Saturday, December 26, 2009

Deconstructing Avatar The Movie


The "Pandora's Box" of emotions (from Apathy to Zeal)  that this movie stirs up will provide environmentalists, sociologists, spiritual thinkers, movie reviewers and citizen journalists with much fodder for contemplation and creative writing.

Let's start with some definitions - because the English language is important to me (and hopefully to you too, Gentle Reader)

avatar [ˈævəˌtɑː] 
1. (Non-Christian Religions / Hinduism) Hinduism the manifestation of a deity, notably Vishnu, in human, superhuman, or animal form
2. a visible manifestation or embodiment of an abstract concept; archetype
3. (Electronics & Computer Science / Computer Science) a movable image that represents a person in a virtual reality environment or in cyberspace
[from Sanskrit avatāra a going down, from avatarati he descends, from ava down + tarati he passes over]
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged 6th Edition 2003. © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

Now we can add another - Avatar as James Cameron's latest hi-tech sci fi blockbuster that is dominating the media and capturing hearts and minds and disposable income of people everywhere.  I have a personal chip on my cinematic shoulder when it comes to Mr. Cameron - his unbridled hubris at accepting all his Academy Awards for the movie about the ship that sank and waiting until the last possible moment - literally before acknowledging the tragedy and the lost lives of the people that allowed his King of the World moment to exist at all.  It went beyond ungracious to downright disrespectful.  The Tin Man of Cinema had no heart. Let's Party Til Dawn!

Fast Forward to now - where he has created his own special Oz - and has created a bio-luminescent world called Pandora, rich in unobtainium, inhabited by stereotypical "noble savages" and menaced by the Big Bad Corporation and its paramilitary wing(nuts).  They have bi-rotor helicopters, big cargo ships, armed walkers straight out the The Matrix and respirator masks, because the air is not fit for human consumption. 

The movie is visually stunning.  One part Alice in Wonderland - one part Oz - one part an inverted Altered States - where instead of regressing, the man in the isolation chamber becomes a 10ft tall sensitive New Age Na'vi, and gets indoctrinated and initiated in the culture of the Blue Nicies who are intrinsically connected to every seed that falls in the forest - their pointy radar dish ears can hear it all.  Their humanoid bodies are adorned with Rave-style glow-stick toned warpaint, crafty handmade jewelry, and pretty nifty "interactive" prehensile tails.  

Here's the kicker.  Would you guess that I loved this movie?  LOVED it. Left me speechless, in fact (I've since recovered).  It has entered into my top 10, may make it into my top 5 depending on how over the top the commercialism goes - if there's a jewelry line launched, I'm not going to be a happy camper.  I am not blind to the thinness and predicatability of the plot (I've already heard the Ferngully comparison).  

The truth is that there are only seven stories in the world (or 3, or 36 or 50) so the argument that "we've heard this one before" is a bit of a Straw Man argument - we've all heard it all before, but the joy is finding new and interesting stages upon which to host these basic stories.  Like Pandora - a true "world stage" if there ever was one.  One thought I had was that we do not know what natural wonders we have destroyed in our wholesale rape of our planet.  We have as many strange and wonderful flowers, birds and beasts as this imaginary world.  We will never know them all in our hubris and greed.

What I loved was the spirituality embodied in the culture of the Na'vi.  The interconnectedness of their world.  Their relationship to and dependence upon the Great Mother that is their planet.  The sustenance they draw from this connection.  The grief they feel at Her despoiling by the Earthers.  Isn't this what we Pagans are experiencing as we connect to our Mother Gaia in ever deepening spirals of awareness?  I accept but do not understand the ongoing debate about whether or not Paganism = Environmentalism.  In my mind, they cannot be separated.  I was also surprised that "we Pagans" were not more upset in the collective with the recent "Quest for Water" on our Mother Moon - that NASA was able to explode nuclear devices on this sacred celestial symbol and there was barely a ripple of protest from those who call upon Her as an ongoing source of potent magical symbolism.  But I digress...

Let's go back to the Pandora's Box of definitions of the word Avatar.  In definition 1, we learn that the Divine can manifest in any living being - and on Pandora - all life is sacred and part of the luminous numinous Divine. Some wise teachers have been called Avatars by their disciples.

In definition 2 - everything is a lesson, a teaching tool, an archetype.  It is a small step to go from archetype to stereotype, and every character in this movie get's caught in that revolving door like Keystone Kops.  Stereotypes are like clichés - they enable collective understanding because, their essence is both persistent and true over our history.  In my mind, an archetype is simply as stereotype that has been promoted to CEO of their particular Olympus.

In definition 3 -  the most contemporary definition, and the use of the word most familiar to today's computer literate cyber connected audience - our Online Persona - our virtual Presence - where, in some circumstances, we have the powers of the Gods (from instant communication across great distance to slaying Dragons with a single World of WarCrack sword blow). 

A number of bloggers from the Religious Right have already jumped on this "blatant pantheism" and declared the movie to be wholly Un-American in its portrayal of the innate goodness of the military (which is more like a Blackwater Ops troupe of gorillas than like anything that reports to the Commander in Chief).

It was refreshing to lose myself in a movie - to suspend my disbelief just enough to connect to some of the major characters - the marine who loses his legs and his brother, the scientist who is at odds with corporate greed, the helicopter pilot who becomes a warrior rather than a soldier, the Na'vi equivalent of Wind in His Hair from Dances with Wolves (another ongoing comparison - and a valid one, I think).

Is it an ordinary story with extra-ordinary visuals? Yes.  It is a story with a message, and it isn't subtle.  Can it move us to see our planet, our Mother Earth as a place in as much or more danger than Pandora?  Does it remind us too much of what we have done and continue to do to the indigenous peoples of our planet?  Does it make us see our part in a culture that can be best summed up by films like The Corporation - SuperSize Me - Koyanisqatsi - Sicko - Thank You for Smoking - and the list goes on...

I'm sure there will be a quiz on Facebook within the month - what character in Avatar are you?  Are you a tree hugging Na'vi? a Curious Scientist? a Corporate Marauder? A ParaMilitary Powermonger?  An apathetic bystander? are you living your destiny? are you hiding from your paralyzed reality by living in a fantasy world? Do you do the right thing for the right reasons? Do you look the other way?

Are you brave enough to fly?  Are you brave enough to try?

Pass the popcorn and the 3D glasses.  See you at the movies.
Enjoy the day,

1 comment:

  1. omg sounds like a brilliant movie...and i am sad that i missed viewing it with everyone. No doubt i will have to convince my sister to accompany me to see it to experience it. I may be viewing it solo...but based on what you have said i must experience it first hand.
    Thank you for this elloquant review. Very much appreciated.