This was a good movie weekend. On New Year’s Day we took the kids to see The Frog and the Princess. It was a wonderful Disney children’s film, with a positive message, good music, and fun. Nothing political or controversial, just one of the better Disney films. But yesterday we (sans kids) braved a significant snow storm (20 or so inches) to see Avatar. It was worth it.
I was skeptical at first. I have never liked 3-D movies or other-worldly ‘fantasy’ films. Lord of the Rings was utterly forgettable to me. However, the 3-D effects were so woven into the story that you could literally forget you had the glasses on. It didn’t have the gimmicky 3D tricks; instead, I felt transported into the beautiful, exotic, and intriguing world of Pandora. The beauty of the film cannot be understated – James Cameron created a world that was both delightful and exotic, I would watch it again for that alone.
The story, however, was both timely and powerful. Spoiler alert: do not read further if you do not want to know details of the movie. Pandora appears to be a moon of Jupiter, able to support life. It is 2154, and the earth is in dire straights. From the dialogue one hears that there have been wars in Nigeria, Venezuela and elsewhere, as apparently there has been a fight for oil and resources. Pandora has a vastly sought after mineral, oddly named Unobtanium, which will earn the corporation mining it huge amounts of money — and perhaps save the earth from an energy crisis that will cause collapse. A private corporation with hired “security” — mostly former military people — are there to protect the mining operation. Alas, a primitive native tribe lives right where the mining is supposed to occur. They refuse to leave, as the Earth folk have nothing of value to them.
This could be Dances With Wolves meets Star Wars. As a sop to the scientists, there is an effort to reach out to the natives and bribe them to leave their hometree (a huge mega-tree). To make communication easier “Avatars” are created, genetically engineered bodies which allow the humans to take the form of the natives, transferring brain functions from their own body (held in a coffin like chamber) to the Avatar. The hero, an ex-marine there only because his scientist twin brother was killed and the Avatar is built around an individual’s genetic code, is to provide security for the scientists. On his first mission he gets separated and lost, only to be rescued by a native who has a sign not to kill this “dream walker.”
I won’t go into much more detail. The hero Jake (who in his human body has lost the use of his legs) learns the ways of the natives and realizes that attacking them would be an act of evil. Yet before he realized this, he had given very helpful information to the military. The Navi accept him, and after learning their language and ways, initiate him into their clan. But the military is ready to strike, and he has to somehow defeat a high tech military power. The messages that stick out to me, however, go beyond the plot:
1) We killed our mother. In a poignant scene of prayer at the spirit-tree, Jake in his Navi body asks for help in defeating the Earth forces. He realizes that Pandora is a web of life, and in describing the forces about to attack he says “we killed our mother.” We separated ourselves from nature and from our connections to each other, replacing it with cold, rational, materialist greed. From the corporate geek heading the operation to the military Colonel who sees the Navi as not much more than blue monkeys, it’s clear who is evil and who is good. This was reminiscent of Dances with Wolves, but more poignant in that it looked much like the US in Iraq or Afghanistan, not some past incident we can look back on and say, “well, that was a past generation.”
2) The value of life. The Navi are discounted by the Earth people because they lack technology. The Navi live off the land, and by all accounts are primitive. Yet they value all life in a deep, spiritual way. Their beliefs are laughed at — such silly naive creatures, believing in a deity! When the hero and the scientists try to stop the military they are derided as tree huggers, and monkey lovers. Think about how we in the US (and Europe during colonial times) looked at other peoples. Towel heads. Primitives. Different. Savage. Their lives are worth less than ours because we have better technology and material wealth. We think nothing of wars to secure our “way of life.” How many times have people privately admitted that to protect our “way of life” (read: material prosperity) it is worth wars that kill countless innocents and destroy cultures overseas. By abstracting others into something sub-human because they aren’t like us, we rationalize evil. They are different. We need their unobtanium (or oil) and thus we can intervene and even destroy their culture.
3. How does it feel to betray your race? The Colonel asks that question as he confronts Jake as Navi. Jake did betray his race — he is condemning earth to more problems by protecting the Navi. A higher good exists than loyalty to race — or nation. Just as Germans who worked against the Nazis in WWII were indeed traitors to their country, they were nonetheless doing what is right. There is no dishonor in treason if your country is engaged in evil, and you are standing for a higher principle. When the Navi are victorious the audience cheered. When the film ended there was applause — rare these days in movie theaters. The film caused people to root against what was clearly an American military operation in favor of a strange and exotic native race. In a vivid and simple manner the film portrayed an undeniable truth: good and evil do not depend on nation or race.
The moral of the film is a time honored one of myths throughout history. The intriguing relationships and interactions also fit the model of a mythic good vs. evil story, much like Star Wars. I left the theater with emotions I’ve only experienced a couple times. When I watched Star Wars in 1977, I left feeling like I had seen something amazing — a movie unlike any I had seen before. When on January 17, 1991 I watched Dances With Wolves, the day after Operation Desert Storm began in Iraq, I felt I had seen a film with one of the most powerful moral messages imaginable, perfect for that time. This was a mix of both. The beauty of Pandora, the suspense in a nonetheless predictable story line, the powerful moral message, brought home in a way where there was a clear sense of good and evil, transcending nationalism, moral relativism, and self-interest, all make this one of the best movies of all time.
And now, as we see our environmental problems grow, increasing wars over resources, a tendency to put “stuff” over people, and a loss of connection with nature and the spiritual side of life, this movie is very timely. In our western haste to declare our individualism, we forget that no one is truly an autonomous independent individual, we are all connected, our capacities, opportunities and core beliefs come from our culture and environment. As a culture, we seem to have fogotten that. I’m sure the right wing will mock it’s environmental message and how it gets audiences to root against the US military (albeit more a private Blackwater type group) during a so-called “time of war” here. But as in the film, our wars now are wars are imperialistic, as we arrogantly try to alter other cultures for our own benefit.
Yesterday President Obama and his family saw the film while on vacation in Hawaii. I can only hope that he ponders the moral of the film as he decides how to handle the military and economic problems facing us. We don’t need a better military plan or new economic stimulus. We need a sense of spiritual renewal. Jimmy Carter called for that, but we never acted on it. A movie is only entertainment, but it also reflects and impacts our culture. I hope it makes people think a little about the hear and now, even as they enjoy a story about a mythical future.