior.
Besides sasquatches, there are no “lost peoples” left on Earth -- everyone has been accounted for. Which is a shame, because we were never very good at "discovery", and I think it would be a great indicator of how far we have progressed if we were to discover someone new, especially after what we have learned about those not like us. So bring on the sasquatches! Until then, we will have to get by on aliens, and Hollywood.